Thursday, February 16, 2012

The New York Times: The New York Public Library, February 16, 2012

The New York Public Library is about to be pillaged by the Barbarians at the Gate
even the lions, majestic embodiments of Patience and Fortitude cannot protect
Knowledge from Depredation

The New York Public Library located at 42nd street, Fifth Avenue , Manhattan, you know, the Beaux-Art building with the lions Patience and Fortitude (1911) guarding the gates, has become a target for real estate developers who are salivating, as they contemplate one of the gems of New York City’s cultural life.

Where to begin this lamentable tail [sic]? Was it the development of Bryant Park as a show place for costume and anorexic droids, or when it became a skating rink, or before these “improvements,” these dregs tossed to the populace, when it grew two ugly expensive eateries on the west side facing the park? Or was it the decision to sever "science and technology" and move this division to the former department store building gutted –miserably--by Gwathmey Siegl and Co for CUNY’s graduate school? Located on Madison Avenue between 34 the and 35th streets, it became [the] Science, Industry and Business Library or SIBL, yet another acronym cooked up in this age of acronyms and logos. Lavishly fitted out, SIBL diverted Croesus’ gold from the magnificent public research heart of New York City, causing cutbacks in every aspect of the library—local libraries, acquisitions, librarians, catalogers, upkeep, in other words, all.

In the New York Times’ article, written by Robin Pogrebin February 16, 2012) and edited by ? , the plans for the library’s future were explicated by a naked apologist for New York City’s real estate industry, among whose leading members are Stephen, a learned student of land reclamation, and his friend Mike, who admitted that his strength in college was numbers not language, the English language (all too evident when he speaks extemporaneously).
The New York Public Library famed for its glorious book collection, art, maps, rarities, all that the enlightened mind could desire, metamorphosed into the Humanities Library, then into the Schwarzman Building and now is about to undergo yet another change with the tripe of 21st lingo, gadgets, and IFT, you know the propaganda terminology well enough. Leading this enterprise is a former president of Amherst College whose tenure at the library –four months so far—has not been stellar. What has the man been up to? Driving a company car, a New York Public Library car –and what make and model one might ask?—through  East Harlem, Sunday morning having had far too much alcohol to walk a straight line or decline his declensions at the same time. When captured by the police he was slapped on his wrists. Community service-no problem. Read a book to adults as they stare spell-bound at the model citizen before them. No car-riding for awhile; no problem, a limo will be at his service. 
This is truly dreadful. Even Suetonious could not have made up this tale or maybe, just maybe, the honored sir, the leader of the intellects, was an escapee from one of Caligula’s collections of human curiosities, such as the man who lacked a head or whose head was but a mere bump. Mock not the person who is afflicted with disease, but this man, who reportedly had ridden the range in the rolling hills surrounding Amherst, did not have a problem endangering his fellow citizens as he drove recklessly through the city’s streets. Sunday morning? Did I read that correctly? Wow. Dear fellow citizens, this man is surely not suited for the job that he holds. A librarian with one of the greatest collections in his hands, is not a model of probity; is it not time for him to gracefully bow out and let a person who is wise and cultured take over and guide one of New York City’s greatest educational resources into a new life, one that can be compared to the golden-age libraries of past eras? This man has defiled his own reputation; now, let him not dirty the library further.
But I am not finished yet with my thoughts on The New York Public Library.

 I love this institution. I began to use it in high school to do research. And I continued to use it in following decades: in college, in graduate school, in my professional career. Thanks to Brooke Astor, the library was stabilized after losing funding and a new current of enlightenment sizzled throughout the building. But then a funny thing happened. When exactly did this new trend become manifest? New goals appeared. Hours were cut, acquisitions were put off, librarians lost their jobs. Texts deteriorated. The changes mentioned earlier were external, except for the creation (and demise now) of SIBL. Poor Sibl. A life cut short. Why not? Not useful? Too expensive? Or is it greed-a better deal for the property whereon it resides? And even more scenarios can be imagined (But what will happen to the library’s holdings in science, industry, and business, and the remnants of technology? Where will these bothersome texts be shelved?) back to 42nd street? Or will they be left to the mercy of the lending library stack stalkers who Mr. Peter envisions browsing as in the good old days of Barnes and Noble. Surely a price will be charged for this privilege. And then what? The public library becomes a private library as it once was in the 19th century. But will the library also become fair game for the thieves, who will snap up books and then sell them on line. Surely this has happened already. Under the leadership of former trustees and the then president, the library was raped, in a manner of speaking. 

Paintings bequeathed by the Old New Yorkers, the New Yorkers Edith Wharton wrote so lovingly  and eloquently about, were sold off, some going to the southern museum built on an underground river that runs across a seismic fault, where they can teach the true “American spirit,” the essence of our nation’s aging spine. Poor Washington, our very first president was carried out the door, a noble man but one who lied about cutting down the cherry tree. No doubt. George was not worthy of modeling the model American for generations to come. Out with the old and in with the new. Or with nothing.
Equally terrible is the current retrieval system of certain books and periodicals . Once some of these volumes were stored on the far west side at the Annex, when warehouse space was inexpensive. But when real estate interests began to acquire these properties, books and periodicals could no longer be stored in the peculiar location. How was the problem solved? Inefficiently. Together with Columbia University and perhaps other institutions, including Princeton, volumes were shipped to Princeton New Jersey, to a warehouse. Imagine. Trucking back and forth on the New Jersey turnpike with daily truckloads of books bound for Manhattan. Then the cost of fuel sky-rocketed. Not a problem. Books continued to arrive, but urgency was not the name of the game. How could it be? If money is the root of all evil, then in this case who dreamed up this dastardly deed? Monetary interests. Was it the warehouse owner in Princeton? Were the culprits truckers? Was it the universities? Perhaps the money-minded leaders, of say the Law school of Columbia University. Involved in the real estate investments of Columbia, no doubt, such wise persons would be the ones to ask. And what does this warehouse look like anyway/anywhere? A more foolish idea I cannot imagine. 
Scholars were speechless but submitted. Waiting for the truck from the state that has no identity, scholars' work began to decline. Productivity took a hit, and worst of all the desire to know, the true intellectual enterprise, was being throttled. But what about the stacks beneath Bryant Park? What happened to them? Pogrebin the journalist (her specialty culture and art but her degrees are in—what did you say?; sorry I did not catch what you said; so what is wrong with a person who fancies they understand architectural style and grammar and convince their even less knowledgeable editor that no one understands the stuff anyway; a few technical art historical terms and a smudge of color and tone suffices), but who has seen them, the stacks? All of them. Maybe only a small area under Bryant Park was allotted to the library. Is it too far-fetched to imagine that most of the area is used for surveillance? Did money run out? Is this the same story as the famous subway tunnel under Central Park south of the 79th street transverse? Supposedly the tunnel was not built according to specifications and heights varied. I suppose Mike’s way with numbers could have fixed that problem. And he lives a short distance from it. Maybe it could be a glorious grotto that could lead the world in a new trendy trend, the grotto of the Neanderthals. But who remembers? Caro yes, but how many of the elderly are around to recall the history, the real history of New York? There are at least two historical narratives that exist. One is Disney’s anodyne account; the other is the official version which tends to obscure the inexecusable. 
Pogrebin loads her essay with enough matter to give a certain appearance of knowledge and plausibility but knows when to intrude a negative that stings and undermines the validity of a person’s character and argument. Have a look at the way she maligns librarians. It is sly, but a well-known trick of innuendo; the other is the faceless slander: “but some patrons fear crowding….” A name is given to one person and that one person becomes a multitude. Shame.
Finally: the Stacks, again.
1. Stacks under the main reading room: 2 million books. 2. Stacks under Bryant Park (1.5 million books)
Neither stacks 1 or 2 have circulating books; that is, they can only be read in the building. Thus, did Pogrebin mention this for 1 and not for 2?
Why give the date for the construction of stack one? Is Pogrebin trying to indicate that these are antiquated? (By the way, for a person unfamiliar with libraries, the term stack should be explained).
The year 1911, the founding of the Fifth Avenue institution and the year that Patience and Fortitude, the statues of lions on Fifth Avenue were completed.
Why will the volumes in stack 1 be moved to another location in the main building or to “storage” in Princeton?
The cost of carrying these volumes has been discussed. As for scanning, what plot is hatched here? How many people does it take to scan a 600-page book-for example- and how many days are required to fulfill this task?
As explained in Pogrebin’s article, facts are few, if they are facts. The enterprise appears to be the removal of books and the insertion of 400 elite persons with cubbies for their work. This idea goes against the very basic foundational  ideals of the Forty-Second Street Library, a free library for all. For poor, for rich, for middling, for the elderly, the young person, the visitor from out of town or from another nation. The pride of this library, its very purpose is to provide access to all species of knowledge to everyone. Let it remain so.

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