The Times Literary Supplement (London) has published Pulitzer Prize-winning critic Michael Dirda’s review of Scott Sherman’s Patience and Fortitude. It’s an excellent read!
Scott Sherman’s subtitle is slightly coy: his book isn’t about the fight to save just any old library. He’s talking about the revered New York Public Library, one of the world’s great scholarly archives and research institutions. Located at 42nd Street and Fifth Avenue, this block-long Beaux Arts building, established in 1895 and comparable in scale to the British Museum, is guarded by two monumental stone lions nicknamed “Patience” and “Fortitude”. In Sherman’s pages these modest virtues are pitted against the institutional vices of hubris and condescension.
Essentially, Sherman, a contributing writer for the Nation, provides a scathing account of how the library’s well-intentioned but highhanded overlords wasted millions of dollars – and who knows how many man-hours – on an ill-conceived renovation project…
New plans at NYPL leave millions of books in remote storage while using centrally located research library space for digital services that could be anywhere. As this article shows, this is as short-sighted as their premature and disastrous embrace of CD-ROM technology at the Science Industry and Business Library.
New technology and print can complement one another, as NYPL’s mapmaking program demonstrates. But long term library planning should acknowledge that new media can quickly become obsolete and print books have lasting advantages.
In the 1990s, many of the 42nd Street Library’s reading room tables were equipped with dedicated computer terminals that are increasingly underused as the public shifts towards smaller laptops, tablets, and mobile devices.
Over 2 million books were circulated in Mid-Manhattan library in 2014 (not including books used in the library). In their renovation plans, library leaders should commit to keeping as many books on open shelves as possible so that library users can browse and make discoveries. New Yorkers live fast-paced lives and do not want to wait a day or more for a book to arrive from storage.
Books are here to stay, and NYPL should provide quick access to as much of their great collection as possible. Three million more books could be kept on-site at the 42nd Street Library if NYPL would renovate the stacks rather than leaving this amazingly efficient resource empty and unused.
NYPL plans to open upscale cafes at two of its research libraries. The rationale? “It is important that we offer the public what they want and need while they’re in our buildings, often for hours while doing important research,” says NYPL Chief External Relations Officer Carrie Welch.
Ms. Welch seems to have missed the fact that what the public generally needs when doing “important research” is books, and a decent space in which to read them. Both of which are currently missing from the 42nd Street Library. But it’s good to know that NYPL is listening. After years of controversy about NYPL’s crippling of its research facilities, NYPL has got the message. Ms. Welch sums it up: “We have heard from our patrons that they would like refreshments.”
On September 16th, NYPL announced the selection of Mecanoo and Beyer Blinder Belle as architects for the $300 million renovation of the Mid-Manhattan and 42nd Street Library. Unfortunately, the news came with complete lack of transparency in either the selection process or the renovation plans.
NYPL revealed nothing about what other architects were solicited, how the various applicants planned to approach the project, and why Mecanoo was chosen for the job.
In a recent email sent to users of the 42nd Street Library, Carolyn Broomhead, the Research Community Manager at NYPL, refers to “a comprehensive program plan that will drive the work of the architects.” This program plan, prepared in collaboration with outside consultants Brightspot, has not been made public.
In the interest of greater transparency and to avoid repeating the wasted time and expense of previous design schemes NYPL should allow library patrons and other New Yorkers to read all program documents and examine all proposed plans. In order to solicit greater feedback, appropriate forums should be convened so the public can share comments and concerns about the designs with librarians.
As part of the library’s comprehensive renovation plans for the 42nd Street Library, NYPL must develop a long term strategy for rehabilitating the research stacks. Leaving the stacks bookless benefits no one, especially when off-site storage is so costly.
With over half of the project’s funding being provided by the city taxpayers, the public should be involved in every step of the process. NYPL President Anthony Marx has pledged greater public input, and we will hold NYPL to that promise. Only by engaging in open and sincere dialog can we build a better library for the future.
On Tuesday, June 23rd, at 7 PM, Scott Sherman will officially launch his new book Patience and Fortitude at Book Culture on 450 Columbus Avenue (between 81st and 82nd Street).
As a journalist for The Nation, Sherman’s in-depth coverage of the Central Library Plan provoked a firestorm of criticism against NYPL’s attempts to sell off popular libraries and gut the historic 42nd Street Library. His new book is a gripping account of the entire saga. Scott Sherman will sign copies of his book, and the event will include a conversation with Caleb Crain. We hope you can join us!
The three million books that were secretly moved from the 42nd Street Library stacks are still located 50 miles away at the Research Collections and Preservation Consortium (ReCAP) in Princeton, New Jersey. Library leaders have sought to justify the empty stacks as a cost-saving measure. They claim upgrading climate controls to the seven floors would cost $46 million.
But how much does it cost to build and maintain off-site storage at ReCAP in New Jersey? A lot, it seems.
According to Tax Form 990 filed by the New York Public Library, NYPL has paid $20,067,805 to ReCAP and $3,267,805 to Clancy Relocation & Logistics (Clancy Moving Systems, Inc.) over the last three years. A total of $23,335,395 has already been spent on off-site storage, a sum which does not include the cost of packing and transporting materials back and forth to 42nd Street so they can be used.
Here’s a breakdown of the $23,335,395 spent over the last few years:
Clancy Moving/Storage (removing books and additional storage)
Currently, NYPL stores nearly five million books in ReCAP. Although NYPL expects to complete the expansion of its underground book storage below Bryant Park in 2016, the expansion aims to provide additional storage for only 2.5 million items, meaning a substantial portion of the approximately 8.5 million volume research collection will remain in New Jersey. Upgrading the climate controls in the stacks would allow NYPL to keep 7 million volumes at the 42nd Street Library.
The per book retrieval cost for items stored in New Jersey is hard to find, but surely handling at four loading docks and two trips on the New Jersey Turnpike for each round trip costs much more than the efficient elevator ride from stacks to reading room. NYPL must disclose these costs so any new plans for the 42nd Street Library can take advantage of operating efficiencies embedded in the existing building.
In the same period, NYPL shelled out $9,478,658 to Fosters & Partners for plans now abandoned and $34.5 million to the Church Pension Group for administrative office space at 445 Fifth Avenue.
NYPL’s recent Midtown Campus Renovation survey revealed, the “vast majority of respondents list quiet spaces and the availability of materials” as their top priority. The costly reliance on an off-site storage model that is wasteful and inefficient must be re-examined. Updating the stacks now so more books can be stored in the 42nd Street Library will address the priorities of library patrons and pay dividends in the future.
Illustration courtesy of Simon Verity.
The Committee to Save the New York Public Library is excited to announce the forthcoming publication of Scott Sherman’s new book Patience and Fortitude: Power, Real Estate and the Fight to Save a Public Library, a definitive account of NYPL’s aborted plan to dismantle one of the world’s most cherished public libraries and the Herculean efforts of a broad coalition of writers, scholars, and library lovers to stop it.
In a series of penetrating articles for The Nation, Scott Sherman first began to unravel the details of the Central Library Plan in 2011. His investigative work played a pivotal role in generating wide-spread public opposition to the plan. Now Sherman tells the entire story in vivid detail based on his probing interviews and meticulous research.
Praising the book as “a major feat of reporting,” Vanity Fair joins a chorus of advanced accolades for the book:
“The battle over the New York Public Library was such an important fight to win, and Scott Sherman’s reporting was an essential part of that victory.” —Salman Rushdie
“It’s very hard to produce a specific, inarguable example of the power of the press—but here’s one. Scott Sherman’s pathbreaking 2011 article in The Nation about the New York Public Library’s plans to demolish much of its headquarters building and substantially change its purpose led directly to that misguided plan’s being abandoned three years later. Now Sherman lays out the entire story, from conception to cancellation, of the Central Library Plan. It is an absorbing narrative, and more; it also gets to the heart of an urgent broader issue, the danger our most precious institutions face in the age of disruption.” —Nicholas Lemann, author of The Big Test
“With cool acuity, Scott Sherman details the insidious threat to one of the world’s greatest cultural institutions, and the gritty resistance that saved it. Anyone who cares about the future of books should read Patience and Fortitude.” —Pankaj Mishra, author of From the Ruins of Empire
“Scott Sherman’s fast-paced story is a nuanced, disturbing account of what happens when the age of hedge funds, metrics and management consultants meets one of our country’s great institutions of learning. Patience and Fortitude is all the more fascinating because Sherman’s journalism played a significant role in preventing a cultural atrocity.”
—Adam Hochschild, author of King Leopold’s Ghost
“One can read Scott Sherman’s engrossing book as a critique of the New York Public Library’s stumbles, or as a love letter to a priceless institution. This is a love letter, and one that assails those the author believes would have violated the library’s legacy. Even those who disagree with Sherman should tip their hats to him, for his passion and rigorous reporting, as the book reveals, has aided a great and priceless institution.” —Ken Auletta, author of Googled
“When civic vandals masquerading as visionaries attempted to gut the New York Public Library, Scott Sherman’s intrepid reporting in The Nation shut them down. Now he gives us the full story, a riveting activist adventure yarn written with the elegance of a cultural romantic and the gimlet eye of an investigative journalist. What I learned is that a civilization traduces its libraries—especially this library—at its peril.” —Rick Perlstein, author of The Invisible Bridge
“With reportorial doggedness, narrative elan, and an unfailing eye for the lancing detail, Scott Sherman masterfully tells the story, by turns enraging and heartening, of the plight of New York’s most storied institution in an uncertain age.” —Tom Vanderbilt, bestselling author of Traffic
“Scott Sherman’s Patience and Fortitude is a gripping, meticulously reported account of the plan to gut a world-famous research library—and the movement that sprung up to preserve it. Like Nicholson Baker’s Double Fold, another provocative story about a debacle in the stacks, this riveting book shows just how bloody the fight over our cultural treasures can get.” —Marilyn Johnson, author of This Book Is Overdue!
Patience and Fortitude will be available in bookstores on June 23rd. Pre-order your copy through Melville House’s website to get it now.
One year ago today, NYPL closed the Rose Reading Room after a part of the ceiling fell to the ground. Since the last update in October, library officials have provided no word for when the reading room will re-open. And more than two years ago NYPL emptied its stacks of 3 million books without any public notice. These actions lead us to wonder: Is a library with most of its books off site and with nowhere to read them a library at all?
Did you know that NYPL’s Rose Reading Room is not a designated NYC landmark?
While New York has 117 designated interior landmarks, the Rose Reading Room is not one of them.
Completed in 1911, the 42nd Street Library designed by Carrère and Hastings is one of New York’s most splendid civic monuments. As the Landmarks Preservation Commission’s 1967 designation report noted, “This building comes closer than any other in America to the complete realization of Beaux-Arts design at its best. It somehow managed to keep that light airy quality, so often seen only in architectural drawings, so rarely achieved in execution.”
But the 1967 individual landmark designation only covers the exterior of the building. While the exceedingly fine marble exterior with its deep, triumphal arch portico boasts one of the finest facades along Fifth Avenue, for library patrons, its greatest splendors await inside. In 1974, the Landmarks Preservation Commission designated Astor Hall, the Main Staircase, and the McGraw Rotunda interior landmarks, the very first interior spaces to receive protection under the revised landmarks law.
Occupying nearly half an acre and (until recently) resting atop a mountain of books, the Rose Reading Room stands as the crown jewel of the New York Public Library. Here New Yorkers of all walks of life sit huddled together, lost in the pursuit of knowledge. As Paul LeClerc, former NYPL president once remarked, ”its essence is the most pluralistic, democratic access imaginable. The only criterion one needs to get in is curiosity.”
Although the NYPL administration insists they are responsible stewards of the 42nd Street Library, only landmark designation offers safeguards against insensitive alterations and additions. In 2013, preservationists requested interior designation for the remaining public rooms in the 42nd Street Library. For whatever reason, the Landmarks Preservation Commission declined to calendar these rooms for interior landmark consideration.
Now that the Landmarks Preservation Commission has a new Chair and four new Commissioners, LPC should move to ensure these sumptuously decorated rooms are given the landmark status they clearly deserve.
In honor of the 50th anniversary of the passage of New York City’s landmarks law, NYPL should formally request interior landmark designation for all the public rooms in the 42nd Street Library, including the Rose Reading Room, Bill Blass Catalog Room, Gottesman Exhibition Hall, DeWitt Wallace Periodicals Room, Celeste Bartos Forum, and other important rooms in the New York Public Library’s 42nd Street building.
Last month, NYPL officials held a public meeting to review aspects of plans for major renovations to the 42nd Street and the Mid-Manhattan Libraries. As can be seen from the agendas and pre-determined questions here, the meeting was structured to channel discussion narrowly rather than to encourage broad public discussion of options. The meeting left much to be desired.
Ken Weine, Vice-President of Marketing and Communications at NYPL, has promised more public forums in the future. In order to facilitate a more productive dialogue, the Committee to Save the New York Public Library believes the following steps are necessary:
• Agendas and questions under consideration should be circulated prior to public meetings.
• The criteria for architect selection must be open to public discussion.
• The short list of architects must be publicly announced.
• The instructions and programs provided to the architects must be open to public discussion prior to being given to the architects.
• The return of books to the stacks along with the necessary renovation to the stacks must be publicly addressed with detailed cost comparisons of construction and operational alternatives made open to public discussion. To that end the NYPL must release internal and externally generated cost estimates.
NYPL squandered at least $18 million on the defeated Central Library Plan. Had a rigorous public review occurred millions in taxpayer dollars would not have been wasted. Before NYPL spends the remaining $151 million allocated by the city on future capital projects, they must take every available opportunity to listen to the public and incorporate feedback into their plans.
When John Shaw Billings, the first director of the New York Public Library, first conceived the 42nd Street Library, he made sure each version of the instructions given to the architects was open to public scrutiny and discussion. The great research library New Yorkers have enjoyed for a century is the result of that open search for the best solution. We need the same commitment to transparency and open consideration of options from our library leaders today.
Big changes are underway at the New York Public Library. Major renovations at the Mid-Manhattan Library and the 42nd Street Library will have a profound impact on how these popular libraries are used. Decisions made now will determine the quality of our libraries for many years. Please join us in urging NYPL and the city officials who control taxpayer contributions to its capital budget to truly open the planning process to all citizens.
Image courtesy of Melville House Books.