In March 2008, the New York Public Library announced a $100 million gift from private equity billionaire Stephen Schwarzman and a sweeping plan to radically remake its landmark main building on 42nd Street. Six months later, Lehman Brothers collapsed; the plan, to no one’s surprise, was put on hold. Now, the administration has announced that the renovation, its budget increased from $250 to $350 million, is back on track. The proposed designs developed by British architect Norman Foster have not yet been made public, but the basic scheme remains the same: to tear out the steel stacks that occupy almost half of the main building—and that literally hold up the famed Rose Reading Room on the top floor—and replace them with a new circulating library. This library will offer plenty of books, DVDs, and other materials, which any patron will be allowed to take out of the building, unlike the current research collection. The plan will be financed through the sale of two of the library’s nearby branches—the Mid-Manhattan Library across the street and the Science, Industry, and Business Library (SIBL) at Madison and 34th—and through a $150 million grant from the City of New York. The new super-library will also be designed for a time when the idea of physically circulating books becomes a thing of the past and practically all library “materials” will be available exclusively through digital devices.
That, however, is in the future. What the present will bring is the removal of the majority of the library’s outstanding collection of research-level books, which for most of the past century have rarely if ever been allowed out of the building. These books will be moved to a storage facility in Princeton, New Jersey. Some will remain in the stacks beneath Bryant Park, but the rest of the books in the library’s core collection will be available only by putting in a request and waiting for them to be brought back to New York.
The plan has much to recommend it. Right now the elegant research facility at Fifth Avenue and 42nd Street sits catercorner from the Mid-Manhattan Library, the largest of the circulating branches; in contrast to its luxurious neighbor, Mid-Manhattan is decrepit and filthy, an accidental museum of 1970s-era New York. Eight blocks south, SIBL, built for $100 million in the 1990s, now looks like an expensive folly, its collections little used, its audience more like that of a branch library than the researchers it was intended to attract. The trustees and the administration feel the library can no longer afford to maintain so many major facilities, and they believe moreover that the library can sell Mid-Manhattan and SIBL for $100 million apiece. Given all this, the desire to move the two libraries into the main building makes a certain kind of sense. More people would then be able to work in one of the most beautiful structures in New York, and the library would have more money to fill the facility with computers, staff it with librarians, and extend its hours. The administration also says the library will use some of the space freed up to set aside several hundred desks for writers. As Joshua Steiner, vice chairman of the library’s board of trustees, put it in 2008, the renovation in many way represents the “further democratization” of the main building.
By contrast, a library staff member with whom I spoke called the removal of the books “the destruction of the research library.” And that, too, is true.
The New York Public Library, at least until now, has not been just another public library. The eighty-seven branch libraries scattered around Manhattan, Staten Island, and the Bronx are much like the branch libraries elsewhere in the United States—they receive their funding from the city and state, and offer circulating materials, as well as computers, internet access, printers, and sometimes children’s rooms, to the public. (The branch libraries in Brooklyn and Queens are run by separate organizations.) But the research division headquartered at the main branch on 42nd Street, with smaller but significant facilities at Lincoln Center, 34th Street, and 135th Street, receives much of its funding from private philanthropy, and has for most of the past century been one of the world’s great research libraries.
The collection dates to the 1840s and 1870s, when the Astor Library and the Lenox Library, both privately supported, were founded in Manhattan; their earliest strengths were Americana and religious history. These libraries remained separate until the late 19th century, when former New York Governor Samuel Tilden died and left almost his entire estate “to found a free library and reading room” in New York. Tilden’s trustees developed a plan to use the bequest, plus the books and funds held by the two existing libraries, to persuade the city to construct a central building to house a single centralized research facility, a place on par with the much-envied British Museum. The city proved surprisingly persuadable: the public, the administration decided, would retain ownership of the building, but the “New York Public Library,” a private charity, would staff the facility and fill it with books. A few years later, steel magnate Andrew Carnegie offered $5.2 million to build a network of neighborhood circulating libraries, on the condition that the city would maintain them and fully cover the operating costs. Unusually, the branches in Manhattan, Staten Island, and the Bronx ended up being run not by a city agency but by the existing New York Public Library. The result was a private-public partnership, still a relatively new idea in the early days of big philanthropy.
While the Carnegie money went to the branches, the city spent $9 million laying down the beaux arts behemoth that stands on the edge of Bryant Park. When the building opened in 1911, it held 800,000 books; between 1911 and 1970, the collection grew to include 4 million books, as well as hundreds of thousands of pamphlets and millions of manuscripts, with particular strengths in American, Slavic, and African diaspora materials, along with a powerhouse performing arts collection and one of the world’s greatest collections of illuminated manuscripts (including works from Persia, Japan, and medieval Europe). Among the high points: the manuscript of Native Son, with Richard Wright’s handwritten corrections; the only surviving first edition of Columbus’s first letter to describe the New World (“if the library was on fire this would be the first thing I would grab,” the curator of rare books told me); a draft of the Declaration of Independence in Thomas Jefferson’s own hand; the first Gutenberg Bible to arrive on American shores; and more than 2,600 volumes from the personal libraries of the Russian royal family. In 1973, the critic Ellen Moers, writing in the New York Review of Books, could confidently speak of the New York Public Library in the same breath as the British Museum and the Bibliothèque Nationale. “Its collections are so nearly complete,” she wrote, “its rarities so unusual, its catalogue so superb that scholars everywhere in America (and many from abroad) know they can turn to NYPL as a final and secure resort when hunting an edition, a pamphlet, a folio that can be found nowhere else.”
Moers wrote at a moment when the library, like the city whose pride it had become, was falling on hard times. In the final contract with the city, signed on December 8, 1897, the trustees of the New York Public Library had promised that they would keep the building open at their own expense, twelve hours a day, 365 days a year, with the exception of Sundays, when the library would open at 1 and close at 9. The administration did so without a blip for decades, only beginning to take public money in the 1940s, and then only for routine maintenance and housekeeping. But in 1971 the library cut its hours by almost half, leaving the main building open Monday through Friday, and then only for eight hours each day. The science and technology division and the performing arts collection were temporarily closed to the public, though their staffs, older librarians tell me, were by and large retained. The building, already shabby, fell into decay.
The library’s fortunes turned around in the 1980s with the fundraising work of Vartan Gregorian, a historian of Central Asia, who began the process of making the institution one of the preferred recipients of New York money, old and new. The funds raised went to a series of renovations, as well as to the hiring of new staff, a huge expansion in the collections budget, and the renewed growth of the library’s endowment, which had stagnated throughout the 1970s. In the early 1990s, under Timothy Healy, who served only a few years before dying in office, and Paul LeClerc, a Voltaire scholar who became president of the library in 1994, the administration took on the first large expansion in a generation, spending $100 million to renovate part of the old B. Altman department store on Madison and 34th Street. The result was SIBL, the Science, Industry, and Business Library, a gleaming, state-of-the-art facility with 45,000 square feet of public space, 60,000 square feet for science and business books, and enough classrooms to teach thousands of people how to use CD-ROMs, the futuristic medium around which the library was planned in the early 1990s.
That wasn’t all. In the late 1990s and early 2000s, the administration renovated the Library for the Performing Arts at Lincoln Center at a cost of $38 million. Around the same time the administration undertook more work on its flagship building. An unused interior courtyard became grounds for a $29 million glass-and-steel structure called South Court. A grant from the family of real estate developer Frederick Rose also allowed for the wholesale renovation of the majestic third-floor reading room; the $15 million job included the purchase of more than three hundred exact replicas of the oak chairs that had stood in the library since 1911 (available to the public at $799 each), as well as sixty replicas of the room’s famed lamps, which came in at over $1,000 each (too pricey, the administration felt, for the gift shop). Under Gregorian, Healy, and LeClerc, the library also began using its large halls for impressive exhibits (on Vladimir Nabokov, James Gillray, and Jack Kerouac, among others, with almost all the materials culled from the library’s own collections), as well as an authoritative, well-attended lecture series. Then, of course, there were the library fundraisers, and more and more corporate rentals.
Meanwhile, across the street, the Mid-Manhattan branch, the largest circulating facility in the city, was crowded and dirty and books were frequently missing from the shelves.
While the library was renovating and expanding, a revolution was taking place in the presentation and consumption of reading material. Newspapers, faced with the wholesale migration of ad revenues to Google, were putting huge resources into their online operations, clearly preparing for an all-digital future. Magazines were next. And then books. In December 2004, Larry Page, co-founder of Google, announced partnerships with Harvard, Stanford, Oxford, the University of Michigan, and the New York Public Library to digitize their collections. At that point, the New York Public Library had nearly 9 million books (5 million at the main building, 2 million in New Jersey, and the rest at the other three research facilities). The library had taken more than a hundred years to build this collection. As of March 2012, eight years into the book scanning project, Google has already scanned around 20 million books.
By and large, librarians welcomed digitization. If there is a Hippocratic Oath of library science, it is to make books and other resources as easily available as possible, and digitization promised a giant leap forward. Branch librarians across the country would have noticed as early as the 1990s that many patrons were coming to use the libraries’ internet-accessible computers. Libraries adjusted as well as they could to this new demand. When the refurbished main reading room at the New York Public Library debuted in 1998, one of the most widely discussed features was the installation of forty-eight computers—with twenty-four linked to the internet! Every table was soon outfitted with ethernet outlets, and, eventually, the whole room was blanketed with wireless, so patrons could come with their laptops and easily get online.
But what to do about all the books? Over the past decade, as archives of digital materials from companies like ProQuest, EBSCO, and Gale grew in size, the cost of providing access to such databases increased as well, and many research libraries cut back on the number of new books they took in. Instead, the libraries began to discuss the possibility of working more closely together—maybe Harvard would buy half the German book market, while Yale bought the other half—and also set up joint off-site storage facilities. (MIT, Harvard, Brandeis, and others share a space outside Cambridge, while the New York Public Library shares its space in New Jersey with Columbia and Princeton.) Some universities also participated in high-speed loan networks, like the “Borrow Direct” system, which enables students at every university in the Ivy League (plus MIT) to request books from all the library systems and receive them in one to four days, much faster than the typical speed of interlibrary loan. Once these systems become more widespread and mature libraries will be able to avoid buying multiple copies of obscure and rarely used books, and the money saved can go to paying for databases, as well as to purchasing, processing, and storing unique materials like manuscripts and archives.
These are some of the experiments that university research libraries have begun in recent decades to pursue. Since the New York Public Library, unlike other research libraries, is supposed to serve a vast and amorphous public, its way forward was less clear. In the mid-2000s the administration brought in two groups of consultants to help it think through the future. This was not the first time the library had turned to the consulting world for help, but the reports that resulted, given the magnitude of the changes the institution was facing, have proved more important than ever before.
The most influential group, according to former staff members, was McKinsey—first brought in around 2003, and then again for a second engagement in 2008–2009. In their first report, the consultants helped the library think through some of its staffing issues, looking with particular scrutiny at potential redundancy between the branches and the research division; the second time, brought in to consult on digital projects, the consultants laid out four possible “paths” for the library to take into the future: it could become a circulating library; a research archive; a museum; or a social service agency. But it had to choose. If the library didn’t choose to pursue one of the four paths, the report stressed, it risked mediocrity in all of them. An internal planning document paraphrases the later report this way: “McKinsey’s strong view was that it is prohibitively expensive to pursue leadership across all potential paths, but never choosing a path also risks never creating true leadership in any one area.” Former staff members made clear that the administration never entirely agreed with McKinsey’s view. Nonetheless, the administration had brought in McKinsey for just this kind of advice, and this was the choice the consultants presented.
In 2006, the administration brought in another consultant—McLean, Virginia-based Booz Allen. Booz’s report, like the two from McKinsey, has not been made public, but an article called “The Library Rebooted,” in Strategy+Business, Booz’s managment magazine, gives a sense of what the advice must have looked like. In a section titled “Expand the Metrics,” the Booz authors write: “Libraries will have to introduce new metrics to measure staff performance. There may be some resistance to this, especially if the library’s staff is conditioned to think of what it does as a government service that isn’t in jeopardy, that could never be in jeopardy, and that doesn’t operate in a changing ‘marketplace’. But in the bigger context of changes, this resistance to measurement should be easy to surmount.” Another hint about Booz’s advice comes from a chart a former staff member included in a presentation. The chart shows a sharp decline in the use of physical collections at the research facilities:
The steep decline in 1998 and 1999 was likely caused by the renovations at the main building and the Library for the Performing Arts, which at times made it inconvenient to use those resources. But the equally unmistakable decline from 2001 to 2006 could not be wished away. The internet had arrived. More and more resources had become available to researchers from the comfort of their homes, whether through free online databases, pirated digital editions, or the used book market, which had become mind-bogglingly quick and easy to navigate as early as 2000.
You might be forgiven, if you were the library, for beginning to think that research was not the best business to be in. Perhaps the library business was one that people should get out of entirely, since no one likes books anymore? That, actually, turned out to be false. While the use of the physical collections at the research libraries was plummeting, the use of the circulating collections at the branch libraries was going up, almost doubling between 2000 and 2010. Meanwhile the number of people actually visiting the circulating and research libraries remained about the same. It was the use of the materials that changed. People were checking out a greater number of books at the circulating branches than ever before, but research more and more was being done online. People still came to the research libraries, but they came and logged in to the wireless.
So what would you do, if you were charged with running the library? Library users, it seems, want more books to circulate; less and less do they want books for research. The drop in the use of the research collection has stabilized since 2007, contra Booz Allen’s prediction from the above chart. But the numbers haven’t returned to anything like the pre-internet era. In its press release about the renovation the administration put forward one particularly suggestive statistic: of the 5 million books currently held at the main building, only about 300,000 were requested last year. That means the rest of them—4.7 million, or 94 percent of the on-site collection—just sat around, taking up space, in one of the most prized real estate neighborhoods on the planet.
I didn’t start using the research library until a few years ago. It’s a shame, because when I moved to New York in the mid-2000s a great library would have been a godsend. I grew up in a midsize industrial town in northern Idaho—the main products are bullets and toilet paper—and my intellectual life has always to a great degree depended on libraries. As a child, I was a library kid, taking out my limit in children’s books from the local Carnegie branch every week. As I got older, I read the New York Times on the computer I bought after saving money from mowing lawns—something that would have been impossible just a decade before, no matter how many lawns I mowed. For books, because I was brought up in the decade before mass digitization began, I had to rely on what was at hand. It wasn’t much. The Carnegie branch closed down in the 1990s. The one branch that remains sits in a former hardware store, built out of cinder blocks, with no windows; the signs that say “library” are often missing several letters. There’s a small college library in town, but the Idaho legislature hasn’t exactly endowed it with a marvelous collection.
I left Idaho in 2001 for a liberal arts college in Minnesota, where I learned what a real library could be. I saw complete works of authors—Kierkegaard, Coleridge, Shelley, Goethe—for the first time in my life. I discovered H. L. Mencken, and the entire concept of cultural criticism, by wandering a few stacks south of the Hemingway section. After college, everywhere I moved, the first place I went was the library: in Missoula, Montana, I worked on my German in the library of the University of Montana, mediocre but open to the public; in Seattle, I read about documentary film at the library of the University of Washington, fantastic and open to the public; and in Washington, DC, I read through the works of Stanley Cavell at the Library of Congress, also open to the public.
In New York, I ran into a roadblock. My previous libraries either had incredibly long hours, like the University of Washington, or had incredibly long hours and also let me check books out for free, like the University of Montana and my college library. The only exception, the Library of Congress, had mediocre hours and the books didn’t circulate, but the main building happened to be a short bike ride away from my cheap apartment on the edge of Capitol Hill. In New York, in that first year, the only place I could afford was a $560-a-month room in Crown Heights. My one reliable freelance gig—aggregating news articles for a blog—required me to send in my work at 11 AM. I spent the rest of the day working on book reviews. The main branch of the New York Public Library closed at 6 PM. It was an hour away by subway. When I got there, if I found the book I needed, I couldn’t take it home. I hardly ever went.
The other research libraries in town, at Columbia and NYU, refused to admit the public, and there was no way I could afford the fees they charged to get in the door, let alone the even more exorbitant fees they charged to check out their books. Strangely, given all the good books that have been written here, New York was the first place since leaving Idaho that I didn’t have easy access to a good library.
While I have grown to love the research library over the past few years—as I have relied on its millions of books to read about things the internet couldn’t care less about, from American Pragmatism to the labor wars of northern Idaho—the limited hours made it impossible to spend much time at the library whenever I had a full-time job. Even now, as a freelancer, the luxurious atmosphere at the main building is always overwhelmed by the sense of rush: get in, get your books, and take the notes you need—before they kick you out.
The library spent hundreds of millions of dollars over the last three decades to renovate its interiors and to open SIBL, but the hours at the main branch improved only slightly. According to Micah May, the thirtysomething former McKinsey consultant who became director of strategy for the library in 2009, the surveys conducted by the library have led the administration to take a much greater interest in hours. This concern is part of the reasoning behind the plan to combine Mid-Manhattan, SIBL, and the main building: if the administration can bring the three facilities together, it can keep them open longer. It should be said that the logic here is a little shaky. The administration is going to sell two buildings, tear up the remaining one, and send a majority of the books to New Jersey—so it can extend the hours? It would seem like a simpler way to extend the hours would be to raise money to extend the hours. But the renovation, of course, is about more than just hours.
By its nature, a research library is a conservative institution. It is constrained from reevaluating its commitments and embarking in new directions by the sheer amount of capital it has sunk into its collections. Even if fewer people used the Slavic collection over time, the fact that the library had one of the world’s greatest Slavic collections meant that it had little choice but to go on buying Slavic materials. The library couldn’t, for example, respond to shifting immigration patterns by reducing its budget for Slavic books and shifting to Hispanic books, because it would then be left with a Slavic collection that didn’t cover present scholarship and an Hispanic collection that didn’t cover past scholarship. A great research collection could be created only by starting early, as the New York Public Library did by buying pretty much everything in its specialties from the late 19th century onward, and then by continuing to buy in those same fields, basically forever. (The research library at the Getty Museum has tried to beat this game by buying up entire collections from scholars as they die, but it has taken years for the Getty to match top art libraries, and such an endeavor is only imaginable with the Getty’s billions.)
The advent of digital scholarship has begun to change this equation. Within a few decades it is likely that any reasonably well-endowed institution, the Abu Dhabi Public Library, say, will be able to subscribe to databases that will include more books than are held in the New York Public Library’s entire research collection. Large archives of unpublished material will still distinguish individual institutions—the more than 10 billion items held by the United States National Archives aren’t going to be digitized any time soon—but with most published books, it won’t matter whether a library became interested in the subject a hundred years ago or yesterday. If a library has a sudden influx of Slavicists, it will be able to purchase access to databases of Slavic materials; if the Slavicists stop coming, and more Hispanic studies scholars walk through the door, the library will be able to shift its budget accordingly, with few long-lasting effects.
Most research libraries will still be constrained in how they shift their budgets, because the audience for most research libraries is determined by the institution they primarily exist to serve—their universities. Whether students are checking out French books or not, the library will buy French books, or their digital equivalents, for as long as the university has a French department. At the New York Public Library, by contrast, the decline in requests for research books has allowed the administration to question the very purpose of the research library, because there are no academic departments to tell the library what to do. The administration sees this as a virtue. “We have a tremendous competitive advantage compared to university libraries,” Micah May told me, “because they’re tied to a faculty—so they’re not nearly as nimble.”
The ability to quickly shift missions could come in handy, because the digital age poses particularly difficult problems for a public research library. To understand why, consider the difference between circulating and research books. Circulating books have always been thought of as disposable commodities: a library buys forty copies of the new Harry Potter book, and expects that those forty copies will, on average, each be checked out forty times before they fall apart and have to be thrown away. The circulating library is OK with throwing them away, because in a couple of years there will be a new Harry Potter book and the library won’t need as many copies of the old one anymore.
While it may seem odd, there are not many difficulties in adapting this model to the digital world: instead of buying a book and throwing it away after forty people check it out, a library simply buys a license to circulate an ebook forty times. Functionally, it’s the same. The problem is that where previously libraries could buy any book they liked on the open market for the same price that any individual would pay, the move to digital licensing allows publishers to enforce more fine-grained “library pricing.” Now, instead of paying $10.39 on Amazon for a copy of Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire and circulating that book until it falls apart, libraries will have to pay whatever publishers demand for the right to circulate a book a set number of times—probably a lot more than $10.39. It’s likely as well that libraries will eventually be competing with the literary equivalent of Netflix for the right to circulate ebooks. But while this new regime may force circulating libraries to cut back on the number of titles they provide, it won’t threaten their basic existence. Once publishers determine the market price to circulate a book, they will be all too happy to charge libraries that price.
The books in the research division at the New York Public Library are another story. While they are not unique, they are not quite commodities. The research division calls itself a “one-copy library”; it collects one copy of a book and keeps it forever. The library didn’t need to buy more than one copy because almost no books were allowed outside of its reading rooms. As a result, the books rarely got damaged or lost. The library has a first edition of Walker Evans’s American Photographs, published in 1938, that any patron can request; it is still in nearly mint condition. How many people have looked at this book since it was first purchased? Perhaps thousands. And while it’s not cheap to buy and store a physical copy of every important book that comes out each year, it’s not clear that it will actually be cheaper to provide access to electronic copies. Many of the books held by the research library, scholarly in nature, are considered to have only one audience—students and professors at universities. All the pricing schemes for electronic editions of such scholarly works are being developed with this audience in mind. And with few exceptions, these schemes work against the New York Public Library.
At the moment, most licensing arrangements for university libraries are set up so that students and faculty can log in and use the databases not just from the physical library but from anywhere in the world, twenty-four hours a day. University libraries can afford to pay for comprehensive access because they have a limited and well-defined user base—in the case of NYU, around 45,000 students, faculty, and staff. The New York Public Library can’t buy similar licenses because it has 1.9 million cardholders. “When a publisher hears that they get very nervous,” Denise Hibay, the library’s head of collection development, told me. That’s because if the New York Public Library did somehow persuade a company like ProQuest to let it buy licenses on the cheap, then NYU (and every other college and university in town) could just stop paying ProQuest and tell all their students who want access to sign up for a library card and log in through the New York Public Library.
The library already deals with this problem by only paying for on-site access to scholarly databases; a few databases are available at every branch, and a few can even be accessed from home, but most serious scholarly databases can only be used at the four research locations. This setup is significantly cheaper: fewer people make use of the databases, and NYU and other universities can’t discontinue their own subscriptions, since students expect to get access to any database they want from their dorm rooms. The consequence of these digital licensing schemes is apparent in the different approaches to physical space. For universities, the physical space of libraries has become less and less important—students mainly go to libraries to study, not to get books, and students can essentially study anywhere, so whether universities call a study space a “library” or a “learning commons” doesn’t matter. Technology has thus unsurprisingly led to a decrease in the importance of physical space and to the greater dispersion of knowledge. But for the New York Public Library or any other public research library, physical space has actually become more important than ever before, because the only way the library can afford to pay for access to truly research-level databases is by restricting the access to certain physical spaces. Technology combines with the peculiar economics of information to make physical space once again very important.
We assume that the internet can only make it easier and cheaper to access information, but what the internet really does, when it’s commercialized, is commodify information. In the future, publishers will be able to determine exactly how often a specific book or article is accessed, try a few different prices, and charge whatever turns out to be most profitable. If that profit can be generated by selling advertising, then the book will be made available “for free”; if not, users will be forced to pay. In the case of romance novels, this means “ad-supported books”; in the case of scholarly journals, if you don’t have an institution to support you, it means paying $5.99 to “rent” a single article for one day, the price currently being charged by Cambridge University Press.
Research libraries, because of the “right of first sale”—the law that allows libraries and rental stores to circulate materials without paying royalties—have long served as a refuge for knowledge outside of the reach of most market forces. It may seem like arcane scholarly works would be precisely the kind of thing that could be provided “for free” with advertising. But the existence of a large, well-endowed customer base, namely, universities, that cannot perform their basic functions without access to huge databases of such materials makes it very unlikely that copyrighted scholarly works will ever be provided for free. The “open access” movement, which would oblige all publicly funded academics to distribute free copies of their work, is one solution. Given how thoroughly the profit motive has worked its way into our education system, such a future should not be counted on.
While the New York Public Library was wondering how to deal with this mercurial future, some internal events were also taking place. For one thing, the renovations in the 1990s kept coming in over budget, and once construction was done, upkeep on the properties was expensive. For another, one of the management consultants’ invaluable suggestions was that the library set up a strategic planning department, to give more advice along the lines of the advice McKinsey and Booz Allen had given. This wasn’t cheap either. And then there were health care costs, pension costs, materials costs—everything was going up. How to pay for it all? In his recent piece about the library for the Nation, the journalist Scott Sherman quotes a “high-ranking official” who told him, “Our sources of revenue from the city and state are not keeping up with inflation.” In fact, when I looked up the research library’s annual budgets (conveniently available in bound volumes at the library itself), I found that the city’s contribution has not only not decreased but in fact increased over the years—from $2 million in 1980 to $25 million in 2008. When adjusted for inflation, that’s still a significant increase. But the library was spending more money as well, and it may be more important that the administration thought they were short on money than that they really were.1
And so, like any large corporation with expenses exceeding income, the library in the middle of the last decade began to liquidate its assets. The assets were formidable. On view at the Edna Barnes Salomon Room on the third floor of the main building was Asher Durand’s 1849 painting “Kindred Spirits,” one of the masterpieces of the Hudson River School. It depicts Thomas Cole and William Cullen Bryant taking a walk in the Catskills, and was given to the library by Bryant’s daughter in 1904. Exactly one hundred years later, by unanimous vote, the board of trustees decided to put the painting up for auction at Sotheby’s.
The decision was controversial. Paul LeClerc made a point at the time of saying that the money would go to the purchase of books and manuscripts and to library’s endowment, and not toward day-to-day operations—that is, the library was not holding a fire sale, but merely trying to focus on its mission. “We’re not a museum,” LeClerc told the Times. “We don’t have a staff devoted to paintings and sculptures.” (After reading about his nonexistence in the paper of record, the Miriam and Ira D. Wallach Chief Librarian of Art, Prints, and Photographs and Curator of the Spencer Collection Robert Rainwater decided to quit.) Critics pointed out that the painting was not just a national treasure but a treasure of the City of New York. Library officials countered that they would prefer that the painting remain in New York, on public view, and would grant “preferential” financial terms for such a bid. But what did “preferential” terms mean? Not enough, apparently. The winner of the auction was Alice Walton, an heir to the Wal-Mart fortune, who bought the painting for over $35 million and took it to Arkansas, where it can be seen at her new Crystal Bridges Museum. “We’re disappointed that the painting is leaving New York,” said the spokesman for New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art, which had united with the National Gallery of Art in an attempt to put together a super-bid for the painting, and failed. LeClerc for his part told the Times he was “delighted that it didn’t leave the country.” Nonetheless, after the controversy, a plan to sell the library’s legendary “Double-Elephant folio” of Audubon’s Birds of America and its Gutenberg Bible was scrapped.
But the library had other things to sell. In addition to being a major book owner, it is also a major property owner in the city, and in November 2007 the administration announced the sale of the Donnell Library Center, on 53rd Street. The Donnell, directly across the street from the Museum of Modern Art, was one of the premier branches in the system, with the best circulating foreign languages section. The library had sold it to a hotel chain, without any public discussion, for $59 million. As part of the deal, the hotel agreed to build a much smaller library on two floors in the basement and on the future first floor. The branch closed in 2008 but the hotel chain ran into financial difficulties; four years later, the building remains empty.
Along with selling off its most valuable assets, the library has made unprecedented cutbacks in recent years. Before physically combining the branch and research libraries, the administration combined their staffs. This “One NYPL” strategy, announced in 2008, led to some real savings; for instance, catalogers and preservationists from the branch and the research side now work together. But as the recession hit, the reorganization became more like a massacre: many of the library’s most experienced and highly regarded senior staff, including almost all of the division chiefs at the main building, were pushed into retirement or effectively fired—except for those, like Robert Rainwater, who had already resigned. In September 2008, the administration, without making any public announcement, permanently shut down three of its prized reading rooms, one occupied by the Slavic and Baltic division, the other two by the Asian and Middle Eastern division. Many staff members in these divisions, which dated to the earliest days of the institution, were transferred into other departments or pushed into retirement, including the curators who had run them for decades, Edward Kasinec and John Lundquist. None of the former librarians with whom I spoke could recall any similar events in the history of the library, even in the dark days of the 1970s.
The closure of the Slavic and Baltic room was particularly surprising, since unlike the “Kindred Spirits” sale this closure really struck at what McKinsey would call a core competency of the institution. The New York Public Library is universally believed to have one of the finest collections of Slavic materials in the world, made use of by Leon Trotsky, George Kennan, and Vladimir Nabokov. Slavic scholars have been angrier and more vocal than any other group about the library’s recent changes. In November, thanks to the work of these scholars, the administration appointed a curator for the Slavic collection, Stephen Corrsin. Corrsin was already working full time as curator of the library’s Jewish division. There is still no curator for the library’s collection of Asian and Middle Eastern materials, and after the Asian and Middle Eastern division was closed the administration took an endowment that had supported its chief, “The Susan and Douglas Dillon Chief Librarian of the Oriental Division Fund,” and redirected it to support a central administrator, the “Susan and Douglas Dillon Head of Collection Development.”
Less visible than the closure of these divisions have been the library’s cuts to other international acquisitions. In 2010, the administration decided, as Denise Hibay put it to me, “to bring our focus back to New York, things related to New York, and those subjects of interest to New Yorkers.” Many foreign language budgets have been cut across the board, and acquisitions in some languages have been eliminated entirely.
Finally, in 2007 the administration completely cut the research-level budget for every subject in the sciences, including mathematics, physics, chemistry, astronomy, and engineering, and, Hibay told me, “reduced or stopped acquiring” in many fields in the social sciences, including criminal justice, education, and psychology. According to John Ganly, former assistant director of SIBL, the administration also cut the budget for acquisitions in economics by around 80 percent. Hibay says economics continues to be collected in “selected areas”; Victoria Steele, director of collections strategy, explained that the library is “shaping our collections to make sense for our users. So genealogy, but not maybe advanced level economics.”
Individually, many of these decisions are understandable. Together, they paint a picture of an organization that has stumbled its way into the 21st century. While the administration has had no trouble finding money for new construction and renovations at the research centers, it has struggled to staff the resulting facilities and to buy the materials necessary to maintain them at a world-class level. And now that the administration has concluded that it cannot sustain these operations, it is not retrenching and raising more funds to run them, but instead selling off entire buildings, closing rooms, cutting back on research acquisitions, and directing the proceeds to the creation of a new circulating facility that can only be built by tearing out the heart of the central research collection.
Read part two here.