October 20, 2014

‘Upheaval at the New York Public Library’? At the Least, Some Clouds Over Transformation Plan | News Analysis

By Norman Oder

The New York Public Library (NYPL) likes to manage its press coverage via carefully placed exclusives in the New York Times, the newspaper that matters to an institution dependent on contributions from New York’s elite and the policies of top elected officials.

So it was a blow–though unclear how big–that, on November 30, The Nation published Scott Sherman’s investigation, headlined “Upheaval at the New York Public Library.”

His essential critique: the NYPL, while managing austerity by closing some research library spaces and tolerating branches in disrepair, is “pushing ahead with a gargantuan renovation of the Forty-second Street library, the crown jewel of the system.” And staffers worry that the Central Library Plan (CLP)–which involves turning the stacks into public spaces and closing and selling other library buildings–will weaken the library and “mar the architectural integrity” of what is now called the Stephen A. Schwarzman Building, after a major donor. Then again, as library executives stress, the plan would more than double the space currently devoted to public use and ultimately control costs by shrinking overall square footage.

That Central Library Plan, which could cost $250-$350 million, is not a done deal. Though it has $100 million in city support, it depends on a roller-coaster real estate market, and yet-to-be-made decisions by the NYPL’s board. Thus Sherman’s article should help spur discussion about a plan that garnered much attention when announced in 2008 but relatively little since then.

Initial reaction
The article generated mostly supportive public comments on The Nation‘s website as well as that of the Brian Lehrer Show, a local public radio talk show, though more mixed (and limited) reaction in the library world. See this defense from Roger Schonfeld, who suggests the author should have acknowledged the library’s need to adapt or Bruce Slutsky, a former NYPL staffer, who wrote that he agreed that the flagship building should become a more “computer orientated library.” Sherman thinks NYPL executives place too much hope in digital usage.

Without duplicating Sherman’s reporting, it’s impossible for me to evaluate each of his arguments, such as whether it is unwise to eliminate the stacks at the flagship library. (For example, he told Lehrer that staff members told him that NYPL data undercounted stack usage.)

And NYPL—perhaps concluding that The Nation article doesn’t move the needle and that it will announce updated plans on its own schedule—has chosen not to engage or rebut beyond a statement it gave Lehrer for his December 5 segment:

The NYPL is enthusiastically pursuing a systemwide major transformation plan, including the Central Library project announced in 2008, which will house the biggest circulating library in the country and continue to serve our existing users with even better facilities. Any transformation requires difficult choices. Thus we are working to ensure that we receive the advice, input, and reactions of all the library’s constituents, staff, users and trustees.

Well, I do remember covering the March 11, 2008 announcement of NYPL’s grand five-year plan, and how staffers earlier expressed nervousness about the One NYPL strategy. And I remember how New York Times critic Edward Rothstein, in a March 17, 2008 essay headlined “With Expanding Library’s Promise, Concern About Its Purpose,” hinted, albeit in far more muted fashion, some of the tensions aired in Sherman’s reporting. (Also see staff presentation here.)

More than three and a half years later, following a recession and real-estate crash, the library’s plans have been understandably jolted; for example, LJ reported that NYPL had suspended plans to sell the aging Mid-Manhattan Library, one of the central libraries in the branch system, which in better times could be seen as a hugely valuable real estate site. The Donnell Library, occupying a valuable midtown site, was closed to enable a sale of the site to a hotel company, which promised a replacement library by this year, but that project has been pushed back.

Similarly, the potential sale of the Science, Industry, and Business Library (SIBL) has been suspended, though on December 19, the Times reported that NYPL is negotiating to sell five floors of the building containing SIBL, though not the library space. (Curiously, that news brief appeared in the Arts section; the Times often assigns library-related news, including that involving the city’s blood sport of real estate, to Arts rather than Metro.)

Relatively little update
How much is NYPL telling the public about its transformation plan? Well, in its 2008 annual report, then-President Paul LeClerc described it optimistically:

The goal of these changes is, ultimately, to bring the circulating collections of the Mid-Manhattan Library and the Donnell Library Center under the same roof as the vast research collections that have made this building a destination for writers and scholars for almost 100 years. When it is completed, the restored and renovated central library will be the only library in the world to bring together millions of priceless documents and artifacts, up-to-date digital resources, a massive lending collection, and scores of librarians who can serve anyone from preschoolers to advanced researchers.To design this transformation, the Board has selected Foster + Partners, the internationally renowned architectural firm headed by Norman Foster, winner of the 1999 Pritzker Architecture Prize. In light of the turbulent economic climate, the schedule for implementing this plan is under reconsideration. Nonetheless, significant changes are already taking place. In late 2008, we reintroduced children’s service to the building for the first time in 40 years. Our new Children’s Center at 42nd Street is a lovely and lively addition to the Library.

The subsequent annual reports, however, downplayed the issue. The 2009 report, for example, cited “the extreme challenges brought about by proposed public funding cuts” and the need “to proceed with our transformation into the Library for the Future. The president’s message in the 2010 annual report, issued in May 2011, similarly focused on matters other than the much-ballyhood transformation. (LeClerc was succeeded July 1 by Anthony Marx, former president of Amherst College, MA.)

Current status
I asked NYPL for an update on transformation plans. Spokeswoman Angela Montefinise responded, “Staff with trustee oversight is actively working to finalize a program for the new space, a necessary precondition for architectural schematic design work. There is nothing on the website yet, as it is early in the process.”

What about the building plans? “We are on schedule to get the raw Donnell space in 2014, and the plan is to open the new Donnell in late 2014,” Montefinise stated. “The expectation is that Mid-Manhattan and SIBL will close once the new space at the Stephen A. Schwarzman Building is complete.” And that, of course, is up in the air.

What about public outreach? “We have already actively engaged staff, and that will continue,” she responded. “Our strategy office has done surveys of our users, but there will be more engagement of the public—this was always part of the plan. We are still determining how and when additional outreach will be done.”

Managing the future
Sherman questioned whether the flagship library would be “converted into a noisy, tumultuous branch library” and whether the money might be better used by the branches. That, of course, raises tensions between the research library division, which is largely privately funded, and the branch system, which depends on public funds.

Those are issues worthy of debate. One seemingly small aspect: how will NYPL move so many more users into a building that currently can be slow to enter and exit? “The architects have been thinking about this,” Montefinise replied. “While we don’t see bottlenecks as a major problem, we want people to be able to navigate the building easily.

And new president Marx, suggested Sherman, faces a challenge in dealing with a 62-person board in a “trustee-driven institution.” A native New Yorker, Marx does present more of a man-of-the-people image than his predecessor, the patrician-looking LeClerc.

However, complicating Marx’s job was his untimely, and not so explicable, drunk-driving arrest on Sunday afternoon, November 6, as he was driving a library-owned car in Upper Manhattan. According to the criminal complaint, Marx’s blood-alcohol level in mid-afternoon was an elevated .19 percent, more than double the .08 percent limit. (A 170-pound man can reach .08 percent after consuming four drinks in an hour.)

On December 9, Marx pleaded guilty to DWI and lost his license for six months. The library issued a statement saying it “is satisfied that the incident has been resolved.”

In a somewhat similar incident, Federal Aviation Administrator Randy Babbitt had to resign after a drunk driving arrest. But maybe Marx’s troubles were more akin to those of Peter Martins, the veteran ballet master of the New York City Ballet, who in January pleaded guilty of driving while impaired. Martins too was backed by his cultural institution. Cultural leaders can be tough to replace.

“The library administration has operated in tremendous secrecy, and I’d like to see a vigorous debate about the future of the New York Public Library,” Sherman told Lehrer. The library might debate the charge of secrecy, as well as foster discussion about the future. Marx is the one to lead that discussion, so stay tuned to see what he, and his institution, have to say in the coming months.

Author Information
Norman Oder is a former LJ executive editor, living in Brooklyn and working on a book.
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