Essay defending the planned changes at New York Public Library
Improving a Treasured Institution
The goal for the New York Public Library’s new Central Library Plan is ambitious: to ensure NYPL’s position as one the world’s greatest libraries, with unparalleled research collections and a premier circulating library. Of utmost importance is to preserve the integrity and atmosphere of the majestic Rose Main Reading Room, as well as to maintain the special collections at the highest possible levels. We are also making major enhancements to the unique resources we already offer scholars from the world over. All this will be achieved in a plan that increases the long-term funding available to support and enhance the library’s invaluable collections.
Many questions have been raised about the plan since the launch of our public engagement process two months ago. This is a period we have dedicated to soliciting users' and staff members’ suggestions and concerns. As part of a continuing discussion, I would like to address issues — and some misconceptions — raised by those who depend upon the research collections. Our intention is to take into account as many realizable ideas as possible.
The Need for Change
Libraries, as we all know, are facing challenging times during which we must meet patrons' needs in a fast-changing world of information. The one constant is the need to maintain one of the world’s greatest research collections. Yet our book budget has been steadily declining for well over a decade. At the same time, we are facing storage and preservation conditions that put the collections — and their availability for generations to come — at risk. Materials in our current stacks, built over 100 years ago, are in serious jeopardy due to lack of environmental controls.
By selling the buildings currently housing the Mid-Manhattan Library and the Science, Industry and Business Library (SIBL) and incorporating their collections and services into the 42nd Street building, we reap a number of advantages. First, by opening up underutilized rooms and outdated stack areas, the new main building will actually have more public space — up to an additional 20,000 square feet — than the three libraries now offer in total. This will result in a sizeable increase in dedicated space for scholars and writers, as well as new browsable stacks. We expect these changes to lead to much greater use of the research collections. A fresh infusion of researchers and writers will help realize our goal of generating even more intellectual energy in this iconic building, a center of scholarly and civic life.
It is critical to increase funding for future acquisitions in order to maintain the breadth and depth of the collections, and for curatorial staff and services. We anticipate that the sale of the two libraries — which will not be possible without the Central Library Plan — will result in an additional $10-15 million a year we can spend on library priorities.
Enhanced Resources for Scholars and Writers
Our patrons — academics, researchers, professional authors, first-time novelists, poets, playwrights, artists, teachers, students, and others — have been working with essentially unchanged facilities for decades. One of the most exciting plans now possible is the creation of a new scholars and writers center on the second floor of the 42nd Street building. This will allow us to accommodate 400 writers (more than double the current number), with the Cullman Center remaining the crown jewel. In addition to work areas with carrels or open tables and desks, scholars and writers will have personal shelves to hold books for extended periods — theirs or ours, including books suggested by our librarians, opening even more research possibilities. We also want those working in the library to be able to stay later — a top user request — to 11 p.m. most evenings. (The latest the 42nd Street building is now open is 8 p.m. two days a week).
Accessibility of Books and Materials
Many patrons have expressed apprehension about the removal of the stacks from 42nd Street and what that would mean for access to these volumes. This is a very important area of concern to address for any scholar, and I would like to correct a number of misunderstandings.
Currently, there are approximately three million volumes in the closed stacks under the Rose Main Reading Room. While we are working hard to determine which might be moved — in close consultation with curators, librarians, and a scholars advisory group (including skeptics of the plan) — I want to state unequivocally that there is no scenario in which fewer than two million volumes, about 95 percent of which would be from those closed stacks, will remain on-site at 42nd Street. (The remaining 5 percent or so would be high-use volumes from other collections that we want to keep on-site.) All of this is in addition to the millions of manuscripts, prints, photographs, pamphlets, and maps that are not being moved.
It is important to note that already half of the research collections are stored off-site (a standard, necessary practice of major research libraries) in our state-of-the-art preservation facilities. Every year we acquire tens of thousands of new books, and must send about the same number off-site to make room for the new titles. In deciding which volumes to move, our curators have long taken into account a number of considerations, including usage, rarity, date, condition, and format.
Research materials that will remain on-site in the Central Library Plan will represent at least 90 percent of current research usage. Frequently or even rarely used volumes and materials, all special collections, and items belonging to unique collections — these will stay at 42nd Street. At a minimum, we expect to retain all humanities, social science, and business books from the last two decades; and all core history, literature, area studies, art, genealogy, technology, and business and industry materials that would be difficult to access elsewhere. Whenever possible, we will err on the side of keeping books on-site. Plus, we will leave additional space for unanticipated needs (such as bringing back books requested for the first time). To be clear: if we need to make space for even more books at 42nd Street in order for NYPL to remain one of the best research libraries in the world, then we will do so.
Materials that would be moved off-site might include books that have not been used in many years, and books, journals, and other items that have been digitized. We have received many questions about whether we can really meet a 24-hour retrieval time for these materials. The answer is yes: 24-hour turnaround is made possible by major service enhancements already in the works, most notably by bar-coding every item. (Not having a modern system for tracking has long been the major impediment to efficient delivery.) In addition to the 24-hour guarantee, patrons will be able to place their orders online and receive Saturday delivery. We will also be increasing the number of retrieval staff and instant downloading options so that even more materials, including public domain books and scholarly journals, can be accessed digitally.
The Need for Quiet Space
By moving the Mid-Manhattan and SIBL libraries into the 42nd Street building, foot traffic will increase, but that will not compromise our commitment to research. Rather, the redesigned building — home to a world-class combined research and circulating library — will reinforce synergistic intellectual pursuits while bringing in new energies. This will attract new readers drawn to explore the unique collections. Still, there will be strong and clear delineations of space. The research areas will be on the upper floors of the building, with a business research center having its own separate space. On the ground floor would be the new Mid-Manhattan, with a street-level entrance for circulating library patrons.
We know that researchers come to the library for quiet work spaces, and they will find more of them, in both our historic areas and the inspiring new ones. Those who want to collaborate or attend talks and workshops will find separate spaces for those activities.
Our core mission and lodestar will always be to provide as much access as possible to users who depend upon us to be New York City's leading free educational institution for scholarship and intellectual inspiration. But we know that to achieve this transformation, we need our patrons’ advice. Please share your reactions, comments, and suggestions here.
Anthony Marx is president of the New York Public Library.