The library gets it right this time…
Just today, NYPL unveiled the building designs for the Central Library Plan renovation. For that and more background, see the story on LJ‘s Infodocket.
To mollify a chorus of protests from some of the intellectual elite of the city and the nation, Tony Marx, president of the New York Public Library (NYPL), got Abby and Howard Milstein to put up the money to make space at 42nd Street to store 3.3 million volumes of 4.5 million planned for remote storage. It was an expensive but responsive move, but it wasn’t enough to satisfy Ada Louise Huxtable, the grand dame of architectural critics who writes for Rupert Murdoch’s Wall Street Journal (WSJ).
In a snarky December 3 WSJ opinion piece entitled “Undertaking Its Destruction,” Huxtable attacked NYPL leadership for the Central Library Plan (CLP) to remove seven stories of stacks built in 1911 under the main reading room. The stacks contain some of the volumes NYPL plans to send to what Huxtable calls “Siberia” but is really a modern, climate-controlled storage center across the Hudson River in New Jersey (where some hundreds of thousands of daily and unremarkable commuter journeys begin and end as well). NYPL shares that modern facility with the libraries of New York University (NYU), Princeton University, and Columbia University. The old stacks at 42nd Street are closed to the public as they have always been. They take up 38 percent of the space at 42nd Street. Unfortunately, they are housed under the main reading room of the Schwartzman Building, and they support the building. Under the new plan, the space would be used in part to hold the collections of a circulating library open to the public.
A thousand or more members of the intelligentsia opposed the remote storage plan, most because they agree with Huxtable’s assessment that the books to be stored remotely are “the more specialized material many of us depend on.” Yet to the NYPL leaders, it seems to be bad space management to use 38 percent of its central location at the heart of the city to store old books, most of which are very rarely used by anyone, and all of which can be delivered to users in 24 hours. The great research libraries at Harvard, Yale, Columbia, NYU, and Princeton, as well as the great universities of the west, and many others learned this lesson long ago.
When remote storage was first tried, faculty and some students complained bitterly that they could no longer browse through the collections when doing their “research.” After a few months, during which the libraries delivered the book in 24 hours to faculty at their office desks, the uproar died out. Ultimately, the librarians began to get requests to move collections in some disciplines to the remote storage facility so faculty could have the convenience of that customized delivery.
I don’t really object to Huxtable’s calling the NYPL plan an example of how “democracy and populism have become hopelessly confused.” Indeed, those two terms are so close in meaning that we all confuse them.
Certainly, it is frequently valid to criticize NYPL. A favorite topic of New York’s testy media, NYPL has been a frequent target of my own writing. But right now, even as the old library continues to suffer constant budget cuts and threats, it struggles to serve all the people of the city more efficiently.
NYPL’s nearly impossible challenge has been undertaken with a clear understanding that the library exists to serve all the people. That understanding includes the view that the magnificent building at Fifth Avenue and 42nd Street exists for all the people, too, and that so much of it that has been closed to the public for decades must be opened for their pleasure and use. There is no reason to reserve so much space in that edifice for a tiny elite or to preserve what Huxtable calls “an engineering landmark,” one that no one can ever visit or view.
John N. Berry III
(This article is a preview of the Blatant Berry column
featured in the January 2013 issue of LJ)