Jorge Luis Borges famously described paradise as a kind of library, but recently the New York Public Library has seemed more purgatory than paradise for its many users. Over the last few months, the Rose Reading Room has remained shuttered after a portion of the ceiling crashed to the ground. Can there be any more fitting symbol for the moral decay eating away at New York’s great public research library? Last Wednesday afternoon, the New York Public Library’s Board of Trustees convened a meeting at the Mid-Manhattan Library, and we were there to observe every detail.
Mayor de Blasio and Speaker Mark-Viverito have not yet appointed representatives to the NYPL Board of Trustees. We urge them to appoint independent representatives so that New Yorkers, whose tax dollars provide more than half the funds for NYPL, will be properly represented on the board. This is a crucial step needed to provide the accountability and transparency that has been absent from NYPL planning.
President and CEO Anthony Marx confirmed that Mayor de Blasio and the City Council have approved $151 million in capital funds that were previously allocated for the now defunct Central Library Plan. We note that these funds were approved without public hearings or public comment. At a time when our city’s branch libraries need millions in basic repairs, it is expected NYPL will use the funds to revamp the 42nd Street library and the Mid-Manhattan Library.
NYPL revealed few details about what they are now calling the “Midtown Campus Renovation.” The current phase of the project, which is focused on defining spatial needs for anticipated library programs in the project, is expected to take at least six months. Specific designs for the renovation of the buildings in this plan would not be made until the programming phase and a physical condition assessment is completed.
Marx said that NYPL had been working with the NYC government for almost a year to redesign many aspects of their relationship. He put special emphasis on the need to change the way city funds are allocated to the library. Now that the city has promised to base-line library budgets, NYPL is seeking a dependable capital budget that will allow it to address the needs for capital improvements in what Marx claimed was its two million square feet of space across three boroughs.
Marx explained that construction projects handled by NYPL on a “pass-through” basis – that is, projects where the construction process is managed by NYPL rather than NYC Department of Design and Construction – allowed them to complete projects at half the cost and in half the time. Because projects handled in this way are less transparent, it is difficult to verify this assertion. CSNYPL believes that public funds need to be approved and accounted for publicly. Any scheme that keeps these expenditures from open public scrutiny should be avoided.
During the meeting, Trustee Robert Liberman reported on capital planning projects. Liberman stated the $18 million renovation of Schomburg Center would be done on a pass-through basis and that the new library at the former Donnell site on 53rd Street would start in the fall and be completed at the end of 2015. He mentioned a renovation project at the Woodstock Branch for $9.7 million and another in Rossville, Staten Island for $10.7 million.
Jonathan Bowes presented a summary of the Center for Urban Future’s report on re-imagining branch libraries. CSNYPL will release a detailed response to this report soon.
The board welcomed four new executive officers: Iris Weinshall was named Chief Operating Officer, Christopher Platt as Vice President of Public Services, Carrie Welch as Chief External Relations Officer, and Ryan Cairns as Vice President of Development.
The sale of SIBL was never raised during the meeting. Also unmentioned was the fate of the seven-floors of stacks below the 42nd Street library, which are currently empty following the removal of books in anticipation of the stacks demolition (thankfully thwarted by the efforts of New Yorkers, CSNYPL, and its allies).
CSNYPL believes that a portion of the $151 million in New York City taxpayer funds should be spent to update the climate controls in the stacks of the 42nd Street library. The long promised second-floor Bryant Park Stack Extension (BPSE) has not been started and there was no word of progress towards its realization. Relying on BPSE alone to store the library’s collections does not adequately meet the future needs of New York City’s largest research library, and leaving the stacks empty for want of new air-conditioning and fire suppression systems cannot be a long-term solution.
Disconcertingly, the NYPL has been slow to address the urgent condition of the Rose Reading Room’s ceiling after a plaster rosette fell in May, forcing the closure of library’s largest reading room. According to Liberman, the library is close to signing a contract for scaffolding that will enable experts to examine the condition of the ceiling, but they are not yet ready to begin repairs that will return this crucial facility to public use.
Meanwhile, visitors to the library must use rooms in the second-floor corridor for accessing materials. Many of these rooms suffer from poor lighting, making reading difficult, and many readers report longer than normal retrieval times. NYPL has devised a system to deliver books to readers scattered around the library while the Rose Reading room and its elegant retrieval system are closed. They claimed books are delivered within 45 minutes and said they might make this a permanent feature of the library. When the stacks were being used books were often delivered in 15 minutes.
(Photograph by Ben Asen, NYPL Digital Collections.)
NYPL has just created this bizarre simulacrum of the Main Reading Room on the plaza outside the 5th Avenue entrance to the 42nd Street Library. According to NYPL,
The project, called “The Library Inside Out” encompasses many elements of the beloved Rose Reading Room with some new features.
Well, yes, if the you think the key elements of the beloved Reading Room are fake lamps (they lack both sockets and electrical connections) and a fake backdrop. Those elements most certainly don’t include any research books - research materials of course are not allowed to leave the 42nd building and obviously can’t be used in this space. But don’t worry, one of the “new features” is the opportunity to take staged selfies:
Meanwhile, the real Reading Room remains closed due to plaster collapsing from the ceiling. Library patrons are forced to work in inadequate and depressing makeshift spaces:
Rumor (and that’s all there is - NYPL hasn’t seen fit to communicate any updates to the public) has it that a full ceiling inspection won’t be undertaken until October and the extent of the damage and necessary repair work won’t be known until then. No repair work is apparently being done at present. The Reading Room will remain closed until at least the beginning of next year, longer if the inspection reveals extensive problems.
This hasn’t been a good week for library trustees.
Yesterday, as outraged protestors led by Citizens Defending Libraries rallied outside Brooklyn Public Library shortly before a trustees meeting, Governor Cuomo signed into law a bill (S.6893-B) that will significantly reform operations of the Queens Public Library Board of Trustees. Introduced by Assembly member Jeffrion Aubry and State Senator Michael Gianaris, the bill passed by a vote of 59-1 last Thursday and was supported by Queens Borough President Melinda Katz and Mayor de Blasio.
Among its provisions, the law establishes an audit committee to monitor the Queens Public Library’s expenditures, grants the mayor and borough president the authority to remove trustees, and requires the library to disclose additional revenue.
The bill was prompted by the questionable use of public funds for construction projects overseen by Queens Library President Thomas Galante, currently under investigation by the U.S. Attorney’s Office, the Federal Bureau of Investigation and city Department of Investigation.
Earlier this year, the Daily News revealed Galante had spent $27,000 in taxpayer dollars to build a private smoking deck adjacent to his office at a time when librarians were losing their jobs. In a move that illustrates the corruption which necessitated the bill’s passage, QPL trustees attempted to grant the soon-to-be-departing Galante an $822,000 bonus. The vote was postponed only after Public Advocate Letitia James threatened to obtain a court order preventing Galante from receiving a golden parachute.
The unconscionable actions of the QPL trustees highlight the grave lack of transparency in library boards across the city, where the public is not allowed to comment at meetings and crucial planning is held in executive session away from public scrutiny. A direct result of this secrecy has been a series of disastrous actions that have harmed our libraries, including the sale of the popular Donnell library (for a meager $39 million in profit), the removal of three million books from the stacks in the 42nd Street library, and the proposed sale and shrinkage of the Brooklyn Heights Library.
The city provides 85% of the Queens library’s funding. When trustees no longer consider themselves accountable to the public, our elected officials have an obligation to review their operations and expenditures. The new bill represents a significant improvement in public oversight of our libraries and should be viewed as a model for reforming trustee governance across the city’s other library systems.
Our allies at Citizens Defending Libraries have a new petition demanding full funding for New York City libraries. The petition has already earned over 500 signatures in just two days.
We endorse increased funding and advocate that it be accompanied by greater transparency and accountability. We’d like to encourage everyone who cherishes our libraries to sign the petition.
It’s time to show our elected officials how much we care about our libraries and want them adequately funded—not sold off to private developers.
Read and sign the petition here:
As reported recently in the New York Times, NYPL reveals that the Central Library Plan would have cost over $500 million, a far cry from their earlier $300 million estimate:
But officials, for the first time, revealed that the original plan, mostly scrapped last month in large part because of questions about the price tag, would actually have cost more than $500 million, according to independent estimates they commissioned last June.
Critics of the original plan had suggested that the price tag would most likely escalate well beyond the original estimates and, as a mayoral candidate, Bill de Blasio was among several officials who called for a more thorough review of the project’s cost.
Library officials are hopeful that Mr. de Blasio, as mayor, will agree that $150 million, already in the city’s executive budget to finance the old plan, can be spent on the new one.
“The administration will remain in close discussions with the library on this project as well as on its other initiatives in support of the mayor’s agenda,” said Marti Adams, a spokeswoman for the mayor. “We are pleased that the library ultimately shared the mayor’s goals in developing its revised plan.”
Anthony W. Marx, the library’s president, said the historic stacks in the main building, whose removal was a disputed element in the original plan designed by the architect Norman Foster, would be kept, but not returned to service as a storage area for books.
NYPL plans to spend $22 million to expand the Bryant Park Stack Extension, without acknowledging the fact that doing so will displace the 1.2 million books currently under Bryant Park to New Jersey.
President Anthony Marx claims that bringing the seven floors of stacks below the Rose Reading Room up to code would require spending an additional $46 million. It’s unclear how the NYPL obtained this estimate since they have never disclosed their cost analysis report.
In the 1980s, “advanced temperature and humidity controls” had been integrated into the stacks, and a new sprinkler system was installed in 1991.
Image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.
An outstanding editorial in The New Yorker gets it exactly right:
Physical, public space and physical books will continue to be vital to a library whose research collection, amassed over more than a century, is a cultural treasure… Given the importance of books, it follows that as many as possible should be on-site. Keeping them there, and moving back many that are off-site now, is a worthwhile goal. If the Schwarzman Building’s stacks need major refitting in order to preserve the books better, ideally that should be done, even at the projected cost of tens of millions of dollars. The Mid-Manhattan Library has long been falling apart. It should be fixed up, as the N.Y.P.L. has recently promised to do. Many of the eighty-seven branch libraries also need extensive improvements and renovations—a need more urgent than others, if the money could be found…
America now has the highest level of income inequality in the developed world, and New York’s is among the worst in America. The public library has always been a great democratizer and creator of citizens, and a powerful force against inequality; it must not retrench, especially now.
Read the full article here.
Statement from the Committee to Save the New York Public Library: Thank You to All Who Helped Make this Victory Possible!
The leadership of NYPL has finally come to its senses and abandoned its hugely unpopular Central Library Plan. All of us at the Committee to Save the New York Public Library are gratified that the Mid-Manhattan Library will be saved and the stacks in the 42nd Street Library left intact. Now it remains for us to persuade the library leadership to fix the mechanical systems in the stacks so the books can be returned there. This great building, meant for readers and the books they love, can now fulfill its purpose for another century. It is a great victory for the people of New York and for the library at the heart of the city.
Our group started with a petition signed by scholars, readers, architects, and citizens. Through the effort and support of library lovers from all walks of life we have organized and led the opposition to NYPL’s wasteful Central Library Plan. Today we thank our allies: Citizens Defending Libraries, the Library Lovers League, Landmark West, and the Historic Districts Council; all were crucial to this victory. We will continue to work together to be sure the great libraries of our city are cared for and preserved and that their financial and architectural resources are used wisely.
Bill de Blasio’s demand during the waning days of the Bloomberg administration for greater transparency and a public review of NYPL alternatives set the stage for yesterday’s change of course at the Library. The multiple lawsuits brought by scholars and activists helped insure that no final decisions were made until they could be properly reviewed by the new administration when it came into office.
Borough President Gale Brewer advocated keeping the Mid-Manhattan Library and just days ago Councilmember Dan Garodnick questioned the wisdom of the NYPL’s extravagant plans. State Senator Brad Hoylman, State Senator Jose Serrano, State Senator Bill Perkins, Assemblymember Linda Rosenthal, and other elected officials spoke out forcefully to urge the NYPL to heed the public outcry against their plans. Assemblymember Micah Kellner held a crucial hearing so the public could learn what library leaders were reluctant to disclose. Union and community leaders spoke out strongly against the plan, as did many prominent writers. We thank them all and hope they will continue to stand with us.
The turn-around at the New York Public Library is a great beginning, but there is still much to be done. We will continue to press to bring the books back to the stacks so that the 42nd Street Library can serve all the people as a great research library. We will continue urging elected leaders to fully fund the neighborhood branches. And we will continue to demand greater transparency and accountability from the NYPL trustees and administration.
In a victory for library users across the city, the New York Public Library has announced it will abandon the hugely unpopular Central Library Plan. The Mid-Manhattan Library will be saved and renovated, and the 42nd St. Library stacks will be kept intact “for present”. But NYPL is refusing to return the books to the stacks!
Here’s a summary of coverage:
Wall Street Journal: “In Library’s New Plan, the Stacks Stay… Empty”
NYPL’s new plan has people “scratching their heads” – save the stacks but keep them empty?! As Pulitzer Prize-winner David Levering Lewis says, “Isn’t this pretty Kafka-esque?” Also, the Wall Street Journal reveals that the NYPL trustees and administration have spent a jaw-dropping 18 million dollars on the plan they just abandoned. And why did NYPL refuse to let the Wall Street Journal take a photo of the empty stacks to illustrate their article?
The Nation: “NYPL Shelves Plan to Gut Central Library”
Scott Sherman, who first broke the news about the Central Library Plan over 2 years ago, reviews the questions surrounding the NYPL’s decision to abandon the plan.
Translationista: “A Library Without Books?”
Translationista analyses the NYPL’s rationale for not returning the books to the 42nd Street stacks. Conclusion? Returning the books to the stacks is the most cost-effective way to store them. “[NYPL President Tony] Marx and [NYPL Communications Officer Ken] Weine know all these things as well as I do, so the question remains: Why are they so hellbent on keeping the books off those shelves? It just doesn’t compute.”
Melville House: “Critics of the Central Library Plan React to New York Public Library’s Change of Course”
A great round-up of reactions to NYPL’s decision to abandon the Central Library Plan.
Wall Street Journal: “New York Public Library Scraps Redesign Plans”
The initial Wall Street Journal story, which revealed that NYPL did not plan to return the books to the 42nd Street Stacks.
New York Times: “Public Library Is Abandoning Disputed Plan for Landmark”
The story which first broke the news of NYPL’s decision to scrap the Central Library Plan.
Wall Street Journal: NYPL Abandoning Central Library Plan, But Won’t Return Books to 42nd St. Stacks
The Wall Street Journal confirms the earlier NY Times article. The NYPL is abandoning the Central Library Plan. BUT THERE’S A BIG CATCH: “Under the new plan, the book stacks would be preserved but would remain empty of books. The research collection would instead be stored in climate-controlled storage space under Bryant Park.”
The only thing sillier than the original plan would be preserving the empty stacks free of books – an utterly and obviously pointless state of affairs that will just beg for resolution via a new “renovation” project a few years down the line. And the planned additional storage space under Bryant Park will only hold 1.5 million books, less than half the books that were in the stacks; the remaining 1.5-2 million books will still have to be shipped to New Jersey.
Saving the Mid-Manhattan is a great victory, but we still have work to do!
Can this be true???!!!! The New York Times reports the end of the Central Library Plan:
In a striking about-face, the New York Public Library has abandoned its plan to turn part of its research flagship on 42nd Street into a circulating library and instead will renovate the Mid-Manhattan library on Fifth Avenue, several library trustees said.
There’s been no official announcement yet, and we’re waiting with bated breath to read the fine print…