Robert Darnton, Director of the Harvard University Library and NYPL Trustee, writing in the June 7, 2012 issue of The New York Review of Books as a private citizen (not as a trustee), delineated why the NYPL Board of Trustees felt compelled to consolidate the collections of three libraries in the Schwarzman Building, move a substantial part of the Schwarzman Building’s collection off-site, remodel parts of the Schwarzman Building, and sell off the other two buildings, in the face of opposition from many patrons, both famous and obscure (“In Defense of the New York Public Library”). He writes, “According to a plan given preliminary approval by them [the trustees] last February, they will sell the run-down Mid-Manhattan branch library—just opposite the main public library on Fifth Avenue—and the Science, Industry, and Business Library (SIBL) at Madison Avenue and 34th Street, and they will use the proceeds to expand the interior of the 42nd Street building. They will not touch the famous façade on Fifth Avenue, but they will install a new circulating library on the lower floors to replace the Mid-Manhattan branch, whose collections will be incorporated into the holdings of the main library.”
All this shifting about of books will require rebuilding parts of the infrastructure at 42nd Street. The steel stacks now hidden under the great Rose Main Reading Room on the third floor will be replaced by the new branch and business library on the lower floors. Several grand rooms on the second floor will be refurbished for the use of readers and writers, who will be provided with carrels, computer stations, a lounge, and possibly a café. Most of the three million volumes from the old stacks will remain in the building, either in redesigned storage space or in shelving located under Bryant Park. But many—for the most part books that are rarely consulted and journals that are also available online—will be shipped to the library’s storage facility in Princeton, New Jersey, along with some of the holdings from the SIBL.
He claims after the renovation most parts of the library building will seem unchanged. “Its special collections and manuscripts will remain in place, and readers will be able to consult them in the same quiet setting of oak panels and baronial tables. The great entrance hall, grand staircases, and marble corridors will continue to convey the atmosphere of a Beaux-Arts palace of the people. But the new branch library on the lower floors overlooking Bryant Park will have a completely different feel. Designed by…Norman Foster, who will coordinate the renovation, it will suit the needs of a variety of patrons, who will enter the building from a separate ground-level entrance… But it will also be used by scholars and writers who want to take home selected books that formerly could only be read in the building.”
Will the mixture of readers who take home books and researchers who work inside the library, of… architecture, of old and new functions, desecrate a building that embodies the finest strain in New York’s civic spirit? Some of the library’s friends fear the worst. A letter of protest against the plan has been signed by several hundred distinguished academics and authors, including Mario Vargas Llosa, the Nobel Prize–winning novelist, and Lorin Stein, the editor of The Paris Review. A petition of less-well-known but equally committed lovers of the library warns that the remodeling ‘will be ruining a functional element of its architecture—and its soul.’ Blogs and Op-Ed pages have been sizzling with indignation.
The shrill tone of the rhetoric—‘a glorified Starbucks,’ ‘a vast Internet café,’ ‘cultural vandalism’—suggests an emotional response that goes beyond disagreement over policy. Practically every critic has a story to tell about his or her personal encounter with the city’s most precious repository of culture; every story conveys the danger of defiling something sacred. Those responses deserve respect. Some of the criticism may be valid…
“The problem, however, is fundamentally financial,” Darnton explained. “For a great institution, the library has a small endowment: $830 million. The operating budget for the entire system—the eighty-seven branch libraries and the four research libraries—is $259.6 million in the current fiscal year.”
The City of New York “covers most of the budgets of the branches.” However, the operating costs of the four research libraries – the Schwarzman Building, SIBL, the Library for the Performing Arts at Lincoln Center, and the Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture in Harlem – come to $113,900,000, and the research libraries are financed primarily from the NYPL endowment (30%), private contributions (22%), and earned income (such as fines and rental fees) and other sources (19%).
The City of New York provides 21%, but under fiscal pressures of its own, the City of New York made a dramatic budget cut in the middle of 2011, reducing its financial support 28% since 2008. Darnton wrote, “While the city contributes less, the library needs more, owing to the increasing costs of books, periodicals, and digital data. The result has been retrenchment. In 2008 the research libraries spent $15.2 million on acquisitions; in 2011 they spent $10.8 million.”
One response to this inexorable pressure was the decision to sell the property occupied by the SIBL, which gets less use than was expected when it opened in 1996, and the Mid-Manhattan branch, whose dilapidated condition would require expensive renovation. Those sales might produce $200 million. Another $150 million has been committed by the city to help with the renovation of the building at 42nd Street. But this $350 million is only a prospect for funding in the future. It does not yet exist, and its existence is predicated on the realization of the renovation plan. The critics of that plan seem to think that the library has $350 million in the bank and that it will squander this nonexistent sum on an architectural extravaganza topped off with an unneeded café.
According to Darnton, the NYPL will transfer to ReCAP up to half the books currently stored in the old stacks at The New York Public Library (1,500,000 volumes out of 3,000,000). In a BLOUINARTINFO blog post, Reid Singer (who cited Darnton’s opinion piece) asserted twice as many books would be moved off-site. “Approximately three million books will be moved to Princeton, New Jersey, in a storage facility already being used by the NYPL and shared with Columbia and Princeton, where items are meant to be available in New York within 24 hours of being requested.”
Darnton writes, “Librarians will cull through those volumes in order to select those… never or rarely… consulted during the past decade and those that can already be consulted… online. The library estimates that over 90 percent of all the books and research materials requested by readers in a typical year—as indicated by call slips and other records—will remain at 42nd Street. A great many books will be shifted to the storage space under Bryant Park. That space could be expanded to hold more books, as the library’s critics argue. I believe they are right, although the expansion could cost about $20 million in funds that would not be available until the SIBL and Mid-Manhattan are sold and the renovation plan goes into effect.”
Even if that money could be found, however, the underground stacks would soon be filled. No research library can expand its collections indefinitely without shifting an increasing proportion of them to offsite storage. The Library of Congress, Harvard, Yale, and the University of California have learned to accept that hard reality... They have also cut costs in their offsite depositories by digital services such as scan-and-deliver, but copyright restrictions limit the use of digitization for lending purposes.
In fact, only one of the… largest American publishers, Random House, will now sell e-books to public libraries without restricting their availability to readers. HarperCollins caused a scandal by programming its e-books to self-destruct after they had been consulted by twenty-six library patrons, and some… measures proposed by other publishers are… more restrictive.
For the foreseeable future, therefore, some researchers in the Rose Main Reading Room will have to depend on trucks going back and forth… to get the books they need. The library’s critics rightly complain about past delays in what should be a twenty-four-hour service. Such delays must be eliminated...
Trucking as an answer to twenty-first-century problems of delivering books to readers? The time, expense, gas consumption, and environmental pollution make the current policy look short-sighted. We should find a way to take advantage of digital communication, despite the opposition of publishers and the obstacles of copyright laws. But digital enthusiasts rarely recognize the extent to which printed books (not journals) continue to dominate the marketplace. More books are produced each year than the year before. In 2009 more than a million new works were published worldwide, the vast majority in print, and in 2010 the total of new titles came to more than three million.
Research libraries cannot buy most of that output, but they should not ignore it on the grounds that, as current clichés put it, we now live in an ‘information age’ and ‘all information is available online.’ Libraries cannot fail to provide their readers with digitized material, especially in the form of e-journals and databases, and they cannot stop buying printed books. Therefore, they must advance simultaneously on the analog and... digital fronts. That problem, compounded by diminishing funds, underlies the predicament of the New York Public Library. It won’t disappear if we reject the renovation plan and retain a twentieth-century mode of operation.
Many institutions have research libraries (such as the Ryerson and Burnham Libraries at The Art Institute of Chicago or The Field Museum’s Library), but free-standing research libraries such as The Newberry Library are rare, and to have a research library (not just a non-circulating research collection) in a public library system is practically unheard-of. New York City had grown to a size and stature that it has three public library systems (pre-dating political unification of the conurbation) – The New York Public Library, the Queens Library, and the Brooklyn Public Library – and at this moment The New York Public Library system consists of four research libraries and eighty-five branch libraries.
In the future, we will look back and say that was the height of The New York Public Library. If The New York Public Library truly can no longer support four research libraries (because two of them are merging and the merged library will share space with a circulating library) – and the trustees are not acting prematurely – this is a troubling sign for New York City, the United States, and the librarian profession, as well as scholars, writers, and book-lovers everywhere.
 The Toronto Public Library (TPL) is the largest public library in Canada with one central library and ninety-eight branches, including two research libraries: the Toronto Reference Library and the North York Central Library.
Pope Francis I is the first Jesuit pope and the first pope from Latin America. He is not the first non-European pope, as some are reporting. He is the first non-European pope in modern times.