Finding numbers for Plan B

On Friday, 8 June 2012, I attended a meeting at the New York Public Library’s 42nd Street building for alumni of the Cullman Center for Scholars and Writers, where the library administrators Tony Marx and Ann Thornton answered questions about the controversial Central Library Plan, which I and a number of others oppose. The meeting was on the record, and the administrators released several new pieces of information. The next day, I sent follow-up questions by email, which Ann Thornton answered on June 14. Below, I’ll relate what happened at the meeting, supplementing my report with details from Ann Thornton’s email. I’ll also add some commentary.

In his opening remarks, Tony Marx recapitulated the advantages of the library’s plan. He said that the plan is meant to address three challenges: the disrepair of the Mid-Manhattan Library (MML), poor preservation conditions in the stacks in the 42nd Street building, and an annual budget shortfall. The Central Library Plan proposes to solve these by moving 3 million books from the 42nd Street building to a state-of-the-art storage facility in New Jersey and putting in their place—inside what Marx called “the largest indoor space in New York City”—a new circulating library. This new library would replace the MML, whose property would be sold, as would that of the Science, Industry, and Business Library (SIBL). Marx said that the 42nd Street building would not be closed for a single day during the new construction. Thanks to savings from the consolidation of the buildings and to new fundraising, he expected the plan would improve the library’s annual budget by $15 million a year.

I’ve objected in the past that the library’s administrators only began to voice their concern about the preservation conditions in the stacks at 42nd Street after the Central Library Plan was criticized. I noted that new ventilation and air conditioning were installed in the stacks in the 1980s and it seemed unlikely to me that the books there were in imminent peril. I asked for more information about the alleged preservation risks of the 42nd Street stacks, . . . and at the June 8 meeting, Marx provided some. He said that an index of the preservation conditions in the New Jersey storage facility is five to six times higher than that in the 42nd Street stacks. Thornton elaborated on this statistic in her June 14 email to me, explaining that the variable in question is the Time-Weighted Preservation Index (TWPI), a measure developed by the Image Permanence Institute. The TWPI of the library’s New Jersey storage facility is between 163 and 244 for paper and over 1,000 for film. At 42nd Street, the TWPI in the central stacks is 44.5.

The Image Permanence Institute says that the unit of the TWPI is “years,” but that strikes me as a confusing way to think about it. In an environment with a TWPI of 44.5, a book won’t crumble to dust in 44.5 years. As the institute’s online guide explains, the TWPI is a relative measure, calibrated so that an environment rated with a TWPI of 50 does as much damage to a book as a room kept at 68 degrees Fahrenheit and 45 percent relative humidity for fifty years. A room with a TWPI of 100 takes twice as long to do the same amount of damage, either because of a lower temperature or better humidity control. Higher numbers are better, in other words, and a TWPI of 44.5 isn’t great. In fact, the Image Permanence Institute estimates that the cut-off between “OK” and “Risk” falls at a TWPI of 45. In other words, the 42nd Street stacks are in the risky zone, by a hair’s breadth. I’m surprised the conditions are that bad, but not that surprised, and it’s still not evident to me that the Central Library Plan, with its estimated cost of $300 million, is the best way to ensure the preservation of the 3 million books now in the 42nd Street stacks. Surely it would be cheaper to upgrade the building’s 30-year-old air conditioning? Moreover, preservation always has to be balanced against access. I doubt that the TWPI of Columbia University’s Butler Library is much better, and I doubt that Columbia’s faculty would stand for shipping Butler’s central stacks to New Jersey in order to save them.

Marx went on to characterize opposition to the Central Library Plan as consisting of three arguments: (1) The library ought to be spending on the branches instead. (2) Bringing a circulating library into the research building will invite riffraff into a sacred space. And (3) the removal of books from the 42nd Street building will delay research and impede access to books. In fact, only the last of these three concerns—the potential damage to scholarship—resonates with me. The concern about riffraff is not one I share, at all. During the meeting, in an impolitic moment, I even called it a straw man. As Marx pointed out, my outburst was somewhat unfair, since regret over riffraff was the burden of Edmund Morris’s snooty New York Times op-ed, which has subsequently been mistaken as representative of the Central Library Plan’s critics by . . . the New York Times. I find the concern frustrating and distracting. The free and open doors of the library are dear to me, and I’m opposed to the Central Library Plan because I want that access to remain broad and meaningful.

During the question-and-answer period, I challenged Marx’s claim that the plan would improve the library’s bottom line by $15 million a year. I pointed out that Charles Petersen reported in n+1 that David Offensend, the library’s chief operations officer, has admitted that the operational savings from consolidating the buildings are only estimated to be $7 million a year. The rest of the benefit is to come from new funds raised in the name of the project, and I suggested that any new funds raised for the Central Library Plan could also be raised for an alternative. (Little to none of the projected benefit to the annual bottom line, by the way, is likely to come from an addition to the endowment resulting from the sale of the MML or SIBL properties. Those properties are thought to be worth $100 million each, and the library estimates the cost of the plan as $300 million.) I then asked what the savings from building consolidation would be if the library were to compromise by closing and selling SIBL, renovating MML, and leaving the 42nd Street building alone (I outlined such a plan on my blog recently, but I believe the library itself was the first to come up with it).

Marx replied that the library’s administrators have actually done a financial analysis of a proposal along the lines I suggested, and for a number of reasons, they believe the benefit would be lower. He said that he doubted, for example, that a renovation of MML would attract donations as readily as the Central Library Plan, which is a more charismatic project. He said that estimates for a renovation of MML were now “north” of the $150 million that was the library’s own estimate until very recently, though he didn’t give the new number. He expressed concern that the city of New York might not permit the library to alter plans for the $150 million that the city has already committed. In making the comparative analysis, he said, the administrators added in a capital expenditure for upgrading the preservation conditions in the stacks. Their results: In the Central Library Plan, which consolidates three buildings into one, the operational savings are estimated to be $7 million a year. In the alternative plan, which consolidates three buildings into two, the operational savings are estimated to be $2.5 to $3 million a year. Over all, Marx said, “at our best estimate at this point, the financial benefit of the alternative plan is a third of what is estimated for the Central Library Plan.”

In response to a request from me for clarification, Ann Thornton provided a few more numbers. She explained that the estimate for the alternative plan included the costs of a bare-bones renovation of MML, during which MML would remain open; an outfitting of the 42nd Street building to accommodate the public services formerly housed at SIBL; and an upgrade of the preservation conditions in the stacks. The total expense, she said, came to almost as much as that of the CLP.

She added:

We also made a leap-of-faith assumption that we could retain $100 million of the $150 million of already-committed City funding in this scenario.

Since in this alternative scenario we would not be selling MML and since it would be more difficult to raise private funds, it’s safe to say that the alternative plan would generate at least $100 million less for the Library’s endowment, which would mean $5 million less per year in spendable resources. Add to this the reduced operating savings (an estimated $3 million versus $7 million) and the alternative plan would yield at least $9 million less per year than that CLP.

I wish that the library were willing to release this analysis in full, but the information they have revealed, though selective, is intriguing. It’s possible, moreover, to reverse-engineer some of the numbers not disclosed by Marx or Thornton, through straightforward arithmetic. The table below is my reconstruction of their analysis. It’s admittedly quite speculative. All figures are in millions of dollars. The numbers directly provided by Marx or Thornton are in bold; all other numbers derive, thanks to arithmetic, from Marx’s and Thornton’s statements about how much greater or lesser one quantity is than another. The variables X and Y indicate two quantities that I wasn’t able to fill in with arithmetic and remain unknown.

Central Library Plan Plan B
Costs Demolition & rebuilding of 42nd St, $300 Renovation of MML, upgrade of 42nd Street stacks, fitting SIBL into 42nd Street, total X
Income City of New York, $150 City of New York, $100
SIBL sale, $100 SIBL sale, $100
MML sale, $100 MML sale, $0
new fundraising, $110 new fundraising, Y
Income minus costs (addition to endowment) $160 $60
Annual benefit from endowment increase (1/20th of endowment increase) $8/year $3/year
Annual operational savings from building consolidation $7/year $3/year
Total improvement to annual budget $15/year $6/year

Of X and Y, algebra says that the difference X-Y is $260 million, that is, that X must be $260 million greater than Y. We also know that X is almost as much as $300 million, and that Y isn’t less than zero. I think it would be fair to guess that the library estimates the total cost of Plan B to be around $280 million, and that they estimate they could only raise around $20 million in new fundraising for it.

Having extracted this analysis, let me take a step back from it. Is it plausible? I confess that I find it hard to believe that Plan B could cost almost as much as the Central Library Plan. Until very recently, the library itself was estimating the cost of a standalone renovation of MML as $150 million. At the May 22 panel on the library’s future at the New School, Charles Petersen noted that a New York State agency estimated in 2010 that a bare-bones renovation of MML would cost $48 million and that Gwathmey-Siegel estimated a decade ago that a renovation that added eight floors would cost $120 million. But say it is $150 million. And say that furnishing rooms at 42nd Street so as to house SIBL’s functions costs $30 million. That leaves $100 million unaccounted for—is that really how much it costs to improve the air conditioning in the stacks? Is that the cost of getting the TWPI to 163? If so, what would it cost to get the TWPI to 75, the threshold for “Good”? Presumably the new circulating library will also require an upgrade to the building’s air conditioning, since the Central Library Plan involves replacing books with people, who give off much more heat and moisture. For the sake of comparison, how much is that upgrade going to cost?

I’m still not convinced, in other words, that the library wouldn’t be better off with Plan B. I wonder, too, how the CLP’s numbers would stand up to what bank regulators call stress-testing. At the New School panel, the architectural historian Mark Alan Hewitt noted that the 42nd Street stacks are much more rugged than the building that surrounds them, and he worried that the library might not have allotted enough for demolition costs. If fundraising were to come up short for the CLP, and if demolition and construction costs were to come in high, the endowment would not rise as expected. The numbers shift quickly. If the demolition and construction costs of the CLP came to $400 million (Scott Sherman reported in the Nation in December 2011 that the cost might be as high as $350 million), and only $50 million were raised in new funds, there would be no rise in the endowment and thus only a $7 million a year improvement to the annual bottom line. Suppose, on the other hand, that the library switches to Plan B and the city lets the library keep all of the $150 million allocated to it, and suppose that renovation of MML costs only $150 million and that better air conditioning and SIBL furnishing only come to $50 million. In that case, Plan B would add $70 million to the endowment, and Plan B would improve the bottom line by $6.5 million a year. I’m making up numbers now, I know, but think of the scale and nature of the two projects being compared. Is it likely they cost the same?

The meeting produced a few other pieces of news.

  • Marx said that he is still considering the option of bringing into service the second floor of the Bryant Park Stack Extension, the underground storage facility to the west of the 42nd Street building. It now holds 1.2 million volumes, but the administrators believe that each floor could be set up to hold 1.5 million volumes. I said that bringing the second floor into use would be a significant and meaningful compromise. (The administrators say they hesitate to make the compromise because the cost is significant.)
  • Thornton said that in response to concern from Slavic and Eastern European scholars, the administrators have increased the staffing in support of their research and are exploring the possibility of setting up an area studies reading room for them at 42nd Street.
  • I asked about Petersen’s report, in his n+1 article, that the library was no longer collecting at the research level in psychology, education, and economics. Thornton said that the library still acquires books in all those fields but in education no longer acquires them at a level that would support a graduate student’s research, hasn’t collected in psychology at that level for some time, and now restricts its collecting in economics to economic history, primarily in English and with a focus on America and several other countries.
  • On the subject of improving delivery of offsite books, Thornton said that the library is exploring the possibility of two delivery runs per day, and is taking part in a planning grant to develop a better inventory control system, which would track books more consistently as they travel to and from storage.
  • On the subject of restoring curatorial expertise, Marx said, “I would prefer not to wait five years to start hiring curators. I’d like to start fundraising now to get those positions.” Thornton confirmed that the library has raised the profile of several curatorial positions that could be named by donors.

Where am I after all this? I’m grateful that the library’s administrators continue to share information and that they’re responsive to concerns, especially to concerns about the speed and reliability of offsite delivery. I appreciate the signs that the library’s new administration takes seriously the need for curatorial and bibliographic expertise, a great deal of which was lost over the past decade. I think that the second level of the Bryant Park Stack Extension could be a meaningful point of compromise, though I worry about reports of water damage to it. I remain hopeful that the library’s trustees will consider finding an alternative to the Central Library Plan altogether.

“The Future of the New York Public Library”: A Longer Account

Tuesday night’s panel at the New School’s Theresa Lang Forum on the future of the New York Public Library was lively and productive. In an earlier post, I gave a highlights reel; here I’ll give a more in-depth account. (I’ll be commenting liberally, but I’ll try to confine my editorial commentary to notes in italics and in parentheses—like this one.)

Update: You can stream or download an audio recording of the panel here. And you can stream or download a video of the panel here. (The sound is a little better on the audio-only recording.)

The panel was hosted by n+1, the New York Institute for the Humanities, and the Institute for Public Knowledge. The moderator was Eric Banks, the president of the National Book Critics Circle. The panelists were as follows:

Eric Banks began by outlining what is known about the Central Library Plan: It is a proposal to ship to New Jersey the 3 million books currently stored in the stacks underneath the 42nd Street building’s Rose reading room, and in their place to install a new circulating library, which will replace the Mid-Manhattan Library (MML) across Fifth Avenue at 40th Street, now in disrepair. The functions of the Science, Industry, and Business Library (SIBL) would also be moved into the 42nd Street building.

Anthony Marx

Marx remarked that he had no interest in pitting the New York Public Library’s two missions against each other—no interest in pitting the function of research against the function of the circulating libraries. He asserted, however, that the “the current status quo cannot be maintained and should not be maintaned,” and said that the Central Library Plan was designed to address three problems: the decrepit condition of the Mid-Manhattan Library, where scaffolding had in fact been erected that morning to catch falling masonry; the unsafe preservation conditions for books currently stored in the stacks of the 42nd Street building; and declining levels of funding for curators and acquisitions.

He asserted that under the CLP, no part of the 42nd Street building currently open to the public would change, except for a wall near the coat check at the 42nd Street entrance, which would be knocked down, and a reconfiguration of rooms on the second floor that are currently unused. He said that access to the new circulating library would be through the 42nd Street entrance and perhaps also through the Bryant Park side of the building. He said that under the CLP the new building would remain open until 11pm. He said there were as yet no architectural plans or model, but that he would have something to show the public in September.

According to Marx, the estimated cost of the CLP is $300 million. The City of New York has promised $150 million, and the sale of MML and SIBL, four or five years from now, would generate more funds (the two buildings are widely reported to be worth about $100 million apiece). Marx said that the CLP would improve the library’s bottom line by $12 to $15 million a year. This number has been given to the public before, but Marx broke it down a little: He said that $7 million a year would come from operational savings, which he promised to achieve without layoffs, and $5 million a year from new fundraising. (I’ve long suspected that the reason that the library has given this number as a range—for a long time it was given as “$10 million to $15 million a year,” but it now seems to have shifted to “$12 million to $15 million a year”—was that a large component of it derived from new fundraising, the exact amount of which couldn’t be known in advance. It’s nice to have my hunch confirmed. For the record, the $7-million-a-year number was first reported by Petersen, in “Lions in Winter”; Petersen’s source was David Offensend, the library’s chief operating officer, who was in the audience Tuesday night. There’s still much more that I would like to know about the $7-million-a-year figure. I’d like to know, for example, how much of the savings would come from closing SIBL and how much from closing MML.)

(A further note about the relationship between the endowment and annual spending—and about truth in advertising. By law, a non-profit is required to spend at least 5 percent of its endowment every year. If you add $100 million to your endowment, then you’ll be spending an additional $5 million a year. The library’s administrators sometimes describe the CLP’s alleged improvement of their bottom line by $15 million a year as being “equivalent” to a $300 million addition to the endowment. They don’t mean by this that the CLP will add $300 million to the endowment. They mean that some money will be added to the endowment, and some of the annual operating expenses will be lowered by consolidating three buildings into one, and that when you add the two factors together, you’ll get an improvement in the annual budget of $15 million a year. What made the CLP so appealing, in its original presentation, is that it seemed to allow the library to eat its cake and have it, too: the administrators seemed able to spend $300 million and still “have” the “equivalent” of a $300 million addition to their endowment. It’s important to understand that the word “have,” in this way of speaking, doesn’t meant what “have” usually means, and that the word “equivalent” is not the same as the word “real.” In fact, as last night’s disclosure reveals, the CLP savings from building consolidation are only estimated to be $7 million a year, which is “equivalent” only to a $140 million addition to the endowment. Of the $12 million a year that the administrators look forward to, the remaining $5 million a year is expected to come from raising a real $100 million for the endowment. So the origami is not as clever as originally advertised. In fact, when one looks with a more skeptical eye, the library seems to be proposing to spend $350 million for the sake of an endowment “equivalent” of just $140 million. Moreover, if $100 million can be raised for the CLP, the same amount can presumably also be raised for a different project just as inspiring—maybe even for a project that wouldn’t damage the library’s research mission.)

What will happen to the books at 42nd Street? Marx said that there are now about 3 million books in the stacks, 1.2 million in the Bryant Park Stack Extension (BPSE), and 300,000 to 400,000 stored elsewhere in the building. He said that 4 million volumes are now stored offiste. After the CLP, at least 2 million books would remain onsite, mostly in BPSE. (This is a much clearer way of counting the books than was used in some of the administrators’ earlier public statements, which failed to count the storage in BPSE and elsewhere in the building in the “before” column but did count those storage spaces in the “after” column—a misleading presentation that has been reflected in a number of journalistic accounts. I’m glad that the library’s administrators and publicists are now admitting candidly that they propose to lower the number of books onsite at 42nd Street from 5 million to 2 million.) Of the 3 million books to be moved offsite, Marx said that 1 million have been digitized, and 2 million have a “usage rate” of 2 percent. He claimed that 90 percent of books that have been used recently will stay onsite. BPSE has a second floor, currently unused, and Marx said that he was willing to consider outfitting it and thereby increasing the storage available onsite, but he was concerned about the cost.

In conclusion, Marx said that the Central Library Plan would improve everything that the library does.

Charles Petersen

According to Petersen, the library has been claiming that the CLP is far-sighted, offers the best option for all the library’s stakeholders, and is required as a matter of economic necessity.

Petersen argued, however, that the CLP was shortsighted—reflective of a guess about the future likely to look dated very soon, much like the vision of a CD-ROM future around which the library planned the design of SIBL in the 1990s, now widely recognized as a costly mistake.

Petersen doubted that the CLP would serve all users well, and was skeptical of Marx’s claim that 90 percent of the books requested would remain onsite. Petersen asked where the statistic had come from, and wondered whether consultants hired by the library had undertaken market segmentation analysis—that is, whether they had tried to find out how different subgroups of library users would fare under the CLP. Did the 90 percent figure apply only to the average visitor, who asks for a book or two? If so, Petersen asked, what’s the comparable number for heavy researchers, who might ask for hundreds of books in a short span of time?

Finally, Petersen questioned that the CLP was really an economic necessity, or “tragic necessity,” as he called it. He pointed out that although the acquisitions budget fell in 2010 to its lowest level since 1986, the money that the library spends on management and development has remained constant since 2000. Meanwhile, adjusted for inflation, the library’s total spending has been greater in the 2000s than it was in the 1990s. “A lot of money is going into construction and renovations,” said Petersen. He pointed out that in the library’s projected budget improvement of $10 to $15 million a year, $5 million a year corresponded to new fundraising, which could be shifted to a different plan.

Petersen insisted that there were alternatives to the Central Library Plan. Although the library’s administrators now estimate that renovating the Mid-Manhattan Library (MML) would cost $150 million, he noted that the New York State Division of Libraries estimated in 2010 that such a renovation would cost just $48 million. A decade ago, Gwathmey Siegel wrote up a plan not only to renovate MML but also to add eight floors, containing 117,000 square feet of new space; the price tag they came up with was just $120 million.

Petersen ended by calling for “a transitional plan for a transitional time.”

Joan Wallach Scott

Scott noted that some supporters of the CLP have charged that critics of the plan are elitist and are opposed to democracy. As examples of this polarizing rhetoric, she quoted recent remarks by Howard Dodson in the New York Times and a Daily News editorial. Scott strongly disagreed with this characterization of the CLP’s opponents. Scott said that critics of the CLP had no intention of keeping out the “unwashed masses,” as Dodson called them. To the contrary, the CLP’s critics, like most regular visitors the library’s 42nd Street building, understood that the unwashed masses were already here, and looked forward to continuing to work beside them.

The real threat to the library’s democratic mission, Scott charged, came from the reduction of the library’s expert curatorial staff, who alone can make its treasures accessible to anyone who walks in the door. Scott quoted a recent essay in The American Conservative that urged the library’s leaders not to confuse popularity with democracy. Democratic access to research, she concluded, is a “public good, not honored by a glitzy and overpriced reconstruction.”

Robert Darnton

Darnton began by agreeing with the democratic mission of the library championed by Scott. He said that he was particularly sympathetic with freelance writers who needed public access to a research-level collection, because he had once been such a writer: he composed his first scholarly article in the 42nd Street building in 1964, during hours stolen from his day-job as a reporter for the New York Times.

He argued that the CLP was needed to remedy the decline in the library’s spending on acquisitions, during a period when, contrary to rumor, the print book is very much flourishing. In fact, he noted, more print books are published every year, and the library needs to collect on both fronts, digital and analog. This inevitably leads to a problem of space. Recap, the library’s storage facility in Princeton, is ten years old, and now contains about half its collections. Books there are supposed to arrive at 42nd Street within 24 hours, and Darnton said he believed critics were right to insist on that level of service. He also said that he believed that the second floor of the Bryant Park Stack Extension (BPSE) should be brought into use, and he estimated the cost of outfitting it at $15 to $20 million. (An earlier estimate by the library administration was $20 million.)

However, Darnton continued, even if the second floor of BPSE were opened, it would soon fill up. He listed several advantages to offsite storage: books could be ordered online in advance; technology now allowed for “digital browsing,” that is, for looking at digital images of the spines and tables of contents of neighboring books on the shelf; and “scan and deliver” services can transmit small portions of books electronically. (Unfortunately, “digital browsing” would be of limited use at the New York Public Library, where for four decades or so, newly acquired books have been cataloged by size, not topic, in order to maximize storage space.) Darnton also noted that preservation conditions are better offsite. In the stacks at 42nd Street, the average temperature is 74 degrees Fahrenheit, but it can soar into the eighties. Darnton agreed with Nicholson Baker that the threat to paper has often been exaggerated by librarians, but he noted that the temperature in the Recap facility is a steady 55 degrees. The per-book cost of storage at Recap is half of the cost in BPSE, and Darnton didn’t think that removal of 3 million books from 42nd Street would inconvenience anyone.

Darnton took issue with critics who alleged that the CLP would turn the 42nd Street building into an “internet café.” He conceded, though, that claims by supporters that the CLP would be more democratic were “misleading.” He took issue with Petersen’s charge that the trustees had guessed the future and were making a risky bet on the e-book. “We are not trying to predict the future now,” Darnton said. “We are trying to meet our commitments in the present.”

David Nasaw

Nasaw noted that he teaches at CUNY, which depends on the NYPL as a research library—a dependence that the state legislature recognizes by giving the library $1.1 million a year. “Now we’re being told,” Nasaw said, “that the only way to save the library is to rip out its innards.” To supporters of the CLP who pointed out that offsite storage had been going on for a decade already, he answered, “That’s what frightens us.” He didn’t think the administrators could plausibly claim that service would improve. Was traffic on the New Jersey Turnpike suddenly going to decrease? He wouldn’t believe the library’s claims unless he was given many specifics, down to the details of the van schedules. “If it’s going to work tomorrow, why doesn’t it work today?”

Nasaw said that he was too much a New Yorker to believe in conspiracy theories. Nonetheless, he was enough of a New Yorker to know how deals are usually made here, and, he said, “I would not be shocked if the voices speaking loudest” in favor of the CLP are in real estate. He called the CLP “fatally flawed,” and said “This boat don’t float.” He called it a feast for the circulating side of the library’s mission, with a few scraps for the research side. “We have no assurance that these savings are ever going to add up,” he said of the hoped-for budgetary improvements, “or that they’ll go to the research budget.”

Nasaw insisted, however, that the president and staff of the library are “not our enemies.” Their good faith was proved by the fact that they had come to this event, and that they had invited onto an advisory panel people like him who they knew would not roll over. He disagreed with the notion that statistical models could show that it was safe to move a book offsite, saying that “If a book is only read once every fifty years, it needs to be there” when the scholar in search of it arrives.

Mark Alan Hewitt

When the 42nd Street building was completed in 1911, Hewitt said, it was considered a marvel, centered around a new piece of technology: the elevator. The librarian John Shaw Billings, after a tour of the world’s best libraries, came up with the idea of putting the reading room on top of the stacks, and as a preservationist, Hewitt felt that the stacks ought to be first on the list of what to landmark in the building. He considered them as important to the library, architecturally, as the steel train sheds were to the old Penn Station. Because of the sturdiness of their construction, Hewitt thought it would take an “engineering marvel” to dismantle them. For their day, they were considered fire-resistant, because closely packed books were expected to burn slowly, like timber, allowing fire rescue teams to put fires out before they could spread.

As an architect, Hewitt didn’t understand why anyone thought it was a good idea to put people into a space designed for books, and pointed out that the space now occupied by the stacks would be hard to illuminate, and hard to heat and cool in a way humans would find comfortable. Why not fit a circulating library into existing unused space in the 42nd Street building? Hewitt asked.

When the library was first built, its architects underestimated the cost of demolishing the Croton Reservoir that stood on the site. Demolition ended up costing as much as the rest of construction, and Hewitt wondered if the library’s new architects would also be surprised by the cost of demolition, which would be extremely complex. To name just one small challenge: Where would the debris chute go? So rugged are the stacks, Hewitt asserted, that if the NYPL were bombed tomorrow, the stacks would remain standing while the marble building around them crumbled.

Why sacrifice this piece of history? Hewitt asked. He called the CLP “a mistake that New Yorkers will regret for generations.”


A few scattered notes:

Marx said, “I will commit to the majority of the $15 million being used for librarians and for collections.”

Petersen called for the library to release detailed analyses of the other plans it had explored. He pointed out that for the cost of the CLP, the library could build seven Bronx Library Centers.

Marx said that he was concerned about losing the $150 million that the City of New York had promised to the library for the CLP. He admitted, though, that it was “conceivable” that the city might not withdraw the money if the library asked to modify its plans.

In response to a questioner who identified herself as a former librarian and asked about the gag orders that departing staffers must sign in order to receive their severance packages, Marx said, “The library does use severance agreements with employees under certain circumstances. As I understand it, these agreements are standard operating procedure. They are not meant to prevent staff from talking about issues of public concern, like this,” i.e., like the CLP. He called the CLP a “staff-driven plan,” and said that he had told his staff that “they can say anything critical.” He has even invited staff members to write to him anonymously, if they feel the need to.

Petersen stressed that the library’s plan was radical and pointed out that no other major research library has shipped such an overwhelming majority of its books offsite. The Library of Congress, for example, keeps only 3 million of its 34 million books offsite, and the proportion offsite at Yale and the University of California, Berkely, are also low. Petersen asked Darnton why he didn’t take the stacks out of Widener, the core of the Harvard library system that Darnton oversees. “We’re not about to take the stacks out of Widener,” Darnton answered. “Why do it to NYPL if you won’t do it to Widener?” Petersen replied.

There were many other questions, many quite important, but my note-taking capacity flagged toward the end of the evening; my apologies.

“The Future of the New York Public Library”: Highlights from the Panel Discussion

Last night I attended a panel at the New School’s Theresa Lang Forum on the future of the New York Public Library, hosted by n+1, the New York Institute for the Humanities, and the Institute for Public Knowledge. It was a lively discussion, which brought a number of new facts about the NYPL’s Central Library Plan (CLP) onto the public record and suggested several new angles for viewing it. All seats inside the forum were occupied, and I learned this morning that the guards were adhering strictly to fire codes and turned away latecomers.

For those who were turned away, I’ll write a longish account on this blog shortly. For skimmers, though, here’s what was new to me (this will be a little inside-baseball; I’ll try to explain more carefully in the longer post that follows):

  • Until recently, the library’s publicists have claimed that the CLP will improve the library’s annual budget by $12 to $15 million while refusing to break the number down. NYPL president Anthony Marx conceded last night that $5 million of that $12 to $15 million a year is in fact expected to come from $100 million of new fundraising. The savings from consolidation per se are estimated to be only $7 million a year. (Note: There’s still a lot more I’d like to know more about the specifics of where those savings are supposed to come from.)

  • The library’s publicists claim that a standalone renovation of the Mid-Manhattan Library would cost $150 million, but Charles Petersen suggested last night that the number might be overblown. He reported that in 2010 New York State’s Division of Library Development estimated the cost as $48 million. He also reported that a decade ago Gwathmey Siegel developed a plan to renovate the Mid-Manhattan and add eight stories, and at the time estimated the cost of the combined renovation and expansion as $120 million.
  • Robert Darnton, though a supporter of the CLP, believes that the second floor of the Bryant Park Stack Extension, currently empty, should be outfitted and used to store books.
  • Architectural historian Mark Alan Hewitt suggested that dismantling the seven stories of bookshelves under the Rose reading room would require “an engineering marvel” and said that he worries that the library’s estimates of the cost and difficulty of demolition may be far too low. “If the New York Public Library were bombed tomorrow,” he said, “the stacks would remain standing.”
  • The City of New York has offered to give the library $150 million toward the CLP. Marx suggested that the library should do nothing to jeopardize the grant, but he admitted that it’s “conceivable” that the City of New York could let the New York Public Library change the CLP.
  • In the Q&A period, when a longtime NYPL employee asked about the nondisparagement agreements that the library obliges many retirees to sign in order to receive their severance packages, Marx asserted that “They are not meant to prevent staff from talking about issues of public concern,” and he then named the controversy over the CLP as the sort of public issue that they were free to talk about. (In my opinion, this could be the biggest news of the evening, because—please consult your lawyers first—it could free former library staff to discuss candidly with the press their assessments of the Central Library Plan.) Or maybe not. Please see below, for an update.
  • Petersen noted that no other major research library has taken the radical step the New York Public Library is contemplating: namely, shipping the vast majority of its books offsite. The Library of Congress, for example, owns 34 million books and stores offsite only 3 million. Petersen asked Darnton, who oversees Harvard’s Widener library, what would happen if he were to try such a plan there. “We’re not about to take the stacks out of Widener,” Darnton answered. “Why do it to NYPL if you won’t do it to Widener?” Petersen replied.
  • Darnton asserted that meetings of the library’s Board of Trustees are open to the public, and suggested that the trustees will welcome visitors.

Update, 10 minutes later: I just saw the wording of a nondisparagement agreement signed by a recent NYPL employee, and it’s much more sweeping than Marx suggested last night. There’s no mention of any exception for an issue of public interest. To the contrary, the wording forbids any comment that would adversely affect any of the library’s plans. Perhaps Marx was merely acknowledging last night that the First Amendment would make enforcement of the agreement over an issue of public interest impossible. Please understand that I’m not a lawyer, and if you’re under one of these agreements, please do consult a lawyer before speaking out.

Further update, a few hours later: The New York Times has just published a new article about the library’s gag orders.

A petition and a public debate

You can now sign online the petition asking the New York Public Library to reconsider its $350 million plan to remove 3 million books from its 42nd Street building. The petition has been organized by Joan Scott of the Institute of Advanced Study, and the names of the 700 or so early signers are also online.

The journal n+1 and the New York Institute of the Humanities are hosting a panel debate on the future of the library next Tuesday, May 22, from 6:30 to 8:30pm, at the New School’s Theresa Lang Community Center, 55 West 13th Street, on the second floor. The moderator will be Eric Banks, the president of the National Book Critics Circle, and participants will include Joan Scott, David Nasaw, Charles Petersen, and others. A top administrator from the library has also been invited to participate.

The New York Public Library in crisis

As for the research-level books, most of them are leaving. Of the 5 million books currently housed at the main building, only 2 million will remain. The chance that a book you want will be in Manhattan will drop from around 70 to around 20 percent. The administration says the standard turnaround time for books from the New Jersey facility will be twenty-four hours. This strains credulity. The small number of books already housed at Princeton typically take closer to three days to make it to Manhattan, and the new system will be dealing with many more books and requests.

Please read Charles Petersen’s two-part chronicle of the New York Public Library’s crisis in the latest issue of n+1. Part two is here.