David Levering Lewis: The New York Public Library Must Be Saved From Itself

tags: New York City, New York Public Library, New York University, David Levering Lewis



David Levering Lewis, a university professor and professor of history at New York University, is the author of two Pulitzer Prize-winning biographies of W.E.B. Du Bois. Both books were researched at the New York Public Library.

Guarded by two beloved lions familiar to generations of readers since it opened, the New York Public Library, at 5th Avenue at 42nd Street, is the second-largest public library in America, after the Library of Congress. Ever since the doors first opened, 102 years ago, the grand marble palace of learning has served all who come, rich and poor, immigrant and native, without charge. The venerable institution would have seemed in need of no more than upgraded maintenance, paired with prudent planning, to maintain its leading place in 21st-century research service.

Instead, the largely self-elected trustees of the NYPL unveiled in the spring of 2012 their $300-million Central Library Plan (CLP), mandating a radical reconfiguration of the interior of the central building and the installation within of a circulating library. Library officials argued that it must reimagine itself as a “People’s Palace,” wherein spaces occupied by books and underutilized rooms give way to a forum for social interactivity and spaces for digital reading and retrieval. The trustees, one critic responded, were “hopelessly confusing” populism with democracy.

Millions of books, the main business of a research library, would migrate off-site to climate-controlled storage facilities in New Jersey and Westchester County, N.Y., returnable to 42nd Street on demand of readers unsatisfied with available digital reproductions or with time enough to wait for the next day’s truck delivery....




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