HDC's Statement on the NYPL's Central Library Plan
NYPL’s Central Library Plan
The New York Public Library is an institution that embodies the altruistic principle that education is the great societal elevator. It was founded in the belief that everyone should have access to the resources necessary for self-improvement. Unfortunately, with the NYPL’s pursuit of the Central Library Plan, it appears that mission may have become a thing of the past.
The guiding principle of the Library was that access to education was necessary for America to progress and that no one should be barred from knowledge because of his or her economic status. To drive home this point, beautiful branch libraries were situated in neighborhoods throughout the city and a lavish architectural masterpiece was constructed in the heart of Manhattan, places where all New Yorkers would be welcome in a mansion of books grander than any of the private libraries of the wealthy or the cloistered libraries of private universities. As an institution, the New York Public Library nurtured countless generations of New Yorkers and enabled some of our brightest stars to flourish, regardless of their personal economic or social circumstances. It is both a symbol and a sustainer of New York’s century-long status as a major world city and it is truly a treasure. This is why the Central Library Plan is so deeply troubling.
At its core, the NYPL’s Central Library Plan eviscerates the heart of the 42nd Street Library building while disenfranchising the millions of New Yorkers who use the Library’s services. In essence a real estate deal conceived to maximize profits through decreasing services, the over $300 million dollar plan proposes to remove the interior stacks of the New York Public Library building, where between 3 and 4 million books are housed for rapid retrieval to patrons, and replace them with a new circulating library incorporating two separate libraries, the Mid-Manhattan Library and the Science, Industry and Business Library (SIBL), which are currently housed in two different Midtown buildings.
A key element of the plan is the removal of the stacks. Not simply book storage, they are what gives the building life and purpose. At the time of the building’s construction in 1905, The New York Times noted, “thus surrounded this monster bookcase becomes architecturally the heart of the whole structure, the treasure for whose protection this marble palace is built.” Much like a heart pumps blood to the organs of a body, the set-up of the stacks circulates books to the library’s patrons. The library’s original trustees dictated this arrangement when they began a search for architects for the new building, and Carrere and Hastings made this ingenious system a reality, designing a system where the stacks actually provide necessary structural support for the well-used Main Reading Room.
The architects also did the public a great service when, answering the trustees’ request for more light in the stacks, they created a great expanse of long vertical windows almost recalling monumental book shelves on the west façade. Departing from the very traditional, classically-inspired style of the rest of the building, Carrere and Hastings created an elegantly functional façade in a manner that might even be called modern for its time. The windows also provide the passerby a glimpse of the landmark’s inner structure and workings. Without the stacks behind them, these windows feel like little more than a movie set façade.
Equally important, their function has worked perfectly for a century, with most requests answered quickly and accurately, enabling people to make the best use of their time in the library researching and learning, not waiting. Furthermore, contrary to NYPL’s public statements, the stacks were upgraded with modern fire-suppression systems within the last 15 years and while their climate control systems could certainly be further improved, the expense of modernization is nothing compared to the cost of removal. It should be noted that even- older stacks at the Bibliothèque Nationale in Paris, which served as a model for the plan at NYPL, have recently been updated with modern climate controls and fireproofing.
The other imperative of the plan is the sale of the Mid-Manhattan Library and the Science, Industry and Business Library for private development and their incorporation into the 42nd Street building. Both have been claimed to be outmoded and obsolete, however both are still heavily used by the public. The Mid-Manhattan Library is one of the most heavily-used circulating library branch in the nation, with over 1 million annual visitors and approximately 700 thousand books and materials available. SIBL does not lag far behind, with over 750 thousand annual users and more than 500,000 materials onsite. Bent on moving books from the 42nd Street building, the Central Library Plan cannot say where the over 1 million new books and materials will be stored to serve the almost 2 million projected new patrons. This is a downsizing of the NYPL, squeezing a heavily-used circulating library and another heavily-used research library into the central library, which already has around two million visitors a year. This is not about providing access to patrons denied it, nor about providing new services. The Mid-Manhattan Library, lodged in a former Fifth Avenue department store across the street, functions well.
While the purported aim of making more of the Central Library building available to the public may seem laudable, it should be kept in mind that the worth of a library, particularly one of the world’s greatest research libraries, is not measured simply in the number of people who come through the door. A primary goal of the institution should be to enable quality research. Better instead to re-open the many empty rooms of the building as proposed, retain the stacks and combine them with the soon-to-be increased space under Bryant Park to ensure the library holdings can continue to grow and serve the public. The Mid-Manhattan Library should be redeveloped and modernized (as needed) to better serve its role as the nation’s largest circulating library and if SIBL is truly as outmoded as claimed, perhaps it can be integrated into an expanded Mid-Manhattan Branch or another site.
The Historic Districts Council has joined the Committee to Save the New York Public Library to oppose this project and demand an independent reconsideration of this plan. The New York Public Library is arguably a nearly perfect design for uniting New Yorkers with knowledge in much the same way that Grand Central Terminal is a nearly perfect design for uniting New Yorkers with transportation. Great public buildings both serve and inspire their users and the Library, a truly democratic and free institution, does just that in its current form.