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.)