be a mystifying combination of austerity
and devil-may-care overreach that
involved selling three valuable properties—the Donnell Library, the Science &
Business Library, and the Mid-Manhattan Library, as well as a plan to gut the
stacks under the Rose Reading Room at
the 42nd Street library and to fill that
space with a modern circulating library.
You bring up the secrecy and lack of
public input into the plan, and even
with the plan now abandoned, the
question remains, how could that
There is a long history of democracy at
NYPL that the current generation of
trustees has destroyed. When the library
was first planned in the 1890s, NYPL’s
founding director, John Shaw Billings,
wanted a public discussion about what
the building should be, and he got it. He
made sure that the architect’s plans for
the 42nd Street library were debated at
the annual American Library Association
meeting in 1897. And he gave the plans
to the newspapers. That tradition of de-
mocracy and transparency endured
through most of the last century. But
around 2000, during Paul LeClerc’s ten-
ure as president, something changed.
NYPL became a much more closed and
secretive institution. Senior librarians
were excluded from high-level meetings
about the library’s future. Consultants
from McKinsey and Booz Allen Hamil-
ton filled the void. Librarians felt locked
out, and many said a culture of fear had
taken root at NYPL.
Do you think public input might
have helped the plan succeed? Was it
the process here that was botched, or
do you think the plan was fundamentally flawed?
It was flawed from the start. The trustees were driven by hubris and a belief
that market solutions could ameliorate
NYPL’s complex problems. In reality,
NYPL couldn’t afford a $300 million
renovation, which, NYPL officials admitted after the plan died, would have
actually cost upwards of $500 million.
NYPL is a cash-starved institution. Such
an expensive plan might well have bankrupted the institution, and it’s not obvious to me that elected officials would
have offered the library a bailout.
Proponents of the Central Library
Plan say it was intended to update the
library for the digital age. What do
you say to that?
The trustee meeting minutes say very
little about the need for a digital transi-
tion by NYPL. The minutes show that
NYPL’s trustees were keen to capitalize
on rising real estate prices. But once
NYPL sells real estate, it never comes
back. The money gets spent, and the as-
set is gone. And I reject the underlying
assumption that NYPL was somehow
stuck in the past, or that its librarians are
museum pieces. NYPL has a talented
staff of librarians, and a skilled digital
team. NYPL’s digital projects have been
widely acclaimed. The radical change in
the Central Library Plan was not needed
to bring the library into the digital age.
Supporters of the plan also argued
that using so much space at 42nd
Street for stacks of old books is elitist—that the space could be better
used to serve people, especially in the
Internet age, and that the books
would be better protected in a state-of-the-art climate-controlled space.
How do you respond to that?
The elitist case cannot be dismissed,
because one of the plan’s critics,
Edmund Morris, wrote a piece for the
New York Times that was plainly elitist.
But his was just one voice. I think critics of the plan argued persuasively that
it would be cheaper to fix the air conditioning system and to continue to use
the building for its original purpose.
The stacks at the 42nd Street library
were brilliantly designed for book storage. It’s a palace of books. And that is
how the space should be used. The idea
of tearing the heart out of it and replacing it with a circulating library made no
sense—the Mid-Manhattan Library is a
circulating library. The critics also
made the case that dismantling the
stacks was going to be an extremely difficult engineering task. One of the en-
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