May 30, 2013

Malcolm Gladwell wonders if historic NYC library wouldn’t be better sold off as “luxury condos”


In a BookExpo appearance on Wednesday, bestselling author Malcolm Gladwell attacked the New York Public Library’s controversial “Central Library Plan,” calling the historic, Carrère & Hastings-designed 42nd Street library a “massive money sink of a mausoleum” and questioning the library’s plan to spend $300 million transforming the building to house NYPL’s mid-Manhattan branch.

(For more on the NYPL’s plans, see our previous reports on the Central Library Plan: about the fuss, the cost, and the alternatives.)

Gladwell joins a host of prominent critics of the library’s plans. Per this Huffington Post report, Gladwell, while in conversation with Bloomberg Businessweek writer Brad Stone at the International Digital Publishing Forum at BEA, noted that:

Every time I turn around, there’s some new extravagant renovation going on in the main building. Why? In my mind, the New York Public Library should be focused on keeping small libraries open, on its branches all over the city…. Luxury condos would look wonderful there. Go back into the business of reaching people who do not have access to books. And that is not on the corner of 42nd and Fifth [Avenue].

As Huffington Post notes, Gladwell has previously been a major supporter of the library: “In 2009, the author was the guest speaker at the NYPL President’s Council Spring Dinner, an event for those who donate $25,000 and above to the library.”

Though many other prominent writers have come out against the library’s plans, none that I know of has taken such a dim view of the historic 42nd Street building. Indeed, criticism of the NYPL’s plans has focused on the wisdom of demolishing a historic piece of the 42nd library: its massive but rarely seen book stacks.

For Gladwell, however, the historic building itself (and presumably its invaluable research collection) is a suck on resources that could be better spent on the branch libraries—with, though it seems he’s joking, the historic building sold off to a condo developer. Ironically, it’s the research collection and the historic building that groups like The Committee to Save the New York Public Library most want to preserve.

But Gladwell is not alone is questioning the wisdom of massive spending on the midtown libraries. The Nation’s Scott Sherman, the first reporter to write in depth about the Central Library Plan, early on questioned the impact the library’s marquee project would have on the NYPL’s branch libraries. And further spending in midtown is indeed a worthy topic for debate: it’s an increasingly corporate neighborhood, with prices that have forced out most New York natives.

But perhaps Gladwell is just showing up late to this debate with a streak of contrarianism. After all, his core question is a good one: why the massive spending on such a project? And, isn’t there a better way for the library to spend its resources?


Kelly Burdick is the former executive editor of Melville House.