Bookshelves of the Vanities; Tom Wolfe, Jackie O. and Other Literati Lavishly Raise Millions for the New York Public Library. So Why Don't They Care That the Neighborhood Branches Are Dying?

By Gill, John Freeman | The Washington Monthly, June 1991 | Go to article overview
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Bookshelves of the Vanities; Tom Wolfe, Jackie O. and Other Literati Lavishly Raise Millions for the New York Public Library. So Why Don't They Care That the Neighborhood Branches Are Dying?


Gill, John Freeman, The Washington Monthly


Tom Wolfe, Jackie O, and other literati lavishly raise millions for the New York Public Library. So why don't they care that the neighborhood branches are dying? his winter, a New Yorker writer paid a visit to the modest St. Agnes branch of the New York Public Library (NYPL) and found the demise of Western civilization reflected in its ugly, modem door. This portal of knowledge on West 8 1 st was soon to be closed on Saturdays, a casualty of New York City's budget crisis. As the writer sat "elbow on the table, chin in hand," it seemed only a matter of time before erudite tears would begin to flow.

The New York Public Library, that redoubtable emblem of Manhattan culture, has found itself in a bit of a pinch. And The New Yorker is not alone in sniffling. In a space of just two months, The New York Times has made two passionate editorial pleas for philanthropists to step forward and save the struggling branch libraries from the disastrous results of three years of city budget cuts.

The situation at the 82 branches-the front line of the city's educational system for both children and adults-is indeed grim. In January, forced by the city to reduce its budget for the third time this year, the NYPL announced 27 staff layoffs, the first since the dark days of 1976. As a result, 62 of the branches were compelled to shut their doors nearly half the week. Thousands of latchkey kids were left without a quiet place to read after school. Literacy programs, which taught 5,000 adults to read last year, were ravaged, as were English classes for immigrants.

As Mayor David Dinkins prepares draconian cuts to offset a $3.4 billion city deficit, many of New York's eight million library users must be thinking along the same lines as the Times: If only there were some way-just for the duration of the city's budget crisis-to supplement the library's public funding with private funding. If only there were some entity out there, with a huge accumulation of ready cash, that could help bail out the branches, which serve the city's poorest and least-educated readers. If only there were some way to keep the library doors open for the kids....

Wake up, New York. The benefactor is under your nose. And his name is the New York Public Library. The NYPL, which serves the boroughs of Manhattan, the Bronx, and Staten Island, is among the Forbes 500 wealthiest nonprofit institutions in the country, with annual revenues of $155 million from private gifts, public funds, and an enormous endowment. Thanks to trustees and supporters like Brooke Astor, Tom Wolfe, Bill Blass, and Jackie O, that endowment surged from $148 million to $214 million between 1986 and 1989 (the last year for which records are available). Its executives are numerous and handsomely compensated. And "when it comes to scaring up cash," notes New York magazine, "nobody does it more stylishly than the New York Public Library."

So what's all this about branch closings? A little scrutiny suggests that the New York Public Library crisis isn't a symbol of civilization's decline, after all. What it really symbolizes is the myopia of tax-deductible New York charity. As they trade on their "public" name and falsely earned reputation as providers for the city's underprivileged, NYPL:s renowned trustees and executives preside over a system designed to ensure that the proceeds of their lavish parties and the gifts of ladies bountiful won't trickle down to the kids.

On March 28, as library officials prepared to lay off scores of workers and close branch libraries for weeks or months at a time, NYPL came up with the funds to throw a party in commemoration of the 50th anniversary of Virginia Woolf's suicide. Against a background of gorgeously carved Austrian oak woodwork, the invited guests-limited to trustees and Friends of the Library-could admire Charles Dickens's desk and an assortment of Woolf manuscripts from the library's collection, the largest assortment of original Woolfiana in the world.

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Bookshelves of the Vanities; Tom Wolfe, Jackie O. and Other Literati Lavishly Raise Millions for the New York Public Library. So Why Don't They Care That the Neighborhood Branches Are Dying?
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