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Loud Debate Rages Over N.Y. Library's Quiet Stacks

Enter the glorious Rose Reading Room on the third floor of the New York Public Library on a weekday afternoon, and you'll find almost every chair filled.

Scholars and researchers still submit their book requests on slips of paper and wait for their numbers to appear on two large boards.

The stacks, filled with some 3 million volumes, are closed to the public, so books are retrieved from seven floors of shelving below. Still other volumes are stored off-site.

"It's very hot and still in these stacks," says Victoria Steele, the library's head of collections. "It's not good for the books. And actually, if you take a little whiff, that's the smell of books dying."

Moving Books, Selling Buildings

If the library has its way, this Beaux Arts-style building on Manhattan's 42nd Street — the one with the giant lions out front — will soon see some changes.

A hotly debated renovation plan would demolish the seven stuffy floors of stacks. Some of the books would be stored under nearby Bryant Park, and up to 2 million books would be moved to climate-controlled storage in Princeton, N.J.

The proposed project, called the Central Library Plan, would also consolidate the functions of two other facilities under one roof.

The library would sell the nearby Mid-Manhattan Library, considered one of the largest circulating library branches in the world, and the building housing the Science, Industry and Business Library (SIBL) about 10 blocks away.

Both libraries would be combined into a new, state-of-the-art circulating library where the aging stacks stand now.

Tony Marx, president and CEO of the New York Public Library, says the changes are badly needed.

"This is the greatest public or democratic research facility in the world," Marx says. "You don't have to be a member of a university. Anyone can have access to anything here."

Despite its important function, Marx says, the New York Public Library — unlike the Library of Congress — gets no money from the federal government. And it doesn't have a great endowment like Ivy League universities do.

"We have seen a 25 percent reduction in our research budget," Marx adds. "We can't hire the librarians we need and we can't buy the books we need."

Marx says selling the two library buildings would bring in $200 million. Add in an additional $150 million promised from the city, he says, and there would be enough not just to pay for the renovations but also to provide millions of dollars a year to hire new librarians and curators for the research libraries and collections.

The additional funds would also allow the library to stay open until 11 p.m. on many days, Marx says.

Controversy Builds

Controversy around the Central Library Plan has been heated. Writers, scholars and library users have all voiced opposition, and such famous authors as Salman Rushdie and Tom Stoppard are among hundreds that have signed a petition protesting the plan.

Scott Sherman, a contributing writer to The Nation who wrote about the controversy, argues that the library's 87 branches, some in the city's poorest neighborhoods, should be the library's first priority.

Sherman is also concerned that researchers will play second fiddle to computer users and e-book consumers. "The 42nd Street library is one of the world's great research libraries," Sherman told WNYC's Leonard Lopate in March. "And the Central Library Plan is basically a plan to turn it into a giant Internet cafe."

David Nasaw, a professor of history at the City University of New York Graduate Center, also opposes the plan. Like many critics, he's concerned the library's books are being moved out of easy reach of scholars.

The library's stacks, which are closed to the public, currently hold about 3 million books.
Margot Adler / NPR
The library's stacks, which are closed to the public, currently hold about 3 million books.

"We are being told that the only way to save the library is to rip out its innards and transport millions of books to New Jersey," Nasaw said at a public debate at The New School in May.

"I don't much care where the books are. They could be on the moon for all I care, but I want them in 24 hours," Nasaw said. "I want them in 24 minutes — but I will accept 24 hours."

Opponents also worry that the library's research functions are being slighted in favor of what critics consider unproven innovations. Critics point to the Science Industry and Business library. Built when libraries believed the CD-ROM was the wave of the future, it has never quite lived up to its promise.

Charles Peterson, editor of the literary magazine N+1, says a transitional era — when relatively new devices like the iPad and Kindle are reshaping how people read and use books — calls for a more transitional plan.

"It's true that more and more people are getting e-readers," Peterson says. "But we really don't know what research is going to look like in 10 or 20 years."

The closing of some libraries and collections, like the closure of the Slavic and Baltic Collection in 2008, has helped fuel the distrust among scholars.

The controversy has even been spoofed by the public radio program A Prarie Home Companion. In the sketch, someone comes looking for a work by Pushkin, only to find books being carted away by a forklift to build mountains in North Dakota.

Opponents of the plan also complain about a lack of transparency, claiming that librarians have been reluctant to speak publicly about concerns surrounding the plan.

Several former librarians backed up those claims at the New School debate, claiming they had to sign agreements not to talk about these issues when they left their jobs.

A Library 'Feeding The Informed Citizenry'

For the library's part, CEO Tony Marx rejects concerns that the renovations will water down the library's essential functions.

"The Mid-Manhattan library and SIBL are not going to be an Internet cafe," Marx says. "They are to be a great circulating library, feeding the informed citizenry with ideas, and a place to think and study."

In response to concerns that the books will be out of easy reach of scholars, Marx says bar-coding each book will make it possible to retrieve any volume from off-site storage within 24 hours.

Moreover, Marx says, the library will hire more trucks and will deliver at night. And, he adds, patrons will also be able to shorten wait times by ordering books in advance and on Saturdays .

As to concerns about library staff being asked to refrain from discussing the project, Marx says talking about policy issues is not off limits under his administration. "I need to hear what people think. I want to get advice. I'll take criticism," he says.

Questions about the Central Library Plan still remain. Architectural plans have not yet surfaced. The city's role is still unclear. And the New School debate in May was the first real public airing of these issues.

One thing is clear to those following the controversy: the library's president and trustees will have a difficult time moving the renovation plan forward smoothly without more public discussion and transparency.

Copyright 2020 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Margot Adler died on July 28, 2014 at her home in New York City. She was 68 and had been battling cancer. Listen to NPR Correspondent David Folkenflik's retrospective on her life and career
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