The New York Public Library’s announcement that it is abandoning its Central Library Plan has been praised as a good and sensible thing, and indeed it is. The C.L.P. would have sold off the Mid-Manhattan Library and the Science, Industry, and Business Library (called sibl; five of its floors not open to the public have been sold already). The collections of those libraries would have been moved to the main research library, on Fifth Avenue, and elsewhere. That hundred-and-three-year-old edifice (now known as the Stephen A. Schwarzman Building), with the stone lions out front, would have been reconfigured: seven floors of its stacks taken out, a lending library added to what had been a research library only, more than a million books moved off-site, and a four-level atrium and other new elements put in, following a design by the architect Norman Foster.
Observers could be excused for finding the plan too complicated and strange to think about at first. The library’s management and board of trustees developed the C.L.P. without the public’s knowing much about it, but as the time for construction approached, and more public meetings were held, it became clear that the C.L.P. represented a major retrenchment. Anyone with experience in household austerity and the cost of modern real estate could get the picture. The main research building was like the elderly but still healthy parent; the Mid-Manhattan Library and sibl were the grownup offspring. Pressed for cash, the family was selling the kids’ apartments and moving the kids in with the parent. To make room, some of the parent’s belongings would have to be put in storage in New Jersey. When the sacrifices that the C.L.P. would entail sank in, thanks in particular to reporting in The Nation andn+1, library users began to object loudly and persistently. The protests, the new mayor’s lack of support, and the fact that the financial projections did not add up eventually undid the C.L.P.
The biggest problem was the money. The N.Y.P.L. receives only part of its funding from the city, in an amount that goes up or (more often) down from year to year. Most of the money is spread among the eighty-seven branch libraries throughout Manhattan, the Bronx, and Staten Island. (Brooklyn and Queens have their own systems.) In 2014, the city will contribute about fifty per cent of the over-all operating costs. To make up the difference, the N.Y.P.L. pursues funding from many sources, which also fluctuate unpredictably. The collection of the main research library has been compared to that of the Library of Congress and to that of Harvard’s Widener Library. But the U.S. government underwrites the former, and the latter rests comfortably in the care of the richest university in the world. In contrast, the N.Y.P.L. is an on-the-jump freelancer, scrambling for dollars from one day to the next almost as energetically as the street performers out in front of the Fifth Avenue building.
In the case of the C.L.P., the money that did not add up was about three hundred million dollars. This was the amount that the sale of sibl and Mid-Manhattan would have provided a portion of. (The city would have put in most of the rest.) The sum had been thought sufficient for carrying out the C.L.P., until an independent audit found it not to be. To get an idea of where this much money ranks against ongoing enterprises in midtown, it’s useful to look at the fate of the Donnell Library, the currently out-of-commission branch on Fifty-third Street. In 2007, the sale of the Donnell brought the N.Y.P.L. a mere fifty-nine million dollars, and, four years later, a developer tore it down.
A new Donnell is projected to open late next year, in a smaller space, with fewer resources, on the lower level of a luxury high-rise that has been built at the site. The high-rise, a fifty-story hotel-and-residential tower, cost more than five hundred million dollars to erect; a penthouse apartment in it sells for sixty million. Several other tall buildings featuring apartments in that price range are going up in the same neighborhood. The city could use the tax revenue, as our previous mayor liked to point out. But the Donnell’s fate suggests the tread of the giant feet of big-bucks real-estate players on the public spaces of midtown—not a reassuring thought, considering the loss of public space that the C.L.P. would have involved.
Plus, the whole business makes three hundred million dollars seem a relatively puny sum. Very likely, fewer people than occupy the research library’s main reading room on a busy afternoon will live in the luxury condos. The research library and Mid-Manhattan receive a total of about 3.7 million visits a year; if several billion can be spent on luxury housing for a few, surely a few billion can be devoted to a library for the eight and a half million people of New York City. That’s easy enough to say—of course, it would be great if the library had two or three billion dollars. But nowadays there’s an uncertainty about what libraries will be in the future. Will there even be libraries? Will they exist in cyberspace only? Will physical books be necessary? It’s harder to raise money for something not clearly seen.
The controversy over the C.L.P. has sketched in a few answers. Physical, public space and physical books will continue to be vital to a library whose research collection, amassed over more than a century, is a cultural treasure. (Even people who focus mostly on their laptops seem to want the company of others, judging by how crowded the three midtown buildings in question usually are.) Given the importance of books, it follows that as many as possible should be on-site. Keeping them there, and moving back many that are off-site now, is a worthwhile goal. If the Schwarzman Building’s stacks need major refitting in order to preserve the books better, ideally that should be done, even at the projected cost of tens of millions of dollars. The Mid-Manhattan Library has long been falling apart. It should be fixed up, as the N.Y.P.L. has recently promised to do. Many of the eighty-seven branch libraries also need extensive improvements and renovations—a need more urgent than others, if the money could be found.
The Schwarzman Building stands on the site that once held about half of the Croton Reservoir. Massive stones from the reservoir’s walls make up part of the building’s foundation. The reservoir stored much of the city’s water, carried by an aqueduct system for many miles from upstate. New York City has created visionary civic projects in the past; its public library is chief among them. America now has the highest level of income inequality in the developed world, and New York’s is among the worst in America. The public library has always been a great democratizer and creator of citizens, and a powerful force against inequality; it must not retrench, especially now.