Pushing change beyond 42nd Street and Fifth Avenue
New York Public Library (NYPL) has always been a hybrid. There’s the lion-flanked icon on 42nd Street and Fifth Avenue, part of the research libraries, and the 85 branches—the poor relation. The rich library is supported mostly through its hefty endowment (30 percent is income from investments) and private contributions (25 percent). The poor library, the branches, gets most of its support (81 percent) from the city. (All stats are from the 2010 Annual Report.) A plan for the future of the library is causing consternation in some circles, though it is unlikely to have much impact on the rich/poor divide. It calls for putting most of the research collection into storage and transforming the recaptured space for public use, including additional Internet access, a popular collection, areas for creation and collaboration, and so on.
Anthony Marx, the relatively new NYPL president and CEO, who took over from longtime head Paul LeClerc last July, has not only inherited the dual structure but the plan for the future. His background as a native New Yorker and product of its public schools (and a champion of diversity as president of Amherst College, MA) might have meant that he’d have more affinity for the branches and more of a man-of-the-people approach, but there’s been little evidence of that yet. He owes his allegiance to the 60-plus-member Board of Trustees, comprised mostly of those with old (and new) money and a smattering of intellectuals, which governs the entire library.
The “new” NYPL—announced in early 2008 just as the economy tanked and mostly put on hold—serves to perpetuate NYPL’s dual nature rather than bring the entire system to the level it should be. The original concept included renovation of the Central Library on 42nd Street, starting with a $100 million donation from Stephen A. Schwarzman, CEO of private equity Blackstone Group, for whom the building was subsequently named. The plan also would close the Mid-Manhattan branch, a much-used circulating library, and transfer its popular collection to the 42nd Street library. And it also projected building two “hubs,” one in upper Manhattan and one on Staten Island. Those have both been scotched in the plan’s current incarnation.
I’m all for “reimagining” the Central Library, as NYPL puts it. I want the research library to be as strong as possible. I do not support the continued bifurcation in treatment of the two “systems.” The 42nd Street edifice is scheduled to get its renovation from noted British architect Norman Foster. Meanwhile, the branches have had modest (some call them crappy) renovations over the past decade, along with some new buildings that are pleasant but in no way match the New Landmark Libraries identified by LJ last year (LJ 5/15/11; ow.ly/8ODFi).
NYPL deserves—and needs—change, but it’s not just on 42nd Street. In an April 11 blog on the Huffington Post, Marx called for a “public engagement process to solicit your suggestions and concerns about our plans,” on a website that went up in February 2012. That’s half a year after he became president and four years after the original plan was announced to the staff and public.
Where was the request for input before the plan became official? Other major libraries hold public forums to engage residents and suss out their ideas; they survey users and nonusers extensively. They draw on the best ideas from the field both here and abroad. Instead, NYPL paid large amounts of money to consultancy firms like McKinsey & Company for top-secret reports to advise on the organizational structure and future of the library—including the plans it is now Marx’s lot to implement.
We need a proposal for the entire library system, one arrived at with input from all, and one that benefits users in all three boroughs that NYPL serves.