New Yorkers Challenge Plan to Gut Landmark Library

Lion statue in front of library in New York

Image courtesy of New York Public Library

New Yorkers Challenge Plan to Gut Landmark Library
| Published May 14, 2014 |

By R. Alan Clanton
Thursday Review editor

In April we published the first in a planned series of articles about how the digital age has reshaped libraries, and our first segment examined how a small college media center in southwest Georgia was adapting to a world of wired, interconnected data. We travelled to Bainbridge State College where we spent several hours interviewing librarians and staff, looking at the technologies they deploy to help students, and examining how the library thrives in a digital environment.

One inescapable fact: the book—the printed book, just to be clear—still plays a vital role in many libraries. Print is neither dead nor even on life support, though the great American newspaper has taken a beating over the last 15 years. In fact, it is not even clear that the printed book has suffered from much more than a mild case of identity crisis. And when it comes to libraries, books still matter.

Bainbridge, Georgia is small, but just take a look at the current brouhaha in New York City, where a huge reversal of fortune took place recently when N.Y. Public Library and city government suddenly shifted gears and decided to leave, fully intact, its basement level stacks area underneath the famous Stephen A. Schwartzman building—the library facility within the New York Library system which is used primarily as a research center.

As part of a complex series of budget plans—begun during the tenure of Mayor Michael Bloomberg and now under review by current Mayor Bill de Blasio—that lower level was to be fully renovated and converted into a new, high tech lending library branch, complete with computers, dazzling forms of internet access, and a full range of digital adaptations. But that proposed change met powerful and well-organized resistance—in the form of attention-gathering protests, and in the form of legal action on several fronts.

The famous research library, located on Fifth Avenue at 42nd Street, where it shares a city block with Bryant Park, was due for a multi-million dollar renovation. Although its main reading and research level would remain intact, the vast space underneath would be transformed into a new, modern lending library and digital center. The city had allocated approximately $150 million for the transition and transformation. Part of the deal was that the library system would sell off two other prime locations—the Mid-Manhattan Library, also on Fifth Avenue, and the Science, Industry & Business Library on Madison Avenue—and use the revenue from those potentially high-value real estate transactions to supplement the conversion.

The library system, using mostly privately donated funds, has already paid a well-known British architectural firm headed by Norman Foster at least $9 million for the re-design and retrofit work.

Instead, the iconic 1911 Schwartzman building will be left unmolested and unaltered, for now.

Among those who were skeptical of the transformation were Mayor de Blasio himself. As candidate, de Blasio expressed concerns not only with the high cost of the reconstruction and renovation, but also with the re-allocation of resources. At issue has been the movement of thousands of books and documents—all currently archived in the basement—to other facilities in New York, including a significant percentage which would be moved to a new climate-controlled facility in New Jersey. Researchers and writers who use the Schwartzman facility say that such redistribution of books from the stacks would create long delays in access and retrieval. There were also fears that some materials might be lost forever.

As the new mayor, de Blasio ran headlong into controversy which included lawsuits, mass protests on the steps of the library, and high profile, celebrity intervention on behalf of keeping the landmark building a repository for research and the printed word. Writers Salman Rushdie and Mario Vargas Llosa, among other literary figures, had publicly opposed the renovation plans.

But some librarians and archival experts say that the vast basement area under Fifth Avenue and under Bryant Park is not an ideal place to store the materials. Much of the area included in the stacks lacks adequate climate control; books and archival materials face long term damage from heat, humidity, cold, pests and other elements. Furthermore, rising water levels (and the possibility of another superstorm like Hurricane Sandy) increase the chance that some books could be destroyed in a matter of hours by heavy flooding. Proponents of the renovation say that a serious fix of the basement area would require many more millions of dollars than the originally proposed plan to relocate the stacks to a specially-designed facility in New Jersey.

But in the end, opposition to altering the grand old library—known for the huge stone lions which grace the entrance area along Fifth Avenue—won the day. Library officials readily accepted a compromise version which will keep the Schwartzman building and its contents more-or-less intact—for now.

Other literary figures who had opposed the renovation included Pulitzer Prize winner Junot Diaz, author Jonathan Lethem, and cartoonist Gary Panter.

The new library plan will include a substantial renovation of many of the oldest areas in the Schwartzman Building. Part of the proposed solution, which library president Tony Marx describes as “comprehensive,” will also involve expanding the stacks to additional areas under Bryant Park, additional exhibition and special features space, and more space for writers and researchers.

Related Thursday Review articles:

How a College Library Thrives in a Digital Age; R. Alan Clanton; Thursday Review; April 18, 2014.