The Good Fightby Hilary Reid
Patience and Fortitude: Power, Real
Estate, and the Fight to Save the Public Library
(Melville House, 2015)
There are few façades in New York City as iconic as the main branch of the New York Public Library (NYPL) on Fifth Avenue at 42nd Street. 104 years old this year, what is now known as the Stephen A. Schwarzman Building operates in much the same way as it has since 1911—admission is free and any cardholder can access the research collection housed in the stacks under the Rose Reading Room. However, in 2007 a plan emerged that proposed fundamentally changing the way this classic New York institution operates, leaning more in the interest of the private real estate market than the public who uses the library most. In Patience and Fortitude: Power, Real Estate, and the Fight to Save a Public Library, journalist Scott Sherman recounts the rise and decline of the Central Library Plan (CLP), which library trustees had approved without public input. The CLP would have demolished the 42nd street library’s stacks—the metal shelf system that literally supports the Rose Reading Room—and moved the three-million-book research collection to a storage facility in New Jersey. The undertaking would have also consolidated three midtown libraries into one massive circulating library in the 42nd Street building, which would undergo a $300-million renovation by the British architect Norman Foster. Postponed during the 2008 recession, the CLP was quietly revived in the spring of 2011, around the time Sherman accepted an assignment from The Nation to profile Anthony Marx, the new head of the NYPL. Sherman learned of the plan and broke the news to the public in his cover story for The Nation, “Upheaval at the New York Public Library,” setting off a fierce two-and-a-half-year debate (and spawning more than forty articles in The New York Times) about the library’s future. Patience and Fortitude, Sherman’s debut book, is a detailed and impassioned account of this clash, and a cautionary tale of what can happen when public-spirited institutions are funded by mostly private revenue.
Like a live version of Jean Merrill’s The Pushcart War, the story of the rise and fall of the CLP is one of a clash between the “little guys”—the scholars, researchers, historical preservationists, and architects who were critics of the plan—and the “big guys,” the NYPL trustees who wanted to usher the library into the “digital age” using funds gained after selling off library properties. Sherman is on the side of the CLP critics, and his book is part love letter to the library and part activist document. Told in a smart and conversational style, the book’s greatest strength is showing the ways in which personality and a “practical sentimentality” figure into a political battle. “Practical sentimentality”—the point where emotion and reason catalyze activism—was a term used by The New York Times architecture critic Ada Louise Huxtable in 1964 to describe the citizen advocacy that saved the Jefferson Market Courthouse from demolition (it became an NYPL branch instead). It is a term as powerful now as it was then. Libraries do stir a certain kind of sentimentality—they are familiar places for their sights and smells; perhaps we remember them from our childhoods, or as the place where a favorite book was discovered—but they are also inarguably useful resources. Here, the plan was not to demolish the library altogether, but to fundamentally change its purpose.
Sherman begins Patience and Fortitude with a kind of “greatest hits” history of the New York Public Library. If this sounds diminishing, it’s not. The facts Sherman includes in his chapter, “‘A Great Work’: Why the Public Library Matters,” are fascinating. For instance, readers learn that in the 1920s and ’30s the library kept its most provocative materials—books about sex and pamphlets about atheism—in a wire-grated cage. In 1910 alone, the NYPL’s Traveling Library Office delivered a million books to factories, fire stations, mental hospitals, and sailors’ reading rooms. Where else can you read secret materials from the Society of American Magicians and look at playbills from the 1700s all in one place? Most of all, this historic background reminds the reader what’s at stake in the proposed NYPL overhaul. Sherman quotes a 1956 essay by the New York Times columnist Meyer Berger, who wrote that the 42nd Street library was a “romantic and mysterious place beyond musty routine.” Sherman elaborates, “For me, a freelance journalist for years, the romance and mystery are most palpable at 10 a.m., when the building opens its doors. At that hour, sunbeams stream through the tall windows of the Rose Reading Room, glazing the long wooden tables. Chairs lightly scrape the floor; librarians murmur to one another; serenity prevails.” Sherman is earnest in his affection for the library, and while those in favor of the CLP might accuse Sherman of gushing, his quote describes something sought after by most in our bustling city: tranquility.
Of course, New York is a dynamic and ever-changing place, and anyone who has lived there knows how quickly the fabric of the city changes in a year, let alone 104 years. But the New York Public Library is not another closed diner, video store, Times Square peep show, or Gray’s Papaya location—it is a place for people to do hands-on research with rare, non-circulating materials. This is the argument of the CLP’s critics, who believe in the fundamental mission of the NYPL to “inspire lifelong learning, advance knowledge, and strengthen our communities” through access to the research collection on site. Critics of the plan would rather support the whole library system, including the branches, than place all of their eggs in the Stephen A. Schwarzman building basket. Meanwhile, those CLP advocates might also say they support the library’s mission, but contend that the library needs to be “democratized” by demolishing the stacks and converting the space into areas useful to visitors other than “those doing serious research.” In Sherman’s eyes, this kind of “democracy” is less about equal access to rarified knowledge, and more about creating a sleek, techno-utopic crown jewel location. When Sherman asked Marx why he thought it was necessary to do a $300-million renovation to the main branch, rather than using those millions to help the eighty-seven other library branches throughout the city, Marx replied, “I won’t sacrifice what those branches can do for the opulence of 42nd Street.” While Marx’s comment sounds reassuring, the CLP’s budgetary priorities told a different story. In many ways it is an irreconcilable difference of opinion—the idea that the library should enter the future sans stacks and with a focus on technology, versus the idea that the library should continue operating as it has for over a hundred years.
Sherman’s telling of the Central Library Plan saga ends the way good novels end: without a neat conclusion. Ultimately, the CLP is not being executed in the way many feared it would—the stacks still stand under the Rose Reading Room. In March of this year, the NYPL announced plans to expand storage space for its research collection under Bryant Park. The announcement ends with an emphasis on public involvement in the Midtown Campus renovation plans—perhaps an implicit acknowledgment of what went wrong with the CLP, and a promise to do better this time. And yet, the CLP left its mark. The research collection was moved off-site to Princeton, New Jersey, and the stacks now sit empty; many fear that the books were damaged in the removal process. And the library is still precariously underfunded. Just recently, the NYPL circulated a fundraising email signed by the author Junot Díaz. He writes, “I discovered who I was and what I wanted to be in a public library. When I was so poor that I couldn’t have bought a soda, my public library gave me the world—and it did so for free. Libraries are one of the greatest American institutions; they are not only treasure houses of knowledge, they are also fiercely democratic spaces.” Díaz’s statement echoes the perspective shared by Sherman and the activists who saved the library from the CLP. Patience and Fortitude is an appeal for a more “public-spirited” attitude toward plans for the library’s future, and a cry to keep its space “fiercely democratic.” This greatest of American institutions is, after all, ours.
HILARY REID writes fiction, reviews, and criticism. Reid works for the publishing imprint of the New York Review of Books and lives in Brooklyn.