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Firestorm on Fifth Avenue
November 17, 2012 12:57 PM   Subscribe

No one expected the force of the tempest that hit the New York Public Library in late 2011—not its new president, Anthony Marx, and maybe not even the literary lions up in arms over plans for an ambitious, $300 million renovation. Will the “palace of culture” on Fifth Avenue become a glorified Starbucks, as some fear? Interviewing all sides, Paul Goldberger walks the controversy back to its flash point: the nature of the library’s 21st-century mission and the values at the center of the Norman Foster–designed project. - Paul Goldberger, Firestorm on Fifth Avenue
posted by beisny (23 comments total) 5 users marked this as a favorite

 
For those who are curious here's a 1911 cross section depiction of the reading room and the 7 story book stack. I haven't seen a render of what the redesign would look like, if anyone knows of one I'd love to see it.
posted by jeffkramer at 1:38 PM on November 17, 2012 [5 favorites]


A day isn’t much if you are working on a two-year research project. But if you are a student or a visiting scholar who has saved up to come to New York for a week to do research on books you can find only at the New York Public Library, the delay can be critical.
This.

Not long ago I had the occasion to need a couple of books on Quebec history that were in NYPL's underground stacks. I realized for the very first time (even though I work at another NYC-area library, and frequent the Mid-Manhattan Branch) that the stacks were closed, and I had to submit a request to a librarian -- for a maximum of three books -- and then wait for a good half-hour while they were brought up. This was an annoyance, but an understandable one when you have books old enough and valuable enough that you don't want to take any risks. It's only a half hour to wait.

Sometimes your research leads in unexpected directions and it turns out that the book you need isn't the book you thought you needed. Sometimes library research is like wikipedia-hopping, and one idea generates another, and another, and suddenly you need eight different books. That's not a big deal when you only have to wait an extra half hour, but when it's a day... Sometimes waiting an extra day means waiting an extra week, or couple of weeks, because there's only so often that you can come in to the library. So (as a fiction writer with a day job) I would be quite dismayed to see the library's collections shipped off to New Jersey.

My undergrad school and grad school both had their stacks accessible to the public, for in-library reading if not checkout. So did the private university where I did a bunch of research for what I hope will be my second book. But aside from NYPL, New York City doesn't really have a comprehensive university library that laymen can set foot in without shelling out a lot of money.

I think it would be fantastic for the Mid-Manhattan collection to be shelved in a building as nice as the main NYPL building (though I don't find the current Mid-Manhattan branch to be as run-down and depressing as the article's writer; I guess I've seen my share of run-down and depressing libraries!). I don't see that as selling out or Starbucksification. Storing the books under Bryant Park seems like a good, reasonable idea, and I really hope it works out; but shipping the books to New Jersey really seems like it wouuld have been going against the NYPL's position as not just a great research library, but one of the only great research libraries in the area.

Who really cares about having access to a great research library? Not that many people, I guess. But this is New York! We have several of the country's great art museums, a great natural history museum, great performance spaces for opera and classical music, because we think that this stuff is important. (And because many very rich people live here.) And I really do believe that having access to scholarly books is just as important.
posted by Jeanne at 1:54 PM on November 17, 2012 [18 favorites]


I haven't seen a render of what the redesign would look like, if anyone knows of one I'd love to see it.

Google and I are looking, but I don't see jack squat as far as any kind of images or drawings of the new design. Even the page for Foster + Partners doesn't have anything for it under their "current projects" (or even their older projects). It seems like the design hasn't really gone anywhere based on this quote from the linked article:

The library didn’t have a final version of the architectural plans to show anyone—it still doesn’t—and despite the city’s commitment, the library didn’t have enough money to set a starting date. Since the idea of replacing the stacks with a new, Foster-designed library inside the Carrère and Hastings building had already been made public in 2008, nobody at the library thought there was anything more to say.
posted by LionIndex at 2:00 PM on November 17, 2012


Eight years ago, I was in New York City, just walking around, really just killing time, and I passed by the Library. It was cold outside, so I went inside to warm up. That day they happened to have an exhibit about Isaac Newton (here's a writeup.) They had Newton's own notebooks, his handwritten manuscripts, on display.

Newton's tiny handwriting, Newton's original coded version of the Fundamental Theorem of Calculus... right in front of me. It blew me away.

I love you New York Public Library. Please don't go away.
posted by twoleftfeet at 2:09 PM on November 17, 2012 [5 favorites]


Regarding the redesign, this is from the end of the piece:

The library’s current plans do not include tampering with this façade, which would likely turn historic preservationists against the plan just as the library is beginning to make peace with scholars and writers. Marx would like to create a direct connection between the library and Bryant Park someday, and Foster reportedly agrees, but the C.L.P. is hardly dependent on it. Foster would not speak on the record about the latest, and presumably final, version of his design, which is scheduled to be presented to the library trustees in mid-November. He was still working on it when we met over the summer, and he would discuss the project only in very general terms.

At every stage of its evolution the design has called for the new library’s primary entrance to be through the existing 42nd Street entry, but there will also be a way in from the traditional main entrance, on Fifth Avenue. Far from compromising the Beaux Arts classicism of the building, Foster’s plans here may in one way enhance it. The Fifth Avenue entrance would be through what is now Gottesman Hall, the library’s exhibition hall directly opposite the front door, which now ends in a solid wall where it bumps up against the side of the bookstacks. Foster’s plan is to open up that wall, which will allow visitors to walk in a straight line through the Fifth Avenue doors through Astor Hall, through Gottesman Hall, and right into the new library, giving the building the classical, Beaux Arts central axis that it has never had.

Because the library’s Fifth Avenue entrance is a floor higher than the ground-floor entry on 42nd Street, the visitor coming into the new library from Fifth Avenue will arrive on a balcony, roughly in the middle of the former bookstack space. A grand staircase will lead down to the main level, one floor below. Foster’s plans reportedly call for an open atrium all along the west side, freeing the narrow bookstack windows to be seen in their full height. Viewing the entire wall of vertical windows from top to bottom, all the way across the building, could be a spectacular architectural experience. Each level of the new library will be, in effect, a balcony looking out toward Bryant Park....

Even leaving the exterior of the library untouched, however, has not fully calmed some historic preservationists, who have argued that the bookstack should not be altered or dismantled, since it is a key part of the original Carrère and Hastings design. There is no doubt of its historical importance, but given the difficulties with bringing the bookstack up to present-day standards of temperature and humidity control, keeping it functioning is hard to justify.

posted by beisny at 2:09 PM on November 17, 2012


The proposed scheme is described at the end of the article, and it sounds very good. I don't understand why people are concerned, given that most of the books now will be able to stay. A renovated facility would work better and be better for the books themselves. Foster & Co. have at the British Museum and the Reichstag inserted modern, though restrained, interventions into classical buildings with fantastic, revelatory results; if anybody can make this project a success it's them.
posted by Flashman at 2:18 PM on November 17, 2012 [1 favorite]


Hopefully you will excuse my derail to post a squee of excitement that my new local public library opened yesterday, and it is fantastic!.
posted by bystander at 2:23 PM on November 17, 2012 [2 favorites]


Not long ago I had the occasion to need a couple of books on Quebec history that were in NYPL's underground stacks.

You're lucky. I, too, recently went in looking for titles that, according to the online catalog, were in the underground stacks.

Except that they weren't. They were in some kind of limbo between the NY stacks and the Princeton annex. I was welcome to put in a request and come back another day.

Here's hoping this is a passing glitch.
posted by BWA at 3:14 PM on November 17, 2012


What's wrong with just scanning all the books? Make them instantly available to patrons and free up seven stories of underground space at the same time?
posted by qxntpqbbbqxl at 3:28 PM on November 17, 2012


I'm not opposed to the change in principle -- a library building is a piece of technology, and one can easily see that it needs updating after a hundred years. And certainly, Foster is a fine choice to handle this sort of change with respect.

But the Jersey plan? That doesn't make sense to me. It defeats the project itself, as it represents a significant decline in service. Relocating the stacks to under Bryant Park makes much more sense, to the point where it is key to the entire renovation -- if it can't be done right, it should not be done at all.
posted by Capt. Renault at 3:42 PM on November 17, 2012


What's wrong with just scanning all the books?

The devil is in the 'just' - there's an immense amount of labor involved in scanning, particularly if it is an old/fragile/unusual format book. Plus there may be copyright issues, and correctly indexing/storing all of those books is a non-trivial exercise. I can't find the link at the moment, but sometime in the last year or two there was a good article on how Google Books automated indexing had significant problems, which is an indication that there's a lot of manual labor involved in doing that correctly.

But yes, in theory, having things scanned and the originals safely archived in a salt mine or somewhere is a good way to go.
posted by foonly at 3:42 PM on November 17, 2012


What's wrong with just scanning all the books?

With a staff of half a dozen people this would literally take years and a multimillion dollar grant.
posted by elizardbits at 3:54 PM on November 17, 2012 [2 favorites]


What's wrong with just scanning all the books?

Not a thing. Except the foonly observations, of course, but otherwise, yeah, mostly.

That said, there are plenty of google scanned books that are so poorly reproduced that you really do have to see the real thing.
posted by BWA at 4:09 PM on November 17, 2012


Actually, the NYPL has scanned a number of its books--I've come across a fair few while GoogleBooking.

That being said, while I'm massively indebted to GoogleBooks (I decided to thank the legions of GoogleBooks scanners in the acknowledgments for Book Two), it has all sorts of massively frustrating issues: bizarre search results, the apparent demise of the "search your library" function, distorted pages, etc.

I do use the NYPL sometimes, and the wait to get books out of the stacks has never been onerous (a smaller library I frequent regularly, which shall remain anonymous, has been known to take hours). OTOH, long-range storage facilities are every academic's nightmare. I use UCLA's collections when I visit my parents, and the dreaded "SLRF" marker is guaranteed to send me ranting and raving (in mime, of course--it is the library). Yes, you can get around them by ordering books ahead, but that doesn't help when your research leads in an unexpected direction.
posted by thomas j wise at 4:47 PM on November 17, 2012


What's wrong with just scanning all the books?

That ends one very basic, but important, way of seeing what's out there on a topic: going to a section where you know there's a book you're interested in and seeing what else is cataloged around it. You can't always anticipate connections or even know sometimes what you really need until you see it. (This is why trained specialist librarians are also essential for researchers - they have a wealth of that knowledge because they know collections.) Placing material online is great, but it tends to drive you down one particular way of researching and the more ways you have of seeing what's out there the better.
posted by lesbiassparrow at 5:11 PM on November 17, 2012 [4 favorites]


going to a section where you know there's a book you're interested in and seeing what else is cataloged around it.

When i lived in Milwaukee, i would hang out at the library for hours doing just that, and going through the card catalogs doing the same thing. Now, i tend to do that in book stores, and it's something that i've tried to explain is lost online. You can do it, but it's far from the same, seems like you need to know where to look first.
posted by usagizero at 9:08 PM on November 17, 2012


Robert Darnton defended the plans in the NYRB a few months ago, and what he said made a lot of sense to me. The British Library has a cafe and free wi-fi, and despite complaints from some readers about the 'desecration' of the library by 'the masses', the world hasn't ended and most people still find the BL a congenial place to work. The BL has an off-site storage facility too, but it's not a huge hindrance to research, and you can order stuff up in advance and have it waiting for you when you arrive.

One passage in Darnton's article did make me smile, though:

The problem, however, is fundamentally financial. For a great institution, the library has a small endowment: $830 million. The operating budget for the entire system—the eighty-seven branch libraries and the four research libraries—is $259.6 million in the current fiscal year.

Many people outside New York and Harvard might feel that an endowment of $830 million is actually quite a lot of money. I take the point about the eighty-seven branch libraries, but, for comparison, the British Library has an operating budget of £138 million and no endowment to speak of; most of its money comes from government grant-in-aid. Darnton may think the NYPL is strapped for cash; I think his privilege is showing.
posted by verstegan at 1:29 AM on November 18, 2012


The thing that stood out for me in the article, and convinced me the plans should go forward, is that the stacks really can't stay the way they are much longer. A hundred years ago, before air conditioning and climate control, the design really was the best they could do. But today we know better, and if we don't get the books into a better environment they won't last another hundred years.

The article said they finally got $8 million to store a large number of the current stacks under Bryant Park. Not everything, but it's a good balance between cost, the need for valuable above ground space, and the needs of researchers.
posted by sbutler at 3:03 AM on November 18, 2012


That ends one very basic, but important, way of seeing what's out there on a topic: going to a section where you know there's a book you're interested in and seeing what else is cataloged around it.

There's actually no reason at all for this to be "ended" by scanning the books. While the other objections made above about how arduous a project the actual scanning is are valid, if you had the books scanned it would be trivially easy to offer a function that allowed access to a "virtual stack" where you could search for the titles that would be shelved alongside the book you've searched. I already do this to an extent when I'm searching for material in my library's online catalog; if I click on the Library of Congress number it pulls up a page listing ten or twenty of the preceding and subsequent LC numbers in the collection. Of course, because the books aren't scanned I can't actually look at their contents (unless Google Books happens to have full or partial access to them), but if a scanned version of the collection was available this would actually be a better way to play that game than going to the stacks: I wouldn't miss out on anything because someone happened to have taken one of the books out.
posted by yoink at 8:06 AM on November 18, 2012


There's actually no reason at all for this to be "ended" by scanning the books. While the other objections made above about how arduous a project the actual scanning is are valid, if you had the books scanned it would be trivially easy to offer a function that allowed access to a "virtual stack" where you could search for the titles that would be shelved alongside the book you've searched. I already do this to an extent when I'm searching for material in my library's online catalog; if I click on the Library of Congress number it pulls up a page listing ten or twenty of the preceding and subsequent LC numbers in the collection. Of course, because the books aren't scanned I can't actually look at their contents (unless Google Books happens to have full or partial access to them), but if a scanned version of the collection was available this would actually be a better way to play that game than going to the stacks: I wouldn't miss out on anything because someone happened to have taken one of the books out.

Even with the books scanned as you suggested, I'd argue that is not the same thing at all, no more than those terrible online services where you click through books one painful page at a time is the same as being able to read a book properly or flipping through it. I've done what you do as well and I've found it slow and inefficient because flipping through items is generally impossible and as for searching for images - or a cluster of images that key you to the way the book is presenting information - it's near impossible.

Say, for example, I'm researching a form of spectacle in a particular culture. I'm at the section on the culture I'm looking for. With the physical or virtual book shelf I can scan titles and authors; with the real bookshelf I can quickly pull down the item and without really having a sense for a particular search string I can rapidly scan to see how the item is presenting information, images of the spectacle, the categories they consider important, etc, and I can see that even if it's on a very different culture if it's going to be of potential interest. And I can do that in under a minute, meaning I can browse my way through a large number of texts rapidly - and if all I have is three days in a library that's what I need to do. It's different when it's your own library or if you have a strong subject librarian to consult in the library you're visiting, but as many libraries keep getting rid of specialists because we apparently don't need them in the age of text search, there's not always one to hand. Online access in this case is not always more efficient, though it can be a very useful tool in other circumstance.

You can do it, but it's far from the same, seems like you need to know where to look first.

That's my problem. And the danger with my own research is that I find I am searching for the terms I already know and running the risk of confirmation bias.
posted by lesbiassparrow at 8:59 AM on November 18, 2012 [1 favorite]


Doesn't New York have a lot of the world's wealthiest families? Aren't there a ton of people with insane wealth? Isn't that library building one of the city's icons, and the library institution itself a point of proud history?

Why the hell haven't they donated funds? They live in NYC because they believe NYC is the best. The library is part of their backyard. And isn't this whole conservative small-goverment mentality all about "community charity solves the problem"?

I guess when NYC turns to shit because no-one with wealth gave a damn, they'll just pack their bags for another international city.
posted by five fresh fish at 6:24 PM on November 18, 2012


The building is question is named the Stephen A. Schwarzman Building because he gave $100 million to help fund the library expansion in 2008.
posted by smackfu at 12:19 PM on November 19, 2012


Awesome! Now seven other bajillionairs can pony up and get 'er done!
posted by five fresh fish at 12:16 AM on November 20, 2012


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