NYPL Embraces the Future of Libraries - Today

As interest grows around next steps for our libraries, I wanted to address some of the questions we have received. But first, I want to state up front: our absolute priority is to preserve the integrity of the Library and its collections.
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By Anthony Marx
President, The New York Public Library

The ground under all libraries is shifting. From financial uncertainties to the challenges of guaranteeing digital access for all, the country's largest circulating library has no choice but to change. We must also preserve our position as one of the world's great research libraries. The New York Public Library must make some important choices to ensure our strengths.

To help us make these choices, we recently launched a website and public engagement process to solicit your suggestions and concerns about our plans. We know that change is not easy. And we know that we cannot do this without input from our users.

As interest grows around next steps for our libraries, including the landmark Stephen A. Schwarzman Building at Fifth Avenue and 42nd Street, I wanted to address some of the questions we have received. But first, I want to state up front: our absolute priority is to preserve the integrity of the Library and its collections, as well as the unparalleled quality of the services we offer. This is the baseline we must maintain in order to do even more.

How do plans for the 42nd Street building fit in with the needs of the system as a whole?

The plan for 42nd Street is a plan for the future of all NYPL libraries. We are dedicated to making sure that free and open access to information continues for all--be they scholars and writers who need rare collections and dedicated spaces in which to work; students looking for books, community, and inspiration; general readers; or citizens interested in educational programs.

We have already invested $300 million in 50 libraries across our system in the past decade, with an additional $125 million to $150 million planned for branch renovations and other capital projects over the next five years. We have built new libraries in Battery Park City in Manhattan and High Bridge and Kingsbridge in the Bronx; the brand-new Mariners Harbor Library in Staten Island will open later this year. We have also completely renovated branches: wholly refurbished Stapleton and Washington Heights libraries will be unveiled at the end of the year.

We are also working to add more educational programs throughout the system to meet the vital needs of New Yorkers, including providing greater access to our collections for New York City public school students, expanding English language programs to meet the needs of immigrants, improving jobs and computer training skills necessary for people to move up in today's economy, and introducing extended-day programs for public school students to boost academic achievement. These programs, like the renovations at 42nd Street, will require a good deal of funding, but we believe the intellectual, cultural, and educational benefits will far outweigh the investment.

What is the purpose of the transformation of the main building?

We are committed not only to maintaining but enhancing the resources, facilities, and services we provide to our entire community of patrons--academics, professional authors, freelancers, first-time novelists, artists, students, and so many others. For the first time in more than three decades, the 42nd Street library will house a major browsable circulating collection in addition to its superb research collections. The formula is simple: more readers, plus all the books, materials, and services they need, will infuse the building with even more intellectual and creative vitality. We also want patrons to be able to work in the Library later (a top user request)--to 11 p.m. most evenings.

Improvements are planned throughout the building. One exciting change involves the creation of a new scholars and writers center to accommodate at least 400 writers (more than double the current number), with our Cullman Center for Scholars and Writers remaining the crown jewel. In addition to work areas with carrels or open desks, we will provide personal shelves to hold books while they are being used, skilled librarians to suggest even more collection resources, a writers' lounge, and more. Above these spaces, the third floor's majestic Rose Main Reading Room and unique special collections reading rooms will remain as they are, easily accessible from the main Fifth Avenue entrance.

By opening many areas that are today closed to the public, the 42nd Street library, which will incorporate the Mid-Manhattan Library and the Science, Industry and Business Library (SIBL), will actually have significantly more public space than what is currently available in the three buildings combined. This will allow us to create the largest circulating library in the country at 42nd Street. Some have shared concerns that this will compromise our commitment to research. We believe instead that the circulating library will complement and reinforce research, bringing even more readers into the building who will be able to more easily explore the unique research-level collections. Researchers, in turn, will be able to take advantage of the circulating collection.

As for the invaluable research collections, the plan addresses very serious storage and preservation needs, ensuring that the collections will be available to students, writers, and academics for generations to come. Materials shelved in our current stacks--built under the Rose Main Reading Room more than a century ago--are in jeopardy of damage and decay. Extensive research has led to a solution: most of those collections will stay on-site; some materials, such as items never requested and those easily accessible elsewhere and available digitally, will be moved off-site, where they will be housed in optimal preservation conditions while remaining easily retrievable within 24 hours. (These plans are discussed in more detail below.)

We should also point out that, while not a driving force behind the plan, resulting financial benefits will help undergird the Library's budget for research services and scholarly acquisitions. Selling the buildings that currently house the Mid-Manhattan and SIBL libraries--once their collections and services are consolidated into 42nd Street--will result in proceeds and increased operating efficiencies (through staff attrition, not layoffs). The result: an additional $10 to $15 million a year to spend on Library priorities that include, for example, curatorial staff and the research collections, which now receive important but limited funding from the City.

Users from all our libraries will have a centrally located facility filled with books and extensive research collections that continue to grow, knowledgeable librarians and curatorial staff, rooms for quiet study or collaboration, educational programs, and computers and databases. This premier research library will be essential to the maintenance of our culture and the production of new ideas for our economy and democracy.

In the meantime, our aim is to minimize any inconvenience to patrons by scheduling the most disruptive construction work after regular opening hours.

Can the Mid-Manhattan Library and the Science, Industry and Business Library (SIBL) stay open? Why not just renovate Mid-Manhattan?

These very important libraries are moving, not closing.

Mid-Manhattan will continue as the nation's largest circulating library within the 42nd Street building. SIBL's world-class business research services and collections will be enhanced. This new main library will be a state-of-the-art public facility, which is why the City has earmarked funds specifically for this project. In fact, the combined libraries, by making use of currently underutilized and outdated stack areas, will result in an increase of up to 20,000 square feet in public space over what the three buildings now offer in total.

It is important to note that during this process we do not anticipate that either library will lose a single day of service; only when the new facility is ready will Mid-Manhattan and SIBL move to 42nd Street. On the other hand, if we were to renovate the current Mid-Manhattan (this would have to be done, given its state of disrepair), the library would have to be closed for years during construction. The cost would be at least $150 million, and we would lose the proceeds of the sale of the building--funds that would otherwise support critical Library priorities including our collections and curatorial services.

Are all the books being removed from 42nd Street?

Definitely not. While a number of books will be moved off-site for improved conservation and to help make room for the circulating library, it is a patent misconception that all the books will be removed.

Currently, there are approximately 3 million volumes in the closed stacks under the Main Reading Room, the majority of which will remain on-site. That's in addition to the millions of manuscripts, prints, photographs, pamphlets, and maps that aren't going anywhere.

Curators and librarians, in consultation with a scholars advisory group (including people who have voiced important concerns about the plan), are now assessing exactly how many and which volumes might move off-site; these volumes would be made available within 24 hours of a patron's request. We are currently determining which books have not been and are not likely to be used at all. Materials accounting for 90 percent of research usage will stay at 42nd Street. Frequently and even rarely used volumes and materials, special collections, and items belonging to unique collections that need to remain on-site--will remain. At a minimum, we expect to retain all humanities, social science, and business books from at least the past two decades; and core history, literature, area studies, art, genealogy, technology, and business and industry materials that would be difficult to access elsewhere. Whenever possible, we will err on the side of keeping books on-site. To be clear, if we need to make space for even more books at 42nd Street than planned in order for NYPL to remain one of the best research libraries in the world, then we will do so.

The transfer of some rarely if ever used volumes off-site is in fact part of an ongoing process. Every year we acquire tens of thousands of new books, and we must therefore send about the same number off-site to make room for new, more in-demand titles. Most people do not realize that almost half of the research collections are already stored off-site (a standard, necessary practice of major research libraries).

I would also like to address one erroneous criticism that has been repeated several times: the idea that books are making way for an "Internet café." This is simply untrue. There will still be extensive collections in our new, leading-edge library, and they will benefit everyone. Future scholars of the world can join the rest of the public inside the People's Palace and be inspired along with researchers and scholars. Yes, there will be computers--which increasing numbers of our patrons, including students, writers, and families, say they want more of in their libraries. Indeed, many of our users who cannot afford computers or Internet access at home rely upon us for being able to go online. But there will be much, much more. We want to expand learning and intellectual pursuits throughout the building.

How can you guarantee that off-site books will be made available in 24 hours?

The 24-hour turnaround time for off-site research materials is critical to the success of this plan. Our commitment to this time frame is real, it is part of our budgeting plan, and we are already working to make it a reality.

Major advances we expect to introduce shortly that will lead to more efficient delivery services include a new interface that allows patrons to place orders online and the addition of Saturday delivery. We will also be increasing the number of retrieval staff, bar coding every item, and implementing instant digital scanning and improved downloading options, so that even more collection materials and volumes, including public domain books and scholarly journals, can be accessed digitally.

The Library is one of the last quiet places left in New York where we can work and study. Will that go away?

The building, it must be remembered, is huge (bigger than most New Yorkers probably realize), and will be designed to ensure that traffic flows accommodate all of our visitors. Most people come to the Library for quiet and they will still find the spaces they need, in both our historic areas and the inspiring new ones. Those who want to collaborate or attend workshops and talks will find separate spaces for such activities as well. We want this to be an inviting, vital hub for all New Yorkers, whether they want to while away an afternoon reading, research a book, trace their family roots, start or grow a business, or get help with a homework assignment.

Spaces will also be delineated, with the circulating and research areas on different floors. Those wanting to go straight to the circulating library will have an entrance directly into the new Mid-Manhattan branch. At the same time, our expectation is that Mid-Manhattan patrons will be drawn into other areas as their own research deepens, just as scholars will find it easier than ever to borrow from the circulating collections.

Every year, the Library faces public funding cuts and asks for New Yorkers' support. How does this square with the millions being spent on the 42nd Street building?

The plan for 42nd Street is a plan and an investment for the future. It is a way for us to ensure that our libraries--which are more critical than ever--remain strong for years to come. This is especially true on the research side, which receives valuable but limited City funding. That is why the plan's financial benefits are so important, supporting both collection development and our branch libraries over time.

Still, the immediate reality is that we do have very significant operating costs to worry about, especially as we face proposed City budget cuts that would greatly impact the branch libraries. As part of its original pact with Andrew Carnegie, the City is committed to funding the branches. Yet the current proposed budget, which could still change, calls for a $43 million cut to our annual operating budget (making this year's budget, by comparison, 44 percent lower than that of Fiscal Year 2008). The Mayor and City Council have worked valiantly to protect the Library as an essential resource in New York City, center of the Information Age. We still rely on the City's generosity, and to keep services, hours, and programs at the level our patrons require, we very much need the public to help us fight the cuts.

The challenges are significant. The Library cannot stand still. We believe that the new 42nd Street library could be the most important civic building project in New York City for at least a generation. It will be your library. So please continue to share your reactions and suggestions. Our goal is clear: to ensure that the entire NYPL system remains the essential provider of free educational resources for all New Yorkers, and a beacon of intellectual inspiration around the world.

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