Save the NYPL?


NYPL book stack illustration

Vintage illustration of New York Public Library book stack, below the Rose Reading Room.

The NYPL Central Library Plan (CLP) proposes an extensive renovation and improved support for NYPL’s scholarly users and lay readers, including all variety of CUNY affiliates. The plan’s expanded study spaces, extended library hours, increased materials and personnel budgets all reflect NYPL’s intention to intensify support for and collaboration with the CUNY Graduate Center in collection building, preservation, and service.

Opposition to the CLP has rallied around architecture critic Ada Louise Huxtable’s quip, “You don’t ‘update’ a masterpiece.” To preserve the entirety of the Central Library’s enormous 1910 book stack, however, would transform the NYPL itself into a museum piece. Book formats, discovery and delivery systems, and scholarly practice have changed since the days when pages fetched print volumes for in-building use only by readers in library residence. With turn-of-the-previous-century technology as its centerpiece, the NYPL would provide stability for a certain audience of scholars, but it would not meet the needs of researchers who work with materials in an increasing variety of formats, both privately and collaboratively.

Library designers today would not replicate plans drawn by the first NYPL director, librarian John Shaw Billings (1838 – 1913), with a serviced, non-public book stack occupying the lion’s share of building space. Digitized texts constitute an increasing portion of readers’ use. Printed matter, vital to scholarship in the past and foreseeable future, is used verifiably less by readers with digital alternatives than by those without them. Following the NYPL’s Central Library Plan, heavily-used texts in print (identifiable by library circulation systems), and a generous number of librarian-curated titles will be available for browsing and for public use on-site, while the massive store of books in print can be kept off-site. Retrieval, digitization, scanning, and file-sharing constitue increasing portions of support for scholarship. The NYPL offers online requests, aiming to deliver any print book in its collection usually within 24 hours. Articles and book chapters are scanned from the print and delivered quickly for free by email. Like every other research library, the NYPL taps other library collections to provide readers access to the enormous number of titles it does not own. The NYPL’s Central Library Plan recognizes that print and electronic matter share roles in an evolving media mix. The possibilities and expectations for access to books, articles, and archival material have shifted significantly since 1910.

With the NYPL Central Library’s mechanical stack preserved in its full-functioning entirety (if the stack could be retrofitted with climate control and publicly navigable passageways), the CLP critics’ ideal would embody a library supporting research methods that dominated the previous century, not the coming one. The City’s most democratic institution must not risk its viability as a center for contemporary learning and scholarship. NYPL leadership would be negligent not to stand against preservationists who argue not to change a thing.


Polly Thistlethwaite’s May 2012 post on the NYPL’s Central Library Plan and its Critics.

About the Author

Prof. Polly Thistlethwaite is CUNY's Interim University Dean for Library Services.