Those of you who read this blog regularly know that I’ve been very involved in advocating for the preservation of the New York Public Library’s 42nd Street Building on Fifth Avenue as the world-class research library it’s always been. And you know that the NYPL Board of Trustees has been trying to push through a plan (“Central Library Plan”) to demolish the library’s research stacks, put the books in deep storage in New Jersey, and use the space created by the demolition to establish a circulating library that in turn would allow for the sale of the Mid-Manhattan Library on Fifth Avenue at 40th Street, the most widely-used library in the entire NYPL system. The plan was estimated to cost $350 million, including at least $150 million in public funds – a vast demolition and renovation scheme that would do nothing to help any of the desperately underfunded branch libraries elsewhere in the NYPL system. The intended sale of the Mid-Manhattan Library was widely seen as being more about serving the interests of real estate developers than those of the public.
Well, brilliant news arrived this afternoon: the NYPL leadership has just announced that it is abandoning the Central Library Plan. The money allocated by the city for the project will now be diverted to other library improvement projects, going above all the much-needed renovation of the Mid-Manhattan Library – which had been allowed to deteriorate in anticipation of its sale – but also, I hope, to other branches in need. The about-face was long in coming, and is a hard-won triumph on the part of library advocates who fought the plan both in the New York State Supreme Court and in the arena of public opinion. Kudos to the members of Committee to Save the New York Public Library, Citizens Defending Libraries and Library Lovers League, and to our allies in public office who helped to make the future of the library the subject of sustained debate. Micah Kellner played a crucial role as then Chair of the New York State Assembly’s Committee on Libraries and Education Technology, calling the first public hearing on the plan in June 2013. Other advocates have included Letitia James (then City Council Member, now New York City Public Advocate) and State Senators Brad Hoylman and José M. Serrano. Journalist Scott Sherman contributed groundbreaking reporting on the library to The Nation beginning in November 2011 (and continuing today). And writer Caleb Crain made many of the same suggestions in April 2012 that NYPL is now implementing.
The triumph is not a perfect one. The library is still planning to go ahead with plans to sell SIBL, the Science, Industry and Business Library that was constructed on the same block as the City University of New York’s Graduate Center in 1996 to supplement CUNY’s own modest library holdings. I wish we could have saved SIBL too. But its loss was probably inevitable: the NYPL Trustees created a powerful “fact on the ground” in 2012 by selling off 5 of the building’s 7 floors for use as offices. The sale was not particularly advantageous to NYPL, bringing in proportionally less than had been paid to purchase and renovate the building back in the nineties, but it effectually sealed the fate of that library.
But for those who use the New York Public Library as a place to study, write and research, today’s news is an enormous victory. One of the city’s greatest public treasures has been preserved. Congratulations to all who worked so hard to save our library from destruction. I am grateful.
Let me give the last word to New York Times star architecture critic Michael Kimmelman, who just tweeted his approval (with a nod to the great Ada Louise Huxtable, whose last published article was a plea to stop the Library’s “extravagant and destructive” plan):