At the end of 2014, after a groundswell of media attention and public protests, New York Public Library officials abandoned a controversial renovation, dubbed the Central Library Plan, that would have drastically altered the iconic main library building on 42nd Street in Manhattan and could have greatly altered the future of NYPL as an institution. In his new book, Patience and Fortitude: Power, Real Estate, and the Fight to Save a Public Library (Melville House), Nation writer Scott Sherman argues that, in fact, the ambitious plan could have bankrupted NYPL. PW caught up with Sherman to talk about his new book, his reporting (which Salman Rushdie said was essential to stopping the plan), and how, in the end, the New York Public Library had to be “saved from its own trustees.”
You were one of the first reporters to write about the NYPL’s Central Library Plan, in a December 2011 cover story for the Nation. How did you become interested in the story?
In June 2011, I was asked to write a profile of NYPL’s new president and CEO, Anthony Marx. Marx was a fine president of Amherst College, and the thinking was that he would be a great asset to NYPL. In my first weeks of reporting, I learned about this ambitious plan—a $300 million makeover of the 42nd Street library by the architect Norman Foster. I was especially surprised by the degree of secrecy around the plan. It was created with zero public input. And it was being presented as a fait accompli. Later, in 2013, under the open meeting laws of New York state, I was able to get 10 years of trustee meeting minutes, which revealed the plan to be a mystifying combination of austerity and devil-may-care overreach that involved selling three valuable properties—the Donnell Library, the Science & Business Library, and the Mid-Manhattan Library, as well as a plan to gut the stacks under the Rose Reading Room at the 42nd Street library and to fill that space with a modern circulating library.
You bring up the secrecy and lack of public input into the plan, and even with the plan now abandoned, the question remains, how could that happen?
There is a long history of democracy at NYPL that the current generation of trustees has destroyed. When the library was first planned in the 1890s, NYPL’s founding director, John Shaw Billings, wanted a public discussion about what the building should be, and he got it. He made sure that the architect’s plans for the 42nd Street library were debated at the annual American Library Association meeting in 1897. And he gave the plans to the newspapers. That tradition of democracy and transparency endured through most of the last century. But around 2000, during Paul LeClerc’s tenure as president, something changed. NYPL became a much more closed and secretive institution. Senior librarians were excluded from high-level meetings about the library’s future. Consultants from McKinsey and Booz Allen Hamilton filled the void. Librarians felt locked out, and many said a culture of fear had taken root at NYPL.
Do you think public input might have helped the plan succeed? Was it the process here that was botched, or do you think the plan was fundamentally flawed?
It was flawed from the start. The trustees were driven by hubris and a belief that market solutions could ameliorate NYPL’s complex problems. In reality, NYPL couldn’t afford a $300 million renovation, which, NYPL officials admitted after the plan died, would have actually cost upwards of $500 million. NYPL is a cash-starved institution. Such an expensive plan might well have bankrupted the institution, and it’s not obvious to me that elected officials would have offered the library a bailout.
Proponents of the Central Library Plan say it was intended to update the library for the digital age. What do you say to that?
The trustee meeting minutes say very little about the need for a digital transition by NYPL. The minutes show that NYPL’s trustees were keen to capitalize on rising real estate prices. But once NYPL sells real estate, it never comes back. The money gets spent, and the asset is gone. And I reject the underlying assumption that NYPL was somehow stuck in the past, or that its librarians are museum pieces. NYPL has a talented staff of librarians, and a skilled digital team. NYPL’s digital projects have been widely acclaimed. The radical changes in the Central Library Plan was not needed to bring the library into the digital age.
Supporters of the plan also argued that using so much space at 42nd Street for stacks of old books is elitist—that the space could be better used to serve people, especially in the Internet age, and that the books would be better protected in a state-of-the-art climate-controlled space. How do you respond to that?
The elitist case cannot be dismissed, because one of the plan’s critics, Edmund Morris, wrote a piece for the New York Times that was plainly elitist. But his was just one voice. I think critics of the plan argued persuasively that it would be cheaper to fix the air conditioning system and to continue to use the building for its original purpose. The stacks at the 42nd Street library were brilliantly designed for book storage. It’s a palace of books. And that is how the space should be used. The idea of tearing the heart out of it and replacing it with a circulating library made no sense—the Mid-Manhattan Library is a circulating library. The critics also made the case that dismantling the stacks was going to be an extremely difficult engineering task. One of the engineers hired by NYPL compared it to sawing the legs off a dining table while dinner was being served.
As one who has delved into its history and reported deeply on this latest controversy, how are you feeling about the direction of NYPL going forward? What can we take away from this chapter in NYPL history?
For NYPL, the trustees created a mess and wasted at least $18 million. The Donnell Library never should have been sold. But I see this not just as a story about a library but about our cultural institutions in general. What happened at NYPL is a case study of what can happen when you let real estate developers and Wall Street titans make decisions. What happened at NYPL is that people with little or no library experience were empowered to set library policy, while librarians and the public were closed almost completely out of the process. And I remain worried about the degree to which the NYPL trustees have learned their lesson, which is to be transparent, democratic, and to consult NYPL users.
As we go to press, NYPL is in the news again, fighting yet another budget battle. Your book nicely points out the wealthy benefactors the library has always had, as well the popular public support, and yet the library is always in financial straits. Why?
The institution has an odd structure, and a lot of people don’t understand it. In a way, NYPL is misnamed. It’s called the New York Public Library, but it is not a public department like the police department, or the sanitation department. It’s a private, not-for-profit corporation that partners with New York City and takes quite a bit of money from the city. And it has two parts: the research division, which is mostly supported by philanthropy, and the 88 branches, which are primarily supported by city tax revenues. Historically, the city has never given enough money to properly sustain the branch libraries. For the branches, the golden years were roughly 1910–1960, and it’s been downhill from there. NYPL’s branch libraries today need about $500 million in capital renovations. In my three years of reporting for this book, I talked to many politicians in New York City. And, sadly, my sense is that they don’t really see library issues as fundamental to their reelection. That’s almost certainly one reason why NYPL’s funding needs have been largely neglected.
You can hear Scott Sherman at the 2015 American Library Association Annual Conference in San Francisco, on a panel titled “Libraries and Book Collections as Essential Cultural Institutions: A Historical and Forward-Looking Perspective,” Saturday, June 27 (3–4 p.m., MC 121N). He’ll also appear on the First Author, First Book panel on Sunday, June 28 (1–2 p.m., MC 232–234S).