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PORTSIDE  December 2011, Week 1

PORTSIDE December 2011, Week 1

Subject:

Upheaval at the New York Public Library

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Wed, 7 Dec 2011 23:35:35 -0500

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Upheaval at the New York Public Library

by Scott Sherman, with research by Shelby Kinney-Lang

The Nation
November 30, 2011
This article appeared in the December 19, 2011 edition of
The Nation.
http://www.thenation.com/article/164881/upheaval-new-york-public-library

[Moderator's note: NYPL is not a Public Library in a
traditional since. It is actually the Astor, Lenox, Tilden
Foundation.It has a self perpetuating Board of Trustees
which one could easily classify as the 1 Percent. Every
major decision and appointment has to be approved by them.
When I retired most senior staff members were no longer
allowed to attend Board of Trustees meetings which had been
allowed for most of my time at NYPL. In the real world this
means that no one who has ever delivered public service at
NYPL is allowed to attend meetings where every major
decision is made.

Mr Sherman correctly describes how NYPL is being radically
changed. I agree, but what else is taking place is the sale
of very valuable real estate. Legally, it appears, NYPL has
the right to do so but this is not simply real estate but
Libraries that belong to the people of New York.

Ray Markey,
former president, AFSCME Local 1930, New York Public Library
Guild; and one of Portside's labor moderators]

In July 2010, Hilde Hoogenboom, a professor of Russian
literature at Arizona State University, sent an impassioned
missive to Paul LeClerc, president of the New York Public
Library, to protest the closure of the NYPL's Slavic and
Baltic division. It "was one of the best places to work in
the world," she wrote. Indeed, in the universe of Russian
studies, the Slavic division was legendary. "I recall [it]
as an agreeably dim sort of place, with a faintly
reverential, almost cathedral-like ambience," George Kennan
said in 1987. Among its 750,000 items are the first book
printed in Moscow, the "Anonymous" Gospels; a first edition
of Tolstoy's War and Peace; and John Reed's collection of
broadsides and posters from the Russian Revolution. Trotsky
and Nabokov toiled in the division's reading room. Vaclav
Havel and Mikhail Gorbachev made visits of tribute.

Eleven weeks later, a senior NYPL official replied on
LeClerc's behalf: "If I may put this matter into its sadly
grim financial context, in the last two fiscal years our
budget has been reduced by $20 million and our workforce by
300 positions. While we recognized and prized the special
cultural and scholarly resource that was the Slavic Reading
Room, we simply could no longer afford to operate it."

The New York Public Library, which comprises four research
libraries and eighty-seven branch libraries, has seen other
cutbacks as well. Since 2008 its workforce has been reduced
by 27 percent. In a recent newsletter to library supporters,
the institution reported that its acquisitions budget for
books, CDs and DVDs had been slashed by 26 percent.

Despite these austerity measures, NYPL executives are
pushing ahead with a gargantuan renovation of the Forty-
second Street library, the crown jewel of the system. The
details of the Central Library Plan (CLP) are closely
guarded, but it has already sparked criticism among staff
members, who worry that the makeover would not only weaken
one of the world's great libraries but mar the architectural
integrity of the landmark building on Forty-second Street
and Fifth Avenue, renamed the Stephen A. Schwarzman Building
in 2008, following the Wall Street billionaire's gift of
$100 million. (Every staff member I spoke with demanded
anonymity; a number of them talked openly about their fear
of retribution from management.)

These are arduous times for public library systems. More
people are using libraries during the economic downturn, but
state and local legislators are steadily cutting their
budgets. The American Library Association notes that since
2008, "more than half the states have reported a decrease in
funding, with cumulative cuts averaging greater than ten
percent." Library systems of all sizes are under pressure.
The Los Angeles County public library system, which serves
3.7 million citizens, faces a structural deficit of $22
million a year for the next decade. Budget cuts have forced
the Seattle Public Library, one of the nation's finest, to
shut down for a week in late summer. Thomas Galante, CEO of
the bustling Queens Library, which serves hundreds of
thousands of immigrants in New York City, spoke reverently
about one healthy and outstanding public library - in
Toronto.

The man who must contend with the NYPL's budget difficulties
is its new president, a tall, amiable, casually dressed
political scientist named Anthony Marx, who started at the
library on July 1. Marx had been the president of Amherst
College, where during his eight-year tenure he raised great
sums of money and did much to diversify the student body.
But obtaining the financial resources to sustain the NYPL in
these lean and mean times is a task that's sure to keep Marx
tossing in his bed at night. (Personal reasons may also keep
Marx from sleeping soundly: on the afternoon of November 6
he was arrested in Upper Manhattan for driving while
intoxicated; his blood alcohol level was 0.19. He is
scheduled to appear in court on December 9.) He faces an
additional challenge with the CLP, devised by his
predecessor and scheduled to be completed in 2015.

The centerpiece of the CLP - expected to cost anywhere from
$250 million to $350 million - is the construction of a
state- of-the-art, computer-oriented library designed by
British architect Norman Foster, in the vast interior of the
Schwarzman Building. To make space for this library within
the library, the seven levels of original stacks beneath the
third-floor Rose Reading Room - stacks that hold 3 million
books and tens of thousands of adjustable and fixed shelves
- will be demolished (the exterior of the building is
landmarked; the stacks are not). When the new library is
completed, patrons will be able to leave the building with
borrowed books and other materials; for decades, those
materials had to be used inside the library.

NYPL officials have grand hopes for their new high-tech
circulating facility: it will be "the largest comprehensive
library open to the public in human history," LeClerc wrote
in an internal NYPL publication in 2008. How will it be paid
for? The City of New York will provide about $150 million
for the project. The NYPL expects to raise another $100-$200
million by selling off two prominent libraries in its
system: the busy (but decrepit) Mid-Manhattan branch library
on Fortieth Street, and the Science, Industry and Business
Library on Thirty-fourth Street, a research library that
opened in 1996 to considerable fanfare.

***

Today, top NYPL officials talk about the CLP - announced in
late 2008 but delayed by the economic downturn - as a done
deal. But Marx says the NYPL's powerful board of trustees
has not yet given its final stamp of approval; he adds that
he is still analyzing the plan. Yet the CLP has gathered an
enormous amount of momentum. On June 29 I was sitting in the
cavernous office of Ann Thornton, a top NYPL librarian, when
LeClerc, just days from retirement, burst in, in a state of
high excitement. "Here's the news," he declared. "We got the
$100 million from the city. isn't it just fantastic?"
(Noting my puzzled look, LeClerc turned to me and said,
"It's for Norman Foster's renovation of this building.")
Thornton jumped to her feet and embraced him. "Paul, that's
wonderful!"

The CLP raises thorny questions. Will Forty-second Street
remain a serene environment for scholars, serious readers,
intellectuals and book lovers, or will it be converted into
a noisy, tumultuous branch library? Might the $250-$350
million designated for the renovation of Forty-second Street
be better spent on the eighty-seven branch libraries, many
of which need structural improvements as well as books,
periodicals, DVDs and computers? Finally, there is the
question of the public good. NYPL executives say the
objective of the CLP, which involves the sale of two prime
Manhattan properties, is to democratize the Forty-second
Street library, incorporate the latest digital technology
and serve the public. They emphasize their desire to expand
public access to Forty-second Street: Thornton told me that
in a building of 600,000 square feet, only 32 percent of
that space is available for public use. After the
renovation, she says, users will have access to almost 70
percent of the building.

NYPL executives may be keen to serve the public, but they
are not so keen to engage it. Many aspects of the CLP remain
cloaked in secrecy, and top NYPL staff imparted details of
the plan only with great reluctance. The NYPL's mission
statement, which executives are quick to invoke, highlights
the word "accountability." My reporting, which included
sixty interviews, left me with a different impression: the
NYPL preaches accountability, but it doesn't always practice
it.

When the Beaux-Arts building at Forty-second Street,
designed by famed architects Carrere and Hastings, opened on
May 23, 1911, more than 30,000 people came to see a library
that had taken twelve years to construct. "The first book to
be delivered," Phyllis Dain wrote in her 1972 history of the
NYPL, "seven minutes after deposit of the call slip, was a
Russian-language study of Nietzsche and Tolstoy." Over the
decades, the NYPL would acquire a spectacular range of
materials: Thomas Jefferson's draft of the Declaration of
Independence, Walt Whitman's personal copy of Leaves of
Grass, Virginia Woolf's cane, Man Ray's portrait of Arnold
Schoenberg, Oscar Wilde's early typewritten versions of The
Importance of Being Earnest, Beethoven's sketches for the
"Archduke Trio," a first edition of Robert Louis Stevenson's
Treasure Island. The list goes on.

The NYPL was a vital institution in twentieth-century New
York: a refuge and a magnet for immigrants, writers,
intellectuals, students, the unemployed and lost souls. Dain
writes that in 1917 the young David Ben-Gurion used the NYPL
to research his first book. In a New York Times essay about
his early years as an Irish immigrant in the city in the
early 1950s, Frank McCourt, author of Angela's Ashes,
recalled, "It was Tim Costello who told me to get out of his
bar and walk a few blocks to where I'd see two lions, and to
go in there and get myself a library card.... Up on the
third floor, I discovered Paradise: the great reference room
with its hundreds of index-card drawers. I asked a librarian
if it would be all right to look in the drawers and he said,
`Of course, of course, anything you like.'"

For the NYPL, the 1960s and '70s were a period of decay and
decrepitude. The most evocative account of that period is
Philip Hamburger's 1986 New Yorker profile of Vartan
Gregorian, who took over the NYPL presidency in 1981. His
colleagues reminisced about the rot that greeted Gregorian:
"that beautiful, aging building, just being taken for
granted, and going downhill fast"; "the back yard is Bryant
Park - drunks, drugs." Gregorian revitalized the library
with prodigious fundraising from individuals, foundations
and corporations "($10 million from the Vincent Astor
Foundation; $1 million from Exxon, etc.), and a series of
lavish dinners and events - all necessary: Hamburger's
sources stressed that while the Library of Congress received
more than $200 million annually from the government, the
NYPL had to scramble for funds - a situation very much the
case today.

Gregorian was succeeded by LeClerc, a French literature
scholar. Many staff considered LeClerc frosty and aloof, but
he accomplished much in his sixteen years at the NYPL: "$50
million renovation of the main branch's facade; a $15
million renovation of the magisterial Rose Reading Room; a
series of first-rate exhibitions; the creation of eight
branch libraries; the launching of the Dorothy and Lewis B.
Cullman Center for Scholars and Writers; the acquisition of
major manuscript collections; and some fine web initiatives,
including the much-praised digital gallery.

Like Gregorian, LeClerc was a skilled fundraiser. In 2008 he
persuaded Schwarzman, one of his trustees, the chairman, CEO
and co-founder of the Blackstone private equity group, to
donate $100 million to the NYPL. In recognition of the gift,
Schwarzman's name was carved into the facade at Forty-second
Street in five prominent places. (Schwarzman told the Times
it was the NYPL's notion - not his - to rename the main
branch for him. He added that it was a "pretty good" idea.)
However, the local community board opposed the five
carvings, on the grounds that they were "excessive and
unnecessarily intrusive to this iconic facade." (LeClerc,
whose salary and benefits package in 2009 was $866,865,
declined to be interviewed for this article.)

Other controversies trailed LeClerc. Writing in The New
Yorker in 1998, Mark Singer reported that the NYPL had
allowed 500 cartons of printed pamphlets, some of which were
produced in the seventeenth century, to be sold to rare book
dealers. In 2005 the NYPL sold a renowned painting from its
collection, Asher Durand's Kindred Spirits, for $35 million
in a closed auction at Sotheby's. (The buyer was Walmart
heir Alice Walton.) That closed auction inspired a scorching
essay by Times art critic Michael Kimmelman, who described
the process as "hasty and secretive." In 2007 the NYPL
agreed to sell a beloved branch library - the Donnell,
across from the Museum of Modern Art - to Orient-Express
Hotels for $59 million. A refurbished Donnell was supposed
to be incorporated into a new hotel on the site in 2011. But
the economic downturn prompted Orient-Express to extricate
itself from the deal, and the building has been vacant for
more than three years. The Orient-Express contract was
recently transferred to two developers, who finally paid the
NYPL. But local residents will have to wait until late 2014
for the Donnell library to reopen.

***

On a sweltering July afternoon, I called on the NYPL's new
president in his elegant wood-paneled office on the second
floor of the Schwarzman Building. Marx was born in 1959 to
parents who took flight from Hitler's Germany. He was raised
in the Inwood section of Upper Manhattan, where he haunted
the local branch of the NYPL. He attended Wesleyan and
became active in the student movement against apartheid,
which had captured his imagination. After graduation he went
to South Africa. He was keen to see - in his words - the
place he had been "yelling and screaming about"; he also
wanted "adventure." There, in what he now sees as the
"pivotal moment" of his life, Marx helped create a
preparatory institution, Khanya College, which he describes
as a "one- year residential college for a select group of
African students who had been undereducated by apartheid."
Those were heady days for Marx: his residence in 1984 was a
"commune of blacks and whites living illegally together,
where we would get raided, and amazing people would come
through hiding from the police."

After graduate study at Princeton, Marx was hired by
Columbia as a professor of political science in 1990. In
addition to his academic duties, he organized a program to
help Columbia undergraduates get fast-tracked to teaching
jobs in New York City public schools. But writing academic
monographs wearied him. Says his friend Robert Townsend, an
English professor at Amherst, "He told me he'd reached the
end of a scholarship track, and that he wanted to switch to
something else. That's good self-knowledge." In 2002 Marx's
name was given to a search committee at Amherst hunting for
a new president. They chose Marx; he was 43. In his eight
years at Amherst, the college raised nearly $500 million.
Marx secured two remarkable gifts - one for $100 million and
the other for $25 million.

His fundraising efforts were matched by a passionate
campaign, resisted by some faculty members, to bring non-
elite and foreign students into the ranks of one of
America's most selective private colleges: as a result,
students of color constitute almost 43 percent of Amherst's
freshman class. Richard Kahlenberg, a senior fellow at the
Century Foundation who writes frequently on education,
credits Marx with helping to "change the conversation in
higher education about diversity, expanding it beyond race
to include socioeconomic status. He used his position of
leadership and his charisma to bring attention to the idea
that having rich kids of all colors wasn't enough. Second,
he showed that excellence and economic diversity were two
sides of the same coin, not competing values. Over a five-
year period, he oversaw a 24 percent increase in students
eligible for Pell grants even as other institutions were
seeing declines."

Marx's friends say his interests and passions -
egalitarianism, the democratization of knowledge, public
access to information - make the NYPL an ideal fit for him.
(They also say he was eager to return to New York. His wife,
Karen Barkey, teaches at Columbia.) But Marx faces a steep
institutional learning curve: the NYPL is a much more
complex and labyrinthine institution than Amherst College.
Amherst has 835 employees; the NYPL has over 2,200 employees
in more than ninety locations, many of them unionized. At
Amherst, Marx faced opposition from perhaps 15-20 percent of
the faculty, who questioned his admissions policies and
wondered if Amherst could adequately support students from
non-elite backgrounds. (Some professors also felt that
Marx's rhetoric was too sanctimonious.) In New York City, by
contrast, he could find himself at odds with a wide
constellation of political opponents and critics. At
Amherst, Marx worked harmoniously with a twenty-person board
of trustees; the NYPL's board comprises sixty-two people -
some of whom contribute hefty sums to the institution.
Observers say the NYPL is a trustee-driven institution and
that staff members approach trustee meetings with palpable
anxiety and dread.

At least two matters from LeClerc's tenure continue to
reverberate in the Marx era. In September 2008 the NYPL
dissolved two specialist divisions at Forty-second Street:
the Slavic and Baltic division and the Asian and Middle
Eastern division. Three of the divisions' old-fashioned
reading rooms were also shut down. The closing of the Slavic
and Asian and Middle Eastern divisions surprised their
devoted users, many of them scholars. The scholars I talked
with lamented the covert way the decision was made. Some
NYPL staff are sympathetic. Says one, "It was a stealth
closure, a fait accompli. It was done in a way to prevent
protests." The reading rooms are closed to the public, but a
few hints of the past remain. On a bookshelf in front of the
old Slavic Reading Room are several dozen bulky maroon
volumes that constitute the NYPL's dictionary catalog of the
Slavonic collection; mounted on a nearby wall are two charts
of the Cyrillic transliteration system.

Questions remain about access to those collections. Since
2008 users of the Slavic collection have lamented the
absence of a distinguished full-time curator, as well as
full-time staff, to guarantee the safety and accessibility
of Slavic materials. Not long ago, a scholar was invited
into the closed stacks at Schwarzman to retrieve a book.
("We can't read Cyrillic," a librarian explained.) As
Hoogenboom wrote in her letter to LeClerc: "Despite cutbacks
in library staff at other foremost Slavic collections in the
U.S., every Slavic collection of any standing in this
country has a curator and several librarians." Marx told me
in July that he was "disturbed" to learn about accessibility
problems with the Slavic collection. A bit of progress has
since been made: on November 17 the NYPL confirmed the
appointment of Stephen Corrsin as curator of Slavic, Baltic
and Eastern European collections. But Corrsin is not full-
time; he is also the curator of the Dorot Jewish Division.
There is no full-time Slavic expert to serve the public and
interact with scholars. (NYPL officials insist they are
still committed to building and supporting their Slavic
holdings.)

The anger and dismay about the closing of the two divisions
have emanated mainly from the Slavic scholars. Few users, it
seems, have complained about the closing of the Asian and
Middle Eastern division (some veteran NYPL staff still refer
to that division by its original name, the Oriental
division). But the former curator of that division, John
Lundquist, made a noisy departure. Marilyn Johnson's recent
work, This Book Is Overdue!: How Librarians and Cybrarians
Can Save Us All, contains an interview with Lundquist, whom
she describes as "a refined presence, as if he'd been
polished at Oxford, or just come from tea with T.S. Eliot."
Lundquist, who has since left the NYPL, is blunt:

   Our division has been dissolved. Our reading rooms have
   been closed. Our librarians have been reassigned.... In
   theory we continue as collections, the Asian and the
   Baltic, but I'm highly skeptical.... The whole library
   has been drastically downsized.... There has been nothing
   about this in the press, no. Obviously the library
   doesn't want any publicity.... They foresee many
   thousands more people in this building, and that, to
   them, is a worthy goal. There is a perception that
   libraries are archaic, dead, outdated, and that
   everything is now on the Internet, in digital form. We
   are old, stooped-over people, doing old, stooped-over
   things. [The NYPL administration] want[s] to lighten
   things up, they want the library to be active and hip.

Lundquist concludes: "I gave a talk about my new book across
the street at the Mid-Manhattan branch. That place is utter
chaos. And it will all come here - the noise, the teenage
problems, the circulating DVDs." Lundquist was alluding to
the Central Library Plan.

NYPL officials insist that the CLP is primarily about
consolidation and cost-cutting. "We need to get more
efficient," a high-ranking official told me. "Our sources of
revenue from the city and state are not keeping up with
inflation. We've got to find ways to structurally reduce our
costs. And one way to do that is to have less overall square
footage systemwide, because every square foot of space costs
money to clean it, to maintain it and to staff it." (The
City of New York provides most of the funding for the branch
libraries; the four research libraries, including Forty-
second Street, are sustained to a great extent by private
philanthropy and an endowment of $813 million.)

Marx frames the CLP as a matter of public access. He argues
that too much of the Schwarzman Building is off-limits and
that exquisite rooms are used as storage spaces. Says Marx,
"The driver of the idea of a central library plan is that in
the back quarter of this iconic building are stacks of books
that are rarely used. We can store and get access to those
books without having to take the prime space in a prime
location in New York City. To the degree that we can make
that space available, and replace books with people, that's
the future of where libraries are going."

One of the NYPL's more energetic trustees, Carl Pforzheimer
III (whose family endowed a majestic room in the main
branch, the Pforzheimer Collection of Shelley and His
Circle), puts it a little differently: "The stacks are
important to have, but it's more important to use the space
properly for the future." Robert Darnton, director of the
Harvard University Library and a longtime NYPL trustee,
takes the same view - that Forty-second Street should be
reconfigured to make room for computers and public spaces
where users can talk with one another. Darnton contests the
notion that removing 3 million books from Forty-second
Street constitutes a retreat from the NYPL's research
mission. "Books can be rearranged in lots of ways," he says.
"What you need to do is to assure accessibility" to the
books "and to increase the growth of your collections."

How accessible will the books be? NYPL officials say they
will put them in two colossal storage facilities: one behind
the library below Bryant Park, the other in Princeton, New
Jersey. (NYPL officials say the latter facility is far
superior to the Forty-second Street stacks in terms of
climate control; they also affirm that materials can be
faxed and e-mailed to patrons at Forty-second Street.) And
what about those users who need books immediately from the
Princeton facility? NYPL officials uniformly insist that the
materials can be transported to Forty-second Street in
twenty-four hours; but staff members dispute that, saying
that book delivery can take up to five days. (I recently
waited two weeks for materials that never arrived; "off-
site" requests have become onerous in recent years. Also, a
great many books seem to be missing from the library.) Staff
members are concerned that books being transported from
Princeton to Forty-second Street might be damaged en route.

Storage and book delivery are paramount issues for library
staff, some of whom maintain that the Schwarzman Building
has become less attractive to scholars, researchers and
serious readers. One can and does strike gold at the NYPL;
still, a downward trend is evident. One employee says, "I
know many people who do not come to Forty-second Street
anymore because they cannot get the books they need to work
there." Top NYPL administrators bristle at those words, but
the statistics show that a large gap has opened up between
NYPL and other top research libraries. In 2008, according to
data from the Association of Research Libraries, the four
research libraries of the NYPL spent"$15.2 million on
"library materials expenditures." In 2010 the NYPL spent
$10.8 million. By contrast, in that year Harvard spent $32.3
million; Columbia, $26.4 million; and Princeton, $23.1
million. (A pilot program involving NYPL, New York
University and Columbia allows "vetted" NYPL users with a
"sustained research need" to check out certain books from
the libraries of NYU and Columbia. This program - by which
books can leave the Schwarzman Building for the first time
in decades - seems to be a tacit acknowledgment by the NYPL
that it can't keep up with those institutions.)

One staff member told me about the recent experience of a
researcher who came to the Schwarzman Building for scholarly
reference books. The books, it turned out, were in the
Princeton storage facility. "She didn't want to go to the
trouble to call the whole set from off-site, and to renew it
every week, and this and that," the staffer explained.
Columbia's library had those books on the shelf, so she went
there. "I think her experience counts for exactly zero with
the current library administration," the staff member told
me. "That's not the kind of reader they want - this woman
probably doesn't even know how to tweet."

The pungency of that remark suggests several things: the low
staff morale at the NYPL's research libraries (morale has
fallen further since the news of Marx's DWI arrest landed in
the papers); the deep-seated suspicion many staff members
feel toward NYPL executives, some of whom have MBAs but not
library science degrees; a feeling among some that the NYPL
administration is excessively enamored of social media and
Google Books (a plan to digitize tens of millions of books,
now in legal limbo) to the detriment of old and new
materials printed on paper; and widespread staff skepticism
about the CLP. Nearly every employee I talked with expressed
affection for the old stacks at Forty-second Street and
horror at the idea that those thousands of shelves might be
gutted. "The whole building is a single architectural
masterpiece," says one. "The CLP would basically destroy
half the library."

Staff members have many questions about the CLP: if a
principal goal is to tear down the stacks and replace books
with computers, why not refurbish Mid-Manhattan, or the much
newer Science, Industry and Business Library, as a modern
computer center, thereby preserving Forty-second Street for
its original purpose - the housing of books and printed
materials?

Devotees of New York City architecture are also growing
alarmed. Charles Warren, a Manhattan architect who co-wrote
a 2006 book about Carrere and Hastings, says, "The building
is a machine for reading books in. The stacks are part of
what the building is. There's an idea there: that the books
are in the center and they rise up out of that machine into
the reading room to serve the people. It's a whole
conception that will be turned on its head by ripping out
the stacks. It's a terrible thing to do." New York-based
scholars also express concern about demolishing the stacks.
David Levering-Lewis, an NYU historian twice awarded the
Pulitzer Prize, says, "We would need to review that very
carefully, and perhaps resist it."

Staff members were aroused by a September 18 Times article
that mentioned Norman Foster, the architect hired to
renovate Forty-second Street. The article, by Philip Nobel,
disclosed that one of Foster's prominent buildings in Las
Vegas, the Harmon, will soon be torn down; according to the
article, "construction flaws were found years ago."

***

In mid-August I accompanied Marx on a tour of four NYPL
branch libraries in Upper Manhattan. (An NYPL manager did
the driving.) Our second stop was a branch on 160th Street
and St. Nicholas Avenue, in a densely populated section of
Washington Heights. Things looked grim from the outside: the
facade's elegant nameplate had been defaced with spray
paint, and the NYPL flag was in tatters. But the branch was
full of users. At the end of the tour, the director asked
Marx, "Would you like to see the custodian's apartment?"

Marx hesitated. The expression on his face suggested that
showing the apartment to a reporter might not be the best
idea, but his finer instincts prevailed. As we mounted the
stairs to the top of the building, the director explained
that when the branch libraries were constructed, with funds
from Andrew Carnegie in the early 1900s, the top floor was
given to a custodian, who lived there with his family. The
apartment we were about to see had been vacant for half a
century.

The director opened the door, and suddenly we were in Jacob
Riis's New York. The space was pitch black, except for a bit
of sunlight coming through dingy windows. I saw rubble,
cobwebs, peeling paint and an ancient tenement bathtub;
there were six bedrooms and a spacious kitchen. Why was this
space never renovated and incorporated into the bustling
library downstairs? The director replied that there was
never enough money. Later that day we visited the George
Bruce branch library on 125th Street in Harlem. That
building, too, had an empty custodian's apartment. I asked
the director what she would do with it if funds were
available to renovate. "I'd use it for a teen center," she
said. When asked about her branch's needs, she quickly
answered, "Ten more computers."

A few weeks earlier, sitting in Marx's office, I had asked
whether a significant portion of the $250-$350 million
designated for the Central Library Plan should go instead to
the eighty-seven branch libraries. I could see the annoyance
in his eyes as he replied, "I won't sacrifice what those
branches can do for the opulence of Forty-second Street."
But Marx didn't say how he would get the money to fully
renovate the branches, which need a lot of help: for
instance, the famed Jefferson Market Library in the heart of
Greenwich Village has been encased by scaffolding for ten
years; that branch has no public restrooms. A staff member
there told me that a shortage of money explains the glacial
pace of the renovation. Reconfiguring the CLP in a way that
would benefit the branches may require delicate negotiations
between Marx and the board of trustees, which appears to be
strongly committed to the CLP.

Although stabilizing and improving the finances of the NYPL
is Marx's principal order of business, incorporating the
voices of the community into the decision-making process
will be another challenge for him. One word that comes up
frequently is "secrecy." Staff members use it to describe
the routine behavior of the NYPL administration; activists
who resisted the closing of the Donnell employed it; the
scholar/activists galvanized by the Slavic and Baltic
division's shutdown used it; and Michael Kimmelman mentioned
it in his Times essay about the NYPL's sale of the Durand
painting. Kimmelman's words still resonate: "It's time for
transparency. Increasingly we demand it from government, the
media and Wall Street, in response to dwindling public
faith. The same should apply to libraries and museums, which
also regularly test our trust."

The NYPL's responsiveness to the public was put to the test
in Harlem. In the spring of last year Howard Dodson,
longtime director of the Schomburg Center for Research in
Black Culture - one of the NYPL's four research libraries
and a revered institution in Harlem - announced his
retirement. Some local residents, according to the Times,
speculated that the Schomburg's enormous collection would be
transferred to Forty-second Street; others postulated that
the Schomburg would abandon Harlem for New Jersey. In
response to those rumors, and the passions they ignited, the
NYPL convened a "community conversation" in the Schomburg's
auditorium on 135th Street, which lasted for two hours.
Onstage were LeClerc, Dodson, actress Ruby Dee and Malcolm
X's daughter Ilyasah Shabazz. LeClerc assured the crowd that
the Schomburg was secure in Harlem. But people who know the
building well say it needs extensive renovations and new
computers.

It was wise of LeClerc to convene a meeting in Harlem.
Rumors were dissipated; facts were presented; opinions were
exchanged. The theory of accountability was put into
practice. Marx would do well to convene another "community
conversation," at which the public can articulate its
feelings not only about the contours of the Central Library
Plan but about the shape of the entire New York Public
Library in the years to come.

[Scott Sherman is a contributing writer to The Nation.]

___________________________________________

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