Here’s proof that the public cares about public libraries: thanks to passionate public protests and political pressure, the New York Public Library, the country’s second-largest library system, announced it is abandoning plans to renovate its flagship Fifth Ave. location.
For two years, the much-disputed $300 million revamp drew opposition across the board, from employees, patrons, architectural preservationists, and even notable authors and politicians, including Salman Rushdie, Francine Prose, Junot Diaz, and New York mayor Bill de Blasio. It was also the target of four lawsuits accusing the library of “endangering its purpose as a research institution” and “damaging the architectural integrity” of the flagship Fifth Ave. beaux arts landmark.
According to the AP, the plan would have involved closing and selling two midtown branch libraries and consolidating them into the main research library. The central library, largely a research institution, would be converted into a lending library by blasting open an area under the upper reading room and sending some 1.5 million books to a storage facility in New Jersey, a sore point for many scholars and researchers.
"I was not happy with so many of the books being off site, and I think many people weren't," said Antony Grafton, a Princeton University historian who consulted with the library on the project, told the AP.
The New York Times called the move “something of a defeat for the library,” which had “heralded the renovation as part of a significant effort to rethink the flagship building in preparation for a digital future in which public access to computers would be as important as books.” The paper noted that the NYPL had already paid architect Norman Foster $9 million for renovation plans.
Why the sudden about-face?
For one, NYPL officials received information that the renovation costs would be significantly more than the $300 million allotted.
Politics also played a part, with Mayor de Blasio, who is set to release his budget for the city soon, opposing the renovation (as a candidate).
But perhaps most notably, it appears high-profile protests were heard.
Prominent scholars said the renovation plans would diminish the library’s standing as a “center for scholarship” and said moving books to New Jersey would make them inaccessible for scholarly research.
Even celebrated authors like Diaz and Rushdie publicly protested the plan.
The NYPL today announced it has listened to critics and changing course. It is still expected to receive $150 million from the city budget, which would have gone to the renovation, but those funds will now be used for other purposes.
"I think it's really remarkable to see an institution of this size change course, as it's doing," the Princeton historian Grafton told the AP.
What we find remarkable and inspiring about this story: at a time when bookstores and libraries appear to be under threat, it’s proof positive that folks are invested – passionately, enthusiastically, fervently – in public libraries.
Husna Haq is a Monitor correspondent.