What lies behind the battle over the New York Public Library
Jason Farago, The Guardian
Libraries across America are facing swingeing budget cuts and uncertain futures. But here in New York, home to the second-largest library in the country, the future is now.
The hottest cultural controversy of this already hot summer concerns the New York Public Library (NYPL), and a plan to disembowel its main building – a plan that will slice open the stacks and "replace books with people", in the words of the NYPL system's CEO, Tony Marx. It's enraged writers and professors, demoralized a staff already coping with layoffs, and called the entire purpose of the system into question.
And the debate is getting bitter. Hundreds of writers, from Peter Carey to Mario Vargas Llosa, have gone on record against the plan. An exhaustive exposé in the literary magazine n+1 raised the temperature, and the current issue of the New York Review of Books contains page after page of tetchy point v counterpoint. Whatever the fate of our library, a lot of people are going to be very angry when this is all over.
The New York Public Library comprises 87 branches in three of the city's five boroughs, but the prize is the big beaux-arts central facility on Fifth Avenue, 101 years old, with its pair of marble lions guarding the entrance. Even those who have never been to the city know the place – it's the setting of the first scene of Ghostbusters. As is the way in Bloomberg's New York, however, the facility was renamed in 2008 for a private equity titan. There was a whole fight about just where and how many times he could get his name incised on the façade.
Unlike the borough branches, the central library does not lend books. It's a research institution, and compared to establishments of the same caliber – the Library of Congress, say, or the collections of Harvard and Yale – it is exceptionally open. You don't need an academic affiliation. You don't need to pay for a reader's ticket. You don't even need to come up with a convincing excuse to call up Walt Whitman's manuscripts if you want to have a rifle through. Just fill out a call slip and you can have it in about an hour.
The new Central Library Plan, though, will move 3m books (about 60% of what's now on site) out of the central facility, to be immured in some bunker in New Jersey. Researchers have been promised that they can summon these books with a day's notice. But the library already promises that for books currently off-site, and it doesn't really work that way; in practice, it takes closer to two or three days. One skeptical professor at CUNY, the public university whose students rely heavily on the library, wondered at an acrimonious debate whether the NYPL expected "the traffic on the New Jersey Turnpike was going to decrease."
To read the full article: http://www.guardian.co.uk/commentisfree/2012/jul/07/what-lies-behind-battle-over-new-york-public-library