The library's iconic Main Building at Fifth Avenue and 42nd Street
The Museum of the City of New York/Art Resource, NYThe library’s iconic Main Building at Fifth Avenue and 42nd Street

No place does more for more New Yorkers”—so claims the New York Public Library. Unlike most institutional boasts, this one has merit, because the library has long balanced unparalleled excellence with remarkably open access. Serving Manhattan, the Bronx, and Staten Island—Brooklyn and Queens have their own separate library systems—the New York Public Library operates one of the world’s premier research institutions and a circulating system of 87 branches. The library’s research holdings far surpass those of any other public library in the nation and of most universities; access to the collection has been as deep a source of pride for the library as the breadth and depth of the collection itself. But now the library is on the cusp of enacting the most radical change in its 120-year history: under the Central Library Plan, as it’s been called, the library will sell two major facilities in midtown Manhattan and use the proceeds, plus city funds—$350 million in all—to renovate the iconic Main Building on 42nd Street and Fifth Avenue, which would retain its research function while also becoming the system’s central circulating branch.

Critics have attacked the plan’s design and scope and the lack of public input in formulating it. The library insists, though, that the renovation is necessary. “This is about improving services for our users—the public,” says David Offensend, the library’s chief operating officer. That claim seems dubious, at least for researchers. Even under the brightest scenario, the likely result would be an institution marginally more cost-effective but significantly downgraded from the research standard it has set during its illustrious history.

By the late nineteenth century, New York had established itself as America’s cultural capital; the city lacked only a world-class library system, though modest lending libraries—some fee-based, others free—could be found throughout town. The privately funded Astor and Lenox research libraries owned serious public collections, but they were little used. In 1895, they consolidated their collections and, with a bequest from the estate of former New York governor Samuel Tilden—who left some of his fortune for the purpose—formed a new research institution dedicated equally to intellectual excellence and public access. The library’s official name was The New York Public Library, Astor, Lenox and Tilden Foundations, which it remains today. City government provided land on the site of an obsolete reservoir between 40th and 42nd Streets, close to the old Grand Central Depot and near the planned Penn Station at 33rd Street and 7th Avenue, completed in 1910.

The Main Building’s classical design was the work of Carrère and Hastings, an architectural firm whose principals had studied at the École des Beaux-Arts in Paris. The structure took 12 years and $9 million to build, and it incorporated 14 varieties of marble—including some from the same Greek quarry that supplied the Parthenon. The building’s unique features include the pink-marble lions, named Patience and Fortitude by Mayor Fiorello La Guardia during the Great Depression, which guard the front portico; the third floor’s majestic Rose Main Reading Room; and the seven stories and 88 miles of cast-iron and steel bookshelves, closed to the public, which occupy most of the building’s west side and hold up the Rose Main Reading Room. These are “the stacks,” regarded as an engineering marvel in their day—even appearing on a 1911 cover of Scientific American.

The library began incorporating independent lending libraries into its organization in 1901. Circulating operations expanded vastly when Andrew Carnegie donated $5.2 million to build 65 branches across the city. The cost of building the average branch library in the early twentieth century was $80,000, or about $2.2 million in today’s dollars. Carrère and Hastings designed 14 Carnegie branches in New York City. City government agreed to fund the branches’ operating costs (it had pledged capital assistance only for the main research library). Ever since, the branches have been an integral part of the civic and cultural life within New York neighborhoods. “The local branches of the New York Public Library served ‘everybody“ but did not try to acquire ‘everything,’ ” writes library historian Phyllis Dain. “Essentially popular lending libraries of limited size (compared to the research libraries’ huge holdings), they focused on the people in their communities.”

The research library, meanwhile, quickly became one of the best in the world, in the same class as France’s Bibliothèque Nationale and the British Museum. Whole books have been written about the library’s collection, which now boasts some 45 million items (51 million counting the branch holdings), including a Gutenberg Bible and a 1623 Shakespeare First Folio from the Astor and Tilden libraries. The great libraries of the past were dedicated to preserving particular traditions, whether nationalistic or religious. The New York Public Library, Dain writes, did aspire to collect everything, “the obscure and unorthodox as well as the acclaimed and conventional, and in a variety of formats,” from as many traditions as possible. Of greatest value to researchers are the many special collections, such as the papers of Robert Moses and H. L. Mencken; the archives of The New Yorker and Farrar, Straus and Giroux; Bolshevik propaganda, along with thousands of volumes from the personal libraries of the deposed Russian royal family; nineteenth-century dime-store novels; eighteenth-century playbills; and much more. Though the research collection does not circulate, anyone can make use of it. Former library president Vartan Gregorian sees the institution’s mission as evidence that “democracy and excellence are not mutually exclusive; they are compatible.”

Barely a decade into its existence, the library began running out of space in the Main Building. In 1933, it bought a building on 25th Street to serve as an annex. About 30 years later, it sold off the original annex and purchased another building on West 43rd Street, which recently sold for $45 million. Today, in addition to the Main Building in midtown Manhattan, the library’s research operations include the Performing Arts Library at Lincoln Center (opened in 1965), the Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture (formally designated as a research library in 1972, though it grew out of a Carnegie branch built in 1904), and the Science, Industry and Business Library (SIBL, opened in 1996). The truth is, it doesn’t make much sense to house a great research library in midtown, where space is at a premium—at least not in a building so revered as to prohibit demolishing or substantially remodeling it for functional reasons. For over a decade—before the Central Library Plan was developed—the library has kept a significant share of its books off-site at a Princeton, New Jersey, storage facility known as the Research Collection and Preservation Consortium (ReCAP), which it shares with the Columbia and Princeton university libraries. Patrons must ask for items in advance, and the library promises to furnish them within one business day if requested before 2:30 PM, a goal that it claims to meet 85 percent of the time.

Funding has also been an ongoing concern. From the outset, the Main Building was used well beyond its intended capacity. Some officials argued that the library was a victim of a “tragedy of the commons.” No one had an obligation to pay for its services, so it was over-patronized. Locals and nonlocals, businesses, writers, and the academic community—everyone used it. (True, for 25 years, the library banned high school students from using the Main Building without special permission, but the policy was largely flouted.) The library also found itself straining to keep up with acquisitions. Global output of published materials exploded throughout the twentieth century, and the costs of keeping up became exorbitant.

These pressures, combined with inflation and New York City’s financial struggles, created an ongoing fiscal crisis for the library that began in the mid-sixties and lasted until about 1980. Officials slashed hours at the Main Building from 87 to 43 a week, imposed furloughs and hiring freezes, and deferred basic maintenance. Nor could the library escape the blight of midtown Manhattan in the seventies. Located just a few blocks east of the red-light district that was Times Square in those days, the Main Building overlooked an open-air drug market in Bryant Park, its backyard. The wall facing Bryant Park was sometimes called “New York’s longest urinal.”

To ease the money crisis, the library began to diversify its revenues, securing additional financial support from New York State and the federal government, and expanding its donor base from 3,000 supporters in the early seventies to more than 40,000 a decade later. The new funding helped stabilize the library’s finances and set the stage for future growth. The real renaissance began with Gregorian, the former University of Pennsylvania president who led the library from 1981 to 1989 and forged a reputation as one of New York’s great fund-raisers. The Campaign for the Public Library, conceived by Gregorian and the library’s board of directors, raised more than $300 million from private and public sources in less than five years.

Thanks to Gregorian, the Main Building received its first major restoration. The library installed a temperature- and humidity-control system in the stacks, spent $1 million to dust the 88 miles of bookshelves—something that hadn’t been done in 75 years—added a new book-storage facility under Bryant Park, and refurbished much of the interior, including the third-floor reading room, which was duly renamed the Rose Main Reading Room in honor of its benefactors, the Rose family. The library’s endowment swelled from $75 million in 1981 to $400 million by the late nineties. The neighborhood branches benefited, too, with new facilities, renovations of old Carnegie libraries, and a few relocations. Many of the renovations came through the library’s innovative Adopt a Branch program, which linked neglected, low-profile branches with private and public funding sources.

Not every move succeeded. Library officials lavished $100 million on the Science, Industry and Business Library, housed in the former B. Altman department store on 34th Street and Madison Avenue, which it now plans to sell off, less than 20 years after it opened. Though the library claims not to be dissatisfied with the level of usage at SIBL, the facility clearly did not become what it was projected to be: the “vibrant center of information about business and science designed to serve the city and the nation . . . [that] contributes significantly to building the skills of the region’s work force, empowering immigrants through information and technology, and undergirding economic development in New York.”

But a larger concern than SIBL’s underperformance was what to do about the Mid-Manhattan central circulating branch. Located kitty-corner to the Main Building in another former department store (an escalator still operates between the first and second floors), Mid-Manhattan is one of the country’s most heavily trafficked public libraries. The library purchased the building in 1961, began operating some functions out of it in the late sixties, and formally opened it to the public in 1982, but somehow never got around to giving it a proper renovation. Shabby and smelly, Mid-Manhattan is to the Main Building what modern Penn Station is to the old Penn Station.

Mid-Manhattan’s days became numbered in March 2008, when officials unveiled the Central Library Plan, along with news of a $100 million gift from financier Stephen Schwarzman. (Technically, the Main Building is now the Stephen A. Schwarzman Building; unlike that of the Rose Main Reading Room, the new name has not caught on.) The plan proposes to demolish the Main Building’s stacks to make way for a new central circulating branch, which will replace Mid-Manhattan. Financing would come from the sale of Mid-Manhattan and SIBL, which library officials estimate will net about $200 million, on top of $150 million in funding from the city that the library secured in 2011. The trustees selected for the renovation the well-known British architect Norman Foster, who had completed modern additions to historic buildings such as the British Museum and the Reichstag.

Once fully implemented, the Central Library Plan will enhance overall research services, officials contend, by adding study space in the Main Building (some rooms now closed to the public will be opened for this purpose) and maintaining superior preservation conditions for the collection at ReCAP and Bryant Park (library officials say that temperature and humidity conditions in the stacks still fluctuate too much, despite the massive environmental-control upgrade implemented in the eighties). As they see it, the plan will also deliver considerable cost efficiencies.

Saving money is something that the library needs to do. Many New Yorkers don’t realize that the New York Public Library is not a city-run institution like the police department or the public schools but a nonprofit organization that receives government subsidies along with private donations and grants. One board and central administration oversees both branch and research operations, though funding arrangements differ for each. Public funds, mostly from the city, support 85 percent of branch operations but only 30 percent of research operations. The remainder comes from private sources. The library’s fiscal 2012 audit puts the value of its endowment at close to $900 million—a massive sum for a cultural institution but less impressive when measured against many private universities’ endowments.

When it announced the Central Library Plan five years ago, the library was riding high from the $100 million Schwarzman gift and the Wall Street boom. The endowment grew more than 60 percent from fiscal 2003 until the market crash, but the ensuing years of recession, along with overextended city budgets, took a toll. Since 2008, the library has cut its workforce by 37 percent at the branches, reduced branch hours, deferred planned maintenance, and gotten along with a smaller acquisition budget. These cuts are an inevitable consequence of public workers’ spiraling retirement and health-benefit costs, which drain municipal resources in New York and around the nation. After paying their employee costs and providing for schools and public safety, cities have less and less left over for libraries. And the library has its own pension problem. Though library employees technically work for a private nonprofit, all full-timers participate in the New York State and Local Employees’ Retirement System. Library pension costs came to $14.6 million in the 2012 fiscal year, up from $10.8 million five years earlier—a 35 percent increase. (Given its funding responsibilities for branch operations and some research costs, the city winds up paying for most of those pensions.)

“We’re hemorrhaging,” library president Anthony Marx said at a 2012 forum. In fiscal year 2012, the library received about $10 million less in city support than it got four years earlier; funding from New York State declined by $9 million. On the capital side, the library estimates that its needs run into the hundreds of millions. Library officials claim that the Central Library Plan will improve their annual bottom line by $15 million; $7 million would come from operational efficiencies—it’s cheaper to operate one facility in midtown, rather than three—and the remainder from increasing the endowment by selling the buildings and boosting fund-raising (by attracting donors for the new Foster facility). Assuming no cost overruns, the Central Library Plan would allow the library to recoup much, but not all, of the recent city and state funding cuts.

But these are risky assumptions. The library touts its record of completing recent capital projects on time and on budget, but the Central Library Plan is orders of magnitude more complicated in engineering and architectural challenges. Library officials insist that taxpayers’ commitment won’t exceed the $150 million from the city treasury. But what happens if they’re wrong? Perhaps the library assumes that its well-heeled donors would cover any excessive costs. The Nation’s Scott Sherman has criticized the library’s recent track record in real-estate transactions, pointing out that the former Donnell branch on West 53rd Street sold in 2007 for just $59 million—the building’s penthouse alone is currently on the market for $60 million. (The library insists that it “ran a very competitive sales process with Donnell” and that the listing price for the penthouse ignores costs that the new owner is putting into the building.)

Whether the plan saves money or not, many worry—rightly—that it will undermine the library’s research tradition. The New York Public Library’s collection does not circulate; it must be used on-site. Under the new plan, more than 1 million fewer books will be available on-site, and 3 million fewer books than the library could keep on-site. Researchers will have to request materials at least a day in advance, making research more inconvenient. Often, while studying a source on the premises, researchers discover through a footnote that still another source is needed. They will put in a request for that additional source, just as always—only now, they’ll often have to wait a day to get it. The discovery process will no longer flow as naturally. To non-researchers, this may seem a petty matter, but ready access to the collection—not just the collection’s magnificence—is what has helped make the New York Public Library indispensable.

Further, combining research and branch services in the same facility amounts to administrative folly. The Rose Main Reading Room, which can accommodate about 650 people, operates on most days close to capacity. It works: users are generally quiet and respectful of one another. But what would be the effect of introducing thousands more users to the Main Building every day? Unless one assumes that the new Foster space, and additional research space within the Main Building, will be more attractive than the space in the Rose Main Reading Room, crowding is likely.

Library officials remind critics that the Main Building did, for a time, house some circulating operations, before these were transferred to Mid-Manhattan—thus establishing a historical precedent for branch functions in the Main Building. But branch libraries’ functions have changed dramatically over the past half-century. Mid-Manhattan boasts a uniquely strong collection for such a library, but it also doubles as a quasi-social-services provider, as do many local libraries around the country. “Although they are often thought of as cultural institutions,” argued a 2013 report by the Center for an Urban Future, a left-leaning New York think tank, “the reality is that the public libraries are a key component of the city’s human capital system.” In this view, New York’s public libraries—and the branches in particular—exist to provide underprivileged groups with vital services, such as computer-literacy classes, job-search assistance, and “safe havens” for at-risk youths.

Assuming that the library (as opposed to some other agency or nonprofit) should be charged with assisting disadvantaged New Yorkers, it doesn’t follow that doing so is compatible with giving maximum access to one of the world’s great research collections. Would anyone ask the same of the Metropolitan Museum of Art? In times of austerity, it’s generally a good idea for organizations to combine operations in the name of cost savings and enhanced efficiency. That’s not the case here. Some functions are simply at odds. As a petition signed by Salman Rushdie, Tom Stoppard, and hundreds of other scholars and writers puts it: “NYPL will lose its standing as a premier research institution . . . and become a busy social center where focused research is no longer the primary goal.”

Finally, the Central Library Plan’s architectural design, at least as presently formulated, is uninspiring. In December 2012, the library released “renderings” of Foster’s plans. Patrons would reach the new circulating branch by walking through the main portico to the back of the Main Building, eventually coming to a vast open space with several terraces and a view of Bryant Park. Compared with Mid-Manhattan, the new space looked like an improvement, but that wasn’t saying much. Given the hype and cost, the design appeared entirely unremarkable, as New York Times architecture critic Michael Kimmelman noted—and other critics agreed. Stung by the criticism, the library sent Foster back to the drawing board. According to the Wall Street Journal, Foster’s new design, due sometime this autumn, will preserve “a significant portion” of the stacks and use them to hold books from the circulating library.

Responding to the research community’s complaints, the library obtained last year a grant from a trustee to enable a fuller build-out of book-storage space beneath Bryant Park, and it has agreed to provide an independent cost estimate for keeping the stacks in the Main Building while improving climate controls and refurbishing Mid-Manhattan, though it isn’t wavering from the Central Library Plan.

It should reconsider the plan. The New York Public Library is a great institution because of its research collection and its commitment to public access to that collection. Among Gotham’s institutions, some are better than their equivalents in other American cities, and some are just bigger. The branch library system, though valuable, may be likened to the New York Public Schools: it is primarily distinguished from other cities’ branch libraries by its enormous size. But the research library is uniquely excellent, like, say, the New York Police Department and the Metropolitan Museum of Art. It has no equal in other American cities. Scholarship, education, and our cultural inheritance would all suffer if it is diminished. Despite claims to the contrary, the Central Library Plan will do exactly that.

Research for this article was supported by the Brunie Fund for New York Journalism.


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