February 17, 2018

NYPL Secrecy Must Go | Editorial

THE NEW YORK PUBLIC LIBRARY (NYPL) MADE it into the New York Times again, barely a month after an article critical of the library’s proposed costly renovation of its 42nd Street flagship building, and the latest headline isn’t pretty: “Ex-Librarians Feel Muzzled on Project.” The “muzzle” referred to is a “nondisparagement agreement,” which those leaving the library after a 2009 reorganization have been required to sign in return for getting severance pay as part of a buyout NYPL offered. It seems incongruous, critics say, for an institution that stands for free speech to suppress it. (For LJ’s take on the library’s plans, see “Rich NYPL, Poor NYPL“.)
The Times quoted library president Anthony Marx at a public forum saying that the agreement was “not meant to gag former employees from talking about issues of public concern.” Many who signed it disagree.
NYPL has a history of discouraging dissent—and, when it arises, of making sure that it doesn’t get out the door. For years, LJ has heard about a top-down organizational culture that makes decisions behind closed doors and that comes down hard on those who differ.
After reading Marx’s comments, anonymous sources told LJ that “NYPL is in its customary damage control mode, telling staff that anyone could have said anything they wanted. Let’s hope the NYPL administration doesn’t resort to its usual demonization of the staff members [or former staffers] who had the courage to be critical.”
That remark encapsulates the relationship between higher-ups in the library and those who work there, both managers and other staff. Many librarians and former librarians tell me they have not spoken out publicly about NYPL’s plans for fear of reprisals.
We’ve all heard of buyouts before, not just in libraries and public schools but throughout corporate America. They’re generally aimed at cutting long-tenured upper-level employees with higher salaries. They’re also a way of getting rid of dead wood, though the result may be the exodus of highly effective personnel, too, as it certainly was at NYPL.
Those who left the library do not all speak with one voice nor are all retirees. NYPL lost some potential future leaders who couldn’t see themselves thriving in that environment. (For the record, LJ knows plenty of excellent managers and staff who currently work at NYPL.)
NYPL is not alone in requiring managers who accept severance to sign nondisparagement or nondisclosure agreements, though apparently the NYPL policy covers union and nonunion (managerial) employees. Queens Library says it’s a common business practice there, too, though only for managers.
LJ also learned that those who signed the separation agreement after 2010 are prohibited from volunteering at NYPL for ten years, a rather bizarre stipulation. Given budget and staff cuts, most libraries are grateful to have skilled former employees as volunteers.
The coup de grâce came from Maureen Sullivan, president-elect of the American Library Association (she becomes president in late June), quoted in the Times as defending the agreement. A number of former NYPL librarians wondered whether her statements had anything to do with her past relationship with the library. They recall that Sullivan was in and out of the library for many years as a consultant (see her résumé).
Over the past decade, as libraries have adopted greater transparency among both staff and the public, NYPL has remained mired in its closed culture. Marx, a relative newcomer, has an opportunity to change that. He can reach out to former staff and bring them into the discussion. He can reach out to other library leaders like Lucie Osborn, Laramie County librarian, WY; Tom Galante, CEO of Queens Library, NY; Patrick Losinski, executive director of Columbus Public Library, OH; Bill Ptacek, director of King County Library System, WA; and José Aponte, director of San Diego County Library, who all head winners of the LJ/Gale Library of the Year Award, for lessons in open communication. We’d be glad to introduce him.

Francine Fialkoff About Francine Fialkoff

Francine Fialkoff (ffialkoff@gmail.com) spent 35 years with LJ, and 15 years at its helm as Editor and Editor-in-Chief. For more, see her Farewell Editorial.



  1. FYI: Effective June 2012, the King County (WA) Library System is also offering an early retirement/buyout incentive package, which includes a mandatory non-disparagement clause, to approximately 60 employees. It would appear that NYPL is not the only public library system putting its employees in an incongruous position with regard to freedom of speech.

    • Francine Fialkoff says:

      Does the KCLS buyout clause apply mostly to managers and those who deal with what might be considered sensitive material? NYPL’s agreement covers rank-and-file/union workers too.

  2. Guess we have a new meme:

    Those who can, do… those who can’t, consult.
    And those who critique… cannot retire with a severance package?