February 19, 2014
Citizens Defending Libraries calls the Central Library Plan “a real estate grab” and “contrary to the public interest”
by Claire Kelley
Citizens Defending Libraries, which was co-founded by Michael D. D. White and Carolyn McIntyre, has been organizing protests and actions against the Central Library Plan. They have told us that they are continuing to solicit “petition signatures to ensure the de Blasio administration scraps all of the Bloomberg library sell-off plans.”
Another library group, Urbans Librarians Unite previously answered some questions on this blog regarding their stance on the Central Library Plan. In this follow up post, Michael D. D. White responded to the same questions, explaining Citizens Defending Libraries’ position.
What is Citizens Defending Libraries’ position regarding the Central Library Plan?
We see the Central Library Plan as a real estate grab that doesn’t make any sense and is contrary to the public interest. Yes, it will likely benefit individuals in the real estate community, but that is not a reason to do it. The plan is as indefensible as the Donnell Library sell-off was, and worse. Think about what is proposed: Using $150 million of taxpayer money and redirecting, altogether, perhaps close to a half billion of library funds in order to sell off irreplaceable libraries (Mid-Manhattan and SIBL), substantially shrink library space, get rid of books, destroy the research stacks and exile the research collection to New Jersey where it will lie beyond practical use. Really? The plan takes more than 380,000 square feet of library space and reduces it to 80,000 square feet. The 42nd Street Library is designed to hold at least 6.2 million books (that’s why we shut down Bryant Park for more than four years to expand it) and now the NYPL is proposing that all the flagship, destination libraries of Manhattan together, that once held about 13 million books will hold maybe only 3.5 million or so?
How did your group come together and what is your mission?
Citizens Defending Libraries is just now arriving at our first anniversary, just blowing out the single candle on our birthday cake. We formed in response to breaking headlines at the very beginning of last year about how libraries were being sold off at the end of the Bloomberg administration in deals that would benefit real estate developers, not the public. We were also alarmed that part of what was going on was that, particularly since Bloomberg had achieved his third term, the Bloomberg administration had been deliberately, dramatically and unconscionably underfunding the libraries at a time of greatly increasing use. Those wanting to sell libraries were then citing that underfunding as a rationale to propose a self-cannibalizing shrinkage of the system.
Our mission is to protect and grow a robust and healthy library system, seeing that it is properly funded.
Do you have any differences in opinion from other library advocacy groups like Save the NYPL or Urban Librarians Unite? Where do you agree or disagree?
We are 100% aligned with the Committee to save the New York Public Library and its reasons for opposing the Central Library Plan. (BTW: Because the CLP is so very unpopular with the public the NYPL has tried changing the name of the plan. For it to Google up in all its possible manifestations you might want to note that they have also recently called it “The 42nd Street Library Renovation” and a renovation of the “central branch library.”)
We formed more recently than CSNYPL. Our focus is broader. CSNYPL focuses mainly on the three libraries involved in the CLP shrinkage while we are looking at how the libraries in all three library systems are affected by the Bloomberg schemes, by the underfunding, proposed sales, elimination of books and librarians. For instance, what is the NYPL thinking as it changes the real estate “footprint” of libraries in Harlem?
We grew very fast (we have over 16,000 petition signers, most of them online), but we are the new kid on the block; only Library Lovers League was formed more recently. CSNYPL doesn’t support particular candidates in elections because of its tax exemption. In order to maintain our freedom to be as politically assertive as we think we need to be, we have not pursued tax exemption.
As for Urban Librarians Unite and at least one of the Friends groups: They educated us about our differences. ULU fiercely rejected any possibility of coordinated action with us to campaign for more funding, specifically because we oppose library sales, criticizing the Donnell sale, while they have come out to support them. At least one important Friends group leader says their group can’t take any position of opposition to any sale or library shrinkage that library administration officials want. Some past Friends groups’ leaders are apparently of a different mind on this. Perspective may also be a question of timing: ULU was formed around the time when library sell-off plans were being formulated, but were still mostly secret. We started up in reaction to those sales finally starting to come fully to light.
Our group is rich with energetic volunteers. Financially, we operate on a shoestring, probably with less financial resources. Mostly our volunteers self-fund their own passionate contributions; We don’t seek or take money from any corporations or sources that could create conflicts of interest.
What do you think the best solution to address the issue of the budget shortfall for libraries?
There shouldn’t be a budget shortfall for libraries. There wouldn’t be if libraries received the funding that the public wants them to get. There wouldn’t be underfunding if the priorities of the Community Boards were respected, if the recommendations of the Independent Budget Office were observed. Libraries are valuable to the economy in many, many ways. In the scheme of things they cost little, a minuscule fraction of the city’s budget, and they more than pay for themselves. Did you know that libraries even reduce crime? We are in favor of baseline funding and were staunch opponents of the Bloomberg “budget dance” just decried by Mayor de Blasio in his first budget address.
If the libraries were funded the way the public wants, the challenge preoccupying library administrators would be finding real estate to buy up for expansion, the kind of expansion that was going on as recently as 2002 (the last expansion at 42nd Street) with more expansions being proposed even more recently than that. The pivot from expansion to contraction came about 2006 or 2007. The 2007 Donnell sell-off (for a pittance) seemingly whetted somebody’s appetite. In 2007, unbeknownst to the general public the Bloomberg administration was looking at and blessing multiple sales in both Brooklyn and Manhattan.
What might an alternative to the Central Library Plan look like?
An alternative to the plan would look like expanding Mid-Manhattan and keeping SIBL (The Science, Industry and Business Library). One thing we have to figure out is how to make up for the loss of Donnell. That might mean throwing out the current Donnell plan (the space is being designed to look like a fashion boutique and could easily be sold off as such) in order to build a bigger library in that neighborhood, or we could try to make up for the loss through more expansion at Mid-Manhattan. There were plans to substantially expand Mid-Manhattan under Giuliani, the last mayor before Bloomberg. They would provide a good starting point for Mayor de Blasio to build on. There is good reason to think in even more expansive terms than that Republican mayor did then because when the Giuliani administration plans were being proposed, Donnell still existed as a significant additional resource.
Are you concerned that libraries are moving towards privatization and that there is a move to replace physical books with digital resources?
We are very concerned about notions proposed that libraries should have to pay their own way or start bowing to corporate or other private interests. Libraries are an essential public commons, and should continue as such.
The issue of ownership is a good segue into the second part of your question. There is much evolving right now with respect to digital rights that hasn’t been resolved: Copyrights are being extended and made stricter; so-called “orphan works” are in serious jeopardy; content providers are consolidating into monopolies that raise prices while much of what is available digitally is made available through time-limited subscriptions that have a potential ephemerality that never applied to books on the shelves. Technology busily shifts too: The New York Times had a sentence in a tech section article recently, “If you own a Nook, the fate of your books may now be up in the air.”
We favor, and we are not against, adding digital resources, but right now we think that the benefits of digitization, partly fad, and partly, to an extent, legitimate future, are being seized upon and exaggerated to excuse a rush to get rid of physical books because books take up real estate and the focus of too many people running the libraries is selling real estate. The public, all of its generations, like physical books. For the most part the public hasn’t switched away from physical books. Scientific American just did an interesting review of the science literature indicating that the human brain may be hard-wired to learn and retain information better with physical books. Many books aren’t available digitally. Making them available would be a massive undertaking at which it is easy to fail. Nicholson Baker’s “Doublefold” and his tales of the unutterable destruction that occurred at San Francisco’s library provide serious cautionary tales. It doesn’t serve to banish books in a precipitous experiment undertaken by people with questionable motives who lack library credentials. Working for a hedge fund doesn’t qualify you to curate mankind’s store of knowledge.
NYPL President Tony Marx reads a physical copy of the New York Times, so do I, and that‘s the way I read many books. Physical media shouldn’t be the exclusive preserve of a lucky privileged few.
Do you think the Central Library Plan will go through now that Bill De Blasio has been elected mayor?
Mayor de Blasio said during his campaign that he thought Central Library Plan was a bad plan and called for its halt along with the other Bloomberg library sell-offs that were in the works like the Brooklyn Heights and Pacific Branch libraries. He did this standing with us on the steps of the 42nd Street Central Reference Library. I think that the CLP is such a very bad idea that de Blasio will continue to dislike it. It is an unimprovable plan because, at its core, it was conceived for the wrong reasons. In much the same way, the plan to sell the Brooklyn Heights Library, with real estate at its roots (and largely replicating the Donnell sale), has been revealed to be even worse for the public than was known when de Blasio spoke opposing it in July.
Good libraries represent democracy and opportunity in a way that’s integrally related to de Blasio’s call to eliminate inequality in our society. The real estate industry has a lot of influence in this town, but so long as Mayor de Blasio remains true to his principles neither the CLP nor Bloomberg’s other library sales should go through.
Claire Kelley is the Director of Library and Academic Marketing at Melville House.