January 7, 2013

Notebook heiress gives $5 million to the NYPL Branch Libraries … because the NYPL Administration sure ain’t going to do it


Part of Norman Foster’s plan for the renovated library.

The most surprising angle of the news that Mary McConnell Bailey, an heiress who willed a large chunk of her fortune derived from Roaring Spring Paper Products — otherwise known to students everywhere as the makers of those black-and-white marbled notebooks whose covers could be colored in for hours, for the maximally obsessive and bored — to the New York Public Library was the fact that Bailey stipulated that half of the gift be dedicated to the branch libraries. Which is the first time the question of the branch libraries has come up in NYPL discussions for quite a bit, while the Central Library Plan has been under debate this year (see early MobyLives posts about it here, here, and here).

Scott Sherman made the case for bringing the focus back to the branches in his article about the CLP in The Nation in December 2011, after a trip he took with Anthony Marx, president of Library, to visit four libraries uptown, which were heavily used and in need of renovation and new resources:

A few weeks earlier, sitting in Marx’s office, I had asked whether a significant portion of the $250–$350 million designated for the Central Library Plan should go instead to the eighty-seven branch libraries. I could see the annoyance in his eyes as he replied, “I won’t sacrifice what those branches can do for the opulence of Forty-second Street.” But Marx didn’t say how he would get the money to fully renovate the branches, which need a lot of help: for instance, the famed Jefferson Market Library in the heart of Greenwich Village has been encased by scaffolding for ten years; that branch has no public restrooms. A staff member there told me that a shortage of money explains the glacial pace of the renovation.

Marx’s apparent intellectual loyalty to the branches has not so far, however, produced any noticeable results. The entire New York Public Library system was spared a series of major budget cuts earlier this year: Mayor Bloomberg’s original plan proposed cutting $96 million, around 32% of the total library budget, but $90 million of that was restored in June, staving off library closures and drastically reduced hours at remaining locations, as Meredith Schwartz at Library Journal reported at the time. The new budget also threw in $100 million for the renovation of the main branch, which suggests to me that the library is being offered something of a chance, i.e. “take this and do something nice with it.”

But an investment in the Schwarzman Building — an investment whose sources and final cost seems to be, as Caleb Crain points out in his most recent blog post on the CLP, moving targets at the moment — does nothing for the long-term financial security of the branches, and it’s these libraries that Marx himself grew up using, that Mary McConnell Bailey used — she was apparently a regular at the East 58th Street library — and wanted to help preserve. If you want to talk about the library’s relevance to all of New York’s citizens, you can’t ignore the libraries that are actually closest to them, in distance, affection, and cold hard usage. The NYPL’s own annual report demonstrates the pattern of use: 15 million patrons at the branch libraries in 2011, two and a half million at the research libraries. All the sunbeams pouring through all the multi-story glass windows of the Norman Foster CLP design aren’t going to do shit for the 125th Street branch five years down the road. (And incidentally, those glass windows make me wonder whether Foster knows anything about either a. book preservation and b. computer screen glare.)

If the Mid-Manhattan Library is in as bad shape as the NYPL administration claims it is, why not sell it, secure the storage facilities at the Schwarzman Building, so that it can indeed remain the great research library it has been, and invest the rest of the savings in the branches? As fewer readers turn to a centralized circulating collection to borrow books, with e-borrowing possibilities slowly, slowly getting worked out, a hydra-headed main branch with a fancy backside starts sounding a whole lot like a Science, Industry, and Business Library in the making — in other words, a library the system as a whole will discover it can’t afford and no longer needs.




Sal Robinson is a former Melville House editor. She's also the co-founder of the Bridge Series, a reading series focused on translation.