The following article is an op-ed by Susan Bernofsky, associate professor at Columbia University School of the Arts.
The New York Public Library is the only research facility open to the general public in New York City, and now we stand to lose it as part of a renovation scheme that is poised to sell off public buildings for private profit. It came out last week, in an interview on Charlie Rose, that Schwarzman, the library’s biggest donor, made his $100 million contribution in 2008 with the understanding that the library would sell off some of its local branches and undertake a massive renovation project designed to result in enormous construction contracts (most of which will be funded at taxpayer expense). In short, he bought the right to determine the New York Public Library’s future, something that should not have been for sale at any price.
And it is clear that the Central Library Plan is not in the best interests of library patrons. Under the plan, the Mid-Manhattan branch of the NYPL – heretofore one of the biggest, best-stocked and most-patronized of the branch libraries – would be incorporated into the Research Library (think: fewer books, more computer terminals), and the wonderful research collection that has always made the 42nd St. library one of the best places in the world to do research is going to be moved off-site. Indeed, this is one “fact on the ground” that has already been created, even though the renovation plan is so actively under fire: The books have already been removed from their shelves in preparation for the removal of those shelves. Once they are gone, doing research at the NYPL will never be the same again: You’ll have to wait days for the books to be trucked in from New Jersey, and only those scholars and students with the luxury to spread out their research visits over long periods of time will really be able to get their work done. This will be a major hurdle in the accessibility of high-level knowledge to New Yorkers who are not among the city’s educational elite.
Perhaps Schwarzman doesn’t care, but those who do care are the scholars, writers and students who depend on the NYPL for their research. Everyone I know who’s ever used the library is against the plan. Two very famous architecture critics (Ada Louise Huxtable and Michael Kimmelman) are against it. And I’ve heard through the grapevine that the librarians at the research division are overwhelmingly against it too, but have been encouraged to keep their mouths shut; as a friend of a friend who works there remarked: “They fire people on a dime around here.”
And now we have one solid chance left to defeat the Central Library Plan. There will be a public hearing TOMORROW at the New York State Assembly in lower Manhattan to debate the plan. A lot of people, including me, will be presenting testimony. And our best shot at success is having huge crowds of people show up to demonstrate to the Assembly how much public support there is for preserving the Research Library as a research library. Please, can you come? The hearing will be held at 250 Broadway, Room 1923 (between Murray Street and Park Place, across from City Hall) on Thursday, June 27. The hearing is scheduled to start at 10:30 a.m., but please arrive at 10:00 because you’ll have to show photo ID and go through a security line, and this takes a while in my experience.
For more information, please visit the website of the Committee to Save the New York Public Library. You can also find them on Facebook and Twitter. See more from Susan Bernofsky on her website, Translationista.
Also from Untapped Cities: Secrets of the New York Public Library