Behind closed doors

On Thursday morning, 5 April 2012, I joined a group of writers and scholars who had been asked to tell the New York Public Library what we thought of the Central Library Plan, which I’ve recently been criticizing on this blog. There were eight other writers and scholars on the panel besides me; NYPL president Anthony Marx and research-library director Ann Thornton represented the library. Some of you may have been wondering why I haven’t reported the results of this meeting sooner. Alas, there’s a problem: I goofed.

I arrived at the meeting expecting to write about it afterward publicly. It’s a journalistic convention that if a public official knows you’re a journalist and you’re talking about public business, the comments are on the record, unless another agreement has been worked out before hand. So sure was I of my rights that I committed journalistic boner #1: I didn’t ask explicitly, at the start of the meeting, whether it was on the record. (I didn’t think the comments of my fellow panelists were on the record, by the way, only those of the library’s officers.) Then I compounded my error with journalistic boner #2: I asked for the sources’ retroactive permission. On Thursday evening I wrote an email to Anthony Marx and Ann Thornton, asking whether they had intended for their remarks to be on the record. On Friday afternoon, Anthony Marx wrote that he would abide by the understanding of those panelists who preferred to keep the meeting off the record (even though I hadn’t asked for permission to quote the remarks of those, or any, panelists). I tried to repair my gaffes on Monday morning, by proposing to Anthony Marx and Ann Thornton that I re-interview them, apart from the rest of the panel, in order to ask the same questions all over again, this time explicitly on the record. But Ann Thornton replied at the end of the day that she is away for the week and that Anthony Marx is “fully booked.”

So that’s why you haven’t heard from me about what happened at Thursday’s advisory meeting. My apologies for my boneheadedness. In the aftermath of the meeting, I have sent several follow-up questions to the administrators, asking for clarification about numbers given to the panel, especially where they seemed discrepant with other sources, and in the email in which she declined a re-interview, Ann Thornton wrote me that she hoped I would find answers to my questions in the library’s “next round of communications.”

Judging by this experience, I don’t think anyone should expect this advisory panel to have much investigative authority or capacity. I’ve pressed as hard as is consonant with civility, and I’m afraid I don’t have much to show for it publicly. I’ve been given private answers to some of my questions, but I worry that unless the answers are offered to the public, there’s no way to recruit outsiders to help fact-check them, and no way to hold the library accountable later for promises implicit in its reassurances.

The paradoxical thing about all this is that I thought the library made a stronger case in its Thursday meeting than ever before. The conflict over permission to quote has thrown me more or less back into my former skepticism, however. I’m trying to make an effort to see the problem apart from my personal frustrations here, but it may take me a few days. At the moment I’m feeling a little played.

Though I can’t share the library’s answers, I can still share my questions. Here’s a list that I circulated before the meeting:

Questions about the Central Library Plan

What’s the Central Library Plan for? What problem is it designed to solve? Isn’t there any way to solve it without jeopardizing the research mission of the library?

Why doesn’t the library consider alternative ways of building a new circulating library? For example, why not try to do with the Mid-Manhattan site something like what the Museum of Modern Art did when it expanded a few years ago? If there’s concern about shuttering the circulating library during renovation, why not use SIBL as a temporary site?

How much does the library expect to make by selling the Mid-Manhattan Building? By selling SIBL? How much would a gut-renovation of the Mid-Manhattan Building cost? The CLP would require the library to build much more space at its New Jersey storage facility. How much will that cost?

The library claims that the CLP will reduce operating expenses, but it also claims that the CLP will increase the number of square feet open to the public. Where exactly would the savings come from, then? Will services be reduced? Will staff be let go? If so, in which areas?

Is there an unused second floor of storage space in the Bryant Park Stack Extension? If so, why isn’t it being used? How much would it cost to make that space usable?

The Central Library Plan was conceived in 2008, when many hoped that Google Books would be able to make digital proxies of the books in the world’s libraries. But a federal judge struck down the Google Books deal last year, and copyright protection will keep the vast majority of the world’s books out of digital circulation for the foreseeable future. Shouldn’t the library adjust its plans and retain as many physical books onsite as it can?

The library’s research collection of books is unique in the world in size and scope. But access to computers is spreading rapidly through society; most coffee shops come with Wifi access. Isn’t it risky to shift the library’s focus from books to computer access? Shouldn’t what’s unique about the library remain the core of its identity?

When the library first introduced its Recap storage facility in 2000, books were delivered to 42nd Street within 24 hours. But delivery time soon slipped to 48 hours, and now many users report that it takes three to five days. Why is it reasonable to expect that the library will do any better in the future? Even if delivery speed does improve in the short term, won’t it be sacrificed the next time there’s a budget crisis at the library? (As I understand it, bar-coding isn’t likely to speed up delivery from offsite storage, because all books offsite have already been bar-coded. It was only books still at 42nd Street that until recently hadn’t been.)

The library says that it’s concerned that the 42nd Street stacks don’t adequately protect books. But Scott Sherman reports that in months and months of conversations that he had with NYPL staff members, in preparation for his article about the library for The Nation, no one mentioned to him any concerns about the stacks. Why is the library suddenly concerned? Exactly what standards is it concerned about? How urgent are these issues? Are there other ways to resolve them?

As part of the CLP, the library has suggested it will offer new workspace for writers and new funds for buying books and paying the salaries of bibliographers. But it isn’t necessary to remove 3 million books from the library in order to find room for 400 reserve shelves, which would only hold about 12,000 books. Can’t spaces like South Court or the former Slavic and Middle Eastern divisions be repurposed as writers’ spaces without any damage to the library’s research mission, and wouldn’t it be more thrifty to raise funds for books and for librarians’s salaries directly, rather than via a $350-million detour?

Update, April 10: In his remarks just now on the Leonard Lopate show, Anthony Marx put on the record a few facts and numbers that he had given to the advisory panel on Thursday:

  • The estimated cost of renovating the Mid-Manhattan Library is $150 million. (I’d guess that it’s probably not an accident that the City of New York is willing to contribute exactly this amount toward the Central Library Plan.) Renovating the building would probably require closing it for two years.
  • There are two floors to the Bryant Park Stack Extension, the storage facility underground and next to the 42nd Street building. Each floor is capable of holding 1.2 to 1.5 million volumes, but only one is currently outfitted for use. It would cost $20 million to outfit the second floor, and Marx points out that because an institution may only spend 5 percent of its endowment, a $20 million expenditure of capital represents a decrease of $1 million in yearly operating funds. My opinion: Short of rethinking the Central Library Plan in its entirety, this is probably the only element where a protest by scholars could win a significant compromise, and there needs to be significant debate about it.

Further update, April 11: In his essay on the Huffington Post blog, which was just brought to my attention, Anthony Marx puts on the record a little more information that was released at the advisory panel. He reveals that there will soon be Saturday delivery of offsite materials, and it will soon be possible to make offsite requests directly from the online catalog. He also seems to be committing the library quite strongly to keeping the research facility open until 11 pm and to providing 400 desks with reserve shelving for researchers.

3 thoughts on “Behind closed doors”

  1. No real journalist asks whether their sources want to be on the record. They identify themselves – "I'm a reporter with X" or "I am a blogger". That is all that's needed. Anything else is collaboration to hide information from the public (albeit, sometimes necessary under extraordinary situations).

    You striking a deal with your sources about what you will and not reveal to the public that relies solely on what might harm them would be a journalistic ethical lapse.

    The SPJ says: "Recognize a special obligation to ensure that the public's business is conducted in the open and that government records are open to inspection."

    The SPJ also says, "Avoid undercover or other surreptitious methods of gathering information except when traditional open methods will not yield information vital to the public. Use of such methods should be explained as part of the story."

    If you cannot get information through straightforward means, than "undercover or other surreptitious methods" are in fact perfectly ethical, so long as you explain how it went down.

    I suggest, unless they asked that their comments be kept secret at the outset, that you run their comments. They are public officials working in a public capacity.

  2. One word: You can get all kinds of "Google Books" on it, free.

    Now I understand the issues perfectly, so please don't lecture me about IP rights. But does, short term, level the playing field with monopolists like the NYC Public Library. This, coupled with the fact that adults are reading less and less, is what is behind the NYC administrators decision to cater to the hoi polloi foot traffic and do away with their scholars.

  3. RL: Well, for the record, I doubt that Pirate Bay has copies of the kind of books that scholars go to NYPL to find, which are neither contemporary nor popular (for better or worse, my own scholarly book doesn't seem to be in Pirate Bay, for example), and I don't see how NYPL can be described as a monopoly.

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