3:08am

Tue June 12, 2012
U.S.

Loud Debate Rages Over N.Y. Library's Quiet Stacks

Originally published on Tue June 12, 2012 6:18 am

Enter the glorious Rose Reading Room on the third floor of the New York Public Library on a weekday afternoon, and you'll find almost every chair filled.

Scholars and researchers still submit their book requests on slips of paper and wait for their numbers to appear on two large boards.

The stacks, filled with some 3 million volumes, are closed to the public, so books are retrieved from seven floors of shelving below. Still other volumes are stored off-site.

"It's very hot and still in these stacks," says Victoria Steele, the library's head of collections. "It's not good for the books. And actually, if you take a little whiff, that's the smell of books dying."

Moving Books, Selling Buildings

If the library has its way, this Beaux Arts-style building on Manhattan's 42nd Street — the one with the giant lions out front — will soon see some changes.

A hotly debated renovation plan would demolish the seven stuffy floors of stacks. Some of the books would be stored under nearby Bryant Park, and up to 2 million books would be moved to climate-controlled storage in Princeton, N.J.

The proposed project, called the Central Library Plan, would also consolidate the functions of two other facilities under one roof.

The library would sell the nearby Mid-Manhattan Library, considered one of the largest circulating library branches in the world, and the building housing the Science, Industry and Business Library (SIBL) about 10 blocks away.

Both libraries would be combined into a new, state-of-the-art circulating library where the aging stacks stand now.

Tony Marx, president and CEO of the New York Public Library, says the changes are badly needed.

"This is the greatest public or democratic research facility in the world," Marx says. "You don't have to be a member of a university. Anyone can have access to anything here."

Despite its important function, Marx says, the New York Public Library — unlike the Library of Congress — gets no money from the federal government. And it doesn't have a great endowment like Ivy League universities do.

"We have seen a 25 percent reduction in our research budget," Marx adds. "We can't hire the librarians we need and we can't buy the books we need."

Marx says selling the two library buildings would bring in $200 million. Add in an additional $150 million promised from the city, he says, and there would be enough not just to pay for the renovations but also to provide millions of dollars a year to hire new librarians and curators for the research libraries and collections.

The additional funds would also allow the library to stay open until 11 p.m. on many days, Marx says.

Controversy Builds

Controversy around the Central Library Plan has been heated. Writers, scholars and library users have all voiced opposition, and such famous authors as Salman Rushdie and Tom Stoppard are among hundreds that have signed a petition protesting the plan.

Scott Sherman, a contributing writer to The Nation who wrote about the controversy, argues that the library's 87 branches, some in the city's poorest neighborhoods, should be the library's first priority.

Sherman is also concerned that researchers will play second fiddle to computer users and e-book consumers. "The 42nd Street library is one of the world's great research libraries," Sherman told WNYC's Leonard Lopate in March. "And the Central Library Plan is basically a plan to turn it into a giant Internet cafe."

David Nasaw, a professor of history at the City University of New York Graduate Center, also opposes the plan. Like many critics, he's concerned the library's books are being moved out of easy reach of scholars.

"We are being told that the only way to save the library is to rip out its innards and transport millions of books to New Jersey," Nasaw said at a public debate at The New School in May.

"I don't much care where the books are. They could be on the moon for all I care, but I want them in 24 hours," Nasaw said. "I want them in 24 minutes — but I will accept 24 hours."

Opponents also worry that the library's research functions are being slighted in favor of what critics consider unproven innovations. Critics point to the Science Industry and Business library. Built when libraries believed the CD-ROM was the wave of the future, it has never quite lived up to its promise.

Charles Peterson, editor of the literary magazine N+1, says a transitional era — when relatively new devices like the iPad and Kindle are reshaping how people read and use books — calls for a more transitional plan.

"It's true that more and more people are getting e-readers," Peterson says. "But we really don't know what research is going to look like in 10 or 20 years."

The closing of some libraries and collections, like the closure of the Slavic and Baltic Collection in 2008, has helped fuel the distrust among scholars.

The controversy has even been spoofed by the public radio program A Prarie Home Companion. In the sketch, someone comes looking for a work by Pushkin, only to find books being carted away by a forklift to build mountains in North Dakota.

Opponents of the plan also complain about a lack of transparency, claiming that librarians have been reluctant to speak publicly about concerns surrounding the plan.

Several former librarians backed up those claims at the New School debate, claiming they had to sign agreements not to talk about these issues when they left their jobs.

A Library 'Feeding The Informed Citizenry'

For the library's part, CEO Tony Marx rejects concerns that the renovations will water down the library's essential functions.

"The Mid-Manhattan library and SIBL are not going to be an Internet cafe," Marx says. "They are to be a great circulating library, feeding the informed citizenry with ideas, and a place to think and study."

In response to concerns that the books will be out of easy reach of scholars, Marx says bar-coding each book will make it possible to retrieve any volume from off-site storage within 24 hours.

Moreover, Marx says, the library will hire more trucks and will deliver at night. And, he adds, patrons will also be able to shorten wait times by ordering books in advance and on Saturdays.

As to concerns about library staff being asked to refrain from discussing the project, Marx says talking about policy issues is not off limits under his administration. "I need to hear what people think. I want to get advice. I'll take criticism," he says.

Questions about the Central Library Plan still remain. Architectural plans have not yet surfaced. The city's role is still unclear. And the New School debate in May was the first real public airing of these issues.

One thing is clear to those following the controversy: the library's president and trustees will have a difficult time moving the renovation plan forward smoothly without more public discussion and transparency.

Copyright 2013 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

Transcript

RENEE MONTAGNE, HOST:

The landmark Main Library facing Fifth Avenue in Manhattan, the one with the lions out front, is due to be renovated, and the plan is generating a huge controversy. The plan would demolish the aging stacks that hold three million books, move many books offsite, and create a new, state-of-the-art circulating library where those stacks once were. Opponents worry that millions of books will be moved out of easy reach of scholars, and that researchers will play second fiddle to computer users and e-book readers. NPR's Margot Adler reports.

MARGOT ADLER, BYLINE: If you enter the glorious third floor Rose Reading Room at the famed 42nd Street library on a weekday afternoon, almost every chair is filled. People still put their slips of paper in and wait for their numbers to appear on two large boards. The books are retrieved from seven floors of stacks below, although some books are stored off-site. The stacks are closed to the public. Victoria Steele is the director of collections at the New York Public Library.

VICTORIA STEELE: It's very hot and still in these stacks, and it's not good for the books. And actually, if you take a little whiff, that's the smell of books dying.

ADLER: The plan to renovate, known as the Central Library Plan, would demolish these seven floors of stacks, store some books under Bryant Park, and move at least a million or two of the books - one hears various numbers - to climate-controlled storage in Princeton, New Jersey. The library would sell the Mid-Manhattan Library down the street, perhaps the largest circulating library branch in the world, as well as the building housing the Science, Industry and Business Library - known as SIBL, about 10 blocks away - and move both libraries into the main building where the stacks are now. Tony Marx, formerly the president of Amherst College, because president and CEO of the New York Public Library about nine months ago.

TONY MARX: This is the greatest public or democratic research facility in the world. You don't have to be a member of the university. Anyone can have access to anything here.

ADLER: Marx says the New York Public Library gets no money from Congress, like the Library of Congress. It doesn't have a great endowment like an Ivy League university.

MARX: And we've seen a 25 percent reduction in our research budget. We can't hire the librarians we need, and we can't buy the books we need.

ADLER: Marx says selling the two library buildings for $200 million, with an additional $150 million promised from the city, would not only pay for the renovations, but would provide millions of dollars a year to hire new librarians and curators for the research libraries and collections and keep the library open until 11 p.m. on many days.

He claims bar-coding each book would make it possible to get any book from offsite storage within 24 hours, but that's something that doesn't always happen now with offsite books. And there's mounting opposition to the plan by writers, scholars and library users. The controversy was first reported by Scott Sherman in The Nation. Here is Sherman on WNYC's LEONARD LOPATE SHOW last March.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED AUDIO)

SCOTT SHERMAN: The 42nd Street Library is one of the world's great research libraries. And the Central Library Plan is basically a plan to turn it into a giant Internet cafe.

ADLER: Sherman argues that the 87 branch libraries - some in the poorest neighborhoods in the city - should be first priority. Famous authors, like Salman Rushdie and Tom Stoppard, are among hundreds that have signed a petition against the plan. And many opponents spoke at a debate held at the New School.

(SOUNDBITE OF DEBATE)

DAVID NASAW: We're being told that the only way to save the library is to rip out its innards and transport millions of books to New Jersey.

ADLER: David Nasaw is a professor of history at the City University of New York's Graduate Center.

(SOUNDBITE OF DEBATE)

NASAW: I need to know more. I don't much care where the books are. They could be on the moon for all I care, but I want them there in 24 - I want them in 24 minutes, but I will accept 24 hours.

ADLER: We'll deliver at night. We'll hire more trucks. You could order books in advance on Saturday, Tony Marx responds. Opponents also worry that the research part of the library is being slighted for innovations before they have proved their worth. The Science Industry and Business library, SIBL, for example, was built when it was believed the CD-ROM was the wave of the future, and it's never quite lived up to its promise. Charles Peterson, the editor of N+1 magazine, says a transitional time calls for a more transitional plan.

CHARLES PETERSON: The Kindle was created in, what, 2007 - the iPad, I think, in 2011, something like that. It's true that more and more people are getting e-readers. But we really don't know what research is going to look like in 10 or 20 years.

ADLER: Tony Marx replies: We're not saying books will disappear.

MARX: The Mid-Manhattan library and SIBL are not to be an Internet cafe. They are to be a great circulating library, feeding the informed citizenry with ideas and place to think and study.

ADLER: The distrust felt by some scholars has been fueled by the closing of some libraries and collections - the Slavic and Baltic Collection, for example.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED AUDIO)

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: Here are the Pushkin over here.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #2: How can they clear out the books? It's a library.

ADLER: The controversy even caught the attention of PRAIRIE HOME COMPANION. In this skit, someone comes looking for a work by Pushkin, only to find the books being carted away by a forklift.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED AUDIO)

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: Nobody reads old books, only new books, only on iPad and Kindle.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #2: Yeah, but you've got millions of books down there.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: Three million, maybe four.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #2: What are they going to do with the space?

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: This is valuable real estate.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #2: Where are the books going to go?

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: To Turtle Mountain, in North Dakota.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #2: But there are no mountains in North Dakota.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: There will be when these books get there, that's for sure.

ADLER: Opponents also say librarians have been reluctant to talk publicly about all this. At the New School debate last month, a few librarians went up to the mike and said they had to sign agreements not to talk about these issues when they left their jobs. Tony Marx said let me be clear: Under my administration, talking about policy issues is not off-limits.

(SOUNDBITE OF DEBATE)

MARX: I need to hear what people think. I want to get advice. I'll take criticism.

ADLER: There's no doubt that ever passionate voice in this debates believes in and loves the New York Public Library. But some questions remain unanswered. Architectural plans have not yet appeared. The city's role is still unclear. And the New School debate was the first real public airing of these issues. As the president and library trustees continue to talk to the media and meet with community boards, it's clear that if the plan or an amended plan is to succeed with ease, there will have to be more open discussion and more transparency. Margot Adler, NPR News, New York. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.