January 27, 2014

New York Public Library: sign our petition, but don’t read it too closely….


NYPL-exteriorAnother week, another chapter in the fight over The New York Public Library’s divisive Central Library Plan.

On January 16, patrons of the library received an email from Theresa Myrhol, “Director, Library Services, Stephen A. Schwarzman Building,” asking them to sign a petition to “remind city leaders… including Mayor de Blasio, Speaker Mark-Viverito, and the City Council,” to support NYPL. The library’s “88 branches” were highlighted, as was the library’s “long history of serving our city with free books, author readings, classes, homework help, English as a Second Language classes, and more.”

But buried near the end the appeal was a line highlighting the library’s desire for a “renovated central branch library that provides longer hours, additional public space, and more resources for children, teens, teachers, and job seekers.”

As the New York Post reported yesterday, this line of solicitation has led to charges that the library’s appeal was intentionally misleading—particularly since it makes no mention “that two branches, including the Mid-Manhattan Library, would be sold off” to implement the Central Library Plan. Moreover, “Under the plan, the library would also get rid of the landmark main branch’s seven levels of historic book stacks.”

The paper quotes New York Assemblyman Micah Kellner (D-Manhattan) on the petition: “This is truly an example of ­Orwellian doublespeak.”

According to post by the Committee to Save the New York Public Library, even the phrase “central branch library” is a deception:

“Central Branch Library” is an intentionally camouflaged reference to the 42nd Street Library. The [email appeal] provides no indication of the destructive consequences of this so-called “renovation” – the irreparable  harm to the 42nd Street Research Library, the loss of the Mid-Manhattan as a free-standing library and its shrinkage into a much smaller and ill-suited space never designed to hold a circulating library.

Because “renovated central branch library” is never defined, people reading the appeal will not realize it refers to the 42nd Street Library and to the Central Library Plan. NYPL simply made the name up; “central branch library” appears nowhere else in the entire NYPL website.

It’s a striking confirmation of the Plan’s unpopularity that the NYPL has to make use of such deceptive language in an attempt to create an appearance of support.

The group is encouraging anyone who signed the petition to consider contacting Johannes Neuer, the acting director of engagement at NYPL, to have their name removed from the petition.

The heavy-handed solicitation hints at something that has been obvious to library critics for some time: there is little popular support for the library’s $350 million plan, but there has been a significant and effective opposition.

Indeed, until a library advocacy group, Urban Librarians Unite, reluctantly came out in favor of the Central Library Plan, there was little identifiable support from forces unconnected to the library. To cite just a couple of examples: a prominent defense of the library’s plan in the New York Review of Books was written… by a trustee. And a Vanity Fair report on the controversy over the plan was written by…. an architectural adviser of the library. And whenever critics have spoken out in prominent venues, library officials—particularly Anthony Marx, the library’s president—have quickly responded with what they see as the merits of the plan and the near impossibility of alternatives.

The polarizing and deceptive nature of Theresa Myrhol’s email appeal smells, to my nose, of professional lobbyists, who need to be able to point to community support in order to deliver a $150 million pledge from the city for the Central Library Plan.

Might the appeal in fact be the skulduggery of The Parkside Group, which accepted $25,000 in October to help the library sell its plans?

Parkside, which call itself “New York’s leading public affairs firm” and specializes in government relations, is sure to understand the difficulties of getting city money for a project that the mayor has opposed on the record.

Indeed, generating support for an unpopular plan was Parkside’s brief when it accepted a contract with NYPL:

Opposition to the library plan, which calls for creating a circulating library in the area now occupied by stacks, has arisen “from a loose coalition of scholars opposed to circulation returning to the 42d St. building and anti-development activists,” the contract says. “These opponents have attracted some press coverage and some support from elected officials and prominent New Yorkers. Therefore the library seeks public affairs representation in order to build support for their innovative model with key stakeholders.”



Kelly Burdick is the former executive editor of Melville House.