As an occasional user of the venerable Research Division of the New York Public Library on 42nd Street in Manhattan, I have watched the ongoing restoration of the building with a great deal of interest. Recent work on the exterior of the iconic, century-old building has brightened the stones and lighting fixtures, and made the details of the Beaux Arts architecture come more clearly into view. More significant work is planned for the interior of the building, as is described in this article from The Nation.
The author, Scott Sherman, spoke to a number of NYPL staffers and administrators about the Central Library Plan (CLP) for the renovation, details of which are "closely guarded." Based on what they know, however, staffers "worry that the makeover would not only weaken one of the world's great libraries but mar the architectural integrity of the landmark building ... " What does the CLP call for? Seven levels of stacks which "hold 3 million books and tens of thousands of adjustable and fixed shelves" will be "demolished." The resulting space will be used for "construction of a state-of-the-art, computer-oriented library designed by British architect Norman Foster ... a "library within the library." Most of the dislocated books will be stored, either in a facility below the library or in Princeton, New Jersey, from both of which they will be retrievable. For the first time in history, patrons will be able to check books out of the Research Division collection. What will this "new high-tech circulating facility" cost? Estimates range from $250 million to $350 million, a staggering sum of money at any time, but particularly so during an economic downturn which has left many public institutions, including NYPL, in acute financial distress. The article explores a number of issues, including whether the money committed to the CLP would be better spent improving the eight-seven branch libraries, many of which have fallen into disrepair, and enhancing the collections of both the research and branch libraries, which have fallen victim to ongoing budget cuts.
I was also interested to read about the new president of NYPL, Anthony Marx, who took office in July after a successful tenure as president of Amherst College, where he became known for his efforts to increase the economic diversity of the student body. As the parent of an Amherst alumna, I met President Marx a few times at social events at the college. He impressed me as a thoughtful individual with a genuine passion for opening up access to elite institutions to a broader range of individuals. Given that background, his appointment to the presidency of NYPL makes sense. Library administrators have said that "the objective of the CLP ... is to democratize the Forty-second Street library, incorporate the latest digital technology and serve the public. ... [After the renovation,] "users will have access to almost 70 percent of the building," compared to only 32 percent of the space today.
I don't envy Marx his new position. He must deal with demoralized staff, many of whom disagree with the library's current plans; trustees, who are used to calling the shots; potential donors (much of his time is probably spent fundraising); unions representing the library staff; and members of the public, at least some of whom care a lot "about the shape of the entire New York Public Library in the years to come."