Controversy at the New York Public Library

Monday, March 12, 2012

Over the last few years, even as cutbacks have been made in the system’s 87 branches, the New York Public Library has renovated the 42nd Street main library and officials are now looking to construct a new state-of-the-art computer-based library. Scott Sherman, a contributing writer for The Nation and Caleb Crain, a former Fellow at the NYPL and author of American Sympathy, talk about the proposed changes, staffing cuts and construction plans – and the controversy they’ve created. Sherman’s article, "Upheaval at the New York Public Library," appeared in the December 19 edition of The Nation.


Caleb Crain and Scott Sherman

Comments [45]

Kiki Kennedy-Day from NYC

The person who commented on Doriot Jewish division doesn't know how good they have it! They closed the former Oriental Division (Southwest Asia leter I think), got rid of the Arabic & other language librarians, quit buying new Arabic books. Now when you need a book from the collection it takes forever to get it, as the staff is not familiar with their shelving system. Offsite if it's in Arabic, they seem to throw away the first two requests. I've pretty much quit going there.

Apr. 16 2012 10:22 AM

I'm not against the idea of making changes to the 42nd Street branch, but the arguments from NYPL seem disingenuous. They mention democratization, but what would demonstrate democratization better than bolstering the branch libraries as well as the research libraries? Why funnel all of the improvements into one building? Why not improve the whole system so that people do not have to make a special trip to a centralized branch in order to receive the services they should be receiving at their local branch. And why displace researchers at all?

The CPL is on par with museums charging $20 for admission and the MTA continually raising fares for a ride on a failing system. One more example of how the people who run New York are working to place community, service and culture out of the reach of the majority of New Yorkers.

Mar. 15 2012 02:03 PM
Elena Rossi-Snook from New York, N.Y.

A point of clarification: the film holdings of the Donnell Media Center are 16mm, not 35mm. All films were relocated to a film vault in New Jersey where they are kept per archival standards. Any film can be requested from and screened at the Library for the Performing Arts by contacting the Reserve Film and Video Collection (same staff, same service, different name since moving from Donnell in 2008): I personally respond to inquiries sent to so feel free to ask about any aspect of the film collection including access, our preservation work and reference services.

Mar. 15 2012 01:53 PM
Book Reader from Stop and Think

NYPL asks you to "Join the Conversation" @
However, they don't post the comments that are submitted.
How can there be a "conversation" if the comments are one-way?
"Statistics" are provided...without providing access to the original comments.

Are the NYPL "trustees" to scared to let on how many negative comments they are receiving in response to their grand plan?

Mar. 13 2012 12:15 PM
Wiley Green from Manhattan

Nearly every year, when the Mayor tries to cut the budget for neighborhood branches, NYPL sets up tables around NYPL to encourage us to write to our elected official to restore the proposed cuts. The cuts generally get restored by the City Council. But we have no input any more into the issues of how that money is spent, or how we feel about sweeping changes. The sale of Donnell, my local library, was not brought to a public meeting of the local community board for discussion. The arrogant secrecy is partly made possible by the tentacles of the NYPL trustees, who represent the most powerful interests in New York and whose influence keeps truly open discussion at bay. That is the worst part of this process. Of course institutions must evolve; but secrecy is not the way. We await truly open forums on a grand scale, not some insulting attempt at discussion via the NYPL website. And we want trustees at those forums, who can be grilled by the audience.

Mar. 13 2012 01:03 AM
Silence Dogood from Queens

I also should add that these same idiots ruined Doriot (Jewish Division) for that children's library. There should be a special library in the City just for kids with interactive technology along with Winnie the Pooh, which is cool.

But by moving Doriot to where periodicals used to be they wrecked two wonderful places. First, Doriot now can take up to 30 minutes to get a book because they have only one person who makes runs every thirty minutes. Before that when the books were in Doriot, it would usually take 10 minutes at the max.

Next, by moving Doriot, they also destroyed the wonderful reading room for periodicals. The periodicals room is now in a horrible place which feels like you are in the DMV than in a library. Before the move, the Periodicals room (the DeWitt Wallace Room) was a real joy.

The reality is that no one needs a children's library in the Research Division. That should be an entirely separate library (like Performing Arts) and the local branch libraries should get money for sections for children.

The reality is that for working parents who live in places like the Bronx, Brooklyn or Queens, it is far easier to take their kids to a great local library than to detour into the middle of 42nd Street.

All the idiots did was wreck two wonderful rooms and two key collections (Jewish and Periodicals) for their own stupid vanity project to make themselves look like fuzzy-wuzzy care bears even as they ruin a world-class masterpiece, the Research Division of the New York Public Library.

Mar. 12 2012 04:20 PM
Silence Dogood from Queens

NYPL president Anthony Marx does have an outreach program to the poor. After all he was arrested in East Harlem on a DWI (twice the legal limit) after running into a a parked car with a vehicle supplied to him by the NYPL ("it's good to be the king"). This was at 3 in the afternoon, no less.

Alcoholism would explain much when it comes to recent decisions concerning the future of the NYPL Research Division which I have used extensively for years. The recent deterioration of the quality of the library is stunning. The Slavic Division in particular was a shining example of how a free society preserves books from all points of view.

The current state of the 42nd Street division is chaos. For the first time since I can remember, the staff actually lost a book I had on reserve. There was a huge shutdown of the experienced staff downstairs who knew what they were doing.

I have also found that books that I would have assumed would naturally have been ordered by the NYPL (say the second volume of a two volume definitive English bio of an emperor of Austria since the NYPL has volume one)have not been ordered even though volume two came out years ago. And this is just one example of many.

There is NOTHING more absurd than turning the Research Division of the NYPL into an internet site. The entire point of developing a knowledge-intensive economy is that you want to preserve what is rare and that is older books.

The idea of people actually taking books out of the research library is beyond absurd. They will be lost. They will be damaged. Right now you can reserve a book at the main desk and they will hold it for seven days. You then can renew it if you are still not done with it. But you have to at least show up to use the material.

As for SIBL, it should be folded back into the Research Division.

As for the other public libraries, the guests are absolutely right that instead of spending $350 million on a new pyramid, a good deal of that money should go to the branch libraries with expanded Internet access. The money for 42nd Street should be used to hire people with brains to buy new books and preserve old ones, a process that has deteriorated remarkably.

Also can anyone imagine how moronic it is to spend $300 million on a technology like the Internet for a research library whose main value is BOOKS. Anyone who is using a research library in a serious way is almost certainly someone who has home and office access to the Internet anyway. For people who DON'T have access, they should be able to get access at their LOCAL library.

Anthony Marx you are a first-class creep who is both a drunk and drunk with power. Work out your personal problems of feeling inadequate with your therapist and not with us.

The author of the Nation magazine is a HERO in the war against the dumbing down of America. The Research Division is a monument to democracy and an open-society and Marx want to turn it into a shopping mall.

Mar. 12 2012 03:47 PM
mountain climber from new york city

Until the public gets truly involved in these plans and clamors for accountability from NYPL's board of trustees and administrators, they will continue to do as they please.

Mar. 12 2012 02:43 PM
RL from Soho

An alternative to the plan to demolish the stacks could be (or could have been) a new glass and steel library building adjacent to and directly behind the library, facing Bryant Park,(i.e. where the two restaurants are.) More library space would be added in this way, likely even more than if they destroy the stacks, and the floor to ceiling views out over Bryant Park would be spectacular. The integrity of the original building would remain intact, there would be far less crowding, the books would remain within, and the administration could boast a beautiful new Norman Foster designed library with entrances in Bryant Park.
In addition, the South Court could be revamped into four levels of computer availability easily accessible to the public.

Mar. 12 2012 01:22 PM
ckk from still in Gotham ...

... apologies for the follow up screed, but this gets under my skin. i'm trying to fathom the symbolism of this, how myopic can one get? OK, upgrade the building, even facilitate some digital aspect of/to it. Consortium up with the Getty, Google, Gates (hey, is there a 'G' theme here?? ;) digitizing initiatives [put the nypl's beggars in three piece suits, aka 'development' peeple on it], call it the 'Alexandria Project' [or Initiative! ;) ] in homage to that library that was pillaged, diaspored and expunged by myopics, but even if there's a lo$$ here, consider it what our business 'friends' refer to as a 'loss leader'. What would our friends at St. John's College (the Great Books Skool) think? Maybe they can Ghost Bust out their (Santa Fe Campus's) SAR (Search and RESCUE) team to come to the RESCUE and knock some good ol' common sense [figuratively!] into the nypl's ED or President or whatever this (in one person's humble opinion) myopic's title is. What would Paul Fussel (author of 'Class'!) think? Are we to now have a section devoted to Pogs or Talking Bobble Head Dolls with a division of Hyped Up Mediocrity ?? ... Thank God for sites like openculture dot com (i think coincidentally mentioned on the other day). Remember the 'cleaning' (or easy-offing??) of the admittedly controversial Sistine Ceiling ... bank rolled by the film company that purchased its post production photography rights?? There are many organizations that exhibit a lot of class, all of it low ... i've never considered the to be amongst that transparent and cheap veneered lot. let's make sure it doesn't fall into that short term attention span trap. Yikes. [end screed] ...

Mar. 12 2012 01:17 PM
Diane from Manhattan

As a retired NYPL staff member I thank you for this show. I and so many more ex-staff decry this new plan of the current administration. There is no way that the Carnegie steel and marble stacks can be "deteriorating"; it is also a mystery to me how all the users of SIBL and Mid-manhattan AND Donnell will be able to fit into the new space. There is no way that the current building is underused. NYers must realize what a treasuretrove is at 42nd St and fight to protect it. Remember the old Penn Station!

Mar. 12 2012 01:03 PM
Judith from Manhattan

While there maybe a need for various renovations, the money would be better spent on the branches and on longer hours for all the libraries. When hours are shortened, people don't have access - diminishing uses become a self-fulfilling prophecy. I'm not an academic, but I am working on a non-fiction book project which would not be happening without the New York Public Library. Last Friday I requested two books published in the 1850's. One was actually a pamphlet in a bound volume 19th century pamphlets which gave me far more insights than merely seeing the text of the pamphlet I was most interested in.

As to the internet, the NYPL permits access at the research libraries to extremely important databases that would not be accessible otherwise or only through subscriptions.

Sitting in the beautiful Rose reading rooms reading and writing - always very busy - is inspirational.

Mar. 12 2012 12:45 PM
Rudy from Queens

Clearing my own shelves, I recently offered NYPL several boxes of books, mostly paperbacks and old computer manuals dating to 1983, with a list of all the titles (many of the manuals were for obscure or dead-end products). NYPL promptly and politely replied that they already have all of them, and therefore refused them. I wonder now if the real reason was that they didn't want to move, store or dispose of them when they close these facilities. (The Queens system was happy to have them, saying that for titles they have no interest in, they know people who do.)

Mar. 12 2012 12:44 PM
penzance from Hudson River

how about mentioning that Marx is a bombastic drunk. He was caught cruising for prostitutes in east harlem. DUIing. His graduation speeches at Amherst were priceless. "Memento mori. You are mortal!"

Mar. 12 2012 12:44 PM
Suzinne from Bronx

This is just atrocious. Sounds like the library is gentrifying. Let's make it more upscale and more tourist friendly!

I'll never forget going to the Donnell library and, upon seeing staff removing all books from the staff being told by a fellow patron, "Don't you know that they're closing this branch."

Mar. 12 2012 12:40 PM
Cynthea from Rego Park

While I agree that the branches should not suffer at the expensive of the research libraries, I am so upset by this story. I am a book lover, not just a reader (I own a Nook, but still read in paper the majority of my books).

I too have done a survey of my friends, and they think the branches are a disgrace. My non-book loving friends, don't even understand why anyone would go to ANY of the libraries, let alone a branch library to take out, god-forbid books when you can download everything. You may have more of a chance to bring them into the Schwarzman library as a tourist attraction.

I agree that there needs to be discussion, but one thing I don't think you are addressing is how the library is struggling enormously, financially, and can't compete (nor can bookstores these days) with Amazon and the other large behemoths. How do you keep libraries competitive and moving forward, while also maintaining the history and glory? Yes, $350 million is an ENORMOUS amount, but they need to start generating interest somewhere.

This whole thing makes me want to cry.

Mar. 12 2012 12:39 PM
Henry Stern from nyc

We the "Folks" of the United States.....

Need to spend 350 million on Manhattan library because that's where our great speculators and the leaders that they pay for live.

Mar. 12 2012 12:38 PM
MichaelB from Morningside Heights

The library's e-Pub offerings are quite scant as yet.

The NYPL site ( for e-offerings is terrible -- the interface, the functionality, all of it.

I can't see them spending that vast amount of funds before improving these other resources. That is, if they claim they need to bring the system into the 21st Century....

Mar. 12 2012 12:36 PM
Dorothy from Manhattan

I stopped giving to the NYPL several years ago (I didn't give a fortune but several levels above the minimum) -- because of the debacle of that new and UN-tested computer system which almost caused a riot at my branch. Books couldn't be checked out. A week or so later I tried to "hold" a book online but the system wouldn't let me. I know enough about computer systems to know that they wasted several million dollars.

Now I just buy used books online and steer clear of the NYPL.

It really sounds/feels as if the NYPL is on a greased path to disaster.

Mar. 12 2012 12:34 PM
Library User from Downtown

To: @jgarbuz from Queens

I hope that was a weak attempt at being funny.

Not everyone has access to a computer....UNLESS THEY GO TO THE LIBRARY.

Mar. 12 2012 12:34 PM

I wonder if it's a coincidence that the Soho library with $900 chairs serves the wealthy and the library with no toilet tissue serve poor people of color.

Mar. 12 2012 12:34 PM
emmanuel from westchester

Whats stopping the NYPL from selling off its print collection?

Mar. 12 2012 12:32 PM
Caitlin from New York, NY

As an architect, I have heard that the weight of stacks beneath the Rose reading room were designed to hold up the structure of that large public space -- that the architects designed the integrity of the building based on the object of the book. If we don't know exactly what we are adapting to in displacing this integrity, isn't there an argument that we should not disturb it yet?

Mar. 12 2012 12:32 PM

Put the $$$ into the Branches!!!!! The "plan" is a loser. It's not building on the best of the old by augmenting with the new. Adaptation is NOT tossing everything out in one shot.

Mar. 12 2012 12:31 PM
Diane from Brooklyn

Why on earth would the NYPL cut back on research librarians? The overwhelming amount of digital material makes research librarians all the more necessary to help guide scholars, students, and everyday researchers through the overwhelming amount of information available through the Internet.

Mar. 12 2012 12:31 PM
Elle from Brooklyn

Branch User from Harlem - I think you've hit the nail on the head - it's all about visibility - keep on beautifying the main building and to heck with the branches - they get worse every year.

Mar. 12 2012 12:30 PM
Ruy from Queens

While we're talking about saving money, why does NYC have THREE separate library systems and administrations?

Mar. 12 2012 12:30 PM
Ivana from Yorkville

What do you mean they got rid of the Slavic and Baltic collection? What did they do with it? Where is it? They just threw it out???

Mar. 12 2012 12:30 PM
Er-nay from UWS

Donnell Library is completely gone. It's just a big hole in the block.

Mar. 12 2012 12:28 PM
jgarbuz from Queens

Libraries are obsolete. WHo needs them? Oh, okay, when I was a kid living in a bad neigborhood I used to flee the streets because libraries were a comparative safe-haven. So let's move libraries into the police stations. Otherwise,why libraries? You can get everything via the internet already!

Mar. 12 2012 12:27 PM
Branch User from Harlem

Spend money on the branches...where the communities are. Not on the hot event space for the socialites. Open until 11PM? Puhleeze. How about opening the Cathedral Branch before 10AM. Or having longer evening hours at all the branches? Or Saturday hours?
The Branch libraries need more resources. Many of them could use some sprucing up.
Is all this money that is being spent at the Main Library part of Schwarzman's requirement to slap his name on the building?

Mar. 12 2012 12:24 PM
ckk from Gotham ...

(1) does the plan on digitizing all books in the stacks and making them available to all?
(2) at this point for example the art history division is on par with any art history library in the world ... and it's open for the common man/autodidact, etc. Have you ever tried to talk your way into the Frick Collection's art history library?
This reeks of Penn Station ness ... follow the (potential) money!! Where are DPMoynihan and / or Jacqui O and her ladies who lunch when you need them to thwart this myopic initiative? Are they spoused up (married to?) the real estate moguls / developers who stand to profit by selling the Mid Manhattan Branch?
ckk says thwart away this initiative ...
remember what happened to the Donnell?? a beautiful art deco type building, some vapid real estate developer types leveraged its demise and dropped out during the recent real estate debacle.
The MidManhattan Branch, or the old Donnell (do 'we', i.e. nypl still own that venue??) could be retrofitted and/or upgraded to handle the shopping mall/internet cafe that this 42nd street treasure may become if 'we' don't stand up. Also sounds like Pottersville in It's a Wonderful Life!!

Mar. 12 2012 12:24 PM
maria from bk ny

The Picture Collection at the mid-manhattan library is a stunning collection of pictures that you can check out.
and the librarians of this special collection are amazing- I hope it doesnt go away.

Mar. 12 2012 12:22 PM
Amy from Manhattan

"Replace books with people"? No, that's what happened in "Fahrenheit 451." What the guest's source was really talking about is replacing books with computers and electronic files. Not the same thing.

Mar. 12 2012 12:21 PM
Elle from Brooklyn

Tom from UWS - excellent point!

Mar. 12 2012 12:19 PM
Fishmael from NYC

Re: the computers - the trend is to mobile devices anyway - why put in a host of fixed desktops? Why not think about laptops available at the desk, which a user can use anywhere in the library space, flexibly and as needed?

Mar. 12 2012 12:19 PM
Rebecca from brooklyn

the Mid-Manhattan Library also houses the Picture Collection. An invaluable resource that can't be replaced by an only digital resource!

Mar. 12 2012 12:18 PM
Tom from UWS

By the way, anyone can see that we are becoming more and more in possession of our own computers that we carry with us everywhere we go. Are "more computers" really the way of the future, or the way of 15 years ago?

Mar. 12 2012 12:18 PM
Rob Throop from Toronto

I'm an amateur historian from Toronto who visits the 42nd street library about four or five times every year. I have relied on it for things that no one else has: not Columbia, not NYU and not my usual g0-to library at the U of T. I will miss 42nd Street if the plan moves forward.

Mar. 12 2012 12:16 PM
Fishmael from NYC

The NYPL can be/remain "democratic" by adequately funding and resourcing the *branch libraries* - where most people access materials. This means being open on weekends, when most working people can access the libraries.

That said, the needs of the *research libraries and collections* are unique, and should have different criteria for evaluation. We should be careful not to let NYPL's great history as a research library go the way of the old Penn Station - once gone, never to be recaptured.

Mar. 12 2012 12:16 PM
emmanuel from westchester

Isn't the new york public not public at all, but privately founded funded and maintained? Could this happen at a government library? Seems like privatization and exclusive imperative would come full circle if they turned it into a giant coffee shop.

Mar. 12 2012 12:15 PM
Fred L from Brooklyn

While its natural to feel uneasy about changes to cherished institutions, shouldn't the NYPL have the freedom to adapt to changing times? It seems like the guest is taking a stance against change, but the world is moving in a digital direction and the library should be able to make adjustments.

Mar. 12 2012 12:15 PM
Elle from Brooklyn

One of the wonderful things about the main branch is that if you need a book, you KNOW it will be there because it doesn't circulate. This was invaluable to me when I was in graduate school. I think changing that would be a big mistake.

Mar. 12 2012 12:14 PM
Tom from UWS

I wonder if anyone promoting this plan has ever used this great facility for research? There is NOTHING to compare with the access here, with the luxury of spreading four or five rare titles before you for comparison ... I will never forget opening a volume to find the bookplate of Nelson Rockefeller inside.

I want to see the proponents sitting at those tables in the reading room, working, before they go any further.

Mar. 12 2012 12:13 PM
John Weber from NJ

Well at least the NY Library does not give out plastic bags funded by taxpayers like the Queen County Libraries do. Read more at

Mar. 12 2012 12:11 PM

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