May 17, 2012

Hundreds of writers and scholars rally to save the NYPL


More than 750 writers, scholars, and librarians have signed a public letter asking New York Public Library president Anthony Marx to reconsider a $350 million plan to radically transform its iconic Stephen A. Schwarzman research library and move millions of books in the library’s collection to a storage facility in New Jersey.

Among the letter’s signers: Nobelist Mario Vargas Llosa; Pulitzer Prize winners Frances FitzGerald, Edmund Morris, Art Spiegelman, and Annalyn Swan; writers Salman Rushdie, Jonathan Lethem, Amitav Ghosh, and Luc Sante.

Such a massive coalition would seem to be big news in what has long been a brewing controversy. But the New York Times dedicated just four tiny paragraphs to the letter in a report that came just a day after the Times‘ own editorial page endorsed the library’s plan to “renovate” Schwarzman. (The plan actually calls for two midtown library facilities to be shuttered and sold and for a new circulating library to be built inside the Schwarzman building.)

The Times‘ brevity stands in contrast to an ambitious two-part essay about the controversy by Charles Petersen that appears online and in the new print issue of n+1.

Petersen’s piece covers a lot of the same ground as Scott Sherman’s Nation investigation published in December, but it does honorable work in bringing to light the role corporate management consultants have played in modifying the mission of the NYPL. According to Petersen, McKinsey was “brought in around 2003, and then again for a second engagement in 2008-2009,” and in 2006 the library hired Booz Allen. Ironically, none of the studies commissioned for the library have been made public. Petersen nonetheless suggests that the Central Library Plan, the name the NYPL has given to its project, may be the result of Booz Allen’s bleak predictions for research circulation, predictions that didn’t turn out to be true: instead of falling steadily, “the drop in the use of the research collection … stabilized” after 2007.

The stakes of acting on bad information are huge, an idea that Petersen concludes his essay with:

If the reconstruction goes through, scholarly research will be more, not less, concentrated in the handful of inordinately wealthy and exclusive colleges and universities. The renovation is elitism garbed in populist rhetoric, ultimately condescending to the very people the library’s board thinks they’re serving. It suggests that no one other than an Ivy League professor or student could ever hope to engage in scholarship or original research. Leave the heavy lifting to the folks at Harvard and McKinsey (and the quants in our commodities division), the financiers are saying; for the rest of you, there will be lovely sun-filled spots to check your email.

But one doesn’t have to resign and check your email, as Petersen depressingly suggests—you can sign the letter referenced above and ask the library to reconsider its plan.

Update: I’m told Tom Stoppard, Peter Carey, Colm Toibin, and Annie Proulx have also now signed the petition.


Kelly Burdick is the executive editor of Melville House.