Author Salman Rushdie, along with more than 700 writers, scholars, publishers and artists, has sent a scathing letter to the President of the New York Public Library (see below) protesting the city’s $300 million restructuring plan for the flagship 42nd Street library branch. The letter calls for a reasoned public discussion of the plan and a restoration of staff positions already cut from the library.
“We write, as scholars, writers, researchers and teachers, who have long benefitted from the services and collections available to us at the four research facilities of the New York Public Library.We are alarmed by the Central Library Plan, which seems to us to be a misplaced use of funds in a time of great scarcity.The budget cutbacks of the past five years have had disastrous effects for the NYPL’S research libraries, and especially 42nd Street: *the skilled staff vital to supporting our research activities-curators, archivists, bibliographers and librarians-have been drastically reduced in number; *the Slavic and Baltic division and the Asian and Middle Eastern division have been entirely eliminated;and there is no full-time curator for the Slavic collection.*the Schomburg Library in Harlem-THE place to do research on African-American history– has been allowed to deteriorate through the postponement both of capital improvements and of computer upgrading;*The Library for the Performing Arts at Lincoln Centeris no longer a haven for scholars and critics.Many ofthe reference librarians who specialized in dance, music, recorded sound, and theater wre eliminated,moved off the reference desks or offered buyouts.
Instead of addressing these issues, the CLP will spend over $300 million on a restructuring of the 42ndStreet building which includes a huge expansion of public space, the removal of stacks ( and the 3 million books in them), and the creation of a circulating library in the building .While we understandthat it may be necessary to store some books in order to make room for others and that more computer accessmay be necessary for users of the library, the changes planned envision a much more radical transformation.NYPL will lose its standing as a premier research institution (second only to the Library of Congress in the US),–a destination for international as well as American scholars– and become a busy social centerwhere focused research is no longer the primary goal.Books will be harder to get when they’re neededeither because of delays in locating them in the storage facility or because they have been checked out toborrowers. Those of us who also use university libraries know how frustrating it is to discover that thebook we need immediately is checked out or lost.And we worry about the effects of removing the stacks that now support the glorious Rose Reading Room. More important, perhaps, is that the CLP seems to make nomention of restoring the staff positions that have been lost and that are critical for the functioning of a major research institution.
One of the claims made about the CLP is that it will “democratize” the NYPL,but that seems to be amisunderstanding of what that word means.The NYPL is already among the most democratic institutions of its kind.Anyone can use it; no credentials are needed to gain entry.More space, more computers, a café,and a lending library will not improve an already democratic institution. In fact, the absence of expert staff will diminish the accessibility of the collections to those who aren’t already experiencedresearchers, narrowing the constituency who can profitably use the library. They will be able to borrowbooks, to be sure, but they won’t be inducted into the world of archives and collections if staff aren’t there to guide them.Also, in the age of the web, we need, more than ever, skilled, expert librarians who can assist us in navigating the new databases and the back alleys of cyberspace. We understand that it is to raise money by attending to buildings (and naming them), but the real need at the NYPL is for the preservation of a great library and the support of its staff.
We appreciate the fact that you have established a committee consisting of some critics of the CLP to advise you.
We hope you will take a hard look at the plan you’ve been given and revise it so that the splendid cultureof research embodied by the NYPL can be maintained. We think the money raised can be better used to preserveand extend what already exists at 42ND street.Change is always necessary, but not of the kind envisioned by the CLP.”