Archive for July 2013

NYC Mayoral Candidates on the Central Library Plan

Readers of this blog know that I’ve been following the struggle to preserve the Research Division of the New York Public Library from the so-called “Central Library Plan” that would demolish the seven floors of stacks that currently hold most of the NYPL’s research collection; under the plan, the books will be relocated to a warehouse in central NJ to make room for a regular circulating library and a new science library. In connection with the plan, two midtown branch libraries will be closed and sold, the Mid-Manhattan Library and SIBL, the Science, Industry and Business Library. (Five of SIBL’s seven floors were sold last year in preparation.) In Brooklyn, two of the Brooklyn Public Library’s branch libraries – the Pacific and Brooklyn Heights branches – appear likely to be offered for sale as well. Opponents of the CLP have cried foul on these projected and completed sales: the branch libraries that have been deaccessioned in recent years have been sold below market value, leaving room for speculation that their sale had more to do with real estate deals and construction contracts than with the public good.

As I testified before the New York State Assembly on June 27, I did the research for several of my translations at the NYPL, as well as researching and writing much of my book about turn-of-the-19th-century translation history and theory there. The sorts of research tasks I was able to accomplish at the NYPL (comparing different editions of historical works, accessing concordances of foreign-language authors, consulting 19th century dictionaries, reading 18th century literary journals published in French and German) would certainly not have been possible at a branch library; and this sort of task will be far more difficult and time-consuming in the future if the CLP is implemented, since each book a researcher requests will have to be individually transported back to the library from New Jersey, slowing the eureka process of proper research (which involves being able to look up each new source as soon as you learn of its existence) to a glacial pace. The NYPL Research Division is the only library in NYC that is open to the public; all others, even the library of the City University of New York, are open only to students and faculty.

Since I believe that maintaining the city’s library resources is something a mayor should strive to do, I sent letters on July 6 to each of the major party and “major third party” mayoral candidates asking them to weigh in on the CLP. To date I have received only a handful of responses (all from Democrats), which I will post below in alphabetical order. If I receive belated responses from other candidates, I will post their responses below as they come in. Here’s the roster thus far:

Sal Albanese (Democrat) – A staffer wrote back assuring me “Sal’s on the record pretty strongly against the Central Library plan” and sent a pair of links by way of documentation. Neither addresses the question of the Research Library, but both contain clear statements against closing neighborhood libraries. One is video from a Citizens Defending Libraries rally outside the Brooklyn Heights library, at which Albanese pledges not to accept campaign funds from “lobbyists or developers” so that he will be free to combat them if elected; and one shows his responses to a questionnaire by a group called Urban Libraries United whose website announced in May that it would be polling all the mayoral candidates about their position on NYC libraries. The only response they post is from Albanese; I wonder if that means he’s the only one who got back to them. In his response he says that as mayor he will fight to keep branch libraries open and staffed.

Bill de Blasio (Democrat) – His staffers didn’t actually respond to my query, but I’m including him here because he was the main speaker at the Citizens Defending Libraries rally held yesterday on the steps of the Central Library. He came out strongly against both sides of the CLP – both the sale of branch libraries and the gutting of the research library – and had a lot to say about the selling-off of public property to private investors. Yesterday afternoon he posted video of the rally along with an open letter to Mayor Bloomberg demanding an immediate stop to the CLP on the Public Advocate of New York City website.

John Liu (Democrat) – A staffer wrote back saying, “Comptroller Liu was proud to stand with active groups like Citizens Defending Libraries.  From libraries to school sites to NYCHA properties, Mayor Bloomberg has used his waning time in office to sell off some of the City’s most important assets to wealthy developers. This trend of parceling out what rightfully belongs to all New Yorkers must come to a stop.” The staffer sent me links to two videos (here and here) of Liu speaking at a Citizens Defending Libraries meeting in Brooklyn in April about the selling-off of library branches (and explaining how the city’s budgeting process works); he said keeping the city’s branch libraries open seven days a week would cost $35 million a year, a sum he says is within the city’s means. The staffer also sent a link to video of Liu speaking at a Citizens Defending Libraries rally at City Hall on April 19 that Sal Albanese also attended.

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Other candidates who did not get back to me but have gone on record about the Central Library Plan are:

Christine Quinn (Democrat) – in her capacity as Speaker of the City Council, Quinn spoke in favor of the CLP in December 2012 and is quoted in a press release issued by the library as saying: “This visionary project by the New York Public Library, embodied in this beautiful building by Norman Foster, is central to this great institution’s evolution as a vital part of our city, as it has been for over a century.  I applaud NYPL for listening and heeding the concerns of the stakeholders, and for crafting a project that sensitively addresses its dual mission as a great center of scholarship—and as the people’s library for all New Yorkers—for the next century.” As far as I have seen, she is the only Democratic candidate not opposed to the CLP.

Bill Thompson (Democrat) – During a mayoral forum held in Brooklyn on May 6, 2013, Thompson answered a question from an audience member about the future of public libraries by saying he was strongly opposed to selling off library branches.

I’ll post more information as it comes in.

A Reprieve for the Stacks

Photo @Eric Walton     

This was an eventful day in the struggle to preserve the Research Division of the New York Public Library at 42nd Street from demolition. The plaintiffs in the lawsuit filed on Wednesday against the leadership of the NYPL successfully petitioned the judge in the case for a restraining order that the library was compelled to sign, stipulating that the Central Library Plan be put on hold until October pending a thorough independent review. This is a significant triumph for supporters of the library. Both the Wall Street Journal and the New York Times reports suggest that the NYPL willingly agreed to the postponement of the CLP, though I have it from sources in the room that it was not so. In any case, development plans for the New York and Brooklyn Public Library systems are now in the public eye, a good place for them, and I am optimistic that public oversight will help ensure that plans made for the library’s future are actually in the best interests of the libraries’ patrons and owners: the citizens of New York City.

Today also saw a rally on the front steps of the Central Library culminating with a press conference by Public Advocate and mayoral candidate Bill de Blasio, who decried the selling off of public property for private profit in NYC. Among other things, de Blasio presented an open letter he had just sent to Mayor Bloomberg, which I excerpt here:

I am writing to express my deep concern over the proposed changes to the City’s library systems in Manhattan and Brooklyn. I am calling on the City to halt the New York Public Library’s plans at the Central Library, and for a thorough, independent cost audit and review of the proposed project. In addition, I am calling for a reconsideration of the Brooklyn Public Library’s plans for the Brooklyn Heights and Pacific branches until a similar review can be completed. […]

The NYPL claims this renovation would cost $300 million and save the system substantial funds in the long run. But recent testimony by Tony Marx, President of the New York Public Library, suggested this estimate has not been corroborated by independent sources, and that the figure is preliminary. Outside critics have identified the substantial engineering challenges associated with the proposed renovation and are skeptical that the plan’s $300 million price tag wouldn’t grow much larger, potentially catastrophically so. The City should immediately halt all plans to sell Mid-Manhattan Library and the Science, Industry, and Business Library to developers until a thorough, independent, and publicly disclosed assessment is completed.

The full text of his letter and footage of the press conference can be found on the Office of the New York City Public Advocate website.

Earlier this week I sent around a letter to all the major party and “major third party” mayoral candidates asking about their position on the Central Library Plan. Not all of them got back to me, but several did; I’ll post an overview of their responses soon.

Second Lawsuit Filed Against NYPL

Just one week after a group of concerned scholars filed a lawsuit against the New York Public Library to stop work on the Central Library Plan (which entails selling off popular branch libraries and gutting the stacks of the main Research Library at 42nd St.), a second group has joined them. Plaintiffs in the new lawsuit filed yesterday include writer Edmund Morris (Pulitzer Prize winning biographer of Theodore Roosevelt, Ronald Reagan and Beethoven), historian David Nasaw (an expert, among other things, on the life and work of library benefactor Andrew Carnegie, and Arthur M. Schlesinger, Jr. Professor of History at the CUNY Graduate Center), Joan W. Scott (a prominent intellectual historian, feminist giant, and social science professor at the Institute for Advanced Study); Annalyn Swan (Pulitzer Prize winning biographer of Willem de Kooning and Francis Bacon) and Stanley N. Katz (a professor at the Woodrow Wilson School of Public and International Affairs at Princeton and president emeritus of the important humanities organization American Council of Learned Societies). They are joined by library advocates from the group Citizens Defending Libraries.

According to the press release issued by the law firm Weiss & Hiller, this lawsuit differs in strategy from the one filed last week, though both have similar goals. This new suit, which among other things seeks an immediate temporary restraining order against the NYPL to stop the demolition of the stacks, bases its arguments on the historical agreements surrounding the library and research collection. To quote the press release:

The first claim in the Coalition’s lawsuit to be filed tomorrow is that a 1978 Agreement between the Library, City and State of New York bars any structural alteration of the Central Branch of the Library absent prior consent from the State. Under another provision of the 1978 Agreement, the NYPL and the City also each separately promised “to protect and preserve the historical integrity of features, materials, appearance, workmanship and environment” of the Central Library — a promise that “they would break if the stacks were to be removed,” according to Michael Hiller of Weiss & Hiller, the firm representing the Coalition.

The Coalition’s suit also includes claims seeking injunctive relief to direct that the books already removed from the Library as part of the Central Library Plan be immediately restored. A series of trusts, indentures, agreements and the NYPL Charter explicitly prohibit removal of the books from the Library.

According to the New York Times, the city and Mayor Bloomberg are named as defendants in the suit along with library executives.

Meanwhile library officials seem less than concerned about all the public outcry surrounding their demolition and renovation plan. A statement given to the New York Times yesterday insists that the Central Library Plan will “improve service for scholars, preserve the library’s collections for future generations and provide a state-of-the art circulating and business library.” As has been pointed out repeatedly over the last two weeks, it’s hard to imagine how service for scholars can be improved by shipping the research materials they depend on for their work across state lines.

Lawsuit Filed to Halt NYPL Demolition

In the aftermath of last week’s NY State Assembly hearing about the future of public libraries in Manhattan and Brooklyn, a group of concerned scholars has just filed a lawsuit aimed at preventing what many see as the destruction of the research library and the selling off of public library branches to private investors. As the Wall Street Journal reported earlier today:

The lawsuit, filed in New York State Supreme Court in Manhattan on Wednesday, seeks a court injunction to stop the library from proceeding with preparatory or demolition work, and to bar city officials from providing funding for the renovation.

The suit was also reported on in brief by the New York Times.

Lead plaintiff in the suit is celebrated (Pulitzer, Guggenheim, MacArthur etc.) historian David Levering Lewis, a professor at NYU. He is joined by architect/architectural historian Mark Alan Hewitt and several others not named in the newspaper reports. According to the Wall Street Journal, the lawsuit presents a number of charges:

Among them: that library officials failed to conduct a review of the project’s environmental impact; that the removal of the stacks would impinge on the public’s right to receive information under the First Amendment; and that the consolidation of a circulating library inside a research library constitutes a breach of the library trustees’ fiduciary duties because it would diminish the library’s research function.

The lawsuit also seeks to delay the demolition of the stacks until the city’s Landmarks Preservation Commision hears an application filed by two of the plaintiffs to designate the Rose Main Reading Room as a landmark.

Portions of the Central Library Plan have been moving forward without much public awareness or oversight; e.g. the Science, Industry and Business Library’s building on Madison Ave. at 34th St., was sold at a considerable loss just a few weeks ago. I hope this new lawsuit and attention from elected officials – such as State Assemblyman Micah Z. Kellner, Chair of the Assembly’s Libraries and Education Committee, who convened last week’s hearing – will bring more clarity and openness to the decisions being made about the future of our public library system.

I blogged last week about why I oppose the Central Library Plan and what others had to say about it in the State Assembly hearing. See these posts for more background information. And don’t miss David Levering Lewis’s statement on the Chronicle of Higher Education website about why he thinks our libraries need our help right now.

For updates on the progress of various initiatives to save NYC library buildings from going the way of Penn Station, keep an eye on the websites Citizens Defending Libraries and The Committee to Save the NYPL. If you’re concerned and would like to do more, there’s a petition here calling for a reevaluation of the Central Library Plan. You can also ask your Assembly member to stand with Micah Kellner on this issue, ask your City Council member to weigh in, and ask candidates for mayor and City Council what they plan to do to keep our library system intact.