In a heated debate, experts, scholars, and administrators discuss a plan that would radically reshape the New York Public Library

New York Public Library in 2005. (Dan Rosenblum)
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New York Public Library chief executive Anthony Marx last night found himself defending a plan for renovations that will significantly change the operations of the library's central branch in Midtown.

He made his remarks at a panel debate held at the New School in which critics of the plan, which is estimated to cost $300 million to $350 million, got a rare public hearing from the library administration.

The plan has been controversial in part because it involves moving half of the roughly 3 million volumes held at the library's flagship Schwarzman building (the one on Fifth Avenue with the lions) to a storage facility in Princeton that will be shared with Princeton and Columbia universities.

The space created by moving out the million-and-a-half volumes would be used to house a regular circulating library that would replace the library's Mid Manhattan branch, currently across the street from the Schwarzman building, and the Science, Industry and Business Library, also in Midtown.

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Some writers and researchers who use the Schwarzman building have said that the plan severely diminishes the library's position as a research institution.

David Nasaw, a writer and history professor at the CUNY Graduate Center, has been critical of the plan for that reason. He said one of the reasons CUNY’s Graduate Center center is located on Fifth Avenue was its proximity to the research halls of the Schwarzman library, "not because we very much want to be in Midtown."

Other people on the panel included Joan Wallach Scott, a writer who helped organize and deliver a petition signed by 750 academics and writers to Marx and city leaders, as well as architectural preservationist Mark Alan Hewitt, who argued that even removing the stacks would require an engineering feat that defied expectations of a smooth and sensitive preservation effort.

Mary Panzer, a photography historian in the audience, told Marx she was concerned with who picks which books stay and which go. Though the library will keep its unique items onsite, the situation reminded her of when stock image agency Corbis moved much of the Bettman Archives to cold storage in Pennsylvania, which she said was good for conservation, but bad for discovery.

"They only decided to digitize the most-used images and have been very slow to digitize more. And what happened was, we get Albert Einstein with his tongue stuck out and Marilyn Monroe with her dress coming up, and all of the very rare images, the irreplaceable images that don't get used ... are still unveiled or are still invisible."

Moving the books and renovating the interior wasn't just a matter of philosophy and preservation to the critics. The Library already stores books at the Princeton site, and typically tries to make such books available within 24 hours, but researchers fear moving more books so far off-site would mean that spontaneous calls for books as they research would have to wait a day or more before the books could arrive in Manhattan, as opposed to the current system, in which most books can be produced in minutes.

One solution mentioned by Robert Darnton, a cultural historian and one of the library's trustees, was a service where people in Princeton scan the books or requested chapters and provide them to those making the request. But Nasaw said that service hasn't been reliable so far and could only get worse.

"If for the past ten years, the library has not been able to provide reliable 24-hour service, why are we to believe that with additional books moved there it will be able to do this? Is the traffic on the New Jersey Turnpike going to decrease? Is congestion on the bridges and tunnels going to decrease?"

He said he didn't care if the books at research libraries could be anywhere, even, as he put it, the moon, as long as he could get them quickly.

"I want them in 24 minutes but I will accept 24 hours," he added.

One of the most vocal panelists was n+1 associate editor Charles Petersen, who wrote a lengthy piece criticizing the library's plans. He wondered whether the investment wouldn't be revealed to be short-sighted in a few years, when the technology needs of library users could be much clearer. The library has had a history of making expensive and ultimately faulty moves with respect to technology.

"I'm very grateful that the library's listening to us, but I think they should have done a lot more listening in the last five years," Petersen said. "We're saying that you should think about a different plan entirely."

Scott Sherman, who in December broke the story about the library's plans in The Nation, was in the audience and asked why the NYPL was planning such a move while branches across the city were falling apart. The city has proposed $100 million in cuts across the city’s three library systems.

Marx, head of the library since July, said that $150 million in city money was tied directly to the project as it was, and said for now it was incumbent to stick with the agreement from the mayor and city council.

"Is it conceivable that they could do something different? Yes,” Marx said. “But it's at least as conceivable that if we do not pursue the plan, that the $150 million disappears and we go back to the drawing board for a future administration that may be less able or less amenable to be supportive of that kind of investment."

Though many in the room wanted to preserve much of the landmark 42nd Street building, including Marx—who said almost all the areas of the library that are open to the public would stay the same—the Mid-Manhattan Library, across the street, didn't meet the same criteria.

"It's in terrible shape and it is mechanically failing," Marx said. "Indeed, as coincidence would have it, scaffolding went up this morning to keep pieces of it from falling on people."

Darnton, who also wrote an article defending the plan, admitted expansions and attempts to predict the future of library technology in the 1970s and '80s were misguided. Specifically, money spent on the Mid-Manhattan branch is thought now, retrospectively, to have been largely wasted.

"We are not trying to predict the future now and asserting that everything will be digital," he said. "We are trying to meet our commitments in the present where the printed book and digital source coexist and to make sure that we can handle to demands of readers into the future. So, I agree that that expansion in retrospect was a mistake. We cannot maintain three large libraries in mid-Manhattan and this extremely valuable real estate."

Darnton added that consolidating the three libraries into the Schwarzman building would save the library system $12 to $15 million annually.

Marx told the audience they expected to have the first plans for the redesign from British architect Norman Foster in September and would take the issue before community boards, the media, and the public in more events of this type in coming months.

The panel opened with an acknowledgement that nearly everyone on the sitting at the table had fond memories of spending time using the research tools in the Beaux-Arts landmark: Darnton said he'd written his first scholarly article in 1964 in the reading room, and Scott said the library was a source of "enormous richness" while growing up. Possibly because of that, the discussion ended amiably. Even after some tense debate, at the end of the night the panelists hung back to chat and shake hands.

On her way out, Scott told Marx he'd done well on stage, then urged the library to hold more meetings as he'd promised that night.

"Or we will," she said, pleasantly.