Saturday, March 15, 2014

Something Akin to Book Burning: The Struggle to Save the NYPL

It was an amazing week for the movement to save the NYPLTuesday the Illuminator projected messages in support of preserving the NYPL, not shrinking it.  Earlier in the day, the City Council expressed some concerns about the plan.  And the movement to support it grew in all circles.  

Wednesday, I rode through the rain to the rally at 42st Street, where the Board of Trustees for the Library were meeting.  


A press release declared:

Committe to Save the New York Public Library- Rally

Posted by Historic Districts Council on Tuesday, March 11, 2014 · Leave a Comment 
What: Rally to save the 42nd Street Library and Mid-Manhattan Library at NYPL
Trustees Meeting
Where: 5th Avenue entrance to the 42nd Street Library (5th Ave and 41st St.)
When: Wednesday, March 12, 5:00 – 6:00 PM Rain or Shine
Press contact: Charles Warren 212 689-0907

National Book Award-winner Jonathan Lethem: “The humans of New York seem to be rousing themselves to a collective understanding: that the great public institutions they boast of and rely upon can’t be entrusted to the stewardship of real-estate developers, corporate synergists, media barons, and other ostensibly well-intentioned, deal-drunk one-percenters. Instead we need to tend our own commons, large and small — individual libraries, and the city itself. The election of De Blasio and the current outcry against the disastrous NYPL ‘renovation’ (scare quotes essential) represent two expressions of the same urgencies. Now it waits for De Blasio himself to close the circuit.”

Last July, Bill de Blasio stood on the steps of the 42nd Street Library and called for a halt to the Central Library Plan. The plan would cost $350 million ($150 million of which would come from New York City taxpayers) and irreparably damage the 42nd Street Library – one of the world’s great research libraries and a historic landmark. The plan also calls for the sale of the Mid-Manhattan Library at 40th and Fifth Avenue, the most heavily used library in the city.
“With this rally, we’re returning to the library steps and asking Mayor de Blasio to follow through on his commitment,” said translator and Committee to Save the New York Public Library member Susan Bernofsky. “Instead of spending $150 million of taxpayer funds on this wasteful and destructive project, he should reallocate that money to support branch libraries across the city!”
“They’ve already emptied out the 42nd Street book stacks. On Saturday, every book in the catalog that I wanted to see was off-site. From a research perspective, it was an utter disaster; not a single one was available. Our new mayor could block the city funding of this debacle – I really hope he follows through on his commitment,” said Theodore Grunewald , also a member of CSNYPL.

The New York Public Library administration plans to demolish the 42nd Street Library’s historic seven-story book stacks, install a circulating library in their place, and send 1.5 million books to storage in central New Jersey. The new circulating library would replace the Mid-Manhattan Library and the Science, Industry and Business Library (at 34th and Madison), despite being less than one-third the size of the two existing libraries.
This plan was created through a closed process with no public input, and has been
condemned by leading architecture critics such as Ada Louise Huxtable in the Wall Street
Journal and Michael Kimmelman in the New York Times.
An open letter from the Committee to Save the New York Public Library to NYPL president Tony Marx opposing the plan was signed by Mario Vargas Llosa, E.L. Doctorow, Salman Rushdie, Tom Stoppard, Lorin Stein, Jonathan Galassi, Jonathan Lethem, Art Spiegelman and many other eminent cultural figures. More than 4500 people so far have sent messages to Mayor De Blasio as part of an on-going email campaign opposing the plan and citywide sales and shrinkage of libraries:

 There I met a cacophony of library supporters.  Some holding defiant signs.  Others in street theatrical carb.   Others passed out flyers and called for people to write to De Blasio’s office asking him to stop the plan.  “Don’t gut the 42nd Street Library! Don’t Sell the Mid-Manhattan read their signs.  My friends Leslie and Peter were there.

"Save our stacks, Bring the Books Back!!!" people were chanting. 

Zack was moving about the crowd.  A young women held a sign declaring “research is a human right.”  I asked her about it.  She explained she used the library all the time as a poet and teacher.  That’s just it. 

So many people use the various branches of the NYPL.  They represent the expanding possibilities of knowledge and transformative possilities of information for people’s lives.  The most moving scenes of Dallas Buyers Club take place when Matthew McConaughey is looking up information about drugs which will save his life.  You see this rhodeo cowboy transformed in front of our eyes, becoming a treatment activist, with every new bit of information.  Ignorance = Death, Knowledge is Power. Literacy is a key to our public life.  And this comes from the simple idea of regular people having access to the library where they access it. 

Seminal queer theorist Gayle Rubin talks about the day she dug through the stacks of her college library, digging up the citations referring to lesbians in literature, and beginning the research which would become queer theory. 

My senior thesis was shaped by two unrelated events. I came out as a lesbian and took my first anthropology course. When I came out in the spring of 1970 the first thing I wanted to do was read books on lesbianism. So I went to the library and I looked up lesbian in the card catalog. There were two entries: The Well of Loneliness by Radclyffe Hall and The Grapevine, by Jess Stern, a study of the Daughters of Bilitis. [3] Naively, I went bounding over to the reference desk and said, "Hi. I don't understand this, I can't find anything on lesbianism in the card catalog." A couple of the librarians blanched, and no one seemed to have any suggestions. But I went back to looking through the card catalog, and every so often someone would tap me on the shoulder and sort of whisper in my ear, "Hey, you should go look at X place." It was some closeted gay librarian telling me where to look!  To make a long story short, there were large deposits of information on lesbianism in the library, if you knew where to go. For example, there was material in the sections on "women philanthropists" and "women in prison." And the Labadie Collection had all kinds of gay and lesbian publications. [4] The holdings of the Labadie collection were cataloged separately and not listed in the main library catalog, but it turned out to contain just about every important gay or lesbian publication available at the time. The Labadie had The Ladder, as well as Gene Damon/Barbara Grier's bibliographies of lesbian literature and Jeanette Foster's Sex Variant Women in Literature. [5] I spent hours up in Labadie reading old issues of The Ladder, and decided I was going to do my honors thesis on lesbian literature and history.

The aspiring scholar needed the library, the librarians to be there, to help lead the way.
Information can be unsetting and vexing. Social movements are born in these spaces.  Afterall,  the library stacks are places for secrets, survival and adaptation. These are spaces where ideas are translated through the years.  Here, immigrants come to learn English, those without air conditioning come to beat the heat, and those trembling come to beat the cold.  In short they are our public commons.  And attacks on them are nothing short but an expansion of the generation long attack on the poor and ideas.  The privatization of libraries, selling them off is part of the dumbing down of America.

These attacks are assaults on information and different kinds of knowledge.  And most certainly, the digital adaptation of information is no panacea; it is certainly not guaranteed to be preserved. 

“The closing of the libraries is something akin to book burning, IMO,” noted my friend Donald Grove, on a conversation on facebook. “I am suspicious of the promise that everything available in print will still be available electronically. The people who make those promises have interesting visionary hopes for technology, on one hand, and little willingness to accept the venality of power, on the other. Fahrenheit 451. Yes.”
Yet, more and more people seem to be getting this point and are standing up against this plan.   Grove and his quirky friends continued a spirited conversation on facebook. 
“Until they can make a Kindle ™ smell like a 20-year-old book, I am not interested in technology replacing books,” noted Allen Foster.  “Maybe not even if they can.”

“They're in league with the Cretans who think we can all stop learning because we've got Google,” noted Emile Messpots

“Keeping the books and creating the electronic form of the books would be a much better solution,” Allan Bowhill chimed in, echoing a point educators have been making for a long time.  There is no guarantee any of our electronic books will still be accessable five, ten, fifteen years from now.  Like the 8- track and cassette tapes, these tools become obsolete.  But the printed word does not.   
“Allen, I remember you and I spending some lazy weekend afternoons at the Urbana Free Library, back when That 70's Show was real life...” Grove continued. 

As Gayle Rubin’s stories and Donald Grove’s recollections suggest, these are places where people find themselves, connect their lives with other stories, and become who they are.  We need room in these spaces for our big imaginations to grow.   Without these spaces, there is often little room for the ideas to flourish.  I do hope there is still room in this busy city for a few daydreams in the stacks. 

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