How did one of the world’s great public research libraries nearly destroy itself?
That question is central to Scott Sherman’s superlative book, Patience and Fortitude, now in paperback.
A gripping account of the David versus Goliath story about citizens fighting to take back their library, Sherman’s book describes in vivid detail the enormous efforts to halt NYPL’s ill-conceived plan to sell two libraries and cripple the research functions of the central humanities library on 42nd Street. More than just an investigation into the bureaucratic morass at the heart of the New York Public Library, it serves as a blueprint for mobilizing a successful citizen-led grassroots campaign.
With the paperback edition hot off the press, now’s the perfect time to delve into the story of what The Atlantic has called the fiercest preservation battle since the proposed demolition of Grand Central. Grab your copy directly from the publisher or your local independent bookseller.
In honor of this occasion, Melville House has put together some thoughts from CSNYPL organizers about lessons learned from the library fight. And be sure to check out Sherman’s recent article in The Nation!
Mid-Manhattan Library was always an awkward name, it does not trip off the tongue as Stavros Niarchos Foundation Library will.
But NYPL has a way with euphonious acronyms, think of ReCAP, MaRLI, SIBL and our favorites – the Bryant Park Storage Extension (BPSE), pronounced Bipsey and the electronic catalog (CATNYP), pronounced Catnip. We never liked the name of the Steven A. Schwarzman Building (SASB), pronounced Sasby.
It is a whole new world now and we have a chance at some new names. Mid-Manhattan will become SNFL or Sniffle, and it will need a companionable name across 5th Avenue. Perhaps the structures of acronyms and phonetics are sufficiently elastic to allow us to rename the Central Library (Schwarzman Library) as SWZL. Then we can have Sniffle and Swizzle guarding the flanks of 5th Avenue as Patience and Fortitude guard the entrance to what sensible people still call the Central Library.
That leaves only the newly fitted out underground storage to be renamed for its donor. The Milstein Underground Storage Facility might be called Mustafa.
We did it! After months of intense advocacy, we have finally secured interior landmark designation for the Rose Reading Room and Bill Blass Catalog Room! Today the New York City Landmarks Preservation Commission voted unanimously to formally designate both spaces. Going forward, any major changes to interior components and fixtures including but not limited to decorative plasterwork, metalwork and woodwork, built-in bookcases, balconies and railings, doors and frames, windows and frames, light fixtures, attached furnishings and decorative elements will require public review.
We’ve long argued that these cherished rooms convey a sense of civic grandeur befitting one of the city’s greatest public monuments. They belong to every New Yorker and now will be protected for future generations to come.
We’d like to thank everyone who signed our petition, sent letters to the Commission, and spread the word on social media. We couldn’t have done it without your support. We are especially grateful to State Senators Liz Krueger and Brad Hoylman for aiding our efforts.
Of course, we will continue to push for the designation of the remaining eligible interiors and the rehabilitation of the historic book stacks below the reading room. But for now, please join us in celebrating this momentous and hard-fought victory.
We need your support! LPC is proposing to calendar only *some* of the renowned interiors of the 42nd Street Library (476 Fifth Avenue). Although the public may not speak at the upcoming public meeting, you can submit written testimony online. Tell the LPC that they must calendar ALL of the eligible interiors of this masterpiece of American architecture. Please go to the LPC website and submit your comments before Monday, June 5th at 4:00pm:
The NYC Landmark Preservation Commission will hold a public meeting on Tuesday, June 6th to initiate the process to designate the NYPL 42nd Street Library interiors. This is a significant breakthrough, and we are enormously grateful that the Commission has finally decided to begin designating spaces that ought to have been landmarked years ago. Once the Commission votes to calendar the proposed items, the calendared interior spaces will receive a public hearing and the Commission will eventually vote to designate the spaces as interior landmarks.
Unfortunately, they’ve proposed calendaring just two of the thirteen public spaces that we had requested be designated interior landmarks. Only a few days ago, we had written to LPC Chair Meenakshi Srinivasan and stressed the collective importance of the total assemblage of rooms within Carrère & Hasting’s master design for the library.
We wrote, “A piecemeal approach to interior designation does not adequately respect [its] design and leaves some of New York’s most sublime manifestations of Beaux-Arts interiors unprotected.”
These are the interiors the LPC wants to exclude from landmarking:
· Samuel and Jeane H. Gottesman Exhibition Hall
· DeWitt Wallace Periodicals Room
· Lionel Pincus and Princess Firyal Map Division Room
· Celeste Bartos Forum
· Edna B. Salomon Room
· Brooke Russell Astor Reading Room for Rare Books and Manuscripts
· Sue and Edgar Wachenheim III Gallery
· North-South Gallery
· Miriam and Ira D. Wallach Art & Architecture Room
· Sue and Edgar Wachenheim III Trustees Room
· 42nd Street Staircases
In January, we launched a petition and public campaign to landmark all of these spaces. Thanks to your support, we’ve spurred LPC to act. But their inexplicable decision to narrowly restrict the scope of interior landmark designation imperils many of these famous interiors. Let your voice be heard! Submitting your comments will only take a few moments, and you can help ensure these glorious spaces remain intact for future generations.
Below are photographs of just a few of the interiors LPC wants to deny landmark protection for:
Photograph of the Celeste Bartos Forum courtesy of NYPL. All other photographs taken by CSNYPL.
Recently, Charles Warren, President of Save NYPL, appeared on CUNY TV’s Independent Sources to discuss NYPL’s plans to demolish the popular Inwood Public Library and replace it with a new library within a low-cost residential building. If you missed the interview, you can now watch it online.
The Committee to Save NYPL is petitioning the Landmarks Preservation Commission to officially designate the Rose Reading Room and other public spaces in the 42nd Street Library as interior landmarks. We need your help! Please sign the petition below and share it with your friends, family, and colleagues.
Preservationists had formally requested these spaces be designated years ago, but their demands were ignored by the city agency charged with protecting our cultural and architectural heritage. With the recent calendaring of the Ambassador Grill and the Waldorf Astoria interiors, we are optimistic that LPC will finally ensure that these cherished rooms will be preserved for posterity.
You can read our growing letters of support here.
Former LPC Commissioner R. Michael Brown once remarked that the “story of our lives is written in interiors.” There can be no doubt that few New York City interiors have transformed as many lives as those in the 42nd Street Library. They deserve landmark protection.
Image courtesy of Wikipedia Commons.
NYPL will present its new designs for the renovation of the Mid-Manhattan Library and hold a discussion with the architects of the project this coming Tuesday. There will be an opportunity to ask questions. The meeting will be:
Tuesday, December 13th, 4:30 PM
Mid-Manhattan Library, 6th Floor
(Fifth Avenue and 40th Street)
We encourage everyone who is interested in the future of the Mid-Manhattan library to attend. Please RSVP at:
Image courtesy of Mecanoo with Beyer Blinder Belle.
We are honored to have been named 2016’s Best Civic Gladfies by the Village Voice:
“By now, everyone from New York Public Library leaders to City Council members agrees that the NYPL’s 2008 decision to sell its Donnell branch to a Chinese luxury-hotel company for a fraction of its value was a big mistake. But the NYPL board’s scheme to transform seven floors of “stacks” in its magnificent 42nd Street research library into a post-book paradise (by shipping millions of volumes to a New Jersey storage facility) so far remains only a semi–fait accompli, thanks to the tireless legal efforts, demonstrations, and petition circulations of the Committee to Save the NYPL and its smaller but no less feisty Brooklyn counterpart, Citizens Defending Libraries. The need for these groups’ hectoring became apparent this summer, when the 300,000-volume Donnell reopened as the slickly designed 53rd Street Library in a basement space a third its former size and with only 20,000 books. Alarmingly, similar moves are afoot at the NYPL’s 115th Street branch and at the Brooklyn Heights branch of the Brooklyn Public Library. So long as members of the city’s real estate and financial communities run our libraries, deals like this will continue to be promoted — and it will be left to grassroots activist groups to bring transparency to the process.”
Image courtesy of The Village Voice.
New York magazine absolutely nails it on the new Donnell replacement library, “a sleek but shrunken pit fitted out with bleachers, bar stools, and a megascreen, plus a smattering of circulating volumes.”
Aptly titled “The New 53rd Street Library Is Nice, Unless You Like to Read Books,” the article goes on to note:
Neither architects nor librarians shaped this branch; a real-estate deal did, one that reserved the cream of the square footage for the hotel and condo above, and sloughed off the leftovers on the public…
This narrow buried amphitheater gives library patrons a split-level vista: above, a rat’s-eye view of the street and passers-by; below, a wide screen playing a promotional slideshow for New York and its libraries. Architects love choreographing such chance urban spectacles, but this one enjoys a special kind of pointlessness…
…the Donnell was a shabby wonderland, crammed with so many circulating books of so many different varieties, that it felt endless. Its sequel feels limited and spare. An abundance of outlets is a wonderful thing, but it does not replace those free experiences that are unique to a public library: browse, borrow, read, repeat.
NYPL views this as the library of the future; read the entire article to understand more fully why this is a terrible idea.
UPDATE: Vanishing New York has just published a review of the replacement Donnell, and they are not happy:
Sleek, stark, and only one-third the size of the old Donnell, the new space is true to the architect’s original fantasy rendering, a bizarre scenario in which people sit on designer bleacher seats, staring blankly into space, not reading books.
We’d like to thank everyone who joined us in protesting the opening of Donnell Library’s shrunken replacement last week. It was a good turn out. The glitzy, stage-managed ribbon-cutting ceremony was moved indoors, but our demonstration received ample coverage in DNAInfo and The Wall Street Journal.
Perhaps the defining take on the sordid affair appeared last week in City Journal, where Nicole Gelinas has written a scathing indictment on the Donnell Library sale.
Here’s a snippet:
The new library branch would be a proud civic achievement in a small, wealthy suburb. But New York is not a small, wealthy suburb. It deserves better. Unlike the Donnell, most of the new underground library has no natural light. Space for books is limited, because of the real constraints of being in a basement that wasn’t the hotel developer’s priority. The library is less than a third of Donnell’s size. What looks like a massive internal space for bookshelves, for example, is an underpinning of the skyscraper above.
The bookshelves that surround that support structure create an illusion of plenty. But it’s just an illusion. The NYPL has dispensed with almost all of the Donnell’s books. Just 20,000 are on site, a mere 7 percent of the previous holdings. Browsing the 53rd Street branch is more like browsing a bookstore that doesn’t have the room or the money to offer an interesting inventory. The Donnell’s specialized holdings in film, music, and foreign language aren’t coming back; the NYPL dispersed them to other branches. Yes, you can order any book or film you want from any branch you want, and pick it up here, quite conveniently. But a library isn’t an Amazon dropbox.
The entire article is a must-read.
Unfortunately, it’s not clear if library officials have learned their lesson. When commenting on Donnell, NYPL President Tony Marx blamed the recession: “None of us foresaw the financial difficulties of 2008 and 2009, which got in the way of our initial plan.” But as Ms. Gelinas points out, the plan was flawed from the very beginning.
By rallying last Monday, we sent a clear message to the leaders of NYPL that the Donnell fiasco must never be repeated. As NYPL moves forward with its renovations to the 42nd Street Library and Mid-Manhattan Library, we will continue to insist on greater public input and transparent decision-making. We’ve seen what happens when libraries ignore their users.
Image courtesy of Citizens Defending Libraries.