February 3, 2014
A report from the stacks
by Kelly Burdick
Esteemed literary translator Susan Bernofsky toured the New York Public Library’s 42nd Street book stacks, which are set to be demolished as part of the NYPL’s Central Library Plan. Bernofsky, who is also a member of the Committee to Save the New York Public Library, toured with a delegation from the PEN American Center; the NYPL is hoping to win over PEN to the merits of its plan.
Despite claims by the library that the condition of the stacks is critical, with books needing to be relocated to protect materials, and conveniently make way for the Central Library Plan, Bernofsky found the stacks, which have already been emptied of books, to be in good condition:
The stacks I saw yesterday were pretty dusty, and that was the only thing obviously “wrong” with them. I saw not a trace of rust on the sturdy and elegant Carnegie steel stacks (manufactured from a grade of steel that isn’t made anymore), and the marble floors holding up the stacks—which also structurally support the Rose Reading Room above—appeared to be in excellent shape. A sprinkler system snaked along the ceiling, accompanied by vents for the HVAC system. Another NYPL talking point is that the stacks cannot be appropriately climate-controlled; well, a state-of-the-art climate-control system was installed in the stacks in the 1980s. I’m sure it’s due for an upgrade thirty years later. And upgrading it would certainly be cheaper than tearing out seven floors of stacks and reengineering the entire building so that the Rose Reading Room won’t collapse when its supports are removed.
All of this tracks closely with earlier critics of the library’s spin about the condition of the stacks. Though the library claims “the demolition of the stacks is necessary and a contribution to service and scholarship,” Bernofsky writes that the tour “convinced me of the opposite.”
Want to see the current condition of the stacks for yourself? Well, it’s hard to do… as the library wouldn’t allow Bernofsky to take photos so she might share what she saw:
I asked Mary Lee Kennedy [Chief Library Officer at NYPL] about the current status of the plan yesterday, and was told that it was still evolving and that she couldn’t reveal anything further about it. Although NYPL is a public institution, the plan has been shrouded in secrecy since its inception. In fact, there’s so much secrecy surrounding the plan and its progress that Kennedy … forbade me to take any photographs of the stacks during the tour. Why not? I asked, this is a public institution, what the stacks look like shouldn’t be a secret. Weine referred me to the NYPL’s “policy” prohibiting photography in the library’s “non-public spaces.” When I asked where I could find a record of that policy, it quickly became clear there wasn’t one. I guess NYPL leadership is afraid that if enough people see actual images of the stacks in their current state—they give an impression simultaneously of vastness and solidity—they might have too many questions about why in the world the library is proposing to tear them down.
Kelly Burdick is the former executive editor of Melville House.