Although it is often perceived as interference, or “meddling,” the presumption of ownership by people who live in the jurisdiction of a local public library and their resulting strong opinions about how the place should operate are assets to be nurtured and treasured. Yes, the phenomenon regularly causes disputes about library policies and purposes and makes for controversial community debate. Indeed, library professionals and managers are frequently forced by public opinion, bolstered by media coverage, to operate libraries in ways quite different from their preferred practices.
Still, that reservoir of support that comes with the public view that the library belongs to them is a precious political lever in budget negotiations and the constant battle for resources. That it comes with their empowerment to have a say in decision-making about how it functions is a small price to pay.
Unfortunately, the rhetoric of these debates is not always accurate, nor is the outcome the one library leaders would prefer. On the other hand, by making concessions to these public perceptions, a library can turn enemies into allies and strengthen its position in the community and with its long-standing users.
The recent about-face by the management of the New York Public Library (NYPL) is an extreme example of the power of such perceptions (Ian Chant, “NYPL Abandons Renovation Plan”). Filing lawsuits and marching under banners bearing titles such as the Committee To Save the New York Public Library, citizen groups forced NYPL CEO Anthony Marx to reverse plans to renovate the iconic Stephen Schwarzman edifice at Fifth Avenue and 42nd Street.
In truth, NYPL didn’t really need to be saved because it was never in danger. Keeping all of its research collections in the old building and in stacks under adjacent Bryant Park is certainly more expensive and not demonstrably better for the books and their users than the original plan to move most of the materials to safe, climate-controlled, easily accessible storage in New Jersey, which NYPL shares with the massive academic research collections of the great universities of the region.
The idea that less than 30 percent of the space in the great Schwarzman Building can stay open to the public in order to “protect” the library’s research collections is just one small bit of the rhetoric broadcast in the argument. Many New Yorkers, myself included, supported the original NYPL plan, especially for its attempt to open much more of that great facility to the public.
But whether one agrees with the turnabout on the NYPL renovation, one has to concede that politically it was a very sound decision, destined, we hope, to win over the city’s new, populist mayor, Bill De Blasio, and restore the affections of the architectural and scholarly elites who wanted to “protect” their private spaces and landmarks.
Our own professional rhetoric often takes the view that the local library belongs to “the people.” Any decision that reinforces that idea and gives the voters and their children ownership of their public library is a positive one, even when it forces the professionals in charge to amend their plans.
So here is a vote of thanks to NYPL for altering its course. It is often better to change plans than to incur the permanent wrath of those who believe, with substantial validity, that they are the guardians of the library. There is little harm and great benefit to fortifying that view.
I am reminded of a message on a postcard sent to me by an adversary long ago in my youth: “A wise man sometimes changes his mind, but a fool, never!”