A Library for the People

So right now I’m in a relatively privileged position: As a professor at Columbia University, I have access to one of the best research libraries in the world. And at other times in my life, I have been able to pursue my work in other world-class libraries like those at Harvard and Princeton. And I can tell you that this is a completely different experience from working at an underfunded library with limited resources. You’re reading an article to help with something you’re studying or writing about, and it references a book on the subject that you never heard of? No problem, just hop over to the catalog, look it up, and boom, you’re reading that other book. And then that other book probably has a bibliography with at least a handful of references relevant to your own project, so you look them up too. This is how research gets done, in the excitement of learning that lets you climb a mountain of knowledge one handhold at a time.

When I translated Ludwig’s Harig’s German-language novel The Trip to Bordeaux, which is chockablock with unattributed quotes from Montaigne’s essays, I made simultaneous use of several brilliant reference books available at the wonderful public library in Berlin, Germany: the Staatsbibliothek preußischer Kulturbesitz. Using an older-vintage French-German bilingual dictionary, I back-translated enough of each sentence that I thought had a Montaigne-ish vibe to locate the quotes in the big multi-volume French-language concordance of his works that was right there in the reference section; then I looked them up in the complete edition of Montaigne’s writings that the library also had, and found the corresponding quote in an older English-language translation (I was going for a collage effect that I didn’t think I’d get by translating the quotes myself). Try doing that online, or in a run-of-the-mill branch library. Simply not possible.

When I was writing my 2005 book Foreign Words: Translator-Authors in the Age of Goethe, I no longer had a library card that would get me into a fancy-pants university library, and so relied entirely on the New York Public Library’s Research Division at 42nd St. The building had not yet been renamed after donor Stephen A. Schwarzman, a name I am now reluctant to refer to the building by after last week’s revelations (on which more in a moment). For my work, I needed to consult books published in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries as well as the twentieth and twenty-first, and the NYPL came through for me. Yes, some of the volumes I requested were rarely-used works that were located in off-site storage, and in those cases I often had to wait two or three days for the books to be retrieved. But most of what I needed was available the same day, and I was able to pursue my work with the seriousness it deserved.

I cannot stress this enough: all of New York’s major university libraries are currently closed to the public. This applies even to the City University of New York, NYC’s public university. The NYPL is the only research facility open to the general public, and now we stand to lose it as part of a grotesque renovation scheme that is poised to sell off public buildings for private profit. It came out last week, in an interview on Charlie Rose, that Schwarzman, the library’s biggest donor, made his $100 million contribution in 2008 with the understanding that the library would sell off some of its local branches and undertake a massive renovation project designed to result in enormous construction contracts (most of which will be funded at taxpayer expense). In short, he bought the right to determine the New York Public Library’s future, something that should not have been for sale at any price.

And it is clear that the Central Library Plan is not in the best interests of library patrons. Under the plan, the Mid-Manhattan branch of the NYPL – heretofore one of the biggest, best-stocked and most-patronized of the branch libraries – would be incorporated into the Research Library (think: fewer books, more computer terminals), and the wonderful research collection that has always made the 42nd St. library one of the best places in the world to do research is going to be moved off-site. Indeed, this is one “fact on the ground” that has already been created, even though the renovation plan is so actively under fire: The books have already been removed from their shelves in preparation for the removal of those shelves. Once they are gone, doing research at the NYPL will never be the same again: You’ll have to wait days for the books to be trucked in from New Jersey, and only those scholars and students with the luxury to spread out their research visits over long periods of time will really be able to get their work done. This will be a major hurdle in the accessibility of high-level knowledge to New Yorkers who are not among the city’s educational elite. Schwarzman supported Mitt Romney in the last presidential election, so I’m going to go out on a limb here and assume he doesn’t care.

Those who do care are the scholars, writers and students who depend on the NYPL for their research. Everyone I know who’s ever used the library is against the plan. Two very famous architecture critics (Ada Louise Huxtable and Michael Kimmelman) are against it. And I’ve heard through the grapevine that the librarians at the research division are overwhelmingly against it too, but have been encouraged to keep their mouths shut; as a friend of a friend who works there remarked: “They fire people on a dime around here.”

And now we have one solid chance left to defeat the Central Library Plan. There will be a public hearing TOMORROW at the New York State Assembly in lower Manhattan to debate the plan. A lot of people, including me, will be presenting testimony. And our best shot at success is having huge crowds of people show up to demonstrate to the Assembly how much public support there is for preserving the Research Library as a research library. Please, can you come? The hearing will be held at 250 Broadway, Room 1923 (between Murray Street and Park Place, across from City Hall) on Thursday, June 27. The hearing is scheduled to start at 10:30 a.m., but please arrive at 10:00 because you’ll have to show photo ID and go through a security line, and this takes a while in my experience.

For more information, please visit the website of the Committee to Save the New York Public Library. You can also find them on Facebook and Twitter.

I hope to see you at the hearing tomorrow!

Share this!


  1. Elizabeth says:

    If you want access to university libraries, get a METRO card, which you can get at NYPL, and have been able to get for at least 20 years, and probably longer. http://library.nyu.edu/about/metro.html

  2. “a METRO referral card which will allow an individual a one-time-only visit to a library to use the specified item in that library. The referral is not intended for general use of a library’s collections or services.”

© Susan Bernofsky 2010-2018. All rights reserved. "Translationista" is a registered trademark.