A New Plan for the New York Public Library

In 2008, the trustees and administrators of the New York Public Library came up with a bold idea. The future of the e-book looked bright and the use of the library's print books had been steadily declining, so they proposed shipping at least 3 million of the 5 million books in its 42nd Street research library to storage in New Jersey. Into the vacated space, they hoped to fold the Mid-Manhattan Library (MML) and the Science, Industry, and Business Library (SIBL). The cost of the dismantling and construction looked high—the current estimate is well over $300 million—but the library expected to be able to sell the real estate occupied by MML and SIBL in order to help pay for it. The economic downturn of late 2008, however, forced the plan into cold storage.

This February, as real estate prices began to recover, they pulled the plan out of cryo. It wakes up into a different world. E-books may be a hit with readers, but at the moment few major publishers are willing to license e-books to libraries, and last year a federal judge struck down a deal that might have allowed Google Books to provide digital copies of books whose copyright owners can't be found. Until Congress passes a new copyright law—don't hold your breath for that—researchers remain dependent on ink-on-paper books, even if they prefer electronic ones. In fact, in the years since 2007, the use of ink-on-paper books at the library's 42nd Street branch has been stable and steady, according to the library's own statistics. Surprise: 2012 doesn't look quite like what the futurologists of 2008 predicted.

Is it really necessary therefore to compromise the architecture of a landmark building? Is it necessary to damage the library's research mission by drastically lowering the number of books within quick reach? I haven't been alone in wondering whether the Central Library Plan (CLP), as it's called, still makes sense. A petition is circulating that asks the library's trustees to reconsider, and it's been signed by Thomas Bender, Peter Brooks, Judith Butler, Natalie Zemon Davis, Jonathan Galassi, Anthony Heilbut, Jackson Lears, Jonathan Lethem, David Levering-Lewis Mario Vargas Llosa, Salman Rushdie, Lorin Stein, and hundreds more. I've written previously on this blog about my doubts of the CLP's alleged merits and about my dismay at the prospect of degrading a research library into a mere book-lending service for local academics. In this post, I'd like to suggest a way out—an alternative plan.

What if the library chose to sell only one property—the site of the Science, Industry, and Business Library—but before doing so, used it as a temporary home for the Mid-Manhattan Library while that building was being renovated? I'll go into detail below, but let me say at once that I'm sure my alternative plan can easily be improved. Please consider it a rough draft. I offer it only as a means of suggesting that there must be other ways to achieve the library's goals.

What are those goals? As far as I can tell, the CLP offers three boons. First, it would upgrade the Mid-Manhattan Library, the flagship of the city's circulating libraries, which is in bad need of repair. More New Yorkers check books out from the Mid-Manhattan Library than any other branch in the system. Renovating the MML seems to me to be the best part of the CLP—maybe the only part that's unambiguously a good thing. The funding of the circulating libraries is the city's responsibility, and I doubt it's a coincidence that the amount that the city has agreed to contribute to the CLP—$150 million—is equal to the estimated stand-alone cost of renovating the Mid-Manhattan. In my opinion, spending $350 million to do a $150 million renovation isn't the way to go about it, but I do believe that the renovation is worth doing.

Second, library administrators have claimed that the CLP's consolidation of three buildings into one will save the library around $10 million a year in operating expenses. However, administrators also claim that the plan will increase the number of square feet open to the public, they haven't named any services they expect to cut, and many of the costs of operating the buildings have long been footed by the city, which reexamines its contribution to the library every budget cycle with an eye toward lowering it. It's difficult, in other words, to know how solid this benefit is likely to be. Its exact size may also depend on whether the library is able to raise enough funds for the plan so that some portion of the money realized by the real estate sales can be added to the endowment. It's worth keeping in mind, when considering this part of the benefit, that donors might be as willing to contribute to an alternative plan as they are to the CLP.

Third, the library's administrators have recently begun to say that the books stored at 42nd Street are not being well cared for and will be safer in storage in New Jersey. Indeed, the temperature, light, and humidity controls at the New Jersey facility are state of the art. There is nothing structurally wrong with the bookshelves at the heart of the 42nd Street building, though—to the contrary, they hold up the Rose reading room above them—and the library did install heating, ventilation, and air conditioning systems in the 1980s. Still, improved preservation conditions do constitute a benefit and are worth taking into account.

Are there ways for the library to achieve some or all of these three goods without damaging its architecture or its research mission?

An alternative path to construction

This suggestion involves a three-step plan.

1. Give SIBL a temporary home inside the 42nd Street building.

At the moment there's a great deal of space in the 42nd Street building not being used to full advantage, including the Salomon room, the south wing of the second floor, the rooms that formerly housed the Slavic & Baltic and Asian & Middle Eastern divisions, and the South Court.

The Science, Industry, and Business Library (SIBL) was conceived of as a research library when it launched a little more than a decade ago. Its research collections have been little used since, however, and much of the space is now given over to computer training and job-search assistance. A permanent home can be found for the research functions—the original nugget of SIBL—in the 42nd Street building, and a temporary home can be found there for the computer training and job-search elements of its current mission.

2. House the Mid-Manhattan Library in SIBL's old building while Mid-Manhattan is renovated.

Once the functions of SIBL have been shifted into the 42nd Street building, SIBL's building can be re-outfitted as the temporary home of the Mid-Manhattan Library for two years, the time needed for the Mid-Manhattan site to be renovated. Defenders of the CLP have expressed concern that the city will renege on its support if the CLP is tampered with in any way. I think that sells city officials short. Why wouldn't they remain willing to pay the $150 million cost of the Mid-Manhattan's renovation even if the library comes up with a different way of doing it? If zoning laws—or the political will to alter them—permit, a basement-to-rooftop renovation of the Mid-Manhattan Library could add space. Maybe a little space: enough to house the computer training and job search programs formerly at SIBL. Mabye a lot: enough to lease out extra floors for commercial uses, improving the library's longterm bottom line. Even if no space can be added, a gut renovation will surely allow for a more rational use of the space in Mid-Manhattan and greater efficiencies.

3. Sell SIBL's old building.

Once the renovation of Mid-Manhattan is complete, the site of the former Science, Industry, and Business Library can be sold, and the proceeds can be added to the library's endowment. True, the library's trustees will only realize the value of selling one building, not two as in the CLP, but instead of spending $350 million, they'll only be spending $150 million plus the cost of temporarily re-outfitting SIBL. (If that cost turns out to be prohibitively high, there might be less-expensive places to house MML during its renovation. Perhaps additional floors could be rented in the building where the new Donnell is to go?) The $150 million renovation, moreover, will likely be covered by the city. Even if private donors contribute no funds at all to this alternative plan—an unlikely eventuality; are donors going to be mad at the library for having realized that ink-on-paper books are important after all?—this alternative might well result in a larger contribution to the library's endowment than the CLP could deliver. Meanwhile, after SIBL is closed, three buildings will be consolidated into two, realizing a significant portion of the operational efficiencies offered by the CLP. If you add together the alternative plan's contribution to the endowment (possibly larger than the CLP's) and its improvement of operational efficiencies (probably smaller than the CLP's), you get an impact on the library's annual bottom line comparable to that proposed by the CLP. (It's impossible, unfortunately, to do the arithmetic with any amount of precision until the library releases the numbers underlying its own calculations.)

Other ways to improve the research library

The following suggestions are stand-alones, and many could be adopted even if the library bulldozes ahead with the CLP.

1. Give every researcher who wants one a reserve shelf

Once the new Mid-Manhattan is open, job-search and computer-training programs can move into it, and there will once again be a great deal of space in the 42nd Street building not used to full capacity. The CLP calls for assigning much of that space to scholars and researchers, to be used as writing spaces. That's a great idea, but I have two reservations. First, if the library continues its Marli program, which allows research books to be checked out, there will eventually be few serious researchers who want to work onsite. The NYPL will come to resemble university libraries, whose users expect the finding of books to be a chore and therefore hoard books in compensation. Serious researchers will visit to pick their books up, but there won't be much reason for them to stick around. After all, the advantages of working onsite in a research library—reliable, nearly instant access to the collection—will have been lost. My second reservation: assigning special places to a limited number of writer-researchers is in conflict with the public mission of the New York Public Library. The library already does have special writing spaces, of course: the Wertheim room is for anyone working on a long-term project, the Allen room for anyone with a signed book contract, and the Cullman Center is the home of a competitive fellowship. But the Cullman Center, which awards a stipend, only admits a few people each year, and there are long waiting lists for the Allen and Wertheim rooms.

Meanwhile, the affordances of these rooms aren't really optional to serious research at the NYPL any more. Supporters of the CLP have accused critics like me of failing to realize that offsite storage is inevitable, given the explosion in the number of titles published and the finite nature of Manhattan real estate. That's not true in my own case. I recognize that offsite storage is inevitable. In fact, I've been working with and around the NYPL's offsite system for more than a decade. It's a real pain, but it's become a fact of life, and I've come to realize that the best weapon against the delay and inefficiency caused by offsite storage is a reserve shelf. If you can order a few dozen books on your topic from offsite and hold them for a month or two, the damage is minimized. Upstairs in the Rose reading room, though, a researcher can only put three books on reserve for a week at a time. Three books! I've worked under those conditions. It's very hard to do serious research three books at a time, and it's nearly impossible if, the moment you return the fourth book, it boards a truck to New Jersey.

It would be easy to remedy the problem. If the library's administrators really wanted to, they could do so tomorrow. Sit in the Rose reading room and look up: there's a balcony running all along the room's interior, currently closed to the public. This balcony now houses, among other things, the black volumes of the NYPL's printed catalog (still sometimes useful, but there's an accessible copy in the catalog room next-door) and the green volumes of the National Union Catalog (oudated and immensely bulky, and crying out to be sent to New Jersey). In other words, the shelves on the balcony are prime real estate, not well deployed. What if the stairs to it were opened to the public, and what if the shelves were cleared, numbered, and assigned on a rotating basis to researchers? It should be a "permeable" reserve, like the system currently in place in the Allen, Wertheim, and Cullman rooms: that is, if someone else in the library wants a book on your shelf, a librarian will fetch it for them, unless you happen to be reading it at exactly that moment. When you want the book again, you just ask for it back. What if it were possible to arrange online for the setup of such a shelf, a day or a week in advance of visiting the library, and ask for books to be delivered to the shelf in advance as well? Then a researcher would be able to hit the ground running. Probably a large number of people would sign up for the shelves when they debuted, but if you set the shelves up to expire automatically if no new books have been requested after, say, a month, they'd turn over quickly and I doubt that the library would run out of shelf space. Since no books on these reserve shelves would be leaving the Rose reading room, and all users of them would be in an open, well-patrolled space, there would be no security issues beyond those that already obtain in the Rose.

2. Give local faculty and graduate students special working areas.

What to do then with the smaller rooms on the second floor of the 42nd Street building? Please consider this element of my proposal very speculative. Despite my concern about the Marli program, it does allow scholars who go through NYPL access to Columbia and NYU's collections, and it would be nice to preserve that access. The trouble is that Columbia and NYU share with the rest of the human race the regrettable trait of selfishness. What's in it for them? Their faculty, as members of the public, are already able to use every service that NYPL provides, so in exchange for granting NYPL users access to their collections, the current bargain gives them something more: the right to take NYPL books out of the building. As I've explained before, I fear that in the long term the ability to take books out of the research collection will alter the culture of the research library for the worse.

What if, instead, NYPL were to offer its Marli collaborators something different? Maybe they could offer some of those beautiful rooms sitting empty in the south wing of the library's second floor, for example. What if, in exchange for Marli access, NYPL granted Columbia's and NYU's faculty and graduate students special reading rooms with reserve shelves, much like the Allen and Wertheim rooms today? No books would leave the building. As elsewhere, the reserve shelves would be permeable. There would be privacy in these rooms, but since the users would have been vetted by their home universities, the privacy wouldn't create security issues any greater than those that currently obtain in the Allen and Wertheim rooms. I see the obvious objection: it's hardly in accordance with the NYPL's democratic, public mission to give away space to private institutions. This is a fair objection, but the benefit that Marli offers to the public—access to Columbia and NYU's research collections for free—is substantial, and I think you could argue that the bargain would be worth it. Moreover, it's in the NYPL's interest, in the long term, to cultivate working relationships with scholars at local institutions, and such an agreement might go far to solidifying those relationships. Would Columbia and NYU go for it? Would they be willing to let NYPL's users check out their books in exchange for special rooms at the NYPL? I don't know, and that's one reason this suggestion is highly speculative. (For the record: It's been half a dozen years since I taught at Columbia, and I would not personally benefit from this suggestion.)

A further thought: The most avid users of the Marli program are the graduate students and faculty of CUNY, and CUNY has a special claim of the library's resources, because it's a creation of the city, whose support for the library is old and deep. I'd therefore argue that CUNY faculty and graduate students, too, should be given a dedicated reading room in the library with reserve shelves.

In short: Mend Marli, don't end it. Instead of giving collaborating institutions the right to remove books from the building, give their faculty and grad students a special reason to come to the building and work there.

3. Activate the second floor of the Bryant Park Stack Extension.

If the library's administrators refuse to alter the CLP, the least they can do is mitigate its impact. When the Bryant Park Stack Extension (BPSE) was first built, space was dug, and concrete poured, for two floors. Only one of the floors was ever outfitted for use; it's now estimated to hold 1.2 million to 1.5 million books. If the library goes through with the CLP, the number of books onsite will drop from 5 million to 2 million. But if the second floor of BPSE were outfitted, the drop would only be from 5 million to 3.2 million.

If the 42nd Street building left intact, the second floor's state-of-the-art preservation conditions could become the home of any materials currently in the stacks and considered especially vulnerable. (Of course, vulnerable items could be shifted into the already existing floor, too. And there are other potential remedies to the administrators' concern about heat, light, and humidity in the stacks: the HVAC system could be upgraded, and UV filters could be added to the west-facing windows.)

Since I'm blue-skying, I'll throw out one more idea. What if the second floor of the Bryant Park Stack Extension were Mansueto-ized?

4. Experiment with new shelving algorithms.

In the days before computers, a book's call number told you where it was. If you had the call number, the way to find it was to look on a map and see where books with that call number were shelved. A librarian could move a whole array of books with the same call number, so long as she updated the maps, but she couldn't move a single book from one place to another unless she altered its call number—or else she'd lose it. In preparation for the CLP, the library has at last undertaken to put bar codes on all the books in its collection. Once the bar-coding is complete, it will for the first time be possible to separate a book's call number from its location. The bar code on a book will become its most important reference point, and it will be possible to place the book anywhere so long as the computer catalog is told its new location.

The library is already taking advantage of this separability. If you browse through books in the JFD call range, you'll see that although most books published more than twenty years ago have already left the building in anticipation of the CLP's implementation, books with neighboring call numbers that were published more recently are being allowed to stay. This book-by-book individuation is only possible because the computer catalog is being relied on to remember which books are where. The call number alone no longer tells you.

Here's another possibility: Suppose that whenever an offsite book is returned, the computer catalog remembers the date and time of its return and categorizes it for a year as being stored on a special range of shelves in the 42nd Street building with a name like "Ready Recall." As offsite books are returned, the physical books are added to the Ready Recall shelf in the order in which they are returned, and a librarian marks the end of the day by inserting a divider of some kind into the bookshelf. If anyone later wants a book in Ready Recall, the computer spits out the date and time of the book's last return, which tells the librarian where in the Ready Recall shelf it is. After a year, any book still on the Ready Recall shelf in its original position is returned to offsite storage, and the catalog is updated to change its location from "Ready Recall" to "Offsite." But in the meantime, any offsite book used in the past year is available onsite, quickly.

It might be that books requested from offsite are rarely requested again—in which case this suggestion of mine isn't worth the bother. But I suspect that books requested from offsite are more likely than other offsite books to be requested again—in which case my suggestion would minimize to-and-fro and reduce delivery delays.

5. Allow NYPL staff to speak freely.

Perhaps the most upsetting discovery I've made in the course of blogging about the CLP is that the New York Public Library powerfully discourages its staff from speaking freely. I did not expect, when I started voicing my concerns, to be receiving emails from library staff members who explained that they were writing under pseudonyms, from email accounts that they earnestly hoped were untraceable. I've been told that departing staff members are often required to sign gag orders in order to receive their severance packages. The library could take a small step toward opening up—humanizing, even—its management culture by unilaterally declaring that it considers all such gag orders unenforceable. To free up the staff currently working at the library, and to tap the full value of their intellectual capacity, the administrators will have to do more than make declarations. They will have to work for years to regain their trust.

Please keep in mind, as debate continues, that the library's culture of secrecy has made it hard for me and other critics to find answers to basic questions about the CLP. I repeatedly asked library administrators to break down for me where they expected the savings from consolidation to come from, to no avail. I repeatedly asked them to clarify how they're counting the books in the building, also to no avail. I expect that some of the suggestions that I've made in this post will turn out to be impossible to implement because of facts that the library has chosen not to disclose.

6. Set up a permanent advisory committee of scholars and writers.

If Columbia University had proposed removing the stacks at the core of its Butler library, or if Harvard had proposed the same for its Widener library, the faculty would have revolted. But the people in charge of those libraries would never have made such proposals, because they're in touch with the scholars who use them. When librarians at those institutions need to move books offsite—and I repeat that I understand that offsite storage is a necessity, for as much of the history of the printed book as remains to be lived through—they consult the professors expert in each field before they do so. Rather late in the game, the NYPL is trying to make such a consultation now, through the advisory panel that I was briefly a member of. But my own experience with that panel suggests to me that the administrators aren't entirely sure whether they're conducting a conversation or a public-relations exercise, and in any case, an ad hoc panel convened in a crisis is inadequate. The library needs a permanent advisory panel to keep its administrators and trustees in touch with the researchers who use it. How many members it should have, how long they should serve, whether outside organizations like the American Council of Learned Societies or the American Historical Association should appoint the members—these are questions to be worked out by people who know more about such entities than I do. All I know is that the library needs such a panel, and that the panel should have a measure of self-governance and a guarantee of free expression.