Publishing/Writing: Insights, News, Intrigue

12/11/2012

The 42nd Street Library – Its Deep Significance


A vintage illustration of the stacks built below the New York Public Library's reading room..

A vintage illustration of the stacks built below the New York Public Library’s reading room.
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I love and am enormously curious about unique and great things past, present and coming in the future. I’m like a child in a toy store RE these things and that’s what makes me a forever student and keeps me young. 

Tonight’s post is about current events that affect an almost spiritual, mystical, omnipotent and untouchable literary existence/rite.

“… a research library is a timeless repository of treasures, not a popularity contest measured by head counts, the current arbiter of success. This is already the most democratic of institutions, free and open to all. Democracy and populism seem to have become hopelessly confused.”

“You don’t ‘update’ a masterpiece. ‘Modernization’ may be the most dangerously misused word in the English language.”

Both of the above excerpts are by Ada Louise Huxtable, architectural critic for The Wall Street Journal, and the author of the following article from the Journal:

New York Public Library – Undertaking Its Destruction

There is no more important landmark building in New York than the New York Public Library, known to New Yorkers simply as the 42nd Street Library, one of the world’s greatest research institutions. Completed in 1911 by Carrère and Hastings in a lavish classical Beaux Arts style, it is an architectural masterpiece. Yet it is about to undertake its own destruction. The library is on a fast track to demolish the seven floors of stacks just below the magnificent, two-block-long Rose Reading Room for a $300 million restructuring referred to as the Central Library Plan.

The plan would consolidate three libraries—moving the popular Mid-Manhattan circulating library (just across Fifth Avenue at 40th Street) and the underused Science, Industry and Business branch (in a 34th Street building that runs from Fifth to Madison Avenues) back into the main building to eliminate substantial operating costs. Two million to three million of the five million volumes in the stacks—including the more specialized material many of us depend on, and referred to by the library as the “least used” books—would be moved to Siberia. (Excuse me, to New Jersey, where the offsite storage is located.) Books would be returned in an optimistically estimated but unreliable 24 hours, by truck, on the traffic-jammed New Jersey Turnpike.

The vacated stacks would house a state-of-the-art, socially interactive, computer-centered Mid-Manhattan branch designed by the library’s chosen architect, the British firm of Foster+Partners. This “repurposed” space—a common real-estate term—would also make room for writers, scholars, seminars, adult education and children’s activities. We are being assured that, with savings estimated at $7 million to $15 million, closed collections could be reopened, dismissed librarians rehired, and book-collecting resumed, reversing cutbacks that have downgraded a noble institution.

Demolishing the stacks, with the elaborate engineering involved, providing additional offsite storage for the books, and reconstructing the space, would be paid for by the sale of the two vacated Fifth Avenue buildings, a promised $150 million city (read: taxpayers’) contribution, and a fund-raising campaign.

The rationale for the plan is a 41% decrease in the use of the collections in the past 15 years, and the increase of online accessibility of the most popular material, with only 6% of print sources consulted in a given year. A 78% drop in the use of the Science, Industry and Business library, with most of the material already online, makes that branch expendable. The Mid-Manhattan circulating library is heavily used, while its quarters have deteriorated badly. Corrective action was inevitable.

The library’s embrace of the future is commendable; it has been on the frontiers of change in technology and practice for some time. But some of these numbers are misleading. A research library is devoted to the acquisition, maintenance and availability of collections of amazing range, rarity and depth, much of which will not be consulted for decades, have not been digitized and probably never will be. If we could estimate how many ways in which the world has been changed by that 6%, the number would be far more meaningful than the traffic through its lion-guarded doors. The library’s own releases, while short on details, consistently offer a rosy picture of a lively and popular “People’s Palace.” But a research library is a timeless repository of treasures, not a popularity contest measured by head counts, the current arbiter of success. This is already the most democratic of institutions, free and open to all. Democracy and populism seem to have become hopelessly confused.

Not surprisingly (except to the library), the plan is highly controversial. For most critics it’s about devaluing the primary purpose of a research library by reducing the accessibility of its resources. A letter of protest has been signed by more than a thousand famous writers and distinguished scholars, with a particular outcry about the removal of the books. Indeed, the loss of so many books got so much flak that Abby and Howard Milstein generously donated $8 million in September to complete a second storage level, underneath Bryant Park just behind the library, to keep about 1.5 million of the banished volumes on site, a proposal previously dismissed by the library as unfeasible because of dampness and water seepage. This is clearly meant to mollify critics. But it is also a red herring. The stacks will still be demolished.

Other dissenters fear that an august institution is being turned into “a vast Internet café,” an accusation the library considers a grossly unfair misinterpretation of the plan. But such skepticism was inevitable. The library lost credibility in 2005 after it sold Asher B. Durand’s painting “Kindred Spirits” (1849), a depiction of the poet William Cullen Bryant and the painter Thomas Cole in a Catskills landscape, in a closed auction—something New Yorkers considered a betrayal of their artistic and literary patrimony.

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2 Comments »

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