Library Rose Room Reopens to All!

Given that the third floor of The Stephen A. Schwartzman Building on Fifth Avenue, formerly known as the main branch of The New York Public Library, is now as densely packed with visitors as Times Square or the #6 subway line, I think it is time that the NYPL board and administrators, who encourage this crowding, hire a grad student to dress up as a topless Jane Austen. She could pass her drawstring bag around for funds. Maybe they could add a Bob Dylan. Literature has super heroes too.
Even if the likes of students, scholars, researchers and writers are no longer enough to justify fund-raising among the 1 percent, the larger issue is that yet another bastion of excellence is destroying itself. Let’s all go visit a fire station to make those cost-effective too. Currently, the only people allowed to enjoy these publicly-owned properties are those who need to be there. Let people in so they can slide down the poles!
Of course the magnificent Fifth Avenue library building should be appreciated by as many as possible, but the hordes now overwhelming the guards and librarians need to be actively policed. This month’s NYPL press release says of the Rose Reading Room: “The entire Room is designated for research and quiet study and there is a small viewing area where visitors can admire and take non-flash photography of the room and ceiling.” That is not the situation unfolding. (text continues below the photos)

NYPL patrons as zoo animals

If you can’t get to the zoo, photograph in the Rose Room

Scholars use the Rose Room

Patrons fill the North Rose Reading Room awaiting close-ups to be taken by visitors coming in from the rain

Visiting teens like to stand on this balustrade.

Liability issues ahead, NYPL!

So, here are some suggestions on how to re-civilize the former main branch of The New York Public Library:

  1. Inform all library guards about the rules of behavior for those wandering and photographing the reading and research rooms and its true patrons. Have them enforce the rules, which they are trying to do now with only moderate success.
  2. Designate guards to take the place of those going on their well-deserved breaks since rubberneckers swarm in taking photos and dragging children unless a guard is standing in the door of the north reading room (which is nearly identical to the south room and is supposedly off-limits to those not using NYPL materials).
  3. Ban strollers and children under the age of 12 from both reading rooms or, better, yet from the entire third floor.
  4. Rope off more lane lines so those attempting to request books can get through the clot of rubberneckers standing in doorways.
  5. Increase your toilet paper budget and improve plumbing because the bathrooms are overwhelmed, as are cleaning people.

  6. Increase your liability insurance because someone is going to get hurt. Before the Rose Room closed, I panicked when I saw a teenager standing on the balustrade on the third floor north side stairwell to impress his terrified buddy. Had the daredevil fallen three stories down to the hard marble floor his grieving parents would have had quite a payday. The building might have had to be sold and turned into condos to pay the legal judgement. Could that be idea? That Wells Fargo guy could buy an apartment in the Rose Room. Please comment in the reply box below.

Read This Book!!

Since the days of former president Paul LeClerc, the trustees of the New York Public Library have done everything in their robber baron powers to sell off or compromise the value of the institution as a research library open to those who would use it for serious purposes. At one point the current NYPL president Anthony Marx said that their aim was to make the institution more democratic, but unlike other high caliber research libraries, it was already a temple of democracy open to anyone from anywhere who wished to read, to research, to learn, to create. Two examples are a housewife and writer who used its collections to turn out The Feminine Mystique, and a journalist who produced The Power Broker, an exposé of development run amok. Maybe those are the kinds of users and truth-bearers the trustees decided to squash or hamper in favor of encouraging noisy tourists who disrupt those using the library’s materials.

Trustees also used the library’s finances as a rationale, but they undercut their own argument when they hatched, in off-the-record sessions, a plan to pay British starchitect Sir Norman Foster $9 million for a design scheme that would have gutted the structure of the building, including the steel stacks holding books. Sir Norman’s plan did result in its research collection being off-loaded to a storage facility in New Jersey. Fortunately that plan failed, although the off-loaded materials have yet to be returned and bare stacks abound in public rooms. It is surely not an accident that the most influential trustees of the NYPL are real estate tycoons and financiers. They drove the sale and destruction of the much-used East 50s branch, the Donnell Library, at a fire sale price of $59 million. After the branch was demolished, a penthouse in the tower being constructed on the site sold for $60 million. How clueless can these trustees really be and who are they serving?

In much-more measured prose than demonstrated in the above paragraphs, Scott Sherman uncovered this story for The Nation. His spare and elegant book Patience and Fortitude Power Real Estate and the Fight to Save A Public Library would be the rewarding experience of an evening’s reading if one could concentrate on the fact that the Foster/Central Library Plan was quashed when Mayor Bill de Blasio declined to fund it. However, the trustees involved are still active. Equally important, the book is revelatory of the capture of the boards of nearly every civic organization in the city by financial and real estate profiteers who know only cronyism and financial gain and are capable of nothing else. Happily, Sherman portrays many interesting and constructive New Yorkers in Patience and Fortitude. These labor tirelessly in the light for public good and not in closed session. One pivotal player in the defeat of the Central Library plan was a young member of the state assembly named Micah Kellner who chaired the Assembly’s library committee and was also running for New York City Council. In late June, 2013 he held an 8-hour public hearing that inspired a closer look at the plan. It galvanized and unified its opponents and led to lawsuits by distinguished scholars. A month after the hearing, Kellner’s career was effectively destroyed. The N.Y. Times reported that four years earlier a junior staff member had charged Kellner with verbal sexual harassment. Assembly Leader Sheldon Silver (his own troubles surfacing) claimed that he had only just learned of the 2009 episode and a similar alleged incident that had occurred in 2011. Kellner, who is openly bi-sexual as well as a husband and father, lost his bid for the City Council. Sexual harassment, especially if it is actually proven, is indefensible, but the timing of the career-killing charges is interesting. Power is not power unless it is exercised. But perhaps there are Higher Powers. A few weeks after the Central Library Plan was abandoned in May 2014, a section of the Rose Reading Room ceiling collapsed. Normal wear to the steel trusses that supported it was blamed. Repairs continue and the huge expanse is still shuttered. But what greater, un-doable damage might have been done if the trustees had been allowed to rip out the steel trusses altogether? How many oligarch-ready condos might have been built like the ones that are going up where the popular, democratic Donnell Library once stood? It’s too late for patience. Now urgency and fortitude are called for, along with Distrust of trustees. What do you think? Please comment in the box below.

Don’t Shush the Libraries!

I don’t know whether the New York Library — its wonderful buildings or the system itself –can be saved from its Board of Trustees and the administrators that serve it, but I do believe that everyone who has promoted or rubber-stamped the destruction of the library and the privatization of public property into private hands — all on the cheap — will be exposed. In the meantime, please read and follow Noticing New York and Citizens Defending Libraries. These blogs should be read, evaluated and acted upon. Our libraries are being turned into event spaces for galas and privatized on the cheap. Those of us who need them and who support them with our tax dollars are being robbed. Remember the Donnell!

Democratization in Action at the New York Public Library

I brought my camera to the New York Public Library to take pictures of tourists taking pictures of me. They seemed annoyed about it. Maybe I distracted them from shooting door jambs, windows, and people who were actually using books – books that arrive as many as five days after we request them. Welcome to the Rose Main Reading Room of the Stephen A. Schwarzman Building, once better known as The New York Public Library at Fifth Avenue and 42nd Street.

Good thing no patron needed these books

Good thing no patron needed these books

Library trustees and administrators have proposed a controversial $300 million-and-counting renovation involving starchitect Norman Foster, and the proposed sale of two major branches at prices attractive to developers, in part to “democratize” the library. One can infer that they want to rescue the library from overuse by those elitists known as Researchers who have hogged the place for years for their own narrow purposes. The library board and trustees might disdain academic scholarship, but they should know that Researchers using the New York Public Library include DeWitt Wallace who co-founded The Reader’s Digest; Robert Caro whose magisterial biographies of Robert Moses and Lyndon Johnson have corralled multiple prizes and illuminated significant aspects of our history; and Betty Friedan, author of the world-rocking Feminine Mystique.
Although there are rooms dedicated for researchers who qualify for them, through its century of history, scholars and the public have used the library side by side, not as a carnival boardwalk but as a place to learn and grow. Alfred Kazin wrote in New York Jew of tracing the development of American literature as he delighted in the Americans he found there: “Street philosophers, fanatics, advertising agents, the homeless – passing faces in the crowd. I liked reading and working out my ideas in the minds of that endless crowd walking in an out of [Room] 315 looking for something – that Depression crowd so pent up, searching for puzzle contests, beauty contests, clues to buried treasure off Sandy Hook…” Kazin felt himself “entangled” in their hunger and was glad of it.
As I read Kazin’s words in the North Hall, that half of the Reading Room that is designated a “quiet zone,” two howling children surged past crowded tables of readers. Their mother caught up to them at the door of the Rare Book and Manuscript and Archives Division at the far end of the room and hauled them back past us all the while continuing to drown us in a river of noise. The harried guard who finally caught up to her was clear: “You brought them into the wrong room.” So she carried them into the South Hall of the Reading Room that is not a Quiet Zone where their sounds proceeded to build.
Is the success or value of a hospital measure by how many patients have visitors and how many screaming children fill their cafeterias? Would it help the trustees and administrators, who clearly don’t use the library, to know that the library is sufficiently democratized so that it is hard to find a seat in the Reading Room if one arrives after noon Monday through Saturday or after the Library opens Sunday at 1 p.m.?
Meanwhile, tables and chairs are virtually unused in The Edna Barnes Solomon Room on the third floor, formerly for special exhibitions. It has been repurposed for wi-fi, with no book deliveries allowed. What a pity that this near empty cavern, which the library rents it out for parties, could not have been used for the Asian, Middle Eastern and/or Slavic divisions that have been closed. Many other less specialized research collection books have been moved off-site to New Jersey and the Bronx, which is why it takes several days to get a book. One might not complain if archaic texts on obscure topics (the kind undemocratic Researchers would want) had been exiled, but books in demand are out of ready reach as well. “Childhood and Society,” Erik H. Ericson’s classic study that won the Pulitzer Prize and the National Book Award, and has been seminal to Researchers (those creeps!) seeking to foster human development and to thousands of college students through the years, is kept off-site. After I requested it from my home computer, it took three days to arrive at the Reading Room. I read my long-awaited book as far as page 219 when I discovered that the next 18 pages had been cut out. The librarian I brought it to advised me to buy a copy at The Strand Bookstore “for very little money,” because he solemnly said, “This library is not about books anymore.”
Another librarian checked the computer to learn that two other off-site copies of “Childhood and Society” were also in use, one at the Science Industry Business Library, which library trustees seek to sell off at an attractive price to a developer, and the other at the Schomburg Center in Harlem. I had waited longer than I intended and I needed to finish that book by nightfall, so I used more of the day travelling. “Childhood and Society” was sold out at the Strand, where I hoped to find a discounted used copy, so I went to Barnes & Noble where for $18.95 plus tax I bought a copy of the book that my tax dollars had purchased for the public library patrons. Even as an author myself with my own books to sell, I want New York library patrons to be able to use the books that their tax dollars pay for. However, Mr. Schwarzman, chairman and CEO of the Blackstone Group, a private equity and financial advisory firm, a man whose name is on the building, might approve that I had been forced to spend my Researcher finances instead of using up his library. Could it be that someone could consider a member of the public who uses public resources a deadbeat? Maybe that is the whole mindset behind “democratization” of a library that was once maintained as a resource to be used by the people and not just photographed by them as it turns from a temple of democracy into event space.