Magazine article The New Yorker

Buildings and Books

Magazine article The New Yorker

Buildings and Books

Article excerpt


--Ian Frazier

The New York Public Library's announcement that it is abandoning its Central Library Plan has been praised as a good and sensible thing, and indeed it is. The C.L.P. would have sold off the Mid-Manhattan Library and the Science, Industry, and Business Library (called SIBL; five of its floors not open to the public have been sold already). The collections of those libraries would have been moved to the main research library, on Fifth Avenue, and elsewhere. That hundred-and-three-year-old edifice (now known as the Stephen A. Schwarzman Building), with the stone lions out front, would have been reconfigured: seven floors of its stacks taken out, a lending library added to what had been a research library only, more than a million books moved off-site, and a four-level atrium and other new elements put in, following a design by the architect Norman Foster.

Observers could be excused for finding the plan too complicated and strange to think about at first. The library's management and board of trustees developed the C.L.P. without the public's knowing much about it, but as the time for construction approached, and more public meetings were held, it became clear that the C.L.P. represented a major retrenchment. Anyone with experience in household austerity and the cost of modern real estate could get the picture. The main research building was like the elderly but still healthy parent; the Mid-Manhattan Library and SIBL were the grownup offspring. Pressed for cash, the family was selling the kids' apartments and moving the kids in with the parent. To make room, some of the parent's belongings would have to be put in storage in New Jersey. When the sacrifices that the C.L.P. would entail sank in, thanks in particular to reporting in The Nation and n+1, library users began to object loudly and persistently. The protests, the new mayor's lack of support, and the fact that the financial projections did not add up eventually undid the C.L.P.

The biggest problem was the money. The N.Y.P.L. receives only part of its funding from the city, in an amount that goes up or (more often) down from year to year. Most of the money is spread among the eighty-seven branch libraries throughout Manhattan, the Bronx, and Staten Island. (Brooklyn and Queens have their own systems.) In 2014, the city will contribute about fifty per cent of the over-all operating costs. To make up the difference, the N.Y.P.L. pursues funding from many sources, which also fluctuate unpredictably. The collection of the main research library has been compared to that of the Library of Congress and to that of Harvard's Widener Library. But the U.S. government underwrites the former, and the latter rests comfortably in the care of the richest university in the world. In contrast, the N.Y.P.L. is an on-the-jump freelancer, scrambling for dollars from one day to the next almost as energetically as the street performers out in front of the Fifth Avenue building.

In the case of the C.L.P., the money that did not add up was about three hundred million dollars. This was the amount that the sale of SIBL and Mid-Manhattan would have provided a portion of. (The city would have put in most of the rest.) The sum had been thought sufficient for carrying out the C.L.P., until an independent audit found it not to be. To get an idea of where this much money ranks against ongoing enterprises in midtown, it's useful to look at the fate of the Donnell Library, the currently out-of-commission branch on Fifty-third Street. …

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