Archive for February 2014

Translation Panels at AWP 2014

If you’re on your way to Seattle for the writerly ritual of attending the AWP conference and are hoping to catch some great translation events while you’re there, you’re in luck: This year’s program is rich in offerings. There’s even a panel in there with Translationista on it, and lots more where I’ll be sitting in the audience, so do say hello, and enjoy!

Thursday, February 27, 2014

9:00 am to 10:15 am

Room 611, Washington State Convention Center, Level 6R120. Translating the Foreign: What Does It Mean? . (Lisa Katz,  Aron Aji,  Mira Rosenthal,  Andrea Lingenfelter,  Poupeh Missaghi) Translators from Turkish, Chinese, Polish, Persian, and Hebrew attempt to define the foreign element in their source texts as well as how they offer it linguistic hospitality (Paul Ricouer’s words) in their translations into English. What is this thing we call foreign?

10:30 am to 11:45 am

Cedar Room, Sheraton Seattle, 2nd Floor
R131. Translation and U.S. Spanish-Language Poetry. (Kristin Dykstra,  Tina Escaja,  Mariela Dreyfus,  Eileen Mary O’Connor) Opening with a short reading, this panel will take up questions involving two groups of writers: Spanish-language poets residing in the U.S. and translators. Can translation help to build cultural communities that might not yet exist in reality? How might conditions differ from one place to another? How do poets perceive and seek out translators? What challenges do translators face? How and where can writer/translator teams create bilingual reading opportunities for all?

Room 400, Washington State Convention Center, Level 4
R138. Double Lives: Writer/Translators(Lawrence Schimel, Sholeh Wolpé, Geoffrey Brock, Idra Novey, Susan Harris) Many creative writers are also accomplished translators, and they establish parallel careers; but the two pursuits, and the resulting publications, are rarely considered in tandem. Four writers discuss how translating affects their other creative work, how reimagining another writer’s fiction and poetry in English can influence one’s “own” writing in those genres, and how they move between and within their dual identities.

1:30 pm to 2:45 pm

Cedar Room, Sheraton Seattle, 2nd Floor
R191. Communication is Translation: How the Act of Translating Influences the Act of Poesis. (Iris Mahan, Barbara Carlson, Richard Jackson, Esther Allen, William Pitt Root) George Steiner believes that “all acts of communication are acts of translation.” If this is fact, then why is there so often so little room in the world of translation for creative communication? Through selected readings and lively discussion, this panel of poets, prose writers, and editors will examine the validity of Steiner’s supposition by exploring the effects of traditional translation, imitation, and riff on the “making” and communication of their own bodies of creative work.

Room LL5, Western New England MFA Annex, Lower Level
R213. Ring of Fire, New Creations: Translation on the Pacific Rim. (Karen An-hwei Lee, Sawako Nakayasu, Srikanth Reddy, Neil Aitken) Contemporary Asian American poets discuss their strategies and experiences in translating poetry from nations of the Pacific Rim, sharing insights on methodology, collaborative process, cross-cultural representations, and experimental forms. Transcending the conventions of fidelity or transparency, the investigations of these poet-translators go beyond the question of what is “lost in translation” to consider the potential of translations as entirely new creations. A respondent will present closing remarks prior to a question and answer session.

Room 302, Western New England MFA Annex, Level 3
R217. From Borges to the Gnostics: Tribute to the work of Willis Barnstone. (Sholeh Wolpé, Yusef Komunyakaa,  Stanley Moss,  Robert Stewart) For sixty years, Willis Barnstone has been opening up American poetry to the rest of the world through his more than seventy books of poetry, translation, memoir, criticism, and religious scholarship. Winner of numerous awards, mentor to generations of younger writers, Willis Barnstone is a national treasure. The panelists will share 
anecdotes and analyses and read from his work, followed by a reading by Willis Barnstone himself.

3:00 pm to 4:15 pm

Room 611, Washington State Convention Center, Level 6
R237. Translation in Creative Writing Programs. (Kaveh Bassiri,  Geoffry Brock,  Sidney Wade,  Susan Briante,  Roger Sedarat) This panel will discuss the growing role of translation in creative writing programs, as well as translation’s place in scholarly studies and American multicultural poetry. Panelists will share their pedagogical experiences and suggest different types of workshop and craft courses. They also will speak about their own work as writers and translators and how translation has helped their writing and teaching of poetry.

Room 612, Washington State Convention Center, Level 6
R238. A Poet in Exile. (Lyn Coffin, Laszlo Slomovits) This event celebrates the work of Mohsen Emadi, an Iranian poet living in exile in Mexico City. Poet and translator Lyn Coffin will introduce and lead a reading of Emadi’s poetry, and musician Laszlo Slomovits will perform original song settings of selected pieces.

Friday, February 28, 2014

9:00 am to 10:15 am

Room 3A, Washington State Convention Center, Level 3
F111. The New Translation: Writing through Rewriting. (Joe Milutis,  Paul Legault,  Craig Dworkin,  Clark Lunberry) Experimental translation techniques have taken up attitudes toward the nature of the original that complicate or conflict with more dutiful notions of translation. From the carefully oblique to the wildly discrepant, we are interested in techniques of translation that seek to heighten the noise that exists at the fragile moment of cultural transfer. This panel will speak both to the long tradition of these kinds of techniques as well as incarnations potentiated by new media.

Room 615/616/617, Washington State Convention Center, Level 6
F123. How to Teach Students to Speak “Language for a New Century”. (Nathalie Handal,  Kirpal Singh,  Timothy Liu,  Tina Chang,  Jennifer Kwon Dobbs) W.W. Norton and Co.’s Language for a New Century celebrates its five-year anniversary as a landmark anthology of world literature, and this panel will be geared at looking at how global poetry in translation and this book in particular can be used in the classroom. Want to introduce a student to another culture? Provide them the voice of their poets. Join the editor and three contributors from the anthology reading their work and others, including Tibetan, Pakistani, and Syrian poets.

Room 302, Western New England MFA Annex, Level 3
F130. The Influence of the International: Four Writers Talk. (Edward Gauvin,  Maaza Mengiste,  Forrest Gander,  Willis Barnstone,  Susan Harris) Many writers limit their reading to other English-language authors and as a result are unfamiliar with other literatures. Four writers talk about how reading international literature, in both the original language and translation, has influenced and shaped their writing. Panelists will discuss various works and writers and their respective literary traditions; consider language, style, narrative conventions, and subjects; and reveal how their reading informs their writing.

10:30 am to 11:45 am

Redwood Room, Sheraton Seattle, 2nd Floor
F135. Poets on the Craft of Translation: A Conversation Between New and Established Translators . (Gloria Munoz,  Jay Hopler,  Kimberly Johnson,  John Talbot,  Jennifer Kronovet) This diverse panel of new and established translators focuses on the challenges and advantages of translation in the MFA program and beyond. Panelists address strategies and theories of translation through the following questions: How to understand, maintain, and interpret the poetics of the source language? How is a translation affected by research? How poetic elements such as music, syntax, and rhythm are considered? How to negotiate and learn from the roles of poet and translator?

12:00 pm to 1:15 pm

Cedar Room, Sheraton Seattle, 2nd Floor
F166. Translation in the University: Where Does It Fit?. (Amalia Gladhart,  Karen McPherson,  Karen Emmerich,  Michelle Crowson,  Edward Gauvin) Frequently considered too “creative” in literature departments or too derivative in creative writing programs, translation has nevertheless begun to occupy a more central place at many universities. This panel will address the complicated yet also fruitful position of literary translators in university settings. Writers, translators, and academics at different career points and working in different traditions discuss how they balance translation with other creative and scholarly pursuits.

Ballroom E, Washington State Convention Center, Level 6
F178. A Reading and Conversation by Fady Joudah and Ghassan Zaqtan. (John Donatich,  Ghassan Zaqtan,  Fady Joudah,  Mark Doty) A reading by Ghassan Zaqtan, the most important Palestinian poet writing today, and his English-language translator, Fady Joudah, will be followed by a lively discussion (moderated by John Donatich) about poetry under siege, translation, and the importance of Palestinian literature on the world stage. Zaqtan has been a major influence for the last two decades, moving away from the lush aesthetics of his giant predecessors Adonis and Darwish. Joudah will also read some of his work that highlights the natural affinity his poetry has for Zaqtan’s poetry. Mark Doty will introduce the event.

1:30 pm to 2:45 pm

Cedar Room, Sheraton Seattle, 2nd Floor
F200. Once More Unto the Breach: A Multilingual Reading of War-Informed Literature in Translation . (Nancy Naomi Carlson,  John Balaban,  Erica Mena,  Marcela Sulak,  Russell Scott Valentino) Throughout the ages, war has inspired a diverse body of literature from all across the world. This panel, translating from Bosnian, French, Hebrew, Spanish, and Vietnamese, will bring to English the human experience of love and loss with a backdrop of war from such landscapes as the deserts of Djibouti to the beaches of Vieques Island, ranging in time from the rebellion leading to the start of the Nguyen Dynasty to the present-day conflict between Palestine and Israel.

Room 612, Washington State Convention Center, Level 6
F221. A Celebration of the Life and Work of Kurt Brown. (Wyn Cooper, Steven Huff, Dara Wier, M.L. Williams, Christopher Merrill) Kurt Brown was the author of six books of poetry, a memoir, and the editor of ten anthologies. He was also a critic, translator, teacher, mentor, and founder of both the Aspen Writers Conference and Writers’ Conferences and Centers. We will pay tribute to his life and work by talking about his many contributions to contemporary poetry and to the larger world of letters as well. The panelists will also read and discuss some of his poems.

3:00 pm to 4:15 pm

Room 606, Washington State Convention Center, Level 6
F250. The Haiti I Know. (M.J. Fievre,  Barbara Ellen Sorensen,  Danielle Legros-Georges,  Mahalia Solages,  Fabienne Sylvia Josaphat) A trilingual reading from So Spoke the Earth, a collection of prose and poetry about pre- and post-earthquake Haiti and published by the Women Writers of Haitian Descent. Authors will share first and third-person accounts and visions of Haiti through various periods of time, and of the moments following the tragedy, exploring stories of the search for survivors and different shapes of grief and hope. Presentations in English, with some French and Haitian Creole (with translations).

Room 612, Washington State Convention Center, Level 6
F255. Found in Translation: How Translators and Authors Translate the Untranslatable. (María-José Zubieta,  Mariela Dreyfus,  Daniel Alarcón,  Jorge Cornejo,  Eileen Mary O’Connor) The topic of untranslatability has been discussed by many theorists, but most of these reflections stem from one perspective only, namely, the translator’s. This panel offers a multidimensional discussion between a Peruvian poet and a Peruvian American narrator and their respective translators, concerning the challenges of the untranslatable, a discussion made all the more relevant and poignant by the fact that both authors are fluent in the target language.

4:30 pm to 5:45 pm

Room 2A, Washington State Convention Center, Level 2
F272. Hong Kong and Taiwan: Writing in Chinese but not in China. (Andrea Lingenfelter, Jennifer Feeley, Steve Bradbury, Christopher Mattison) When people think of current Chinese literature they likely think of the People’s Republic. This mental shortcut bypasses some of the most vital Chinese-language writing today. While culturally and linguistically Chinese, Hong Kong and Taiwan possess distinct cultures and historical experiences that differentiate them from China proper. Four translator/editors discuss Hong Kong and Taiwan writers whose works are marked by innovative language and perspectives that reflect their unique societies.

Room 611, Washington State Convention Center, Level 6
F287. Submitting Translations: The Literary Magazine as the Back Door to Fame and Fortune. (Minna Proctor,  Carolyn Kuebler,  Thomas Kennedy,  Josh Edwin,  Erica Mena) Historically, literary translators are the wallflowers of publishing; they engage in labors of love within academia and set their sights on the limited prospects of book publication. Meanwhile, literary magazines, the champions of high art and no commerce, are eager to publish translations but don’t know how to solicit, edit, and market translations. This panel will dismantle perceived obstacles of publishing literary translations through a practical discussion of submission and editing strategies.

Saturday, March 1, 2014

9:00 am to 10:15 am

Cedar Room, Sheraton Seattle, 2nd Floor
S106. Translation as Pure Writing. (Russell Scott Valentino,  Esther Allen,  Bill Johnston,  Elizabeth Harris,  Susan Bernofsky) When asked whether he wasn’t worried that his Spanish might be inadequate to translate Gabriel Garcia Marquez into English, Gregary Rabassa famously quipped that the real question wasn’t whether his Spanish was good enough; it was whether his English was good enough. This panel will explore the pleasures and virtues of translation as pure writing, where the writers are not distracted by what their characters might do next, where to place a scene, or how in the world to end, begin, or transition.

10:30 am to 11:45 am

Room 612, Washington State Convention Center, Level 6
S153. Queer Translation. (Joyelle McSweeney,  Johannes Goransson,  Don Mee Choi,  Lucas DeLima,  Jeffrey Angles) As translators, artists, scholars, and performers, we’ll consider how ‘queer translation’ might host a queer interaction or strange meeting; how it might undermine nationalist demarcations of the body, including binaries separating male and female, able and disabled, human and inhuman, whole and partial bodies; the force of translation as a ‘political uncanny’; and whether translation itself might figure a queer or middle body, an activist body, a political resource.

Room 301, Western New England MFA Annex, Level 3
S161. Sam Hamill & Friends. (Bruce Weigl, Rebecca Seiferle, Sam Hamill, Steve Kuusisto, Cyrus Cassells) A reading in honor of renowned poet, translator, editor, and activist, Sam Hamill who, for nearly half a century has been at the center of American poetry, as a student of Kenneth Rexroth, founder of Copper Canyon Press, founder of Poets Against the War, translator of classic Japanese poetry, and author of dozens of collections of poetry. Joining Hamill are four poets whose work and lives have been influenced by his dedication.

12:00 pm to 1:15 pm

Room 305, Western New England MFA Annex, Level 3
S196. Translation as Transformation, Language as Skin: Some Perspectives on Creative Process. (Hélène Cardona,  Sidney Wade,  Betty De Shong Meador,  Donald Revell,  Willis Barnstone) Beyond decoding, what does translation as creative process entail? Working with Sumerian, Chinese, Hebrew, Greek, Latin, Turkish, French, and Spanish, this panel’s poets, translators, and scholars discuss their roles as intermediaries, technicians, magicians, and alchemists working between languages to create inspired texts spanning cultural differences, geographic distances, and time periods. More than extending the life of original works, they make possible their renewal.

1:30 pm to 2:45 pm

Room 3B, Washington State Convention Center, Level 3
S204. We Need to Talk: Editors Discuss How They Communicate with Writers and How Writers Can Improve the Channels of Communication. (Aviya Kushner,  Jennifer Barber,  A.N. Devers,  Joshua Rolnick,  Ian Stansel) Accepting a piece is the easy part—the hard part is suggesting changes in an effective way. In this panel, four editors will discuss their strategies, old and new, for communicating with writers and translators in order to improve a piece—including the snail-mail editor’s letter, Skype, a volley of track-changes comments, and of course, the long lunch in New York. Specific situations like dramatically expanding or shortening a piece and working with literature in translation will be discussed.

3:00 pm to 4:15 pm

Room 3A, Washington State Convention Center, Level 3
S233. Freedom in Translation: Finding Ourselves a New Poetics. (Brad Crenshaw,  Gary Young,  Stephen Haven,  James Brasfield) Translation re-imagines how language works, revising postmodern poetics that emphasizes conventions linking words to things in the world. Translation insists upon a pluralism of linguistic aims. Panelists working in Asian and Slavic languages will discuss translation, weigh the virtue of literal paraphrase against the value of ambiguity, measure the advantage of cognitive knowledge against the profit gained by an escape from conventional meaning, and exchange control for delight in literary play.

Room 611, Washington State Convention Center, Level 6
S244. Bilingual Writing or Self-Translation. (Wei Shao,  Ewa Chrusciel,  Valzhyna Mort,  Michael Gray,  Jonathan Stalling) This event includes a group of writers, poets, professors, and graduate students who are studying the issue of translation, self-translation, and bilingual writing. We’ll address this issue from our perspective, understanding, practicing, and experience dealing with translation and self-translation. In the contemporary work literature, there are Samuel Beckett and Joseph Brodsky who did bilingual writing and self-translation. We want to explore or propose many questions related to bilingualism and self-translation.

4:30 pm to 5:45 pm

Cedar Room, Sheraton Seattle, 2nd Floor
S258. Keeping the Original Voice through Changing. (Martha Cooley,  Marta del Pozo Ortea,  Eleanor Goodman,  Anastasiya Lyubas,  YU-TING HUANG) Listening to works in several languages, are they alike or different in taste? Can translation keep the music, meaning, and subtext of the original work? To discuss these questions and challenge your ears and minds, the panelists will read the same poem in Chinese, English, Italian, Spanish, and Ukrainian, and discuss their own work in two languages to explore the issue of change in translation.

Room 618/619/620, Washington State Convention Center, Level 6
S278. Translation as Current Event . (Kyoko Yoshida,  Donald Revell,  Robert Baker,  Sylvain Gallais,  Ken Keegan) In a world torn apart by conflict, it is more important than ever to read widely across languages. Translators from Omnidawn’s award-winning series will read and discuss the work of René Char, leader in the French resistance; Virginie Lalucq and philosopher Jean-Luc Nancy, whose collaborative poem responds to a photograph of a Zapatista lieutenant facing a firing squad; Jules Laforgue and Paul Verlaine, modernist innovators; and Kiwao Nomura, one of Japan’s most influential contemporary poets. Check here to add to my schedule

Rossica Prize 2014 Shortlist announced

Wondering what’s new in Russian literature in translation? Here are the five books shortlisted for the 2014 Rossica Prize, a £3000 award given yearly. The winning book will be announced on March 20, 2014.

Rossica Prize 2014 – Shortlist

Happiness is Possible
By Oleg Zaionchovsky
Translated by Andrew Bromfield
2012, And Other Stories, ISBN 978-1908276094
Happiness is Possible tells the story of a writer late delivering his novel, unable to write anything uplifting since his wife walked out. All he can produce is notes about the happiness of others. But something draws him into the Moscow lives around him, bringing together lonely neighbours, restoring lost love, and helping out with building renovations. And happiness seems determined to catch up with him as well.

Phaedra; with New Year’s Letter and Other Long Poems
By Marina Tsvetaeva
Translated by Angela Livingstone
2012, Angel Classics, ISBN 978-0946162819
Marina Tsvetaeva’s verse drama Phaedra, completed in 1927, is the most extraordinary of all literary treatments of the Phaedra legend. Angela Livingstone has translated this little-known great work for the first time into English. Three long poems written at the same time as Phaedra connect, in their depth of thought and feeling, with Tsvetaeva’s intense epistolary relationships with Pasternak and Rilke, and fascinatingly fill out the themes and preoccupations of the drama.

Selected Poems
By Vladislav Khodasevich
Translated by Peter Daniels
2013, Angel Classics, ISBN 978-0946162826
Vladislav Khodasevich (1886–1939), deleted from literary history in the Soviet era because of his emigration in 1922 with his partner Nina Berberova, has since been welcomed in Russia into its 20th-century pantheon of poets, where he was long ago placed by Vladimir Nabokov and Joseph Brodsky. This bilingual edition, with its wide-ranging introduction by Michael Wachtel and extensive end-notes by the translator, offers the English-speaking reader the first substantial selection of this intriguing poet.

Russian Magic Tales from Pushkin to Platonov
Anthology, edited by Robert Chandler
Translated by Robert and Elizabeth Chandler, with Sibelan Forrester, Anna Gunin and Olga Meerson
2012, Penguin Classics, ISBN 978-0141442235
In these tales, young women go on long and difficult quests, wicked stepmothers turn children into geese and tsars ask dangerous riddles, with help or hindrance from magical dolls, cannibal witches, talking skulls, stolen wives, and brothers disguised as wise birds. Half the tales here are true oral tales, collected by folklorists during the last two centuries, while the others are reworkings of oral tales by four great Russian writers: Alexander Pushkin, Nadezhda Teffi, Pavel Bazhov and Andrey Platonov.

The Queen of Spades
By Alexander Pushkin
Translated by Anthony Briggs
2012, Pushkin Press, ISBN 978-1908968036
The Queen of Spades, originally published in Russian in 1834, is one of the most famous tales in Russian literature, and inspired the eponymous opera by Tchaikovsky. This edition also includes The Stationmaster, together with the poem The Bronze Horseman, extracts from Yevgeny Onegin and Boris Godunov, and a selection of his poetic work.

Shortlist and longlist are both available on the Rossica Prize website.

The Apartment in Bab el-Louk

Bragging rights are complicated. Do I get to brag if someone brings a project to my translation workshop, works on it there and then gets it published? I didn’t do the work, she did; all I did was prod at the work at certain points to indicate where I thought things could be tightened up, or loosened up, or whatever. All her workshop-mates did the same. And the credit should properly go to her. In any case, it’s the first graphic work to come through my workshop, and I really like it, so here it is, in Words Without Borders. “It” in this case being “The Apartment in Bab el-Louk” by Egyptian writer Donia Maher, with art by Ganzeer, translated by Elisabeth Jaquette, whom I think we haven’t heard the last of.

Translation on Tap in NYC Feb. 1 – 15

Here’s what’s coming up over the next couple of weeks:

Feb. 9, 2014
Bridge Series reading/discussion featuring Cole Swensen & Kit Schluter:
Poet/translator Cole Swensen (who has 14 books of her own poetry to her name as well as many important translations, such as Jean Frémon’s The Island of the Dead, Green Integer, 2002) delivered a stunning keynote at the 2013 ALTA conference – by all means take advantage of this chance to see her in an intimate environment. She’ll be joined by Kit Schluter, whose translations from French include Marcel Schwob’s Book of Monelle (Wakefield Press, 2012) and The King in the Golden Mask (Wakefield Press, forthcoming); he’s also the author of two of his own.
McNally Jackson Books
52 Prince Street
7:00 p.m.

Feb. 11, 2014
Book launch event for Michelle Woods’s new book Kafka Translated, which I’m now happily in the middle of reading now, filled with fascinating stories about Kafka’s earliest translators (Milena Jesenská and Willa and Edwin Muir – especially Willa, as it turns out), and some recent ones as well. She’ll be joined by a recent one she writes about, Mark Harman, as well as me, Translationista. The panel will be moderated by Alex Zucker, a prize-winning translator from the Czech.
Czech Center New York
321 East 73rd Street
7:00 p.m.

Banff Calling!

Every year I publish a note to remind translators everywhere to apply to go to Banff next summer. It’s gorgeous, and you can spend three weeks there working, hiking idyllically, working some more, and comparing notes with other translators. Open to all translators from the Americas and/or who are translating authors from the Americas. And it’s a pretty wonderful place. I’ve written about it before. The application deadline this year is Feb. 15, and you’ll find everything you’ll need to know about applying right here.

A Tour of the NYPL Stacks

Yesterday I was invited to tour the stacks at the 42nd Street Library as part of a delegation from the PEN American Center, which the NYPL is hoping to win over to its cause. The purpose of the tour was to convince us that the demolition of the stacks is necessary and a contribution to service and scholarship. What I saw convinced me of the opposite.

Before the removal of the books

We were led through a floor of the stacks that once held 3 million books directly below the Rose Reading Room, making it possible for a book to be delivered to a library user minutes after it was requested. The rows and rows of empty stacks were a sad sight. There was also a striking discrepancy between what we were seeing and the talking points that our hosts, Chief Library Officer Mary Lee Kennedy and Vice President of Communications and Marketing Ken Weine, kept repeating as we walked. What they said was: Look what bad shape the stacks are in, and before we removed the books you would smell a terrible smell down here: “the smell of the books dying” (Kennedy). This has been a talking point NYPL CEO Anthony Marx has been repeating for months now: the claim that the library “had no choice” but to remove the books from the stacks a year ago because the books were “rotting” on the shelves. I don’t know anyone not in the employ of NYPL who believes that this is true.

The stacks I saw yesterday were pretty dusty, and that was the only thing obviously “wrong” with them. I saw not a trace of rust on the sturdy and elegant Carnegie steel stacks (manufactured from a grade of steel that isn’t made anymore), and the marble floors holding up the stacks—which also structurally support the Rose Reading Room above—appeared to be in excellent shape. A sprinkler system snaked along the ceiling, accompanied by vents for the HVAC system. Another NYPL talking point is that the stacks cannot be appropriately climate-controlled; well, a state-of-the-art climate-control system was installed in the stacks in the 1980s. I’m sure it’s due for an upgrade thirty years later. And upgrading it would certainly be cheaper than tearing out seven floors of stacks and reengineering the entire building so that the Rose Reading Room won’t collapse when its supports are removed.

The PEN delegation also toured BPSE (pronounced “bipsy”), the Bryant Park Stack Extension: two floors of concrete basement built beneath the park in the 1980s. The first basement floor is climate controlled and equipped with enormous moving bookshelves on tracks to maximize the storage space. Currently these shelves house 1.2 million books. NYPL is now planning to equip the lower level of BPSE—currently just a concrete shell—with an HVAC system and shelves, which if the space can indeed hold the same amount of shelving as the space upstairs (the ceilings downstairs looked a bit lower to me), will allow BPSE to house a total of 2.4 million volumes.

Now let’s do the numbers. During the tour, Kennedy said that after the proposed renovation over 80% of the books formerly housed in the stacks would remain onsite. Here’s a more accurate version of the facts and figures presented by NYPL CEO Tony Marx back in 2012, before the library had retained a PR firm to help it refine its talking points:

What will happen to the books at 42nd Street? Marx said that there are now about 3 million books in the stacks, 1.2 million in the Bryant Park Stack Extension (BPSE), and 300,000 to 400,000 stored elsewhere in the building. He said that 4 million volumes are now stored offsite. After the CLP [Central Library Plan renovation], at least 2 million books would remain onsite, mostly in BPSE.

In short: with the stacks, a total of 4.5 to 4.6 million books onsite. Without the stacks and with a new second floor of BPSE: 2.7 to 2.8 million books onsite. But if NYPL also goes ahead with its plan of consolidating the Mid-Manhattan Library and the Science, Industry and Business Library (SIBL) in a new lending library contained within the 42nd Street Building, that will mean another 1 million books (the size of the combined collections of those two libraries) that will have to be housed somewhere, probably displacing even more books from the research collection to NJ.

A year and a half ago, NYPL Trustee Abby S. Milstein and her husband, real estate developer Howard P. Milstein, donated $8 million to the library to build out the stacks in the second level of BPSE. If this renovation is completed without demolishing the stacks, this would permit the library to house an awe-inspiring 5.7 to 5.8 million books onsite. Now that would be a place to get some serious research done.

Meanwhile the book delivery system that transports books from deep storage in NJ to 42nd Street remains plagued with problems. Just this week, Pulitzer Prize winning biographer Annalyn Swan reported experiencing a two-day lag between requesting a book and getting an email saying that it was “in the process of being delivered”—which meant an extra day or two for it actually to be delivered and available on site. I doubt it’s possible that the library will ever be able to deliver books from offsite storage within 24 hours, as its publicity materials promise. When I asked Mary Lee Kennedy if she knew what could be causing delivery problems of the sort experienced by Swan, she said that the closing of traffic around Times Square in preparation for this weekend’s Super Bowl had interfered with the ability of the trucks bringing books from NJ to get near the library. So the books had to be delivered instead to a remote location and then brought in smaller shipments to 42nd Street. The Super Bowl probably won’t be striking in our area again for some time, but there are certainly enough other events that regularly restrict traffic in the vicinity of Times Square. Is anyone surprised that this might be a recurrent problem?

There is also the issue of damage the research materials may sustain while being transported back and forth. Every book one requests now from deep storage has a long journey ahead of it, including a truck ride down the NJ Turnpike and loading and unloading on either end. Researchers who work with older materials (as do I) are familiar with the experience of having books delivered in fragile or damaged condition. Here’s one image of a book with a detached cover from the NYPL collection encountered recently by a Medievalist doing research there. Shipping a book like this back and forth to NJ is hardly going to improve its condition.

After yesterday’s tour, I remain convinced that the plan to demolish the stacks has nothing to do with making the library a better library and everything to do with a grand real estate scheme involving the sell-off of the Mid-Manhattan Library and SIBL. The sale of the Donnell Library a few years ago was part of this same plan and is now pretty much universally believed to have been a debacle: The sale raised very little money for the library compared with the actual value of the property, and as a result of the transaction, this once thriving neighborhood library with five floors of books and a nice auditorium is being replaced by a mini-library housed in two basement floors of a hotel tower, with very little room for books. This new neighborhood library will probably be a good place to check out DVDs and not much more.

Even though NYPL has already applied for building permits to begin work on the demolition of the stacks as well as securing all the necessary state and local permissions, there is still no final plan or budget for the renovation. The most recent images released by the library show a vast atrium replacing the stacks, with seating areas to accommodate what looks to be between 100 and 130 people; given the structure of this open area, it is likely to be quite loud and not suitable for actual study, more a place to have coffee and chat with friends than somewhere to read and write. I asked Mary Lee Kennedy about the current status of the plan yesterday, and was told that it was still evolving and that she couldn’t reveal anything further about it. Although NYPL is a public institution, the plan has been shrouded in secrecy since its inception. In fact, there’s so much secrecy surrounding the plan and its progress that Kennedy and Weine forbade me to take any photographs of the stacks during the tour. Why not? I asked, this is a public institution, what the stacks look like shouldn’t be a secret. Weine referred me to the NYPL’s “policy” prohibiting photography in the library’s “non-public spaces.” When I asked where I could find a record of that policy, it quickly became clear there wasn’t one. I guess NYPL leadership is afraid that if enough people see actual images of the stacks in their current state—they give an impression simultaneously of vastness and solidity—they might have too many questions about why in the world the library is proposing to tear them down.


Follow this blog

Get a weekly email of all new posts.

Email address