Letters to the Editor: On “New Challenges for Library Reading Rooms”

Elizabeth A. R. Brown, December 2013

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To the Editor:

In her article “New Challenges for Library Reading Rooms,” in the September 2013 Perspectives, Jennifer Reut alerted readers to the changes that are threatening researchers at the Library of Congress and the 42nd Street Branch of the New York Public Library. Although I was not aware of the Library of Congress’s alarming Initiative: 900 Days, I am working with the Committee to Save the New York Public Library and our ally Citizens Defending Libraries to halt the NYPL’s Central Library Plan (recently rechristened the 42nd Street Library Renovation Plans).

Like the LC’s Initiative, the NYPL’s plan was conceived by administrators convinced that they know what “modern researchers” need and also that the future lies with “increasingly digital research methods.” Mary Lee Kennedy, recently installed as NYPL’s Chief Library Officer (a new post), is charged with developing the NYPL as a “virtual library,” a vision consonant with the massive and indiscriminate removal of the library’s printed resources to offsite storage in New Jersey and elsewhere. Whatever the assumptions of library administrators, researchers continue to need books, journals, original documents, and manuscripts, just as they need expert librarians. Digitized materials and the Internet are useful for verifying references and studying discrete sources sequentially. However, for formulating and testing problems and ideas, researchers must have ready access to multiple sources that can be consulted together.

Taking another tack, Reut referred in her article to “the inexorable, democratizing path of digitization” and associated the plans for the LC and the NYPL with “the democratization of information that had once been the libraries’ exclusive purview.” Digitization and democratization do not, however, go hand in hand. The resources available in great public libraries are by no means instantly and freely accessible on the Internet, as all who have struggled with Google Books and publishers eager for profit can testify. Those interested in France are fortunate that research institutions there, supported by the government, are making their resources available digitally without charge. Institutions in Great Britain and the United States are less altruistic. By providing free and open access to materials of many sorts, public libraries, large and small, remain the organs of democratization they have always been. To be sure, libraries are important community centers, the function now emphasized by NYPL’s leaders. But it is learning, not social contacts, that is the great leveler.

The NYPL’s plan is particularly problematic. Since its inception in 2005–­6 during the presidency of Paul LeClerc, there has been no meaningful consultation with the public and no fiscal transparency. Enthusiastically endorsed by real estate interests, opposed by architectural historians, historical preservationists, and researchers, the plan has involved from the beginning selling to developers the nearby Mid-­Manhattan and Science, Industry, and Business libraries, which are to be shoehorned into 42nd Street. This strategy is linked with the larger goal of disposing of other valuable library sites, despite the disastrous outcome of the sale of the Donnell Library on 53rd Street in 2008. Real estate interests, powerful in New York City, are powerfully represented on the Board of Trustees of the NYPL and among large donors such as Stephen A. Schwarzman.

Opponents of the NYPL’s plan have had difficulty making their voices heard, not only because of the trustees’ ties with the media and city officials, but also because of their unwillingness to accept and work with a truly independent advisory council representing and chosen by researchers and users, like those at the British Library and the Bibliothèque nationale de France. Protests and criticism have not led the trustees to reconsider the project’s wisdom, although they have commissioned extensive (and expensive) revision of the mundane architectural plans submitted by Norman Foster’s London firm. They have also hired the Parkside Group, a high-­priced lobbying firm, to promote the project and dispel opposition. The march toward implementation of the original plan’s fundamental elements still has disheartening momentum, as Jennifer Reut’s emphasis on Neil Rudenstine’s dramatic call for “immediate action” suggests.

I urge colleagues to consult our websites (savenypl.org and citizensdefendinglibraries.blogspot.com) and sign our petitions. To the articles Reut listed should be added the enlightening pieces that Scott Sherman published in the Nation on November 20, 2011 (“Upheaval at the New York Public Library), May 6, 2013 (“Save the New York Public Library), and September 16, 2013 (“The Hidden History of New York City’s Central Library Plan”), and also Stephen Eide’s “The New York Public Library’s Uncertain Future,” City Journal (Autumn 2013).

Elizabeth A. R. Brown
Professor emeritus of history,
The City University of New York