Lions in Winter

In March 2008, the New York Public Library announced a $100 million gift from private equity billionaire Stephen Schwarzman and a plan to radically remake its landmark main building on 42nd Street. Six months later, Lehman Brothers collapsed; the plan, to no one’s surprise, was put on hold. Now, the administration has announced that the renovation, its budget increased from $250 to $350 million, is back on track. The proposed designs developed by British architect Norman Foster have not yet been made public, but the basic scheme remains the same: to tear out the steel stacks that occupy almost half of the main building—and that literally hold up the famed Rose Reading Room on the top floor—and replace them with a new circulating library. This library will offer plenty of books, DVDs, and other materials, which any patron will be allowed to take out of the building, unlike the current research collection. The plan will be financed through the sale of two of the library’s nearby branches—the Mid-Manhattan Library across the street and the Science, Industry, and Business Library (SIBL) at Madison and 34th—and through a $150 million grant from the City of New York. The new super-library will also be designed for a time when physically circulating books becomes a thing of the past and practically all library “materials” will be available exclusively through digital devices.

That, however, is in the future. What the present will bring is the removal of the majority of the library’s outstanding collection of research-level books, which for most of the past century have rarely if ever been allowed out of the building. These books will be moved to a storage facility in Princeton, New Jersey. Some will remain in the stacks beneath Bryant Park, but the rest of the books in the library’s core collection will be available only by putting in a request and waiting for them to be brought back to New York.

The plan has much to recommend it. Right now the elegant research facility at Fifth Avenue and 42nd Street sits catercorner from the Mid-Manhattan Library, the largest of the circulating branches; in contrast to its luxurious neighbor, Mid-Manhattan is decrepit and filthy, an accidental museum of 1970s-era New York. Eight blocks south, SIBL, built for $100 million in the 1990s, now looks like an expensive folly, its collections little used, its audience more like that of a branch library than the researchers it was intended to attract. The trustees and the administration feel the library can no longer afford to maintain so many major facilities, and they believe moreover that the library can sell Mid-Manhattan and SIBL for $100 million apiece. Given all this, the desire to move the two libraries into the main building makes a certain kind of sense. More people would then be able to work in one of the most beautiful structures in New York, and the library would have more money to fill the facility with computers, staff it with librarians, and extend its hours. The administration also says the library will use some of the space freed up to set aside several hundred desks for writers. As Joshua Steiner, vice chairman of the library’s board of trustees, put it in 2008, the renovation in many way represents the “further democratization” of the main building.

By contrast, a library staff member with whom I spoke called the removal of the books “the destruction of the research library.” And that, too, is true.

The New York Public Library, at least until now, has not been just another public library. The eighty-seven branch libraries scattered around Manhattan, Staten Island, and the Bronx are much like the branch libraries elsewhere in the United States—they receive their funding from the city and state, and offer circulating materials, as well as computers, internet access, printers, and sometimes children’s rooms, to the public. (The branch libraries in Brooklyn and Queens are run by separate organizations.) But the research division headquartered at the main branch on 42nd Street, with smaller but significant facilities at Lincoln Center, 34th Street, and 135th Street, receives much of its funding from private philanthropy, and has for most of the past century been one of the world’s great research libraries.

The collection dates to the 1840s and 1870s, when the Astor Library and the Lenox Library, both privately supported, were founded in Manhattan; their earliest strengths were Americana and religious history. These libraries remained separate until the late 19th century, when former New York Governor Samuel Tilden died and left almost his entire estate “to found a free library and reading room” in New York. Tilden’s trustees developed a plan to use the bequest, plus the books and funds held by the two existing libraries, to persuade the city to construct a central building to house a single centralized research facility, a place on par with the much-envied British Museum. The city proved surprisingly persuadable: the public, the administration decided, would retain ownership of the building, but the “New York Public Library,” a private charity, would staff the facility and fill it with books. A few years later, steel magnate Andrew Carnegie offered $5.2 million to build a network of neighborhood circulating libraries, on the condition that the city would maintain them and fully cover the operating costs. Unusually, the branches in Manhattan, Staten Island, and the Bronx ended up being run not by a city agency but by the existing New York Public Library. The result was a private-public partnership, still a relatively new idea in the early days of big philanthropy.

While the Carnegie money went to the branches, the city spent $9 million laying down the beaux arts behemoth that stands on the edge of Bryant Park. When the building, flanked by two mighty marble lions, opened in 1911, it held 800,000 books; between 1911 and 1970, the collection grew to include 4 million books, as well as hundreds of thousands of pamphlets and millions of manuscripts, with particular strengths in American, Slavic, and African diaspora materials, along with a powerhouse performing arts collection and one of the world’s greatest collections of illuminated manuscripts (including works from Persia, Japan, and medieval Europe). Among the high points: the manuscript of Native Son, with Richard Wright’s handwritten corrections; the only surviving first edition of Columbus’s first letter to describe the New World (“if the Library was on fire this would be the first thing I would grab,” the curator of rare books told me); a draft of the Declaration of Independence in Thomas Jefferson’s own hand; and more than 2,600 volumes from the personal libraries of the Russian royal family. In 1973, the critic Ellen Moers, writing in the New York Review of Books, could confidently speak of the New York Public Library in the same breath as the British Museum and the Bibliothèque Nationale. “Its collections are so nearly complete,” she wrote, “its rarities so unusual, its catalog so superb that scholars everywhere in America (and many from abroad) know they can turn to NYPL as a final and secure resort when hunting an edition, a pamphlet, a folio that can be found nowhere else.”

Moers wrote at a moment when the library, like the city whose pride it had become, was falling on hard times. In the final contract with the city, signed on December 8, 1897, the trustees of the New York Public Library had promised that they would keep the building open at their own expense, twelve hours a day, 365 days a year, with the exception of Sundays, when the library would open at 1 and close at 9. The administration did so without a blip for decades, only beginning to take public money in the 1940s, and then only for routine maintenance and housekeeping. But in 1971 the library cut its hours by almost half, leaving the main building open Monday through Friday, and then only for eight hours each day. The science and technology division and the performing arts collection were temporarily closed to the public, though their staffs, older librarians tell me, were by and large retained. The building, already shabby, fell into decay.

The library’s fortunes turned around in the 1980s with the fundraising work of Vartan Gregorian, a historian of Central Asia, who began the process of making the institution one of the preferred recipients of New York money, old and new. The funds raised went to a series of renovations, as well as to the hiring of new staff, a huge expansion in the collections budget, and the renewed growth of the library’s endowment, which had stagnated throughout the 1970s. In the early 1990s, under Timothy Healey, who served only a few years before dying in office, and Paul LeClerc, a Voltaire scholar who became president of the library in 1994, the administration took on the first large expansion in a generation, spending $100 million to renovate part of the old B. Altman department store on Madison and 34th Street. The result was SIBL, the Science, Industry, and Business Library, a gleaming, state-of-the-art facility with 45,000 square feet of public space, 60,000 square feet for science and business books, and enough classrooms to teach thousands of people how to use CD-ROMs, the futuristic medium around which the library was planned in the early 1990s.

That wasn’t all. In the late 1990s and early 2000s, the administration renovated the Library for the Performing Arts at Lincoln Center at a cost of $38 million. Around the same time the administration undertook more work on its flagship building. An unused interior courtyard became grounds for a $29 million glass-and-steel structure called South Court. A grant from the family of real estate developer Frederick Rose also allowed for the wholesale renovation of the majestic third-floor reading room; the $15 million job included the purchase of more than three hundred exact replicas of the oak chairs that had stood in the library since 1911 (available to the public at $799 each), as well as sixty replicas of the room’s famed lamps, which came in at over $1,000 each (too pricey, the administration felt, for the gift shop). Under Gregorian, Healey, and LeClerc, the library also began using its large halls for impressive exhibits (on Vladimir Nabokov, James Gillray, and Jack Kerouac, among others, with almost all the materials culled from the library’s own collections), as well as an authoritative, well-attended lecture series. Then, of course, there were the library fundraisers, and more and more corporate rentals.

Meanwhile, across the street, the Mid-Manhattan branch, the largest circulating facility in the city, was crowded and dirty and books were frequently missing from the shelves.

While the library was renovating and expanding, a revolution was taking place in the presentation and consumption of reading material. Newspapers, faced with the wholesale migration of ad revenues to Google, were putting huge resources into their online operations, clearly preparing for an all-digital future. Magazines were next. And then books. In December 2004, Larry Page, cofounder of Google, announced partnerships with Harvard, Stanford, Oxford, the University of Michigan, and the New York Public Library to digitize their collections. At that point, the New York Public Library had nearly 9 million books (5 million at the main building, 2 million in New Jersey, and the rest at the other three research facilities). The library had taken more than a hundred years to build this collection. As of March 2012, eight years into the book scanning project, Google had already scanned around 20 million books.

By and large, librarians welcomed digitization. If there is a Hippocratic Oath of library science, it is to make books and other resources as easily available as possible, and digitization promised a giant leap forward. Branch librarians across the country would have noticed as early as the 1990s that many patrons were coming to use the libraries’ internet-accessible computers. Libraries adjusted as well as they could to this new demand. When the refurbished main reading room at the New York Public Library debuted in 1998, one of the most widely discussed features was the installation of forty-eight computers—with twenty-four linked to the internet! Every table was soon outfitted with ethernet outlets, and, eventually, the whole room was blanketed with wireless, so patrons could come with their laptops and easily get online.

But what to do about all the books? Over the past decade, as archives of digital materials from companies like ProQuest, EBSCO, and Gale grew in size, the cost of providing access to such databases increased as well, and many research libraries cut back on the number of new books they took in. Instead, the libraries began to discuss the possibility of working more closely together—maybe Harvard would buy half the German book market, while Yale bought the other half—and also set up joint off-site storage facilities. (MIT, Harvard, Brandeis, and others share a space outside Cambridge, while the New York Public Library shares its space in New Jersey with Columbia and Princeton.) Some universities also participated in high-speed loan networks like the “Borrow Direct” system, which enables students at every university in the Ivy League (plus MIT) to request books from all the library systems and receive them in one to four days, much faster than the typical speed of interlibrary loan. Once these systems become more widespread, mature libraries will be able to avoid buying multiple copies of obscure and rarely used books, and the money saved can go toward paying for databases, as well as purchasing, processing, and storing unique materials like manuscripts and archives.

These are some of the experiments that university research libraries have begun in recent decades to pursue. Since the New York Public Library, unlike other research libraries, is supposed to serve a vast and amorphous public, its way forward was less clear. In the mid-2000s the administration brought in two groups of consultants to help it think through the future. This was not the first time the library had turned to the consulting world for help, but the reports that resulted, given the magnitude of the changes the institution was facing, have proved more important than ever before.

The most influential group, according to former staff members, was McKinsey—first brought in around 2003 and then again for a second engagement in 2008–09. In their first report, the consultants helped the library think through some of its staffing issues, looking with particular scrutiny at potential redundancy between the branches and the research division; the second time, brought in to consult on digital projects, the consultants laid out four possible “paths” for the library to take into the future: it could become a circulating library; a research archive; a museum; or a social service agency. But it had to choose. If the library didn’t choose to pursue one of the four paths, the report stressed, it risked mediocrity in all of them. An internal planning document paraphrased the later report this way: “McKinsey’s strong view was that it is prohibitively expensive to pursue leadership across all potential paths, but never choosing a path also risks never creating true leadership in any one area.” Former staff members made it clear that the administration never entirely agreed with McKinsey’s view. Nonetheless, the administration had brought in McKinsey for just this kind of advice, and this was the choice the consultants presented.

In 2006, the administration brought in another consultant—McLean, Virginia–based Booz Allen. Booz’s report, like the two from McKinsey, has not been made public, but an article called “The Library Rebooted” in Strategy+Business, Booz’s management magazine, gives a sense of what the advice must have looked like. In a section titled “Expand the Metrics,” the Booz authors write: “Libraries will have to introduce new metrics to measure staff performance. There may be some resistance to this, especially if the library’s staff is conditioned to think of what it does as a government service that isn’t in jeopardy, that could never be in jeopardy, and that doesn’t operate in a changing ‘marketplace.’ But in the bigger context of changes, this resistance to measurement should be easy to surmount.” Another hint about Booz’s advice comes from a chart a former staff member included in a presentation. The chart on the following page shows a sharp decline in the use of physical collections at the research facilities.

The steep decline in 1998 and 1999 was likely caused by the renovations at the main building and the Library for the Performing Arts, which at times made it inconvenient to use those resources. But the equally unmistakable decline from 2001 to 2006 could not be wished away. The internet had arrived. More and more resources had become available to researchers from the comfort of their homes, whether through free online databases, pirated digital editions, or the used book market, which had become mind-bogglingly quick and easy to navigate as early as 2000.

Source: NYPL; Booz Allen Analysis

You might be forgiven, if you were the library, for beginning to think that research was not the best business to be in. Perhaps the library business was one that people should get out of entirely, since no one likes books anymore? That, actually, turned out to be false. While the use of the physical collections at the research libraries was plummeting, the use of the circulating collections at the branch libraries was going up, almost doubling between 2000 and 2010. Meanwhile the number of people actually visiting the circulating and research libraries remained about the same. It was the use of the materials that changed. People were checking out a greater number of books at the circulating branches than ever before, but research more and more was being done online. People still came to the research libraries, but they came and logged in to the wireless.

So what would you do, if you were charged with running the library? Library users, it seems, want more books to circulate; less and less do they want books for research. The drop in the use of the research collection has stabilized since 2007, contra Booz Allen’s prediction from the above chart. But the numbers haven’t returned to anything like the pre-internet era. In its press release about the renovation the administration put forward one particularly suggestive statistic: of the 5 million books currently held at the main building, only about 300,000 were requested last year. That means the rest of them—4.7 million, or 94 percent of the on-site collection—just sat around, taking up space in one of the most prized neighborhoods on the planet.

I didn’t start using the research library until a few years ago. It’s a shame, because when I moved to New York in the mid-2000s a great library would have been a godsend. I grew up in a midsize industrial town in northern Idaho—the main products are bullets and toilet paper—and my intellectual life has always to a great degree depended on libraries. As a child, I was a library kid, taking out my limit in children’s books from the local Carnegie branch every week. As I got older, I read the New York Times on the computer I bought after saving money from mowing lawns—something that would have been impossible just a decade before, no matter how many lawns I mowed. For books, because I was brought up in the decade before mass digitization began, I had to rely on what was at hand. It wasn’t much. The Carnegie branch closed down in the 1990s. The one branch that remains sits in a former hardware store, built out of cinder blocks, with no windows; the signs that say “library” are often missing several letters. There’s a small college library in town, but the Idaho legislature hasn’t exactly endowed it with a marvelous collection.

I left Idaho in 2001 for a liberal arts college in Minnesota, where I learned what a real library could be. I saw complete works of authors—Kierkegaard, Coleridge, Shelley, Goethe—for the first time in my life. I discovered H. L. Mencken, and the entire concept of cultural criticism, by wandering a few stacks south of the Hemingway section. After college, everywhere I moved, the first place I went was the library: in Missoula, Montana, I worked on my German in the library of the University of Montana, mediocre but open to the public; in Seattle, I read about documentary film at the library of the University of Washington, fantastic and open to the public; and in Washington DC, I read through the works of Stanley Cavell at the Library of Congress, also open to the public.

In New York, I ran into a roadblock. My previous libraries either had incredibly long hours, like the University of Washington, or had incredibly long hours and also let me check books out for free, like the University of Montana and my college library. The only exception, the Library of Congress, had mediocre hours and the books didn’t circulate, but the main building happened to be a short bike ride away from my cheap apartment on the edge of Capitol Hill. In New York, in that first year, the only place I could afford was a $560-a-month room in Crown Heights. My one reliable freelance gig—aggregating news articles for a blog—required me to send in my work at 11 am. I spent the rest of the day working on book reviews. The main branch of the New York Public Library closed at 6 pm. It was an hour away by subway. When I got there, if I found the book I needed, I couldn’t take it home. I hardly ever went.

The other research libraries in town, at Columbia and NYU, refused to admit the public, and there was no way I could afford the fees they charged to get in the door, let alone the even more exorbitant fees they charged to check out their books. Strangely, given all the good books that have been written here, New York was the first place since leaving Idaho that I didn’t have easy access to a good library.

While I have grown to love the research library over the past few years—as I have relied on its millions of books to read about things the internet couldn’t care less about, from American Pragmatism to the labor wars of northern Idaho—the limited hours made it impossible to spend much time at the library whenever I had a full-time job. Even now, as a freelancer, the luxurious atmosphere at the main building is always overwhelmed by the sense of rush: get in, get your books, and take the notes you need before they kick you out.

The library spent hundreds of millions of dollars over the last three decades to renovate its interiors and to open SIBL, but the hours at the main branch improved only slightly. According to Micah May, the thirtysomething former McKinsey consultant who became director of strategy for the library in 2009, the surveys conducted by the library have led the administration to take a much greater interest in hours. This concern is part of the reasoning behind the plan to combine Mid-Manhattan, SIBL, and the main building: if the administration can bring the three facilities together, it can keep them open longer. It should be said that the logic here is a little shaky. The administration is going to sell two buildings, tear up the remaining one, and send a majority of the books to New Jersey—so it can extend the hours? It would seem like a simpler way to extend the hours would be to raise money to extend the hours. But the renovation, of course, is about more than just hours.

By its nature, a research library is a conservative institution. It is constrained from reevaluating its commitments and embarking in new directions by the sheer amount of capital it has sunk into its collections. Even if fewer people used the Slavic collection over time, the fact that the library had one of the world’s greatest Slavic collections meant that it had little choice but to go on buying Slavic materials. The library couldn’t, for example, respond to shifting immigration patterns by reducing its budget for Slavic books and shifting to Hispanic books, because it would then be left with a Slavic collection that didn’t cover present scholarship and an Hispanic collection that didn’t cover past scholarship. A great research collection could be created only by starting early, as the New York Public Library did by buying pretty much everything in its specialties from the late 19th century onward, and then continuing to buy in those same fields basically forever. (The research library at the Getty Museum has tried to beat this game by buying up entire collections from scholars as they die, but it has taken years for the Getty to match top art libraries, and such an endeavor is only imaginable with the Getty’s billions.)

The advent of digital scholarship has begun to change this equation. Within a few decades it is likely that any reasonably well-endowed institution (the Abu Dhabi Public Library, say), will be able to subscribe to databases that will include more books than are held in the New York Public Library’s entire research collection. Large archives of unpublished material will still distinguish individual institutions—the more than 10 billion items held by the United States National Archives aren’t going to be digitized any time soon—but with most published books, it won’t matter whether a library became interested in the subject a hundred years ago or yesterday. If a library has a sudden influx of Slavicists, it will be able to purchase access to databases of Slavic materials; if the Slavicists stop coming, and more Hispanic studies scholars walk through the door, the library will be able to shift its budget accordingly, with few long-lasting effects.

Most research libraries will still be constrained in how they shift their budgets, because the audience for most research libraries is determined by the institution they primarily exist to serve—their universities. Whether students are checking out French books or not, the library will buy French books, or their digital equivalents, for as long as the university has a French department. At the New York Public Library, by contrast, the decline in requests for research books has allowed the administration to question the very purpose of the research library, because there are no academic departments to tell the library what to do. The administration sees this as a virtue. “We have a tremendous competitive advantage compared to university libraries,” Micah May told me, “because they’re tied to a faculty—so they’re not nearly as nimble.”

The ability to quickly shift missions could come in handy, because the digital age poses particularly difficult problems for a public research library. To understand why, consider the difference between circulating and research books. Circulating books have always been thought of as disposable commodities: a library buys forty copies of the new Harry Potter book and expects that those forty copies will, on average, each be checked out forty times before they fall apart and have to be thrown away. The circulating library is OK with throwing them away, because in a couple of years there will be a new Harry Potter book and the library won’t need as many copies of the old one anymore.

While it may seem odd, there are not many difficulties in adapting this model to the digital world: instead of buying a book and throwing it away after forty people check it out, a library simply buys a license to circulate an ebook forty times. Functionally, it’s the same. The problem is that where previously libraries could buy any book they liked on the open market for the same price that any individual would pay, the move to digital licensing allows publishers to enforce more fine-grained “library pricing.” Now, instead of paying $10.39 on Amazon for a copy of Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire and circulating that book until it falls apart, libraries will have to pay whatever publishers demand for the right to circulate a book a set number of times—probably a lot more than $10.39. It’s likely as well that libraries will eventually be competing with the literary equivalent of Netflix for the right to circulate ebooks. But while this new regime may force circulating libraries to cut back on the number of titles they provide, it won’t threaten their basic existence. Once publishers determine the market price to circulate a book, they will be all too happy to charge libraries that price.

The books in the research division at the New York Public Library are another story. While they are not unique, they are not quite commodities. The research division calls itself a “one-copy library”; it collects one copy of a book and keeps it forever. The library didn’t need to buy more than one copy because almost no books were allowed outside of its reading rooms. As a result, the books rarely got damaged or lost. The library has a first edition of Walker Evans’s American Photographs, published in 1938, that any patron can request; it is still in nearly mint condition. How many people have looked at this book since it was first purchased? Perhaps thousands. And while it’s not cheap to buy and store a physical copy of every important book that comes out each year, it’s not clear that it will actually be cheaper to provide access to electronic copies. Many of the books held by the research library, scholarly in nature, are considered to have only one audience—students and professors at universities. All the pricing schemes for electronic editions of such scholarly works are being developed with this audience in mind. And with few exceptions, these schemes work against the New York Public Library.

At the moment, most licensing arrangements for university libraries are set up so that students and faculty can log in and use the databases not just from the physical library but from anywhere in the world, twenty-four hours a day. University libraries can afford to pay for comprehensive access because they have a limited and well-defined user base—in the case of NYU, around 45,000 students, faculty, and staff. The New York Public Library can’t buy similar licenses because it has 1.9 million cardholders. “When a publisher hears that they get very nervous,” Denise Hibay, the library’s head of collection development, told me. That’s because if the New York Public Library did somehow persuade a company like ProQuest to let it buy licenses on the cheap, then NYU (and every other college and university in town) could just stop paying ProQuest and tell all their students who want access to sign up for a library card and log in through the New York Public Library.

The library already deals with this problem by only paying for on-site access to scholarly databases; a few databases are available at every branch, and a few can even be accessed from home, but most serious scholarly databases can only be used at the four research locations. This setup is significantly cheaper: fewer people make use of the databases, and NYU and other universities can’t discontinue their own subscriptions, since students expect to get access to any database they want from their dorm rooms. The consequence of these digital licensing schemes is apparent in the different approaches to physical space. For universities, the physical space of libraries has become less and less important—students mainly go to libraries to study, not to get books, and students can essentially study anywhere, so whether universities call a study space a “library” or a “learning commons” doesn’t matter. Technology has thus unsurprisingly led to a decrease in the importance of physical space and to the greater dispersion of knowledge. But for the New York Public Library or any other public research library, physical space has actually become more important than ever before, because the only way the library can afford to pay for access to truly research-level databases is by restricting the access to certain physical spaces. Technology combines with the peculiar economics of information to make physical space once again very important.

We assume that the internet can only make it easier and cheaper to access information, but what the internet really does, when it’s commercialized, is commodify information. In the future, publishers will be able to determine exactly how often a specific book or article is accessed, try a few different prices, and charge whatever turns out to be most profitable. If that profit can be generated by selling advertising, then the book will be made available “for free”; if not, users will be forced to pay. In the case of romance novels, this means “ad-supported books”; in the case of scholarly journals, if you don’t have an institution to support you, it means paying $5.99 to “rent” a single article for one day, the price currently being charged by Cambridge University Press.

Research libraries, because of the “right of first sale”—the law that allows libraries and rental stores to circulate materials without paying royalties—have long served as a refuge for knowledge outside of the reach of most market forces. It may seem like arcane scholarly works would be precisely the kind of thing that could be provided “for free” with advertising. But the existence of a large, well-endowed customer base, namely, universities, that cannot perform their basic functions without access to huge databases of such materials makes it very unlikely that copyrighted scholarly works will ever be provided for free. The “open access” movement, which would oblige all publicly funded academics to distribute free copies of their work, is one solution. Given how thoroughly the profit motive has worked its way into our education system, such a future should not be counted on.

While the New York Public Library was wondering how to deal with this mercurial future, some internal events were also taking place. For one thing, the renovations in the 1990s kept coming in over budget, and once construction was done, upkeep on the properties became expensive. For another, one of the management consultants’ invaluable suggestions was that the library set up a strategic planning department, to give more advice along the lines of the advice McKinsey and Booz Allen had given. This wasn’t cheap either. And then there were health care costs, pension costs, materials costs—everything was going up. How to pay for it all? In his recent piece about the library for the Nation, the journalist Scott Sherman quotes a “high-ranking official” who told him, “Our sources of revenue from the city and state are not keeping up with inflation.” In fact, when I looked up the research library’s annual budgets (conveniently available in bound volumes at the library itself), I found that the city’s contribution has not only not decreased but in fact increased over the years—from $2 million in 1980 to $25 million in 2008. When adjusted for inflation, that’s still a significant increase. But the library was spending more money as well, and it may be more important that the administration thought they were short on money than that they really were.1

And so, like any large corporation with expenses exceeding income, the library in the middle of the last decade began to liquidate its assets. The assets were formidable. On view at the Edna Barnes Salomon Room on the third floor of the main building was Asher Durand’s 1849 painting “Kindred Spirits,” one of the masterpieces of the Hudson River School. It depicts Thomas Cole and William Cullen Bryant taking a walk in the Catskills and was given to the library by Bryant’s daughter in 1904. Exactly one hundred years later, by unanimous vote, the board of trustees decided to put the painting up for auction at Sotheby’s.

The decision was controversial. Paul LeClerc made a point at the time of saying that the money would go toward the purchase of books and manuscripts and to the library’s endowment, and not toward day-to-day operations—that is, the library was not holding a fire sale, but merely trying to focus on its mission. “We’re not a museum,” LeClerc told the Times. “We don’t have a staff devoted to paintings and sculptures.” (After reading about his nonexistence in the paper of record, the Miriam and Ira D. Wallach Chief Librarian of Art, Prints, and Photographs and Curator of the Spencer Collection Robert Rainwater decided to quit.) Critics pointed out that the painting was not just a national treasure but a treasure of the City of New York. Library officials countered that they would prefer that the painting remain in New York, on public view, and would grant “preferential” financial terms for such a bid. But what did “preferential” terms mean? Not enough, apparently. The winner of the auction was Alice Walton, an heir to the Wal-Mart fortune, who bought the painting for over $35 million and took it to Arkansas, where it can be seen at her new Crystal Bridges Museum. “We’re disappointed that the painting is leaving New York,” said the spokesman for New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art, which had united with the National Gallery of Art in an attempt to put together a super-bid for the painting and failed. LeClerc for his part told the Times he was “delighted that it didn’t leave the country.”

The library still had more to sell. In addition to being a major book owner, it is also a major property owner in the city, and in November 2007 the administration announced the sale of the Donnell Library Center, on 53rd Street. The Donnell, directly across the street from the Museum of Modern Art, was one of the premier branches in the system, with the best circulating foreign languages section. The library had sold it to a hotel chain, without any public discussion, for $59 million. As part of the deal, the hotel agreed to build a much smaller library on two floors in the basement and on the future first floor. The branch closed in 2008, but the hotel chain ran into financial difficulties; four years later, the building remains empty.

Along with selling off its most valuable assets, the library has made unprecedented cutbacks in recent years. Before physically combining the branch and research libraries, the administration combined their staffs. This “One NYPL” strategy, announced in 2008, led to some real savings; for instance, catalogers and preservationists from the branch and the research side now work together. But as the recession hit, the reorganization became more like a massacre: many of the library’s most experienced and highly regarded senior staff, including almost all of the division chiefs at the main building, were pushed into retirement or effectively fired—except for those, like Robert Rainwater, who had already resigned. In September 2008, the administration, without making any public announcement, permanently shut down three of its prized reading rooms, one occupied by the Slavic and Baltic division, the other two by the Asian and Middle Eastern division—all of which date back to the earliest days of the institution. Many of the staff members in these divisions were transferred into other departments or pushed into retirement, including the curators who had run them for decades, Edward Kasinec and John Lundquist. None of the former librarians with whom I spoke could recall any similar events in the history of the library, even in the dark days of the 1970s.

The closure of the Slavic and Baltic room was particularly surprising, since unlike the “Kindred Spirits” sale this closure really struck at what McKinsey would call a core competency of the institution. The New York Public Library is universally believed to have one of the finest collections of Slavic materials in the world, made use of by Leon Trotsky, George Kennan, and Vladimir Nabokov. Slavic scholars have been angrier and more vocal than any other group about the library’s recent changes. In November, thanks to the work of these scholars, the administration appointed a curator for the Slavic collection, Stephen Corrsin. Corrsin was already working full time as curator of the library’s Jewish division. There is still no curator for the library’s collection of Asian and Middle Eastern materials, and after the Asian and Middle Eastern division was closed the administration took an endowment that had supported its chief, “The Susan and Douglas Dillon Chief Librarian of the Oriental Division Fund,” and redirected it to support a central administrator, the “Susan and Douglas Dillon Head of Collection Development.”

Less visible than the closure of these divisions have been the library’s cuts to other international acquisitions. In 2010, the administration decided, as Denise Hibay put it to me, “to bring our focus back to New York, things related to New York, and those subjects of interest to New Yorkers.” Many foreign language budgets have been cut across the board, and acquisitions in some languages have been eliminated entirely.

Finally, in 2007 the administration completely cut the research-level budget for every subject in the sciences, including mathematics, physics, chemistry, astronomy, and engineering, and, Hibay told me, “reduced or stopped acquiring” in many fields in the social sciences, including criminal justice, education, and psychology. According to John Ganly, former assistant director of SIBL, the administration also cut the budget for acquisitions in economics by around 80 percent. Hibay says economics continues to be collected in “selected areas”; Victoria Steele, director of collections strategy, explained that the library is “shaping our collections to make sense for our users. So genealogy, but not maybe advanced-level economics.”

Individually, many of these decisions are understandable. Together, they paint a picture of an organization that has stumbled its way into the 21st century. While the administration has had no trouble finding money for new construction and renovations at the research centers, it has struggled to staff the resulting facilities and to buy the materials necessary to maintain them at a world-class level. And now that the administration has concluded that it cannot sustain these operations, it is not retrenching and raising more funds to run them, but instead selling off entire buildings, closing rooms, cutting back on research acquisitions, and directing the proceeds to the creation of a new circulating facility that can only be built by tearing out the heart of the central research collection.

The main building currently houses around 5 million books. About 3 million reside in an extensive series of stacks that occupy the center of the building. They are made up of structural steel, some of it created by the Carnegie steelworks—as originally built, these stacks held about sixty-three miles of shelves. An additional 1.2 million books are held in “compact shelving” beneath Bryant Park, with the stacks on rollers; the rest are scattered through various parts of the building. There is an undeveloped floor beneath the compact shelving under the park, which could hold another 1 to 2 million books, but it has significant problems with water leakage, and the library is unlikely to spend the $20 million necessary to get it into shape.

At present, if you want a book from these miles of stacks, you get it the old-fashioned way: by filling out a paper slip and handing it to a staff member. Until the mid-2000s, the slip would then have been whisked away through a system of pneumatic tubes to the library’s “pages,” who track down books in the stacks. As older staffers retired, I’ve been told, the cylinders that ran through these tubes began to disappear, mementos of a long career. Today, in the main reading room, the call slips go through the dumbwaiter system, which still runs, and which carries the books back from the stacks. In my experience, it takes about twenty minutes to get a book. When the library opened, it took about six minutes. Such is the burden of age.

With Google Books the results come back much faster than with the New York Public Library’s steampunk system. Google has scanned more books more quickly than anyone a decade ago would have thought possible, and the scans, while not perfect, are quite good. Some cataloging information gets lost, sometimes pages are missing, but it’s certainly no worse overall than what you’d find at the average library. And the possibilities for research with Google Books are astonishing. The entire world library system holds about 6 million editions that were published before 1923, the rough cutoff date for copyright in the US, and Google has already digitized more than 2 million of them. Once all of these books are digitized, the history of the 19th century, or at least how it’s researched, will begin to look rather different. (Books published prior to the 19th century are generally too fragile for Google to scan, and many have already been scanned by companies like Gale and ProQuest and made available in subscription databases such as “Early English Books Online.”)

But the vast majority of books were published after 1923. While the world’s libraries hold about 6 million editions published before that date, they hold around 26 million published after, a number that is only growing. Google was never going to be able to do much with many of these books because the rights-holders are still around; the scanning project might have sped up the rate at which publishers were able to provide digital copies of their back catalogs, but just because Google had scanned The Great Gatsby didn’t mean Scribner was going to start letting Google Books offer one of its biggest money-makers for free. The greatest predictions about Google Books, rather, arose from what the service was supposed to do with “orphan works,” the millions of books published during this time whose copyright no one has claimed but which, also, no one has disavowed. It’s pretty much guesswork as to how many orphan books there are, but the best guesses put it at about half of all books published since 1923. And herein, it turned out, lay the problem.

For the first several years of the project, Google was happily scanning anything it could get its Elphel 323 cameras on. Then the Authors Guild and the publishers sued Google for copyright infringement. The parties eventually put together a proposed settlement, which would have made it possible for Google to provide millions of orphan books to the public, with money set aside for any copyright holders who came forward. But that settlement is dead. For some reason, this news doesn’t seem to have penetrated: the Google Books settlement, as described ad nauseam in the press in the late 2000s, exactly the time when the New York Public Library and its consultants were thinking through their current plans, is quite simply not happening. All the talk of a “Google terminal” in every public library, which would have allowed anyone anywhere to read millions of out-of-print books, was effectively thrown out the window last March, when Judge Denny Chin of the Southern District of New York issued his opinion stating that the problems at stake were too large for a court to determine. Congress, Chin said, should decide what happens to orphan works, not Google, the Authors Guild, and the publishers.

This was a victory of sorts for the public sphere, since it stopped Google from establishing a monopoly on orphan books. But the decision left the problem to Congress, and Congress, which almost invariably takes the side of copyright holders, isn’t exactly in a rush to deal with the problem of orphan books. Until Congress acts, if it ever does, the best that Google will legally be able to provide when users request orphan books is its “snippet view,” the annoying feature that lets you search through a book and see a line or two whenever a particular word occurs, but nothing else. “Snippet view” is great for fact-checkers, translators, and book reviewers, who just need a few lines of text, but it’s of little use to researchers without access to the book itself. I use it all the time at the main branch of the New York Public Library—and when I find a book that looks interesting, I go and put in a call slip.2

It’s likely that, sooner or later, a solution will be found, if not necessarily through Google. The historian Robert Darnton, who became director of Harvard’s libraries in 2007, has argued forcefully for a kind of public option: a “grand coalition of foundations,” hopefully to be joined by Congress and private industry, should pay for the books to be scanned and made available for free; it’s in the public interest, Darnton argues, and our books are part of the national patrimony. (For just this reason, the French government has pledged $1.1 billion for the digitization of much of the holdings of the Bibliothèque Nationale.) No doubt there will be other solutions. But even if Congress were to act tomorrow, whether to break the Google Books deadlock or to fund Darnton’s plan, the availability of digitized books to the point where one could be confident of finding what one needed, in the way one can still be confident upon arriving at the New York Public Library, is still some years away. Five years? Ten years? Certainly closer to ten, probably closer to twenty. Yet the main branch of the New York Public Library has to exist in the present day. And the renovation is slated to start as early as next year and to be finished in 2017 or 2018.

Norman Foster’s preliminary plans have not yet been made public, but looking at some of Foster’s other projects you can begin to imagine what the new library will look like. The constraints of the space greatly limit what will be possible: Foster cannot add a new glass dome to the building, as he did at the Reichstag in Berlin, because the main reading room on the top floor cannot be touched; adding an entire skyscraper, like the addition at the Hearst building in New York, would of course be impossible. Instead, according to a former staff member who has seen the initial plans, Foster’s design may well call for the demolition of not just the stacks but of much of the marble facade that currently stands on the Bryant Park side of the building, and whose windows and marble pillars are exactly aligned with the rows of steel stacks inside. If the stacks go, the facade is likely to go as well. In the facade’s place, we will likely see some kind of ambitious new glass entrance; Foster’s designs are distinguished by their commitment to bringing natural light into interior spaces, and Foster will no doubt try to brighten up a building that is, in spots, a little gloomy. It also seems possible that the new library could expand horizontally, to take up the space where a restaurant currently sits, on the eastern edge of Bryant Park. Since the main building is landmarked, such an addition would require multiple approvals and will certainly be opposed by preservationists. It is unlikely that the preservationists will succeed. What’s most remarkable about the idea of adding an entrance on the Bryant Park side of the building is that there isn’t one there now.

Beyond that, it appears that the library inside the new glass entrance will be a compromise between huge open spaces like the main reading room and smaller meeting rooms where groups can congregate and talk and work—the activities the library’s administrators, following the latest trends among education visionaries, believe will be the main way people will learn in our post-book, post-sustained-silent-reading world. It will not be a giant internet cafe, exactly, as the Nation’s Scott Sherman and others have suggested. But much of the renovation will look more like what university administrators like to call a “learning commons” than what we tend to think of today as a library. In response to the question “What will replace the stacks?” the library’s website says, “Books!” That’s just not true, and it’s certainly not true in the long term. Micah May stated to me plainly: “We can’t build the new renovation around circulating books.” The new library will retain the circulating collection for a little while, but it will be designed for the digital future.

As for the research-level books, most of them are leaving. Of the 5 million books currently housed at the main building, only 2 million will remain. The chance that a book you want will be in Manhattan will drop from around 70 to around 20 percent. The administration says the standard turnaround time for books from the New Jersey facility will be twenty-four hours. This strains credulity. The small number of books already housed at Princeton typically take closer to three days to make it to Manhattan, and the new system will be dealing with many more books and requests. Anthony Marx, a political scientist and former president at Amherst who took over as library president last year, says that barcoding all the books will speed up the process. This is a non sequitur: the New Jersey facility only accepts barcoded books; it’s the books in the main building that haven’t been barcoded yet. Barcoding them won’t make the process in New Jersey any faster. Not that speeding up the storage facility would help: the workers there already get all requests to the loading dock on the day they are made. It’s in transporting the books from New Jersey to Manhattan that the library has been failing.

Even if the turnaround were twenty-four hours, it would significantly diminish the library’s value as a research facility. Imagine if every time you Googled something it took twenty-four hours to get a result. Only 300,000 of the 5 million books held at the main building, it’s true, were requested last year; the 2 million books that will remain on-site, moreover, are said to contain around 90 percent of the books being used. But these statistics are less meaningful than they appear. A better number might be how many people currently don’t request books at all because they would have to wait three days to get them. The library’s plan is unprecedented for a reason: no other research library has eliminated the vast majority of its on-site collection because no library can predict what books the next person through the door will request—and no researcher can know what books she will need until she begins to read, and sees where the footnotes, and her curiosity, take her.

Over the course of the past two years, I’ve met with over fifty current and former library staff members to discuss the recent and upcoming changes at the library. Many of the librarians with whom I spoke had been forced out following the reorganization of 2007–08, and some had signed “Separation Incentive Program” agreements that offered small payments in exchange for agreeing, among other things, not to “disparage or encourage or induce others to disparage” the library. This is why so many former staff members mentioned in this article are cited off the record. One who did speak to me on the record was John Ganly, the former assistant director of SIBL, who started at the library in 1973 and retired in 2009. What struck me most about Ganly was how up to date and well informed he was. His pet project, unrealized at retirement, was to work with Madison Avenue to archive, from conception to realization, the many digital advertising campaigns that appear online every year. Another former staff member, Howard Dodson, whom I interviewed before he stepped down as head of the Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture, told me about his desire to archive pages on sites like MySpace and Facebook so future researchers would be able to track how young African Americans have constructed their identities online. Yet another former staff member, Donald McCormick, the former head of the Rodgers & Hammerstein Archives of Recorded Sound, knew the ins and outs of digital copyright law as well as anyone I’d ever met. He told me about a project he had wanted to undertake to digitize and stream the library’s holdings, including cylinders made by Thomas Edison.

With few exceptions, the older librarians with whom I spoke were similarly technologically up-to-date. Unlike newspaper and book publishers, who greeted the internet and e-readers with fear, librarians have little attachment to books, since they have long provided patrons with everything from papyri to scrolls to broadsides to prints to photographs to manuscripts to 78 rpm records to CDs to 16mm films to VHSs to DVDs to databases. Librarians pride themselves on knowing more about how to access information than anyone. No matter how old the librarian, and no matter how much I learned about the latest trends, I continued to find that most everyone I spoke with knew far more about how to find things online than I did.

Nonetheless, almost every single former librarian with whom I spoke opposed the plan to renovate the main branch. Why? Ann Thornton, the system’s newly appointed top librarian, suggested that the concerns of former librarians are due to the fact that, as she put it, “Change is really difficult.” The change the older librarians had trouble dealing with, however, was not technological. It was the change in the library’s mission. No former staff member said to me, “The administration doesn’t care about books.” Rather, they said, “The administration doesn’t care about research.”

There was, for a time at least, a stronger alternative vision of what the research library could become. In 2007, the administration hired Josh Greenberg, a thirtysomething digital guru with a PhD in Science and Technology Studies, to help guide the transition to digital. Greenberg had been one of the principle creators of Zotero, a leading tool in the “digital humanities” movement which allows dissertation writers and others to easily embed and keep track of references to scholarly articles in their texts. At the New York Public Library, he was supposed to set up a research and development center to figure out what a public research library could do online that academic libraries and circulating libraries couldn’t. This center was to be called NYPL Labs, modeled on Google Labs, and it was supposed to create experimental beta projects that took on important research questions and involved the wider public in their solution—“crowdsourcing” at a high level.

Unfortunately, the financial crisis prevented Greenberg from starting many of the projects, and instead his team spent most of their time moving the library’s obsolescent website, which as late as 2009 still relied on individual HTML files, to a more flexible system. Greenberg himself ended up leaving for the Sloan Foundation in 2010. One of the few projects to move forward, the library’s “map warper,” gives an example of what NYPL Labs might have looked like. The project enables untrained users to stretch and pull old maps onto contemporary digital maps until they overlay perfectly. Once enough users and libraries get involved, this project could create a kind of Google Books for old maps, allowing users to look up an address anywhere in the world and see how the landscape and its representations have changed.

Such a project could have been done over the course of decades with well-trained geographers and limitless funds; or it could be done now for practically nothing with the help of dedicated amateurs. The difference is like that between Britannica and Wikipedia. Private companies can undertake such a project, but not for the public good; private universities can do it because they have the money and the map collections, but they would not likely involve the public; an open-source collective of map enthusiasts could do it, but they might have trouble getting the old maps. The New York Public Library, by contrast, is uniquely well positioned for exactly this kind of project: the library has the resources necessary to create new knowledge, in the form of millions of old books, maps, images, and so forth, and it also “has more surface area than any other institution of its kind,” as Josh Greenberg put it to me, “touching communities from the broadly public to the highly specific academic.”

The past decade and a half has seen a significant flattening in how research is done and what resources people use to do it. Media critics sometimes say that if the New York Times had been thinking straight in the mid-1990s, it would have invented Craigslist. By the same token, one could say that the New York Public Library should have invented Wikipedia, or the Internet Archive. At this point those projects are well established, but it is not too late for the library to take the lead on initiatives that could excite similar enthusiasm among online independent scholars.

The library’s other most successful online project, aside from the map warper, involves inviting the public to transcribe its collection of approximately 40,000 menus, many of them handwritten. It has gotten off to a fast start. The library has also begun digitizing its Shelley archives and started a project to help navigate the recently released 1940 federal census records. But a handful of projects doesn’t exactly create an “NYPL Labs.” As Greenberg’s successor, Ben Vershbow, told a reporter at the Atlantic, NYPL Labs is “more an idea than a real unit.” The group’s other projects include a site that animates old stereograms, small collections of librettos and theatrical lighting plans, and a tie-in for an exhibition.

Learning about these developments, I was troubled that the library seemed not to be doing enough in a field they claim to want to embrace; I was troubled too by the degree to which the communications department had become involved in these projects, and by their insistence that the library’s online exhibition on Voltaire’s Candide, mostly designed to be used by school-age children, represented a genuine contribution to scholarship. The head of communications and marketing, Deanna Lee, would speak to me only off the record, but in the Atlantic she was quoted as saying, regarding her involvement with NYPL Labs, “PR and content are all tied together now.” With so much money going to construction, and with the library failing to maintain the budget for research-level acquisitions and expert staff, it’s hard to see where the money will come from for serious R&D projects in the future.

The other thing that stuck out in my conversations with former staff members was how skeptical they were of the administration’s reliance on statistics and consultants to justify their plans. Statistics have long been kept at the New York Public Library, but they were rarely given much attention, precisely because there’s no simple way to measure the creation of knowledge. A collection, moreover, has to be built with not just the present but the future in mind. In the last ten years, everyone told me, all of that has changed. What’s been behind this move to statistics and consultant-driven thinking? High finance has always been behind much of the library’s funding; the board of trustees includes such Wall Street stalwarts as Alan “Ace” Greenberg, former chairman of Bear Stearns, and John Gutfreund, former chairman of Salomon Brothers (and one of the antiheroes of Michael Lewis’s Liar’s Poker). But former librarians attributed the changes to the increasing presence of a new kind of board member—hedge fund managers, private equity kingpins (Stephen Schwarzman of the $100 million gift), and media tycoons like ex officio trustee Michael Bloomberg, whose mayoral administration has contributed mightily to the war chest that will make the renovation possible. Another is Joshua Steiner, the vice chairman of the board of trustees quoted earlier in this article, who was chief of staff in Bill Clinton’s Treasury Department before becoming an executive at Lazard, Quadrangle, and NBC Universal.

This new breed of trustee is more data-driven and results-oriented. Heike Kordish, who resigned as director of the main building in 2008, told of giving a presentation to the trustees about the incredible materials in the library’s collection. “And people were surprised. ‘Oh my god, that’s in this collection?’” she said. “But it’s not something that you see. It’s not thirty children being read to.” Or as Victoria Steele, director of collections strategy, put it to me, the New York Public Library now has “a business sense that informs our activities, so that we are thinking about the costs that we’re putting into something and whether we’re getting sufficient return on our investment. . . . It’s more informed by people who understand business and metrics.”

Many conversations returned to David Offensend, cofounder of Evercore Partners, a private equity firm with a market capitalization of a billion dollars. Offensend joined the library in 2004, in part because the trustees felt that the institution’s money was not being handled with due care; he now serves as chief operating officer. According to staffers, Offensend has been instrumental in the shift toward a “business and metrics” sort of thinking. He told the Princeton alumni website in 2009, “If an organization is receptive, the application of business world experiences can have a huge positive impact.” But what kind of business and what kind of metrics? It was under Offensend that Booz Allen was brought in; it was under Offensend, and in the wake of the Schwarzman gift, that the ambitious plan to fundamentally reconfigure the library took shape. Offensend described the plan to me this way: “We did not think that putting the central library in [the main building] was an investment per se in the branch libraries versus the research libraries. It was rather one plus one will equal significantly more than two.” We can see here the familiar arithmetic of corporate downsizing.

No one I spoke with questioned the need for the library to change, but practically everyone questioned the direction in which it was heading. One former staff member summed up the concerns of many librarians like this: “The problem is you’re applying methodologies and analytic tools that were maybe best suited to a Starbucks or a Wal-Mart. For your collection of Dickens, so what, you get four readers a year, is that relevant? You’re supposed to be a research library looking not two months ahead of time but two hundred years ahead of time.”

The public has been consulted only very minimally on the library’s decisions. There was no open architectural competition for the design of the renovation; there have been no public forums for a discussion of the plan in general. In recent months, as resistance to the plan mounted in scholarly circles, Anthony Marx, who inherited the plan from Paul LeClerc, began defending it in much the same manner in which it was conceived. Marx says that the plan will bring great savings—sometimes the number is $10 million a year, sometimes it’s $15 million (Offensend told me that “conservatively” the library is banking on $7 million)—but, most of all, that it will be “democratic.” In the words of the library’s website, the plan will return the main branch to “the original vision of the building as a democratized ‘People’s Palace.’” It is an attractive vision, and in a sense the increased number of people who will undoubtedly come to the more open, light-filled, renovated library would indeed make it more “democratic.”

But the New York Public Library has since its founding been democratic in a more than simply numeric sense. In 1911, the first request to be filled was for Moral Ideas of Our Time: Friedrich Nietzsche and Leo Tolstoy, a book in Russian. The patron who requested it was David Shub, a 23-year-old Russian-Jewish immigrant who lived at 1699 Washington Avenue in the Bronx. The 1910 census entry for Shub’s apartment building shows that almost all of his neighbors were recent immigrants, with occupations from dressmaker to printer to laborer to clerk. Did they, too, go to the library? It’s possible. Shub, who himself worked a series of manual jobs, was part of that great movement of autodidacticism that swept the Western world in the late 19th and early 20th century, and which was responsible for the flourishing of institutions like the British Museum and the New York Public Library. Back then, ideas like democracy, a living wage, and an eight-hour workday were still relatively new, and it seemed possible that the empowerment of the working class would lead to a new world of wide public research, in which every man and woman would be able to undertake a study of whatever interested them—just like the wealthy gentry of the past, who studied poetry, animal husbandry, or whatever else struck their fancy. This would be a productive use for one’s newly acquired leisure, otherwise known as the weekend and the late afternoon.

Shub, for his part, after more than forty years in the New York Public Library, where he met Trotsky and Bukharin, introduced many of his friends to the riches of the Slavic division, and wrote several small-circulation Yiddish texts, offered up the fruits of his research in the form of his one and only English-language book, Lenin: A Biography, which appeared in 1948.

A lot has changed in the hundred years since then, and especially perhaps in the last ten. A modern-day David Shub might spend his or her time editing Wikipedia, or watching a complete series of lectures about literary theory on YouTube. (This is in fact possible: Yale has recorded Paul Fry’s lectures and made them freely available. The first episode has 100,000 hits.) Given the possibilities for learning online, it can be hard to see why the public would support a marble mausoleum to the dying ideal of the independent scholar, or why philanthropists would donate to an institution that serves impoverished researchers rather than the illiterate. The typical user at the research library is “well educated but poor,” as Heike Kordish put it to me. That’s not a demographic that anyone, politician or philanthropist, is desperate to serve.

But that’s what the library was set up to do, and that is what it has done for the past hundred years—and while I certainly don’t begrudge the administration’s decision to devote resources to the users of its branch libraries, it is simply absurd to suggest that providing the best possible resources to anyone who walks through the door is somehow undemocratic because not every member of the public happens to make use of them. The people who do go to the library make the trek to Midtown precisely because they can’t get access to its resources elsewhere. Many of the heaviest users are students at City University and City College; it is frequently said that City University’s Graduate Center could not receive accreditation if its students didn’t have access to the New York Public Library since the rest of its holdings are so paltry. The main building is in effect the university library for every local student, teacher, and professor who isn’t at NYU or Columbia. That’s a strong claim to a democratic purpose.

This isn’t to say there shouldn’t be a large and attractive circulating branch at the center of Midtown. But the library administration has been very creative in its real estate dealings in the past. In the early 2000s, the administration worked with the architecture firm Gwathmey-Siegel on a plan that included a gut renovation on the Mid-Manhattan building and the addition of eight more floors on top. The estimated cost was $120 million, and the result would have been 117,000 square feet of additional space. The plans, canceled after the dot-com bubble burst, looked hideous, but they show what is possible. What the library could do now is tear down Mid-Manhattan; temporarily house the books at SIBL; build a brand-new building on the Mid-Manhattan lot, with the same amount of public space currently available at SIBL and Mid-Manhattan; then sell SIBL and move both the big circulating library and the science and business library into the new building.

With the sale of SIBL, valued at around $100 million, and the money from the city, the administration would have at least $250 million for such a project. The entire Rem Koolhaas–designed Seattle Public Library, by way of comparison, cost $156 million. It’s more expensive to build in Midtown, of course, but the 52-story Random House Tower, built in 2003, cost $180 million. With the money left over, the library could restore the research budget or build more new branch libraries like the $50 million Bronx Library Center, which actually brings in half as many visitors as Mid-Manhattan.

And if, two decades from now, the stacks at the main branch have begun to grow dusty, the copyright and licensing issues have been worked out with the help of Congress, and every book imaginable is only an iPad-fingertap away, then the administration can sell its attractive mini-skyscraper, dust off the Norman Foster plans, and go toe-to-toe with the preservationists and the last of the book lovers to build a glass box into the side of the beaux arts masterpiece in Bryant Park. In the (likely) event that physical books remain central to learning and scholarship, we’ll still have the stacks on hand; and in the (also likely) event that digital scholarship takes shape in a way no one today could expect, we won’t have spent $350 million on a structure designed for the “ebook age.”

That’s one way, in any case, of planning for the library’s future. I’m sure a public discussion with library administrators, staff, researchers, and citizens could yield many more. Instead, visitors to the library’s website are invited to “join the conversation” by submitting comments. The comments, however, do not appear on the website and there is no space for public discussion. The “conversation” goes one way. Similarly, when the administration, in response to growing criticism of the plan, convened a panel of scholars and writers to serve as an advisory board of sorts in the spring of 2012, it almost immediately vitiated whatever legitimacy the board could have by disinviting the respected essayist Caleb Crain, who had written about the advisory board, quite circumspectly, on his blog. This, unfortunately, is the way it was always meant to go. In a slideshow that presented the renovation plans to staff in 2008, there was a single box for how the administration would involve the public: “Communicate and market the strategy to key internal and external stakeholders.” Communicate and market—this is what “managed democracy” looks like.

Whenever I asked the administration about the direction they had chosen, I was told the plan was fundamentally democratic because it gave the people what they want—and what the people want could be determined through the endless surveys and focus groups conducted by the library’s consultants and its own internal strategy department.

When librarians expressed concerns about the renovation, they got the same response. This constituted a huge shift in the library’s decision-making process. Where before members of the library’s staff were involved in an open process at almost all levels, with an internal committee of librarians parallel to a faculty senate at a university, now a few librarians are interviewed by consultants, and senior management makes virtually all large-scale decisions on its own. An internal culture of collegial debate, protected by an understanding that senior librarians had a form of tenure which gave them security to express themselves candidly, has been replaced at the library by what my interviews suggest is a culture of secrecy and fear.

Of all the justifications for the renovation, none is more disingenuous and misleading than the claim that the library is simply trying to make the main building more “democratic.” This is a facility that has stood for over a century and provided unparalleled service to a public that no other institution gives a damn about. It is the most democratic research library in the world, far more welcoming to the average user than the Bibliothèque Nationale, the British Museum, or the Library of Congress, let alone the libraries at Harvard and Yale. The only American institution to offer a similar combination of excellence and public access is the University of California system, where anyone who wants to can attend a community college, and anyone who can handle it can attend a great research university.

If there really were no way to maintain a great research library and a great branch system, one could see why a democratic society might choose to give up on the research library and devote its resources to the branches. Similarly, one could see why California, faced with budget difficulties, might let Berkeley and UCLA decline in excellence, so the Cal system can continue to offer access to the wider public, and so funds could be freed up for community colleges. But that outcome would unquestionably be a lesser realization of an ideal democratic society, since fewer people would get the education they deserve. While the administration at the New York Public Library likes to pretend the renovation will not affect researchers, when pressed they insist the main building must be “democratized.” The result is a bad dialectic between the casual readers, who like to check out books, and the fussy, over-educated “elite” readers, who want obscure volumes. The administration thus recapitulates a familiar antagonism in contemporary American political life, one whose necessity the library, by offering the best possible resources to the widest possible public, has for the past century by its very existence refuted.

More than anything, this rhetoric reveals the fundamentally antidemocratic worldview that has taken hold at the library. It is of a piece with what the new Masters of the Universe have accomplished in the public schools, where hedge funders have provided the lion’s share of the backing for privatization, and in the so-called reforms to our financial system, where technocrats meet behind closed doors to decide what will be best for the rest of us. Oligarchs acting in the people’s name (with the people’s money) is not democratic; selling off New York’s cultural patrimony to out-of-town heiresses, closing down treasured divisions and branches, pushing out expert staff, and shipping books to a warehouse in the suburbs, all without consulting the public, is not democratic. If the reconstruction goes through, scholarly research will be more, not less, concentrated in the handful of inordinately wealthy and exclusive colleges and universities. The renovation is elitism garbed in populist rhetoric, ultimately condescending to the very people the library’s board thinks they’re serving. It suggests that no one other than an Ivy League professor or student could ever hope to engage in scholarship or original research. Leave the heavy lifting to the folks at Harvard and McKinsey (and the quants in our commodities division), the financiers are saying; for the rest of you, there will be lovely sun-filled spots to check your email.

  1. An analysis of the library’s finances reveals more ambiguities. In 2010, the research library spent $124 million. The money came from a mixture of state and private sources: $25 million from the City of New York (up from an average of $5 million in the 1970s); $9 million from New York State (down from an average of $14 million in the 1970s); $600,000 from the federal government (down from an average of $3 million in the 1970s); $27 million in grants and private donations (up from an average of $10 million in the 1970s); $32 million from investment returns on the library’s endowment (up from an average of $21 million in the 1970s); $9.6 million from fines, royalties, and assorted fees; and a final $18 million from the city and state capital funds for a one-time restoration of the main building’s facade. An additional $35 million came in donations directly to the endowment. (All of the historical figures cited [here and elsewhere] in this footnote have been adjusted for inflation to 2010 dollars.) While funding has been tight in recent years, the cuts made by the administration allowed the library to get through 2010 without a significant operating loss for the first time since 2000. By contrast, over the past ten years, the library had an average operating deficit of $9.5 million. Luckily the library has built up an endowment of $800 million, which has helped to picked up the shortfall. The $124 million annual budget is a significant increase from the institution’s 1970s spending, which came in at just under $60 million. Much of the rise, an increase of around $30 million in baseline costs, occurred in the 1990s and 2000s. This increase did not, however, by and large go to the research library’s collections. Between 1975 and 1992 the research library’s collections budget went from $9 million to $13 million. The collections budget then stagnated at around $14 million in the 1990s, and only increased to $15 million in the 2000s. In the past few years, the collections budget actually declined to $11 million, its lowest point since 1985. Administration officials insisted that the reduction in the collections budget has been made up through additions to unique materials in the library’s archives, but according to the statistics provided by the Association of Research Libraries (ARL) the amount of linear feet of archives being taken in at the New York Public Library is now a tenth of what it was in the 1990s. The additional funding also didn’t go to the research library’s traditional staff, whose numbers, according to the ARL, dropped from 703 in 1990 to 454 in 2010, and whose total salaries and benefits remained stagnant for much of this time at around $30 million. Nor did the funding pay for computers or access to the internet: over the past five years, the library spent an average of $1.2 million a year for computer hardware and software and $600,000 a year for telecommunications.

    Part of the increase has been due to a rise in pay for the library’s senior management, whose total budget went from $9.8 million to $14.1 million between 1991 and 2010. But again, even an increase of $4.3 million isn’t enough to account for the $30 million rise in the library’s baseline costs during this period.

    Much of the increase was due, of course, to renovations and new construction. Between 1990 and 2010, the research library spent at least $310 million on such projects, an average of over $15 million a year. After years of neglect, some of these projects were necessary. But as the buildings became more and more luxurious, and the library’s hours and collections budgets barely improved, the renovations appear to have been driven more by the need on the part of the administration to find new places to slap donors’ names. Former president Paul LeClerc liked to say the library is a “billboard for philanthropy.”

    Once construction was complete, the library’s baseline year-to-year costs also remained much higher than before. The reason for this is hard to pick out, but bringing together all of the publicly available data on the library’s budget shows that much of the increase in baseline costs has gone to pay the salaries and benefits of staff members whom the library, in the data it provides to the ARL, has not reported as part of its traditional staff. In 2010, these staff members received $28 million a year in salaries and benefits; the research library’s more traditional staff received only $26 million.

    What exactly do these people do? They’re not senior management, and they’re not fundraisers. I asked the PR department repeatedly for more information and never received a definitive answer. Some of these staff members work for the digital department; others could be traditional catalogers who, since the research cataloging department was recently merged with the circulating cataloging department, may perhaps not be reported to the ARL. Many of the former staff members with whom I spoke suggested that a notable portion of these funds may be going to the library’s internal strategy department. A single department couldn’t account for such a large increase, but when asked about the current budget for the strategy department a library spokesperson could not provide a figure. Considering the amount of money going to these and other staff members, this is a subject more journalists may want to investigate. 

  2. Even “Snippet View” is currently being challenged by the Authors Guild in court. If the Authors Guild wins, and Congress doesn’t act, Google not only won’t be able to do anything at all with as much as 90 percent of the 20 million books that it’s digitized—the company may even be forced to delete the scans altogether, as it might not have had any right to create them in the first place. 

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