NYPL_Bryant Park

The following article is an op-ed by Susan Bernofsky, chair of the PEN translation committee, originally published on her blog Translationista.

Yesterday I was invited to tour the stacks at the 42nd Street Library as part of a delegation from the PEN American Center, which the NYPL is hoping to win over to its cause. The purpose of the tour was to convince us that the demolition of the stacks is necessary and a contribution to service and scholarship. What I saw convinced me of the opposite.

We were led through a floor of the stacks that once held 3 million books directly below the Rose Reading Room, making it possible for a book to be delivered to a library user minutes after it was requested. The rows and rows of empty stacks were a sad sight. There was also a striking discrepancy between what we were seeing and the talking points that our hosts, Chief Library Officer Mary Lee Kennedy and Vice President of Communications and Marketing Ken Weine, kept repeating as we walked.

What they said was: Look what bad shape the stacks are in, and before we removed the books you would smell a terrible smell down here: “the smell of the books dying” (Kennedy). This has been a talking point NYPL CEO Anthony Marx has been repeating for months now: the claim that the library “had no choice” but to remove the books from the stacks a year ago because the books were “rotting” on the shelves. I don’t know anyone not in the employ of NYPL who believes that this is true. 

The Rose Main Reading Room

The stacks I saw yesterday were pretty dusty, and that was the only thing obviously “wrong” with them. I saw not a trace of rust on the sturdy and elegant Carnegie steel stacks (manufactured from a grade of steel that isn’t made anymore), and the marble floors holding up the stacks—which also structurally support the Rose Reading Room above—appeared to be in excellent shape. A sprinkler system snaked along the ceiling, accompanied by vents for the HVAC system.

Another NYPL talking point is that the stacks cannot be appropriately climate-controlled; well, a state-of-the-art climate-control system was installed in the stacks in the 1980s. I’m sure it’s due for an upgrade thirty years later. And upgrading it would certainly be cheaper than tearing out seven floors of stacks and reengineering the entire building so that the Rose Reading Room won’t collapse when its supports are removed.

The PEN delegation also toured BPSE (pronounced “bipsy”), the Bryant Park Stack Extension: two floors of concrete basement built beneath the park in the 1980s. The first basement floor is climate controlled and equipped with enormous moving bookshelves on tracks to maximize the storage space. Currently these shelves house 1.2 million books. NYPL is now planning to equip the lower level of BPSE—currently just a concrete shell—with an HVAC system and shelves, which if the space can indeed hold the same amount of shelving as the space upstairs (the ceilings downstairs looked a bit lower to me), will allow BPSE to house a total of 2.4 million volumes.

Now let’s do the numbers. During the tour, Kennedy said that after the proposed renovation over 80% of the books formerly housed in the stacks would remain onsite. Here’s a more accurate version of the facts and figures presented by NYPL CEO Tony Marx back in 2012, before the library had retained a PR firm to help it refine its talking points:

What will happen to the books at 42nd Street? Marx said that there are now about 3 million books in the stacks, 1.2 million in the Bryant Park Stack Extension (BPSE), and 300,000 to 400,000 stored elsewhere in the building. He said that 4 million volumes are now stored offsite. After the CLP [Central Library Plan renovation], at least 2 million books would remain onsite, mostly in BPSE.

In short: with the stacks, a total of 4.5 to 4.6 million books onsite. Without the stacks and with a new second floor of BPSE: 2.7 to 2.8 million books onsite. But if NYPL also goes ahead with its plan of consolidating the Mid-Manhattan Library and the Science, Industry and Business Library (SIBL) in a new lending library contained within the 42nd Street Building, that will mean another 1 million books (the size of the combined collections of those two libraries) that will have to be housed somewhere, probably displacing even more books from the research collection to NJ.

A year and a half ago, NYPL Trustee Abby S. Milstein and her husband, real estate developer Howard P. Milstein, donated $8 million to the library to build out the stacks in the second level of BPSE. If this renovation is completed without demolishing the stacks, this would permit the library to house an awe-inspiring 5.7 to 5.8 million books onsite. Now that would be a place to get some serious research done.

Meanwhile the book delivery system that transports books from deep storage in NJ to 42nd Street remains plagued with problems. Just this week, Pulitzer Prize winning biographer Annalyn Swan reported experiencing a two-day lag between requesting a book and getting an email saying that it was “in the process of being delivered”—which meant an extra day or two for it actually to be delivered and available on site.