Big changes—to the tune of $250 to $350 million—could soon be coming to the New York Public Library's historic main branch, whether you want them or not. In a long and interesting piece in The Nation Scott Sherman looks at the NYPL's mysterious Central Library Plan (CLP) and the many changes it will bring to the city's beloved library in the next few years. Like tearing out the stacks in the system's Carrère and Hastings-designed Beaux-Arts crown jewel and replacing it with "a state-of-the-art, computer-oriented library" designed by Norman Foster.
Such a change would have at least one upside (you'd be able to take books out of the main branch for the first time in decades) but also huge downsides for those who love the gorgeous temple to reading. Most significantly for researchers, many of the 3 million books currently in the building's stacks won't be moved to further stacks under Bryant Park and will instead be sent to a storage facility in Princeton. And considering how that is working out with the books stored out there already (it can take days to get a book, and many "seem to be missing"), this could get ugly:
One staff member told me about the recent experience of a researcher who came to the Schwarzman Building for scholarly reference books. The books, it turned out, were in the Princeton storage facility. "She didn’t want to go to the trouble to call the whole set from off-site, and to renew it every week, and this and that," the staffer explained. Columbia’s library had those books on the shelf, so she went there. "I think her experience counts for exactly zero with the current library administration," the staff member told me. "That’s not the kind of reader they want—this woman probably doesn’t even know how to tweet."
And, yup: "The stacks are important to have, but it’s more important to use the space properly for the future," Robert Darnton, director of the Harvard University Library and a longtime NYPL trustee, says. Further, "Darnton contests the notion that removing 3 million books from Forty-second Street constitutes a retreat from the NYPL’s research mission. 'Books can be rearranged in lots of ways,' he says. 'What you need to do is to assure accessibility' to the books 'and to increase the growth of your collections.'"
The NYPL hopes to pay for the new renovation with $150 million from the city along with "another $100-$200 million" by selling off two libraries in its system. The main question raised by The Nation, however, is why it makes financial sense to gut a singular piece of architecture when the library system has 87 branches that could really use a hand. ("The whole building is a single architectural masterpiece," one library worker said. "The CLP would basically destroy half the library.") When asked about it NYPL president Anthony Marx simply said, "I won’t sacrifice what those branches can do for the opulence of Forty-second Street." And yet...