Libraries, Archives, Technology, Impending Doom
It requires patience and fortitude just to follow the planned renovations to the New York Public Library’s 42nd Street branch. The project was announced years ago, and in the time since there has been no lack of grumbling and grandstanding about what these changes will mean. But the arguments have been revived, yet again, in the recent months since the plans have been released by the architect (Norman Foster).
At New York Magazine, Justin Davidson, had mainly good things to say about the proposed renovations: “it’s wonderful to see intelligent architecture trump panicky rhetoric.” Davidson also coolly stakes out a seemingly rational position in justifying the coming changes, noting that “The architects and administrators are tackling an inescapable trilemma: You can safeguard the library’s mission, its books, or its physical structure, but you can’t keep all three exactly as they are.” Davidson goes on to envision that post-renovation the newly revitalized NYPL “could prove as spectacular in its high-gloss, millennial way as the ornate rooms of a century ago.”
As a librarian with more than a passing personal familiarity with the New York Public Library and with those seldom seen stacks that will be ripped out to accommodate the new public spaces I will say that Davidson’s comments are competent and carefully couched so as to sound highly sensible. As with much of the debate around the proposed changes it is hard to argue against the idea that the 42nd street library has great, untapped potential. Furthermore the “trilemma” of which Davidson speaks is not wholly imaginary (though it is questionable whether this is the best or only solution). Overall the tone of Davidson’s piece seems to suggest that change is needed, that Foster’s plan is pretty good, and that everybody should stop kvetching.
And yet, Davidson’s piece seems to delight in answering the simple questions whilst ignoring (or dismissing) the more serious matters.
The same cannot be said of Michael Kimmelman’s piece at the New York Times. From the outset Kimmelman makes clear that he is not wholly convinced of the direness of the problem, writing “even after all these years, more time is needed to figure this thing out.” Kimmelman notes that “the motivation is money, and there’s no denying that the library needs it,” but the need for funding alone does not seem to sufficiently shove Kimmelman in one direction or another. Taking up the topic of the architectural changes Kimmelman is rather harsh towards Foster, stating that the plans revealed by Foster “aren’t worthy of him. After more than four years, this hardly seems the best he can do.”
The architectural question is, frankly, not one with which I am wholly concerned. I share neither Davidson’s enthusiasm for Foster’s plans nor Kimmelman’s disdain for them. It has seemed to me as if the focus on architecture has at times served as a convenient gloss, a way for people to seem like they are discussing serious issues regarding the future of the library while they are actually just talking about interior design (not that this isn’t important). Similarly the focus on the grousing of scholars seems as if it has been deliberately used to make the closed stacks seem undemocratic whilst portraying the new plans as much more welcoming. Which is to say nothing of how silent librarians frequently seem to be in all of the pontificating.
Which is ultimately why I think that Kimmelman’s article is an excellent contribution to this discussion, and indeed I believe that it lays out the framework by which this discussion should advance. While Kimmelman is not a librarian, the way in which he presents his arguments should be instructional to concerned librarians. On a financial side Kimmelman’s discussion of the cost of the project and the likelihood that the project will go seriously over budget is worth recognizing and is a point worth bringing up to those who view the project as an excellent way for NYPL to become more financially stable. Related to the financial issue Kimmelman also makes an excellent case for “the public thirst for neighborhood branches,” adding that “they’re the ones that really need the money. The library should make a case for them, vigorously.” And so the library should.
Yet the point in Kimmelman’s article that resonated the most strongly for me was his characterization of the books that had been located in those closed stacks, Kimmelman writes of these stacks by characterizing them as “a space whose decades-long decline, through various renovation campaigns, suggests to me a kind of demolition by neglect.”
“Demolition by neglect.” Those three words should feel like a kick in the teeth to librarians, archivists, and all of those who care about libraries, but who have watched as budgets have been cut and branches have been closed. For this is the perfect characterization of the quiet assault on libraries that we are witnessing country wide. And while this “demolition by neglect” of the 42nd street stacks is leading to calls to take action at that storied branch this very action – and discussions about architectural plans – allow for a glossing over the “demolition by neglect” being wrought upon the branch libraries.
Obviously the back and forth about the 42nd street branch is not going to end anytime soon, but hopefully Kimmelman’s call for some calm rethinking will have an effect.
Though, sadly, I doubt it will.