December 5, 2011

New York Public Library to store 3 million books… in New Jersey


A “gargantuan” and potentially controversial renovation of the New York Public Library’s iconic Stephen A. Schwarzman library is afoot, according to a must-read report by Scott Sherman in The Nation. What’s more: to pay for the project, deemed the Central Library Plan (CLP), the NYPL intends to sell two major library facilities, the “Mid-Manhattan branch library on Fortieth Street, and the Science, Industry and Business Library on Thirty-fourth Street.” It’s a shocking move, especially the closing of the Science, Industry and Business Library, one of New York’s four research libraries, which was opened in 1996 after a $100 million investment.

The plan calls for the services now provided by the lending library on 40th street to be transferred to the Schwarzman building. To make space, the Schwarzman book “stacks” will be removed, with the books moving to “two colossal storage facilities: one behind the library below Bryant Park, the other in Princeton, New Jersey.” According to Sherman:

The centerpiece of the CLP—expected to cost anywhere from $250 million to $350 million—is the construction of a state-of-the-art, computer-oriented library designed by British architect Norman Foster, in the vast interior of the Schwarzman Building. To make space for this library within the library, the seven levels of original stacks beneath the third-floor Rose Reading Room—stacks that hold 3 million books and tens of thousands of adjustable and fixed shelves—will be demolished (the exterior of the building is landmarked; the stacks are not). When the new library is completed, patrons will be able to leave the building with borrowed books and other materials; for decades, those materials had to be used inside the library.

Sherman cites several scholars and librarians responding to the project.

Charles Warren, a Manhattan architect who co-wrote a 2006 book about Carrère and Hastings [architects of the Schwarzman building], says, “The building is a machine for reading books in. The stacks are part of what the building is. There’s an idea there: that the books are in the center and they rise up out of that machine into the reading room to serve the people. It’s a whole conception that will be turned on its head by ripping out the stacks. It’s a terrible thing to do.” New York-based scholars also express concern about demolishing the stacks. David Levering-Lewis, an NYU historian twice awarded the Pulitzer Prize, says, “We would need to review that very carefully, and perhaps resist it.”

Others, notably Robert Darnton, director of the Harvard University Library and an NYPL trustee, say the plan is good—especially in that it makes “room for computers and public spaces where users can talk with one another.”

What’s the public reaction? Well, there isn’t one… not yet. As Sherman notes in his piece, “NYPL executives may be keen to serve the public, but they are not so keen to engage it. Many aspects of the CLP remain cloaked in secrecy, and top NYPL staff imparted details of the plan only with great reluctance.”

Kelly Burdick is the former executive editor of Melville House.