April 4, 2012

Opponents of radical NYPL renovation coalesce


A controversial $350 million transformation of the New York Public Library’s research library at 42nd (see the earlier MobyLives report) has a new opponent: In an Inside Higher Ed column, Scott McLemee flatly says that the project “needs to be stopped,” going on to explain that “The belief that every pre-existing cultural and intellectual expression must be digitized or else downgraded is destructive. The time has come to challenge it clearly.”

One part of the NYPL’s “Central Library Plan,” the transformation of the 42nd research library calls for more than 3 million books to be removed from the library’s historic stacks, with perhaps a million volumes being moved to off-site storage in New Jersey. The vacated space would be transformed, in the words of The Nation’s Scott Sherman, into “a giant internet cafe.” The full plan, which also calls for selling off two NYPL facilities, is detailed in Sherman’s must-read December investigation and in a March radio interview.

To voice opposition, McLemee recommends this Facebook page, which is gathering a group of like-minded scholars to “Defend the New York Public Library on 42nd Street.” Another avenue is through the NYPL itself, which has belatedly invited public comment on the project.

Without public protest, the plan will surely go forward unmodified. As the New York Times reported in February, the NYPL board has already approved hiring British architect Norman Foster to design the 42nd Street transformation. And the larger Central Library Plan keeps getting worse: not only are the most controversial parts of the proposal unmodified, but plans for two new circulating libraries — one on the Upper West Side and one in Staten Island — have been abandoned.

“I am by no means hostile to e-reading, which certainly has its place,” McLemee writes.

But that place is wherever you happen to be doing it, at the time. The reading possible at the 42nd Street library is far more location-specific. It is a distinct kind of public-intellectual space… [But] obviously this is not just a New York problem. A campaign to oppose this tendency is well overdue, and we might as well start now.


Kelly Burdick is the executive editor of Melville House.