On July 12, 2012, The New York Review of Books published “In Defense of the New York Public Library: An Exchange.” This was a critical response to “In Defense of the New York Public Library” by contributors Joan W. Scott, Caleb Crain, and Charles Petersen, along with Robert Darnton’s reply.
In his first piece, Darnton explained why so many people opposed the New York Public Library’s Central Library Plan (CLP) in the course of defending it. The CLP calls for the consolidation of the collections of the Main Branch, Mid-Manhattan Branch, and Science, Industry and Business Library (SIBL) in the Main Branch; remodeling the stacks area beneath the Main Branch’s Rose Reading Room as a lending library; move many books off-site to a storage facility in New Jersey; and sell the Mid-Manhattan and SIBL buildings.
Professor Joan Scott began her response, “Robert Darnton joins the editors of the Daily News and The New York Times by dismissing critics of the plan… as backward-looking sentimentalists inspired more by passion than by reason.” Darnton, who taught at Princeton for many years before he moved to Harvard, began his reply, “No one disputes the importance of maintaining the New York Public Library as a great center for research—I least of all. I wrote my first scholarly article [in 1964] while sitting in what is now the Rose Main Reading Room… consulting rare French works that could not be found anywhere else in the city… I was a reporter for The New York Times…, an independent researcher lacking any attachment to an institution with a research library. Without the NYPL, I could never have made that first leap into the world of learning.”
Now that I am a trustee of the library, I feel more strongly than ever that it should serve the… needs of researchers, especially writers and scholars who do not have access to a great library. I can testify that the Board of Trustees is committed to that mission.
I never referred to Joan Scott and the other critics of the renovation plan as ‘backward-looking sentimentalists,’… At issue is the need to revive a great research library. It should be possible to discuss the means to that end in a rational manner without resorting to epithets and overheated rhetoric.
One of Professor Scott’s six points concerned re-hiring staff members or hiring new ones.
As far as we know, there are no plans to restore staff positions that have already been cut—cuts that have already dramatically affected service at the NYPL, causing long waits for books that once took minutes to locate. Also, as far as we know (and Darnton doesn’t tell us), there are no plans to reinstate the many curatorial and bibliographic positions that have been eliminated at the Lincoln Center Library for the Performing Arts.
Another point she makes is that Darnton objected to the expense of building a second stacks floor under Bryant Park, but it would also be expensive to build off-site storage space at the ReCAP facility in Princeton, New Jersey.
Darnton does nothing to correct the confusion in library accounts of the plan to relocate the research collections. The library’s president has conceded that twenty-four-hour delivery service has not always been achieved (and we have collected ample testimony to that fact). Adding more frequently used titles to the mix at the library’s facility in New Jersey makes success in the future less likely. Darnton mentions the library’s $20 million projected cost of making the second level of the underground stacks in Bryant Park operational as an impediment to keeping more of the research collection on site, but forgets that a new capital investment would be necessary to house these same materials at the New Jersey site, where the library has nearly exhausted its allocated space.
Darnton continues, in his reply
The discussion turns on financial and logistical calculations. I won’t repeat my argument about the growing disparity between the library’s expenditures and income. Instead, I would like to respond to the most important counterproposals of the critics. Charles Petersen… recommends that the library sell… (SIBL)… and use the proceeds (probably $100 million) to renovate the Mid-Manhattan branch (which will cost $150 million or more), and store the books from Mid-Manhattan in SIBL during the two years that it would take for the renovations. I fail to see how we could store books in a building we no longer own (not to mention how we would accommodate Mid-Manhattan’s 1.5 million visitors a year); nor do I see how we could cover the $50 million disparity in the funding.
…Caleb Crain offers a more persuasive version of this argument: move SIBL’s books to 42nd Street, move Mid-Manhattan’s to SIBL while restoring Mid-Manhattan, pay for the restoration with $150 million earmarked by the city for incorporating Mid-Manhattan in the renovation of the main library at 42nd Street, and sell SIBL in order to increase the endowment.
Whether all this shifting about of books is possible (there is no room at 42nd Street to house SIBL’s collection) seems dubious; whether the mayor and the City Council would renegotiate the agreement to renovate the main library seems unlikely. If such a feat could be accomplished, I would say, Avanti! But the library has studied this and many other combinations and has concluded that they are unfeasible... The … (CLP) would raise $350 million by combining the city funds with the sale of the other two libraries in order to integrate Mid-Manhattan in a renovated building at 42nd Street. By eliminating duplication and streamlining operational costs, the library would have available up to $15 million a year (the library’s David Offensend has confirmed that this estimate is based on $7 million of operating savings plus up to $8 million in expected additional endowment income to invest in expanding its collections and staff). That sum is equivalent to the returns on $300 million more in endowment.
True, the CLP would require moving a great many books to the off-site storage facility in Princeton, and they would include up to 1.5 million of the three million works currently stored under the Rose Main Reading Room (not the books now stored under Bryant Park), because those stacks will have to be removed in order to leave room for the construction of the new branch library. In the days of card catalogs, the removal of so many books could cause serious inconvenience to the researchers on the third floor. Today, they can be ordered electronically and in advance (the library is installing a new interface to make that easier) so that they will arrive well before the reader comes to receive them…
As to the pilot experiment of lending books in cooperation with Columbia and NYU, it can be canceled if it deprives NYPL patrons of books they want. So far, it has worked to their advantage. It has been used by eight hundred people, of whom 90 percent are readers from the NYPL, and they include CUNY faculty who now for the first time have access to books in the other university libraries...
Darnton recounted the history of how the Main Branch of the NYPL was only a reference library in the last generation. The NYPL’s Main Branch ceased to be a lending library in 1981 and a lending library called the Mid-Manhattan Branch opened across the street from it on Fifth Avenue, only for the NYPL Board of Trustees to conclude now, under the present economic circumstances, they should reconsolidate the two collections along with the third collection in the SIBL. “In retrospect, it now looks like a mistake to have built two new libraries, Mid-Manhattan and SIBL, in the center of the city. That expansion seemed reasonable during the 1980s, but today, in the midst of a disastrous recession, we need to consolidate, not to expand…”
Whatever the final plan may be, it will not involve demolition of the Bryant Park façade in order to create a new entrance, as is claimed in one of the letters. Such destruction would be illegal, because the façade is protected by the Landmark Commission. Visitors to the circulating library will probably use a redesigned version of the current 42nd Street entrance. If a door should be added on the Bryant Park side, it would be inserted below the level of the façade.
Another point Professor Scott makes concerns the Schomburg Center.
Darnton suggests that the library should focus more on African-American studies. Does he mean there will be attention to the deteriorating conditions at the Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture in Harlem, or does he have something else in mind?
Darnton addresses this point when he writes the Schomburg Center has already undergone renovations and a second phase of renovations is planned.
Most of the current debate concerns the main library at 42nd Street, but the trustees are also committed to improving the research libraries at Lincoln Center and in Harlem. Far from having let the Schomburg Center deteriorate, the library administrators completed a major renovation of its research and reference areas in 2007, and a second phase of the renovation program, which will strengthen its manuscripts and rare book areas, will soon be underway.
Later in 2012, Darnton would write a letter to the editors of The New York Review of Books revealing that the NYPL Board of Trustees had made a number of concessions to critics.