NYPL: Time is Running Out

(The Nation, January, 2014)

On December 12, in a decision formulated behind closed doors, the New York State Office of Parks, Recreation & Historic Preservation green-lighted the New York Public Library’s request to demolish seven levels of book stacks inside the main branch of the 42nd Street Library. But first, the corpse must be prepared for burial: before proceeding with the demolition, the NYPL was instructed to hire an archaeologist or historian to document, via photography and archival evidence, the stacks designed by Carrère and Hastings, which were hailed as marvels of engineering when they were unveiled in 1911.

This is a wake-up call for New York’s new mayor, Bill de Blasio, who held a press conference on the steps of the NYPL on July 12 to declare his opposition to the Central Library Plan (CLP), which also entails the sale of the bustling Mid-Manhattan Library to private interests.

The same day, de Blasio—then still a candidate—sent a letter registering his concerns to the sitting mayor, Michael Bloomberg. In it, he urged Bloomberg to “seriously consider alternative ways to…ensure the preservation of the NYPL’s valuable collection stored at the Central Library and preserve the Mid-Manhattan branch as a functioning library.”

De Blasio was right to speak out: the CLP devotes immense resources to the central library, in the heart of Manhattan, while ignoring the needs of the NYPL’s nearly 100 branch libraries, many of which are situated in poor, outlying zones of the city. Those branch libraries need at least $500 million in structural renovations.

How should the new mayor proceed? He should redirect the $150 million in capital funds the Bloomberg administration allocated to the CLP. A portion of that money should be used to upgrade the ventilation system in the stacks, which, until recently, held 3 million books. (All of the books must be returned to the stacks.) Some of the money should be given to the branch libraries. The rest could revitalize the Mid-Manhattan Library—an idea put forth by architecture critic Ada Louise Huxtable in her final published essay: “Let Foster+Partners loose on the Mid-Manhattan building; the results will be spectacular, and probably no more costly than the extravagant and destructive plan the library has chosen.”