In a series of cover stories for The Nation magazine, journalist Scott Sherman uncovered the ways in which Wall Street logic almost took down one of New York City’s most beloved and iconic institutions: the New York Public Library.
In the years preceding the 2008 financial crisis, the library’s leaders forged an audacious plan to sell off multiple branch libraries, mutilate a historic building, and send millions of books to a storage facility in New Jersey. Scholars, researchers, and readers would be out of luck, but real estate developers and New York’s Mayor Bloomberg would get what they wanted.
But when the story broke, the people fought back, as famous writers, professors, and citizens’ groups came together to defend a national treasure.
Rich with revealing interviews with key figures, Patience and Fortitude is at once a hugely readable history of the library’s secret plans, and a stirring account of a rare triumph against the forces of money and power.
|Publisher:||Melville House Publishing|
|Product dimensions:||8.30(w) x 5.60(h) x 0.70(d)|
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PREFACE: “THERE WILL NEVER BE AN END TO THIS LIBRARY”
This is a book about a world-class library that lost its way in the digital age.
In the late spring of 2011, Katrina vanden Heuvel, editor and publisher of The Nation, asked if I might be interested in writing a profile of Anthony Marx, the Amherst College president who had recently agreed to lead the New York Public Library (NYPL). “Lots of unhappy rumblings about how oligarchs”—on the Library’s board of trustees—“are taking over too much of a major cultural institution as it celebrates its centennial,” vanden Heuvel wrote. She envisioned a story about a “clash of civilizations at the outpost of civilization.”
The New York Public Library was an institution that mattered to me personally: as a writer, I had depended on the grand building on 42nd Street for twenty years, and had come to see how fully it embodied its nickname: “the people’s library.”
It was a place for both Shakespeare scholars and shoeshine boys. When the building turned seventy-five in 1986, Senator Daniel Patrick Moynihan, who had toiled as a bootblack in Times Square in the 1940s, recalled: “It was the first time I was taught that I was welcome in a place of education and learning. I would go into that great marble palace, and I would check my shoeshine box. A gentleman in a brown cotton jacket would take it as if I’d passed over an umbrella and a bowler hat.”
I accepted the assignment, and soon reached out to a prominent academic librarian. Halfway through our conversation, he mentioned—rather casually—that the NYPL would soon remove the entire collection of books from the iron-and-steel stacks inside the 42nd Street building and send them to an offsite storage facility in Princeton, New Jersey. This was troubling news: the stacks’ three million books were the heart of the institution.
When I asked about this project, NYPL officials confirmed their intentions: the books would leave the building as part of a “Central Library Plan” (CLP), a wide-ranging reconfiguration of services, and the stacks would indeed be demolished. The CLP had been born in June 2007 and was announced to the public nine months later at a little-noticed press conference featuring the novelist (and NYPL trustee) Toni Morrison, who called the plan “truly astonishing.” The CLP aimed to consolidate three Midtown libraries into one colossal circulating library inside the 42nd Street building, which would undergo a $300 million renovation by Norman Foster, the British architect. (Frank Gehry had been on the shortlist for the job.)
The project was derailed by the recession of 2008. Fortuitously, I began my reporting as it was quietly being revived. My story, which appeared in The Nation in December 2011 under the headline “Upheaval at The New York Public Library,” launched a controversy that raged for two and a half years and resulted in more than forty stories in The New York Times alone. The debate accelerated in December 2012 when Ada Louise Huxtable, the eminent ninety-one-year-old architecture critic, excoriated the project in the pages of The Wall Street Journal; it continued to escalate after her death a few weeks later. The dispute would eventually draw in a cast that included Tom Stoppard, Gloria Steinem, Susan Sarandon, Garrison Keillor, Salman Rushdie, Malcolm Gladwell, Donna Tartt, Art Spiegelman, and the Rev. Al Sharpton. The wrangle over the Central Library Plan, wrote Publishers Weekly, amounted to “the biggest public outcry a public library project has ever generated.”
The battle to save the NYPL was conducted by a small group of writers, professors, independent scholars, and historic preservationists, who viewed the institution as a sacred public trust. For these critics, the CLP was nothing more than a set of tawdry real-estate deals, a desecration of a historic building, and a betrayal of the NYPL’s founding mission. In the words of a leading activist, the historian Joan Scott, the campaign was about “saving a major institution for the public good.”
On the other side were the Library’s trustees, who insisted that the NYPL had to be pruned and modernized for the digital age, when many public libraries have prioritized spaces for community engagement and coffee shops over books and bookshelves. The trustees argued that by “monetizing non-core assets”—that is, selling the NYPL’s own real estate—the plan would generate up to $15 million per year in badly needed revenue. For inspiration, the NYPL’s leaders did not look to other libraries, but to FedEx, Netflix, and Barnes & Noble; they also put their faith in Google, which was scanning millions of books from research libraries across the nation, including the NYPL. To counter the opposition, Anthony Marx rallied construction unions and Teamsters and accused the critics of “elitism”; their intent, he suggested, was to preserve the 42nd Street Library as an exclusive sanctuary for scholars and intellectuals.
It was a charged battle over books, real estate, and architecture, and about the future of an institution that its former president, Vartan Gregorian, called “a treasured repository of civilization.” As Gregorian told The New Yorker in 1986: “Libraries keep the records on behalf of all humanity . . . endless sources of knowledge are here. We have books in three thousand languages and dialects. I can take you through here from Balanchine to Tibet. There are esoterica on synthetic fuels, neglected maps of the Falklands which were suddenly in demand at the time of the Falklands War. And Warsaw telephone directories from the years of the Holocaust, often invaluable as the only source of documentation of who lived where, in order to substantiate claims for retribution. There will never be an end to this library. Never!”
In the 1890s, a group of wealthy men—bankers, corporate titans, philanthropists—came together to create the New York Public Library. These men were cautious individuals with a sense of proportion, who understood the fragility of the institution they had built. Over a century later, the CLP became a project closely tied to another wealthy man: the billionaire Mayor Michael Bloomberg, whose personal friends and family members initiated it. Unlike their late nineteenth-century predecessors, these individuals lacked prudence: they applied radical, free-market solutions to complex institutional problems. In the end, elected officials in New York City had to save the NYPL from its own trustees.
Table of Contents
Preface: "There Will Never Be an End to This Library" xiii
1 "A Great Work" 3
2 Decay and Renewal 23
3 "The Greatest Project Ever" 49
4 Hubris and Corporate Logic 67
5 An Invitation to Act 91
6 "I Will Raise the Money" 127
7 "Don't Gut Our Lions" 147
8 "The Wrong Plan" 171
Afterword: "It Shows What Citizen Power Can Do" 185
Note on Sources 199