In times of financial crisis, you start looking around the house for things you might sell off until you realize all you have left is the real estate under your roof. For the New York Public Library in the early years of the 21st century, the fine art had been sold at auction, the staff had been ‘right sized’ and all that was left to remain solvent were the private donors and the coveted real estate footprint of branch locations.
This week’s ‘Saturday Read’ is ‘Patience and Fortitude: Power, Real Estate, And The Fight To Save A Public Library’ by Scott Sherman.
“This is a book about a world-class library that lost its way in the digital age.”
A public library is a community sanctuary that has historically offered immigrants a way to the middle class. In the Preface, author Sherman retells the story of former New York Senator, Daniel Patrick Moynihan who was working as a boot-black in 1940s Times Square, visiting the main library at 42nd Street. “It was the first time I was taught that I was welcome in a place of education and learning. I would go into that great marble palace, and I would check my shoeshine box. A gentleman in a brown cotton jacket would take it as if I’d passed over an umbrella and bowler hat.”
This is a New York story, but one that illustrates the fate of the non-profit organization in an economic downturn. In the case of the NYPL, originally founded by bankers and corporate titans, the seismic shifts in the economy forced the influential board, of modern day financiers, to engage big name consultants in an attempt to apply “free-market solutions to complex institutional problems.”
The central narrative of the book was first reported by author Sherman in the December 2011 issue of ‘The Nation’. ‘Upheaval at the New York Public Library’ made public a four year old ‘Central Library Plan’, conceived and ratified by the NYPL’s trustees.
“The core trustees – led by the developer Marshall Rose – did what came naturally to them: they sold the NYPL’s land and took steps to shrink an institution they may have viewed as bureaucratic and inefficient…Personal enrichment was certainly not the trustees’ intention; they were sincere in their desire to assist the Library. It was hubris that drove them forward, and which ultimately led them astray: they believed that corporate logic could be effortlessly applied to a sprawling, decrepit library system.”
Consider this the first shot across the bow, as the Sherman chronicles the response from writers, researchers, NYPL employees, politicians and library patrons.
“I read newspaper reports about the determination of Anthony W. Marx, the president of the library, to spend $300 million to transform the main building, long devoted to reference, into what sounds like a palace of presentism. He wants to close the library system’s biggest circulating branch, the Mid-Manhattan (located just across the street) and the Science, Industry and Business Library (also in Midtown) and somehow wedge their contents into the already overstocked central research library.
For that he will need all the spatial ingenuity of his trendy architect-designate, Norman Foster. But something’s going to have to give, and you can be sure that what is new and hard and digital will prevail over what is old and papery and transportable elsewhere.”
“This was not, of course, Plan A. That plan entailed a makeover of the flagship Fifth Avenue library that would have sent the research books to Princeton, N.J. But it set off a virtual Fahrenheit 451 of outrage among scholars and others for whom the library’s role as a research mecca seemed endangered. Critics, who hoped the old steel stacks could stay in use, remain apprehensive about the new stocking and retrieval system, which they say is impressive but has not been tested.”
To be continued…
And while you wait, catch up on the history and the cast of characters who bring ‘Patience and Fortitude’ to life.