Over the past decade, I’ve visited a lot of central libraries—from Chicago to Liverpool to Denver—only to come home to New York and wonder, why don’t we have a great public library?
What I have long wanted is a library building that offers rich, deep, circulating collections that I could get lost in—an attractive environment where I could open up my laptop and comfortably get to work, with strong reference collections (print, but mainly digital) and library staff available to help me along the way. And yes, a cup of coffee might be nice, too.
While various libraries scattered around town offer individual features from this wish list, the reality is that no one branch of the New York Public Library (NYPL) system delivers them all, they way that, for example, Seattle’s central library does. So when the NYPL unveiled, in late 2012, its schematic designs for a renovation of the Schwarzman Building—the landmark library building with the iconic lion statues, on Fifth Avenue and 42nd Street—I was ecstatic.
Architect Norman Foster’s plan proposed to carve seven floors of book stacks out of the building (with the volumes to head off to a storage facility in New Jersey) to make room for a modern, cavernous, four-level circulating library collection. Much of this library collection would come from the busy but downtrodden Mid-Manhattan Library, with its excellent popular collection, and the less-used Science, Industry and Business Library. Both of those library buildings would be sold. In all, the new plan would double the public space of the existing Schwarzman Building, while leaving the research divisions, as well as the beloved Rose Reading Room, intact. Library officials also promised to bolster research services, hire more librarians, and expand space for scholars and writers.
This is a slam dunk, I thought.
Of course, I couldn’t have been more wrong. Foster’s plan elicited what can only be described as a firestorm—almost certainly the biggest public outcry a public library project has ever generated.
Almost immediately, the NYPL’s proposal was trashed by renowned architecture critic Ada Louise Huxtable. “You don’t update a masterpiece,” Huxtable wrote, in a pointed review in the Wall Street Journal. Michael Kimmelman followed suit with a pastiche of objections in the New York Times.
From there things got worse. More than 1,000 scholars and authors, including bigwigs like Salman Rushdie and Mario Vargas Llosa, signed a letter of protest. “More space, more computers, a café, and a lending library will not improve an already democratic institution,” the letter objected. Then came a rally on the library steps, and two lawsuits to block the renovation.
In short order, Lord Foster was sent back to the drawing board. And just last month we learned that the revised plan, which was promised for this fall, wouldn’t be available until after the New Year. Maybe that’s a good thing. In the words of Elizabeth II, the NYPL is having an annus horribillis.
It’s tempting to think that the causes of the negative reaction to Foster’s plan to renovate the NYPL’s central library are unique to New York City—and in one way, that’s true. The NYPL’s central library is unlike any other public library in the country. It’s a research library with a capital R, one of just a handful of similar institutions in the world, with a collection so vast, and so rare, it defies description.
But in other ways, what the library was trying to create in the Schwarzman Building—new space for children and teens, expanded computer areas, more meeting rooms, improved space for circulating books and media—is happening in so many libraries across the country, it’s practically a formula. Which makes understanding NYPL’s missteps, and the public’s reaction, all the more important. How did things go so wrong for the NYPL, where other cities have succeeded?
NYPL’s first glaring misstep was poor communication. Transparency is a buzzword of our current age, and while all institutions are encouraged to be more open, openness is practically a mandate for nonprofits. What does transparency mean? In fairness, it can be hard to undertake such a major plan under full public scrutiny, and there is no guidebook for where to draw the lines. But at least libraries undertaking renovation projects now have the advantage of looking at the NYPL’s actions, and doing the opposite.
For starters, if you’ve commissioned management studies, as NYPL did, with major consulting firms like McKinsey, make them public. Citizens should never have to file Freedom of Information Act requests to read the minutes from your trustee meetings, or the supporting documents. Yes, sharing information can be uncomfortable. It opens library management and operations up to all sorts of scrutiny. But secrecy only invites distrust and fuels conspiracy theories. Long gone are the days when library management can paternalistically change services and facilities and expect the public’s grateful approval, as NYPL did here.
And for all the money NYPL spent seeking feedback from consultants, it spent too little time and money on understanding its users. It launched its “public engagement process”—a Web site where the public can post responses to the proposed renovations— so late (nine months before the schematics of the plan was released) as to be laughable. Research among the library’s varied users—scholars and professors, graduate students and teens, lunchtime borrowers and weekend novelists—certainly could have helped shape the plan and offered much-needed context when it was ready to be rolled out.
It helps, too, if your public relations team remembers that you aren’t a corporation, but a library, and that libraries necessarily embody a different set of values than, say, Goldman Sachs. The public expects its libraries to represent its values, including openness, right down the line, including in their operations.
Also, keep the business jargon for the board meetings. Express change in human terms. NYPL could use a Pope Francis–like approach to warm things up: “Who am I to judge your binge-watching of Breaking Bad?”
Tend to Your Core
Another major misstep was that NYPL unnecessarily pissed off a core constituency. Every library has at least one group of core constituents, and while they aren’t typically the biggest group of users, they are the ones who identify the most with the institution, are well connected, and, and can really rise up when provoked. In your library, it could be parents, even large-print readers. For the NYPL, my guess is that humanities scholars were the core constituents most offended by its renovation plan.
What appears to have upset the humanities scholars in this case is the NYPL’s plan to move so many books to high-density storage in New Jersey. Their distrust is understandable—humanities scholars aren’t having an easy time of it these days, and the NYPL’s plan seemed to have been their last straw. At a university, they would have rushed to their dean to give him or her an earful. In New York, they rushed to the pages of the New York Times and the Nation. As the biographer Edmund Morris wrote, NYPL was in danger of becoming a “palace of presentism,” where, already, “the marble floor nowadays is loud with the squeak of Reeboks.”
It didn’t have to go this way for the NYPL. Off-site storage is now common practice at research libraries from Harvard to Berkeley, and ReCAP, the off-site facility that would have housed the books removed from Schwarzman Building, has been in existence since 1999, built in partnership with Princeton and Columbia universities, two of the finest research institutions in the world.
In reality, ReCAP already houses millions of NYPL books—and Columbia has even more titles in storage there. And the facility is designed for the express purpose of preserving materials for the long haul, while the current seven levels of book stacks at the NYPL lack temperature and humidity control, and are known in library circles as “the little house of horrors” because of the terrible preservation conditions.
Had the library brought its preservation concerns to the table earlier, the outcome could have been far different. If NYPL officials had consulted more closely with these core constituents, the storage plan could have been refined and better presented as an enhancement to scholarship—which I believe it legitimately will be—and the whole tempest might have been avoided.
A subsequent proposal to keep more volumes at the Schwarzman library seems to have somewhat mollified the critics—but the damage has been done. The NYPL was depicted in the court of public opinion as out of touch with its users, driven by the bottom line, besot with trendiness, and having lost its way. Almost overnight, the NYPL went from a benign, if not beloved, institution to an evil book burner in the minds of some key thinkers.
Such perceptions are enough to push any major renovation project off the tracks. But they are especially dangerous for a library system so dependent on private funds to keep its research libraries afloat.
The Vision Thing
I have the utmost respect for the NYPL—it is one of our nation’s greatest institutions, well served by a talented and devoted staff that manages to provide remarkable library services, despite local support that lags behind that of other cities. And, on the positive side, Foster’s controversial plan shows that the library is now willing to innovate and take risks, to think about its buildings and services differently, and to offer its public something new.
But even if Foster’s revised plan manages to satisfy some of the project’s more strident critics, there will likely remain a glaring flaw: to commit to well over $300 million for one building, when branches in some of New York’s neediest neighborhoods are failing, is a hard sell. And the NYPL cannot forget about the whole while focusing on just one part.
Library officicials have yet to produce a coherent vision that ties its branch libraries in Manhattan, the Bronx, and Staten Island together with its several research facilities. And unlike supporters of libraries in other major cities, such as San Francisco, NYPL supporters have not been able to convince their city government to finance a systemic renovation of neighborhood libraries.
I look forward to seeing Foster’s revised plan in 2014, and to seeing whether the library has learned from the fiasco of 2013. But most importantly, the events of 2013 should remind critics, supporters, and library administrators alike that we all need the NYPL to succeed—and that success needs to expand beyond 42nd Street.