A Library Without Books?

Wednesday was a day of rejoicing for NYC library advocates after the New York Public Library announced (via an article in the New York Times) that it was abandoning its much-decried $350 million Central Library Plan. But the rejoicing gave way to puzzlement later in the day when the Wall Street Journal printed an article on the library’s about-face that contained a pair of cryptic sentences:

“Under the new plan, the stacks will be preserved but will remain empty because they lack the climate controls needed to preserve the books. The books previously held by the stacks will be stored in climate-controlled storage space under Bryant Park.”

Bookshelves without books? In a library? It sounds like a misunderstanding – but it seems this is NYPL’s latest great idea, according to a second article published late last night on the WSJ website that confirms the Trustees’ intentions even in its title: “In Library’s New Plan, the Stacks Stay…Empty.” So yes, Anthony Marx and the NYPL Trustees he reports to (e.g. Stephen Schwarzman of Blackstone) are now trying to convince us that it makes good sense to leave seven floors of book storage permanently empty because the air-conditioning system in that part of the building is outdated (it was installed in the 1980s). The marble-and-steel stacks themselves are perfectly sound – I toured them myself not long ago – and there’s no good reason not to just update the HVAC system and then put those 3 million displaced books from the NYPL’s collection back where they belong, readily accessible to students, writers and researchers.

I’m not sure why in the world Marx and the NYPL Trustees are so hellbent on keeping the books off those shelves. What I do know is that Marx and/or NYPL’s communications officer Ken Weine have been aggressively spreading misinformation in support of their plan to keep the books out of the library. Here’s what they told the WSJ yesterday:

Now, the library will instead renovate the branch across the street and leave the Schwarzman building’s stacks untouched. But because they lack climate controls, the books will be moved to the storage space under Bryant Park.

The library said Thursday that it plans to spend $22 million to expand the storage space so that it can hold all the books previously housed by the stacks. The books were removed in March 2013 for indexing in anticipation of the stacks’ dismantling.

The expanded underground storage area will hold 3.7 million volumes, equivalent to the books that occupied the stacks and the underground space, according to the library. Another 300,000 books are housed in other rooms in the Schwarzman building.

The expansion, said the library’s president, Anthony Marx, is cheaper than the alternative: The independent cost analysis showed that installing climate-control and fire-suppression systems in the stacks would cost $46 million.

The Bryant Park Stack Extension, affectionately known as BPSE, currently holds 1.2 million books, and beneath it lies a second basement floor – currently just an empty concrete shell – that NYPL has been saying can be built out to house an additional 1.5 million books. By my math, 1.2 million + 1.5 million = 2.7 million, not 3.7 million. The phrase “3.7 million volumes, equivalent to the books that occupied the stacks and the underground space” in yesterday’s press statement is artfully worded to obscure the fact that until last year, when NYPL started quietly trucking books out to New Jersey, the NYPL’s 42nd Street Building housed over 4.2 million books: the 3 million in the stacks plus the 1.2 million in BPSE, plus the 300,000 – 400,000 in other spaces within the library. If you don’t want to take my word for it, just ask Tony Marx: these are the figures he himself has cited repeatedly – and here he is doing so on video in 2012 (partial transcript here, or tune in around minute 25:30); I found this particular video on the NYPL website and downloaded it for safekeeping.

Oh, and if you still don’t believe how tightly NYPL is trying to control the message here, check out this tweet by the journalist who wrote yesterday’s WSJ piece:

Screen Shot 2014-05-09 at 1.43.41 AM

Jennifer, they wouldn’t let me photograph them either, and I’m just a harmless blogger.

But I do want to correct Marx’s math. He says the BPSE 2 construction would cost $22 million (net gain: storage for 1.5 million books), while retrofitting the stacks would cost $46 million (net gain: storage for 3 million books). That’s $14.7 million per 1 million volumes (BPSE 2) vs. $15.3 million per 1 million volumes (stacks) – not a huge difference, even if this estimated price tag for the new HVAC system isn’t exaggerated (sounds high to me). Given NYPL’s storage needs, I’d say the stacks are a good value. Especially considering that every volume not stored at 42nd Street is a volume the library must pay to store elsewhere, and even more especially considering that according to WSJ, NYPL has already spent $18 million on this misguided renovation scheme that they never even broke ground on; I’m still having trouble wrapping my head around that sort of squandering of public funds (especially as NYPL refuses to provide any sort of public accounting of these expenditures). Perhaps it’s time for a vote of no-confidence in the NYPL Trustees, as the WSJ suggested several months ago.

One more thing in the stacks’ favor besides their impressive capaciousness: they’re made of the highest-quality Carnegie steel and marble, built to last an eternity, and you know they won’t be at risk of flooding twenty years from now when the water level of New York Harbor has risen another several feet, as might conceivably be an issue some day with BPSE 2. Marx and Weine know all these things as well as I do, so the question remains: Why are they so hellbent on keeping the books off those shelves? It just doesn’t compute. If you figure it out, let me know. And meanwhile please keep letting all your elected officials know that you want the library’s books returned to their shelves. They never should have left them in the first place.

P.S. Someone did sneak a camera into the stacks recently, so here’s what they’re looking like these days:

Via @ellamorton

NYPL stacks as of April 29, 2014 via @ellamorton

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