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NYPL’s “Central Library” Plan goes Not as Planned

Construction work tends to be loud. This holds equally true when it comes to construction in libraries. Yet, sometimes the voices of opposition to planned construction can reach such a volume as to silence the sledgehammers and power tools before they can even begin banging. Such is now the case in New York where the New York Public Library has cancelled its – shall we say controversial – “central library” plan.

That there was sustained and significant opposition to NYPL’s remodeling plan is obvious – community activists and well-known authors voiced their disapproval – but one should be hesitant to give this victory to any one group of protestors. Even if their goal has now been reached. Indeed, it may be fair to see this turn of events as being related to two factors: the election of a new mayor (Bill de Blasio) on the record as being skeptical of the plan (itself a reflection of the success of some of the activism around the issue), and secondly, the fact that the plan was always going to be expensive but that it increasingly seemed as though the work would have taken longer and been even more costly than anticipated.

The great humor of NYPL’s decision is not really a decisive laugh of triumph, but rather a dry scoff of: “well, that was pointless.” After all this time…this is how it ends? Well…okay.

The plan had been to close the Science and Business Library (SIBL) as well as the Mid-Manhattan library while compensating for these closures by opening a new “lending” library in the (to-be-dismantled) stacks of the historic library (the one with a banker’s name chiseled into its façade). It was a plan that would have involved shuttering one of the (if not simply “the”) busiest circulating libraries in the NYPL system while gutting its most storied structure in a very expensive plan that would have eventually produced some kind of savings. To put it overly simply: the plan involved shoving an extremely busy and crowded library into another extremely busy and crowded library and then closing the first of those libraries. Though the stone lions outside the historic building may be named “Patience” and “Fortitude” there is only so much patience and fortitude that people have for such boondoggles.

After all, those opposed to the construction have been saying that the project would take much longer and be quite a bit more expensive than anticipated all along. Granted, much of the reporting around the opposition chose to center on annoyed scholars who would have to wait for their books to be delivered from off-site storage, or on the emotionally tinged aesthetic appeals to the classic aura of the library. That such reasons for frustration – annoyance and aesthetics – are genuine should not be disputed, and yet they were often evoked as straw-men of sorts – built up for their ease in knocking down. Yet, one of the main sources for opposition has all along been that the project would wind up being very expensive. This matter of cost cannot be disentangled from the concern that such an allocation of funds was irresponsible at a time when many of the less iconic branches of NYPL were struggling for funds.

There are many who, at this moment, are doubtlessly feeling quite pleased at NYPL’s reversal – yet the question remains as to whether or not anything was learned in this whole affair.

Library activists likely learned a great deal – about the importance of building activist networks, about the use of creative tactics, about the need to keep the pressure going – but it may be that the activists involved were not the ones who most needed to borrow this book. This reversal at NYPL is a lesson for those who control libraries (as in the boards of directors and executives) – for it is the ones who were pushing and pushing for this plan only to now abandon it who wind up looking rather foolish. While the hundreds of millions of dollars that the plan would require have not been spent, a fair amount of money has nevertheless been frittered away, and few are the executives who enjoy being on the opposite side of a derisive “we told you so.”

One hopes that the lasting lesson of the ill-fated “central library” plan will be that when it comes to libraries (especially public libraries) one should actually listen to the concerns of the library’s users (gasp!). It may seem a silly and obvious point, yet one of the problems that NYPL encountered from the outset was pushback related to patrons feeling excluded from the discussion. A public library belongs to the public – and it may well be that those who regularly use the library have a better idea of what they need from the library than those who just attend meetings about that library. Had NYPL worked to actively engage the public from the outset they might have been able to avoid the current situation – and the plan would likely have been a better one to boot.

Anybody who has ever spent an afternoon walking through the high-ceilinged hallways of NYPL’s historic branch knows that the building’s space was not being optimized to its fullest extent. Simultaneously anybody who has borrowed a book from the Mid-Manhattan library (which is across the street [diagonally] from the historic branch) knows that it is a very busy library. Nevertheless, to think that the best solution is to stick the Mid-Manhattan library into the historic library is not so much a failure of imagination as it is a farcical flight of imagination that fails to understand the way that each of those libraries work and a failure to understand the needs of each location’s users. It does not disparage either user base to acknowledge that the historic library (as a research institution with many rare and unique collections) and the branch library (as a public circulating collection) cater to different groups of patrons (who often overlap) – and these groups of patrons (the “public” if you will) are justified in wanting public libraries that satisfy their needs. After all, they are “public.” And all of this is not even to dwell upon the impressive flood of tourists who pour into the historic library to pose for pictures and admire the architecture.

It is in regards to this matter of the “public” and patrons that another important aspect of the NYPL drama comes to light, namely that NYPL is a large network of libraries across three boroughs. Thus, the “public” that the New York Public Library serves is a dispersed one, and for many members of this public the most important branch is not the most iconic one but the one that is nearest to them and their community. That many of these branch libraries have struggled with budget cuts at the very moment when millions were being set-aside for investment in the “central library” plan was the real problem with the plan, far more than any design by an expensive architect. The real flaw in NYPL’s plans was always about priorities, insofar as the plan emphasized a flashy redesign instead of the less-flashy but more sorely needed infusion of funds into smaller branch libraries.

NYPL’s “central library” plan deserves credit for being willing to ask: “how do we ensure that the library is successful going forward?” However, no credit should be given to an answer in which the “we” seemed to pay precious little attention to the concerns of the actual patrons.

Discussions around the future of libraries are always sensitive topics. Many individuals and groups grow worried over the talk of a library with more computers, or a library with no books, or a research library in which all of the books are off site. Yet, it may be that the real core of the library has less to do with any given tool or technology (and books are certainly a technology) than it has to do with the patrons. For it is a library that does not have any patrons, a library that is unused, that is truly a library in danger. The “central library” plan from NYPL is a reminder that a successful public library needs to keep its public in mind. Luckily, NYPL seems to have remembered this…it just took a little while…and a little help.

Patience and fortitude are important, certainly.

But so is speaking up.

One hopes that the money set aside for the “central library” plan will now be allocated to help all of the underfunded branch libraries throughout the NYPL system.

After all, for most library patrons their local library is the one that is “central” to them.

Related Content

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Mutual Aid, Self-Help, Libraries

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There’s No Such Thing as a Free Library

Librarian is My Occupation – A People’s History of the OWS Library


About Z.M.L

“I do not believe that things will turn out well, but the idea that they might is of decisive importance.” – Max Horkheimer @libshipwreck

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