Monolithic public libraries can be traced back as early as 120 A.D. when the Romans constructed the Library of Celsus in what now is Turkey and once was part of the Roman Empire.
The desire to create a vault to reflect our civilization, it seems, is one of our earliest inclinations. Politics goes back further. Both collide in a journalistic accounting by The Nation reporter Scott Sherman of an attempt to “modernize” the New York Public Library in the book “Patience and Fortitude.”
The battle detailed in the recently released book begins in the summer of 2007 when oligarchs of wealth and business who sit on the nonprofit board of NYPL quietly announce a plan to rehabilitate the beaux arts–styled 42nd Street branch of the NYPL by selling two other library properties and deconstructing the book stacks found below the surface of the building.
The proud history of the 42nd Street branch owes its legacy to the millions of manuscripts and books available within its bowels – literally – and available to anyone from pauper to professor. Architects, scholars, writers, civil rights leaders, immigrants, and even politicians including Daniel Patrick Moynihan, who polished shoes as a youngster in the vicinity at Times Square, share the bond of depending on the 42nd Street branch. In the book, Moynihan recalls disappearing into the 42nd Street NYPL for hours to sit at the tables of education and learning with access equal to the greatest minds of his time.
For the library leaders who advocated for removing books to New Jersey to make room for lounging and coffee shops more in keeping with today’s reading sensibilities, the Central Library Plan, as it was called, was an effort to move the branch library system into the digital age while at the same time achieving the highest levels of efficiency and performance. For the thousands who railed against the plan, it was a thinly veiled effort to seize the digital age as an excuse to accomplish underhanded real estate deals and betray the library’s basic mission to preserve and share the research and books of our past and present.
Sherman’s writing is clear and concise. His recounting of this public campaign to save the 42nd Street Library weaves fact and commentary from the dozens of passionate and literary opinion leaders who staked a position in national journals and newspapers.
Ultimately, the campaign to prevent the Central Library Plan was, ironically, stoked by the very digital medium it was meant to address – the Internet. The book’s tale reflects the classic debates we see played out in local public policy. Should public services primarily serve the public good or should they operate as a business emulating the corporate leaders of our day – such as FedEx, Starbucks or Wal-Mart. Unfortunately, because the Central Library Plan encountered opposition from “intelligentsia” and understandably put NYPL board members and supporters on the defensive, the author’s access to opposing viewpoints from library board members as well as city leaders was limited.
As a result, the age-old question of “does might make right” doesn’t get a full airing, but it does reflect the challenges that can arise when holders of the public trust and managers of its resources neglect to transparently share their goals.
“Patience and Fortitude,” named for the two statuesque lions guarding the 42nd Street Library door, is a quick and interesting read. It engages the reader both by sharing the philosophies of scholars and writers who use libraries as well as the details of a renovation plan snuffed out by the citizens who love them.
Favorite book: Farewell to Arms by Ernest Hemingway
Lauren Brookey, APR and PRSA Fellow, is vice president of external affairs for Tulsa Community College.