June 27, 2013

Public hearing to shine a light on Central Library Plan


A public hearing in New York on Thursday called by State Assembly Member Micah Kellner, Chair of the Committee on Libraries and Education Technology, will put the focus on an aspect of the New York Public Library’s Central Library Plan that has been part of the discussion since the plan was first proposed, but began to receive added publicity last week when Stephen Schwarzman, whose $100 million gift to the library in 2008 got him his name on the 42nd St branch, was interviewed by Charlie Rose.  The video of the interview here, and the library discussions begin around minute 8:10.

When Rose asked Schwarzman about his decision to make that donation, Schwarzman’s answer pulled back the curtain a bit on how and why we’ve gotten where we are: with plans for public libraries that are hatched in secret, pushed through without public consultation, and then, when they go over budget or fail in other ways, for which no one is held particularly accountable.

Schwarzman said that when he gave the $100 million to the NYPL, he was confident that it’d be used in ways he approved of, because he already knew what the NYPL was going to do with it. He knew because he was on the library’s board, and what the library board was up to in 2007 was hiring consulting firms to advise them on— quoting Schwarzman here— “reconfiguring the library system” to “create a modern lending library, deliver better services, and put themselves in better financial shape.”

MobyLives has been covering the criticism of the CLP this past year, criticism which breaks down exactly why the plan may not accomplish any of the above goals, and why it may in addition endanger the integrity of the building, make irrevocable changes in an architectural masterpiece, seriously damage the branch’s research mission, and involve the site in a years-long construction when there are other viable options for the lending functions of the library. Past posts are here, here, here, here, and here.

But none of this has made a dent on the playmakers at the NYPL, whose main interests seem to be in real estate (though they’ve been surprisingly bad at predicting how much the NYPL would make from these sales— the SIBL sale was supposed to, according the CLP, net $100 million, but when five floors of it were sold last year, it only brought in $60 million) and high-profile building projects.

This kind of decision-making process—which Schwarzman describes in particularly smarmy terms as “the way these things tend to work”— may be a feature of the public-private partnership that characterizes the New York library system, where the research branches are largely sustained by private funding and the circulating libraries are supported by city funding. But it seems more than fair at this point to start asking some questions about how private investors are handling institutions intended for public use.

The hearing Thursday will focus specifically on the sale of New York library buildings to private developers, which may yet prove to be the weak point in the NYPL administration’s defense of its dealings. It’s open to the public and starts at 10:30 am, at 250 Broadway, Room 1923. Representatives from a number of the groups who’ve been protesting the plan, including the Committee to Save the NYPL and Citizens Defending Libraries, will be there to testify.


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