A new chapter for public libraries has watchdog growling

One of the lions, the symbols of the New York Public Library, outside the Stephen Schwarzman Building a.k.a. the Main Branch, at 42nd St. and Fifth Ave. Photo by Bob Krasner

BY GABE HERMAN | Is the New York Public Library “checking out” of its core responsibilities? Or do its current plans “check out”?

As the N.Y.P.L. remains in the midst of overhauling its Midtown services, including the selling of one branch and the redesign of others, some library activists remain upset and charge N.Y.P.L. with shrinking its spaces and services and looking to continue selling branches.

The N.Y.P.L. strongly denies this, and argues it is making its system more efficient and modern, and that any branches sold are isolated incidents that are not part of a larger trend. The library also says it is expanding public space in many branches, including in Midtown.

Citizens Defending Libraries is an advocacy group founded in 2013 over concerns that New York City libraries are being underfunded, while some are being sold, and physical spaces are being decreased. The group recently started a petition calling on Mayor Bill de Blasio and other officials to address such issues, and has garnered more than 11,000 signatures so far.

“This is not what the public wants,” said Michael D.D. White, co-founder of the organization, in a recent interview. “When we’re out collecting signatures, people are always upset about this.”

The Science, Industry and Business Library on E. 34th St. was sold a few years ago and is being transformed into a pop-culture museum. Photo by Bob Krasner

N.Y.P.L.’s hotly debated Central Library Plan encapsulated many of these concerns and drew criticism from scholars, the media and the public. That plan, first introduced in 2007 and revived in 2012, would have sold both the Mid-Manhattan library, at 455 Fifth Ave. at E. 40 St., and the Science, Industry and Business Library at 188 Madison Ave., at E. 34th St., and altered the Public Library’s main branch, the Stephen A. Schwarzman Building, at Fifth Ave. and W. 41st St., a research library, so that it would also be a circulating library. The sweeping plan also called for books to be moved to New Jersey, which protesters felt would cause delays in access.

There were three lawsuits filed against the plan, two of which included Citizens Defending Libraries. The library dropped the plan in 2014, with its trustees citing higher renovation costs than expected, general public opinion and a new city government, since Mayor de Blasio was skeptical of the plan, according to The New York Times.

Iris Weinshall, the Public Library’s C.O.O., in a recent exclusive interview, said, when the library looked further into removing central stacks at the Schwarzman Building, the cost raised a red flag.

“That engineering challenge turned out to be extremely costly,” Weinshall said, “one that I think, in retrospect, the library decided was not the right road to go down.

“It was a rather ambitious plan,” she said, reflecting on the Central Library Plan. “Very often with large projects, as you move forward, issues and challenges pop up.”

The Mid-Manhattan Library is currently closed and undergoing a major renovation. Photo by Bob Krasner

Although that scheme was scrapped, Citizens Defending Libraries is also unsatisfied with the new plan, announced in November 2017. The new plan would cost $317 million and retain the Mid-Manhattan branch and renovate it, along with renovating and redesigning the Schwarzman Building.

“There’s a lot of aspects of that plan that are ominously still alive,” said White, of C.D.L.

In fact, the Science, Industry and Business Library ultimately was sold in 2016. White noted it was touted as a state-of-the-art library when the renovation of the building — formerly B. Altman’s flagship department store — was completed in 1996. The building is now reportedly set to become a pop culture museum.

“So that’s getting rid of the science library,” White said, “with the idea that people would just get their science from the Internet.”

The N.Y.P.L. said that the S.I.B.L. will remain open until the completion of the Midtown renovations, after which its research collection will be moved to the Schwarzman Building and its general materials to the Mid-Manhattan Library. An N.Y.P.L. spokesperson said that, according to data from 2016, in the previous 10 years, the S.I.B.L.’s print usage was down more than 68 percent and more than 72 percent of its collections budget supported online work. Business research remained popular, with program sessions up more than 100 percent. But increased online usage indicated researchers’ preferences, and is also how many publishers make materials available now, according to the N.Y.P.L.

“We noticed over the years that people coming in to use the S.I.B.L. library were primarily using our computers to access the business information,” noted C.O.O. Weinshall.

She said the renovated Mid-Manhattan building will boast an entire new floor — totaling 25,000 square feet — dedicated for business library needs, including computers and training rooms.

White, meanwhile, blasted the plans as “a consolidated shrinkage plan.” But the N.Y.P.L. argues the changes represent efficient use of the libraries’ space to meet library users’ needs.

Leading library advocate Michael D.D. White, in general, neither approves of nor trusts the city’s plans for the public library system, including its signature Midtown Manhattan branches. Photo by Jonathan Barkey

Weinshall said the renovated Mid-Manhattan Library will include a children’s library and a space for teens, and would be the system’s largest circulating library.

White, of C.D.L., specifically criticized the Schwarzman plans as “commercializing the library.” He said a focus is being put on the gift shop and adding a wine bar, while fewer books are now available there, citing off-site storage in New Jersey.

The N.Y.P.L. strongly denies all these charges. Library officials and members of the system’s design team pointed out that the current cafe and gift shop on the first floor will be moved to a different area. As a result, there will be some more space for the cafe, but both will be in less-awkward spaces than their current locations in nooks near the library’s main entrance.

A library spokesperson said there were never plans for a wine bar or any alcohol to be served at Schwarzman, and that the shop and cafe are consistent with offerings at other cultural attractions in the city.

Weinshall noted there will be 20 percent more public space at Schwarzman, plus a new art education center, more research space on the second floor, and new elevators and an upgraded HVAC system and bathrooms, plus an improved layout for better separation of space for use by tourists versus researchers.

The N.Y.P.L. denied any books are missing from Schwarzman, countering that many were moved to a second sublevel beneath Bryant Park, for climate control and a more efficient organizational system.

As for using New Jersey as an off-site space, library officials said the N.Y.P.L. collection is always growing and needs that space, but that these materials are still quickly available for those requesting them. The N.Y.P.L. frequently monitors which materials are most requested, and keeps the least-popular items in the New Jersey space, a spokesperson explained.

But White sees a trend of selling off branches.

“We think they’re picking off libraries one by one,” he said, referring to the S.I.B.L., the Donnell branch in Midtown in 2008 and another strongly opposed plan in Inwood, plus others in Brooklyn, which is under a separate system from the N.Y.P.L.

“The public still prefers physical books,” he said, “the use of the libraries is up, and we’re selling them off and changing the nature of the libraries.”

N.Y.P.L. officials said that Donnell and the S.I.B.L. were special cases, and emphatically denied any pattern of selling off more branches.

“Just to the contrary,” countered Weinshall, pointing to many branches that are increasing physical space, including the McCombs Bridge Library in Harlem, which will enlarge from 500 to 3,700 square feet in a new building; the Van Cortland branch, which will add 2,200 square feet, also in a new building; and five renovated historic Carnegie branches that will enjoy increased space, with two of these in Manhattan.

The Inwood branch has been part of a hotly opposed plan involving a developer and a 14-story residential building, and bigger issues of neighborhood rezoning. But Weinshall said the Inwood plan would add affordable housing in the building, and while the library would remain at 20,000 square feet, there would be more usable space. One hundred percent of the residential building’s units is slated for permanently affordable housing, and the first two floors would be for the new library, according to Curbed.

Weinshall said the overall system is hardly contracting — just the opposite.

“We are not only enhancing our facilities, but they’re growing,” she said.

As for ongoing renovations in Midtown, Weinshall said work is on schedule: The Mid-Manhattan branch is expected to reopen in 2020, and Schwarzman’s next set of renovations will finish in 2021.

Regarding the evolution of the renovation plans, Weinshall said it can often happen for big-city institutions. She cited Lincoln Center’s 2017 decision to revise plans for its David Geffen Hall.

“So it’s not uncommon for cultural institutions,” she said.

Corrections: The original version of this article said that 25 percent of the residential building above the Inwood public library branch would be affordable. However, all of the building’s units would be affordable, under the plan. Also, that library branch’s size would not increase by 5,000 square feet, as stated in the original version of this article, but rather the space would remain at 20,000 square feet but with more usable space. Finally, the Inwood library branch would be on two floors, not three.

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