January 4, 2018
How to fight the richest people in New York and win: Lessons from the movement to save the New York Public Library
by Members of the Committee to Save the New York Public Library
It’s 2018! So far, so good. For the first few days of the year, we were on hiatus, revisiting favorite posts of 2017. Today, we’re back, but there’s one more dizzying high we’d like to revisit from the past twelve months. This fall, as we celebrated the paperback release of Patience and Fortitude, Scott Sherman’s account of the movement to save the beloved, beleaguered New York Public Library from trustees who, just before the financial crisis of 2008, had concocted a plan that included a $300 million renovation that would have forced millions of books off-site, and the selling off of substantial NYPL assets. Backing the plan was billionaire Stephen Schwarzman, a man who, when Barack Obama raised taxes on hedge-fund managers, compared the president to Adolf Hitler. But Schwarzman and the elite power players who had his back were eventually defeated by a team of committed, focused activists — writers, scholars, translators, and others.
In September, with no shortage of Trumpian Goliaths rising up to threaten ever more of the institutions we rely on, we checked back in with a number of the activists whose work Scott’s book documents. How, we asked, does the movement to save the NYPL look with a few years’ hindsight? What lessons might their experiences offer to activists taking stands against the powerful today?
The answers we got back amounted to a crash course in effective resistance, with plenty of agreement, plenty of disagreement, and more than enough well-informed opinions to go around. Originally published on September 26th.
It was unimaginable at the start of our campaign to save the NYPL that so many from such different backgrounds would take action together. The commitment and energy of the Committee to Save the NYPL and its allies reveals the power of aroused citizens and the peril they pose to public institutions with arrogant, insular leadership. Alone, not one of us could have faced down the wrong-headed policy of the library’s powerful trustees, but together we built a coalition that did exactly that.
The struggle was waged at forums and conferences, at social events and in the press. There were crucial actions taken in the courts and a grassroots effort to raise questions with politicians at all levels. We produced a carefully edited and information-rich website, fact-filled white papers, and cartoons that skewered the library’s misguided policies. This won over New Yorkers, while street demonstrations kept the pressure and the focus on the trustees through all manner of weather. Not all tactics were effective and there were internal squabbles along the way, but the variety of talents in our group allowed for action on many fronts. The asymmetry between that agility and the monolithic overconfidence of NYPL weighed heavily in the outcome.
Charles Warren is an architect and the co-author of Carrère & Hastings Architects, a monograph on the architects of the NYPL. His essay on the book stacks in the 42nd Street Library appears in The Classicist, No. 14, this year’s annual journal of the Institute of Classical Architecture and Art. He is the inaugural president of the Committee to Save the New York Public Library.
It’s terrific that the paperback of Scott Sherman’s book appears today. It’s a good antidote to Frederick Wiseman’s much touted and very disappointing film about the NYPL. There was a story to tell about citizens saving a public cultural resource from real estate developers — the one Wiseman misses. Sherman tells it, recounting in vivid detail the protest against the proposed transformation of the library into something that would have violated its history and function as a research institution whose resources are still (even in the digital age) books. I don’t think there was anything else our protest group could have done at the time, but there’s still the question of the stacks. We saved them from destruction, but they stand empty (the books having been moved to storage facilities outside of NYC and now also under Bryant Park). We are still campaigning to get books back into the stacks, as well as to protect some branch libraries from being lost to their communities as important cultural resources. The Committee to Save the NY Public Library lives on.
Joan Scott is a historian whose many publications include Gender: A Useful Category of Historical Analysis, Only Paradoxes to Offer: French Feminists and the Rights of Man, and The Politics of the Veil. Her work is considered a foundation of gender history, and she is a Professor Emerita at the Institute for Advanced Study in Princeton, NJ.
I think one main reason why the Committee to Save the NYPL was so successful is that the Central Library Plan failed to serve the public interest so plainly that a judge could easily see it. But the NYPL then hired a PR firm to make the public believe (e.g. through New York Times articles) that the library was “admitting defeat” and “giving in,” whereas in fact the Committee’s goal of getting the library to restore as many books as possible to the 42nd Street building was never attained. The NYPL now says that the storage areas under Bryant Park hold as many books as the seven floors of stacks once did — but in order to make that claim, the NYPL has greatly reduced its estimate of the number of books the stacks once held. And for us, the goal was always clear: to have as many books as possible stored in the building, which obviously should mean utilizing all the storage space in the stacks as well as the storage areas under Bryant Park. For some reason, the NYPL leadership seems opposed to storing books on-site, despite the expense (to taxpayers) of using a commercial storage facility in New Jersey and trucking the books back and forth. Of course, the more inconvenient it is to do research at the NYPL (and waiting a few days to receive each requested book from deep storage in NJ does indeed impede researchers’ work), the fewer people will do it, so eventually anyone who has other options will no longer be doing their research at the NYPL. Eventually, there won’t be many people left to decry the dearth of books, and the NYPL board will be able to do whatever construction projects they like at 42nd Street, along with their ongoing project of privatizing public property by selling off branch libraries to private companies. Meanwhile, the board is stacked with very wealthy people who work in finance and real estate. The NYPL’s PR firm proved successful at labeling the Committee an “elite group.” I wish we had been better able to parry that blow.
Susan Bernofsky directs the translation program at Columbia University’s School of the Arts. Her awards include the 2015 Independent Foreign Fiction Prize, the 2015 Oxford Weidenfeld Translation Prize, the 2015 Ungar Award for Literary Translation, the 2015 Schlegel-Tieck Prize, a Guggenheim Fellowship, the Helen and Kurt Wolff Translation Prize, and the Herman Hesse Translation Prize. She is at work on a biography of Robert Walser and blogs about translation at www.translationista.net.
Two issues underlay the fight against the NYPL’s Central Library Plan — the increasing influence of private wealth on the management of public institutions, and the massive and sometimes destructive social changes being wrought by digital media. The Central Library Plan was supposed to guide the future of a beloved public institution, yet it was created in secret. Its vision of the future was directed by the financiers and developers who dominate the NYPL’s Board. Not surprisingly, this vision focused on the short-term exploitation of the library’s real estate assets, and assumed that physical books were essentially a relic of the past, third-class citizens in a shiny and efficient digital world.
The lack of public participation in formulating the plan was its greatest weakness. People love their libraries, and as we got word out about the plan and how it had been created, reaction was almost uniformly negative. There was simply no constituency in favor of the plan, and by highlighting its extremely questionable financials we gave reporters and politicians the ammunition they needed to challenge it. As media coverage became increasingly focused and increasingly negative, the NYPL found itself in an untenable position.
Going forward, the library could take the lead by ensuring that its future policies result from a robust and public debate, but this seems unlikely to happen. Despite our efforts, city officials have failed to appoint representatives to the NYPL board who will ask hard questions and insist upon transparency and accountability. The City Council has likewise proved unwilling to use its “power of the purse” to insist on rigorous oversight. Unless the NYPL enables meaningful public participation in its policy-making process, it may be doomed to repeat the mistakes of the past.
Zack Winestine managed web activity for the Committee to Save the New York Public Library; he was also its police liaison, and managed multiple other responsibilities. He has just finished writing The Politics of Passion, a book about the avant-garde, fascism, and the relationship between passion and society.
We had a great success in stopping the so-called “Central Library Plan,” which would have turned the NYPL’s main 42nd Street building into a Norman Foster-ized travesty and seen the closing of the hugely popular Mid-Manhattan Library. It was as misguided a plan as they come. But: ours remains a measured victory because the books still haven’t won. Frederick Wiseman’s new documentary, “Ex Libris,” only underscores this point. As the New Yorker noted, the documentary is all about the library “reconfiguring itself for the digital age.” Books hardly appear at all. But ask virtually any researcher, and he or she will tell you how much books—not just digital information—matter. Books remain at the very heart of scholarly research. And the future would appear to be stacked against books, much less books in the stacks of the main New York Public Library building. More and more consortia are being created to share resources — which means that millions of books are now held off-site and can also disappear into academic offices for months on end, out of public access. In the process, the independent researcher and scholar is being overlooked. I think all of these new initiatives, as compelling as they may be, have to be revisited in light of the one essential rule upon which the New York Public Library was founded: “Equal access for all.”
Annalyn Swan is a writer. Her 2004 biography de Kooning: An American Master, co-written with Mark Stevens, was awarded the Pulitzer Prize, the National Book Critics Circle Award, the LA Times Book Prize, and the Ambassador Book Award.
The library campaign was a wonderful example of how a quite small movement can prevail against far more powerful forces by combining a wide range of pressure tactics, from legal action to lobbying elected officials to colorful street protests, and being nimble enough to change direction when circumstances warrant. The ultimate key to winning the NYPL fight was shifting the focus to highlight a crucial potential casualty of the deal that had been almost completely overlooked: the Mid-Manhattan Library, which was due to be sold and replaced by a luxury office tower at the same time that the research stacks at the main library were gutted.
The Mid-Manhattan may be the most heavily used branch library in the United States, but it lacks any of the romance or charm of the research library across Fifth Avenue; early on, no one was speaking up in its defense. But as long as its fate was ignored and the fight was framed as principally about scholarship and preserving the stacks, we were destined to be painted as nose-in-the-air elitists — and to lose. Of course, because it had been scholars who had launched and led the fight to save the NYPL, this shift was somewhat awkward within the ranks of the groups that came together in the fight. Once we made it, though, we were able to rally not just the general public but also key elected officials and labor and community leaders to our side, sinking the destructive deal.
L.A. Kauffman was a co-founder of the Library Lovers League, one of the groups involved in the New York Public Library fight. She is a longtime grassroots organizer and the author of Direct Action: Protest and the Reinvention of American Radicalism, recently published by Verso.
Patience and Fortitude is out now in paperback. Buy your copy here, or at your neighborhood independent bookstore.
The Committee to Save the New York Public Library is a volunteer organization that advocates for transparency and reform in the governance of the New York Public Library, restoration and strengthening of the NYPL’s research libraries, and the preservation and enhancement of its extensive network of lending libraries. Its story is told in Scott Sherman’s Patience and Fortitude. More information is available here.