Thursday, January 24, 2013

NYPL Demolition

The New York Public Library's plan for renovating the Main Branch has been approved by Landmarks. This means it will be transformed from a research library to a research and lending library. The magnificent and mysterious stacks beneath the Reading Room will be demolished, and most of the books will be exiled to storage in New Jersey.

This renovation was the topic of what might well have been Ada Louise Huxtable's final critique before her recent death. In the Wall Street Journal she wrote, "a research library is a timeless repository of treasures, not a popularity contest measured by head counts, the current arbiter of success." And, in short, "You don't 'update' a masterpiece. 'Modernization' may be the most dangerously misused word in the English language."


I love the way books are retrieved today in the reading room. You get a number and wait for them to emerge, via dumbwaiter and a complicated Rube Goldbergy conveyor system of lifts and chutes, from the vast and hidden stacks below. You can get pretty much any obscure book you want within minutes.

It used to be, not long ago, you also sent your request on a slip of paper via the "zip tube," a remnant of what was once a complex system of urban pneumatics. For over a century, the librarian would secure your pencil-scratched call slip in a windowed capsule, then plunk it into the tube for it to be sucked away with a satisfying "thoomp," and zipped down into the bowels of the library, down into those 7 floors of stacks, where elves (it always seemed) set out in search of the requested item.


Artifacts, like the one above, remain, but the zip tube system was shut down in 2011. "The passing of a steampunk relic might occasion a fit of nostalgia and no more," wrote Metropolis, but "One could hardly contrive a more blatant metaphor for the uneasy shift, in the world of letters, from the physical to the digital."

I don't know what will happen to the dumbwaiters once the stacks are gone.


Cover of Scientific American, 1911, NYPL

"We are going to create a glorious new center that is full of life," said the library president, as if books are dead. Are the stacks, as they are, not full of life? Books themselves are vessels of life, more life than can be currently lived, because they contain the vastness of the past.

But not everyone sees it this way. For many, "full of life" means having people lounging around all over the place, chattering away in the sunlight, not being very curious at all about much of anything, really.

And for this we are losing a true wonder.







36 comments:

Becky said...

What a shame...

vzabuser said...

Never send books to New Jersey...Christie may ban or burn such items entering his state.

David said...

they don't even chatter these days, nose stuck to some digital device as their life force gets depleted.

Anonymous said...

The culture, or world at large has surrendered to convenience, which really is just a cousin of laziness. Ludites or not we are all guilty of this because we are all, at least most of us, tethered to some digital device. The fact is though, that there's a choice. A choice between becoming a robot of convenience or using these devices because it does provide some immediate connection to things you need i.e., work email, keeping tabs on your children, that kind of thing. Those seem to be advantages of the digital world. Incessant socializing that imposes on others and leveling so-called 'outdated' technology as in the case of the NYPL is not an advantage but an acceleration of a society of already lazy, uncurious individuals becoming lazier, and even less curious. As long as there's a table, a chair, some wi-fi and a cup of corporate coffee everyone seems to be in dandyville while they wait for the next 'version' or operating system to arrive in the stores so they can repeat the cycle of digital device comsumption again and again.

"You can't 'update' a masterpiece"

Goddam right!!

maximum bob said...

Their vision of paradise is in fact a wireless Hell in which douchebags
stare mesmerized at small electronic toys.

John M said...

The crisis in public libraries is really out of control. Across the country, libraries have destroyed millions of invaluable old newspapers after digitizing them...to 'save space' mostly (it's a fucking library! why do you want to save space?). And now, this desecration of the NYPL research library. I say again, it's a fucking library! Why would anyone want to send a library's books to another state? How are these people defining the word 'library' now? It's not a Starbucks. The people they're trying to attract are not people who care about libraries or appreciate them for what they have always been.

This country is just insane, and it keeps showing in ways large and small.

Katrink said...

This is heartbreaking.

esquared™ said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Terry said...

This sounds crazy....

Goggla said...

This is really, really disappointing.

Anonymous said...

I agree with the sentiment expressed here, but I have to ask: what is the alternative. If libraries are dying how do we keep them alive? Better to have some commodified yet vital library system than an unused ruin.

5:40 pm said...

Ruins? Brendan, is that you? Burden? Bloomberg? Just because you haven't used the library doesn't mean its unused. Since when libraries are ruins? See London, Portugal, Amsterdam....How about keeping them as libraries. Must everything be commodified? We're living in a commodity fetishism and alienation. Some things ought not to be sale and ought to be treated as if they are a tradeable commodity.

Andre L. said...

@Anonymous January 24, 2013 at 9:48 AM

Your argument is bogus. It could be used to say reading books is carving in to convenience of printing instead of papyrus or else.

onemorefoldedsunset said...

Ugh. That's very sad.
And with lending library "modernizations" far fewer books reappear on the shelves & more room is made for screens. As a teacher, it's harder & harder to go to an updated branch & borrow even basic adult/kids classics, or books about geography, mythology, animals, history. The redundancy of wonder.

Romy Ashby said...

I spent many wonderful hours in the reading room after sending my book requests down through the zip tube.It was magical and exciting, and I loved it. I don't think I ever imagined, while I waited for my books to come up from the stacks, that such an ingenious, beautifully thought-out system would cease to exist in my lifetime. There was a time, years ago, when we thought certain wonderful things would still be here for years to come, simply because they'd been here for so many years already. Now that I know this is no longer true, nothing feels truly certain, not even the sun.

laura said...

i seem to be missing something. these books are going to jersey, ok. now to see these books, you need to go "on line"? (w/a computer they give you? or do you bring your own? im confused, im too old to understand that post). i never leave my house w/a digital device. i only own a old fashioned cell phone, which is for emergencies, no one calls in, & its shut off. if i want a library i sit down & open a book. if im in a cafe, i buy a magazine. i sleep better when there is less "screen". im on line too much @ home anyway. so lets go over this again.....realestate developers are buying libraries? are you surprised?

SB said...

Everyone may be "tethered" as said, to a digital gadget, but one massive 3 second EMP and the convenience and data are instantly gone. We have created an unsustainable culture to which we are adding increasingly fragile and easily compromised information infrastructure. Meanwhile, developers lust after the one real asset-- land. It doesn't really matter what sits atop it, everything has a price at which it can be converted into a virtual ATM for those who own it-- the Vatican realized this when they used the millions Mussolini gave them to purchase now very lucrative commercial real estate. Sadly, for those of us who recognize the unique and ephemeral nature of books and the special buildings that house them, everything has become a commodity for the exercise of corporate "realism." We are saving seeds in the deep recesses of a mountain in Europe-- perhaps we should be doing the same for books.

Anonymous said...

Who knew the world would change and technology would progress?

9:53 am said...

Who knew that the world would change and avarice would progress over culture.

Drew said...

I really don't understand the hate Tony Marx has for the Mid-Manhattan branch and the SIBL. Both are fantastic places and serve their clients well.

Brian Dubé said...

With the rise of ebooks and other technology, I guess "full of life" means something entirely different in this day and age. But to have thousands of books accessible on an e-reader is completely different than walking into a library and actually being able to SEE what knowledge is available for the taking and start discussions as well.

Or maybe we don't appreciate masterpieces which are "full of life" anymore.

Old Glory Restorations said...

'Modernization' may be the most dangerously misused word in the English language." I totally agree. I look around and wonder how long it will be until we only have photographs to remind of the rich history that surrounds us. Living in upstate NY near Kodak I watched building by building be torn down. I amazes and scares me that someday the children raised here won't even know who George Eastman was and what he stood for. So sad to see such beauty left unappreciated and considered worthless. I do my part in a very small way to preserve the past - http://vintagetraveltrailer.blogspot.com - but there is so much to be saved I don't even make the tiniest of wrinkle in it. I know I appreciate the past as I know do many, many others.

Caleo said...

Anon. 9:38- Your self satisfied quip can't explain why getting rid of the books is " Progress ".
Isn't it interesting that as information technology becomes ubiquitous, our choices are actually diminished. Now we can't even sit in that grand old hall and read books that were more than a century old, as I did frequently in the 90's.
Why is that a good thing ? What is so progressive about that ?

Claribel said...

To quote the Ada Louise Huxtable piece: "But a research library is a timeless repository of treasures, not a popularity contest measured by head counts, the current arbiter of success. This is already the most democratic of institutions, free and open to all. Democracy and populism seem to have become hopelessly confused."

The experience of sitting down and opening up the rare book or document from another time that I had access to, simply by writing the request on a little slip of paper. The blanket of quietude around me, either from intense study or napping from neighbors. The library’s greatness is in those stacks because they symbolize the quest for knowledge that isn’t purchased at a price that reflects the rarity of the item. I discovered Asadata Dafora in that library, which was infinitely more rewarding that finding him on Wikipedia. Books can be precious. They’re on the right side of materialism when appreciated in this way. Out of print books and documents are treasures. And they’re consumed in a way that is the antithesis of how we consume digital information, it’s not distracted, nor is the work presented as a commodity, or at least that’s never how it felt to me at the 42nd St library, not when you have this defined period of time with material delivered to you from the bowels of this majestic whale of an institution. You get to appreciate what’s in front of you, knowing that it’s rare. Is it so wrong not to want to diminish or alter that experience for one that replicates experiences already found in so many other spaces defined as “alive”? To be alive is to be present, attentive, mindful. That library has its own special form of meditation. So I loved the culture there when I frequented the library as a student and whenever I have the opportunity to visit. The culture will change when the stacks are gone and replaced with modern technology and interior design, because the culture in the City and in these times are, of course, changing, though not always for the better.

Anonymous said...

Libraries are treasures of our society and the way we treat them shows whether or not we revere knowledge and the quest for it or whether we toss it aside as old and antiquated. The modernization of something that isn't broken screams of self interest as the previous commenter said- they will consolidate the other libraries into one place and sell the land to Bloomberg's developer buddies. The monopoly game continues...

Anonymous said...

What none of these commenters seems to know is that the building was always meant to hold a circulating library and did so from day one until the 1970's.Mid-Manhattan is a wreck, SIBL is underused. Combining them makes sense. Stop being snobs and recognize the right of all of us to use the library.

Anonymous said...

Might as well close Mid Manhattan and SIBL. The staff there is surly. Worst than the one who work at Duane Reade.

Anonymous said...

Preserving the stacks of millions of rare and out of print books is being snobbish?
I think it is snobbish to send NYC's printed treasures to NJ where no one can enjoy them without major inconvenience.
The main library is like a museum- and the branch libraries are for the everyday readers, computer users etc. We used to understand that, now we are seen as snobs for wanting to keep this museum of books alive.

Jeremiah Moss said...

"recognize the right of all of us to use the library"? who doesn't have the right to use the library? it's public. what does that even mean?

Anonymous said...

Those who have iPads and Kindles look down on those who still uses physical books. They're the snob ones. And whatever takes place on Mid-Manhattan and SIBL will most likely only be used by the wealthy private, who will be thumbing- up their nose to those who can't afford it.

diabetic dog said...

Unspeakably sad.
Some things should never ever change. What an increasingly dull and homogenous culture we now live in. What happened to adventure, exploring, using the five senses? That is what going to the NYPL was like for me, with the exception of taste of course, though I don't recall a sign, Do not eat the books...

If it ain't broke, don't fix it!

mingusal said...

What a horrifying act of cultural vandalism. And one I predict we'll be very sorry for in the not-too-distant future, like we were about Penn Station (or, more to the point, the sacking and burning of the library of Alexandria). All committed in the name of "improving" something that is near-perfect as it is, and converting into money something that was intended to be a repository for human achievements and needs that rest well beyond mere commerce.

One would think that a former scholar like Tony Marx would actually care about the immeasurable cultural treasure under his care. But once the big money grab for immediate actual treasure is underway it's seemingly all too easy for ego-centric heads to be turned by short term gain over the long term stewardship that is the far more important, if less quickly rewarded, task.

Shame on all involved. You will no doubt be judged harshly by history soon enough.

The Old Wolf said...

New Yorker of the 50's here. Transitions of this nature sadden me more than I can say. Yorktown, the Automat, the Huntington-Hartford Museum, Prexy's, Nedick's, the BMT and IRT lines, Schraffts, the Tip Toe Inn... all too much of my childhood has now been relegated to history. Thank you for the way you archive the interesting bits and pieces.

jersey bola said...

This is really, really disappointing.

Gary said...

Read about what they are going to be doing to the Brooklyn Pacific branch. Look at what they did yrs ago to the multi-floored branch on 58th St. btwn. Park & Lex. Consider how Donnell was decimated & how they will re-open in only a 3rd of the space & all in the basement.

Gary said...

Read about what they are going to be doing to the Brooklyn Pacific branch. Look at what they did yrs ago to the multi-floored branch on 58th St. btwn. Park & Lex. Consider how Donnell was decimated & how they will re-open in only a 3rd of the space & all in the basement.