Historians and archivists say the NY Public Library no longer functions as a world-class research libraryHistorians in the News
tags: Library, NY Public Library
Scholars who use the New York Public Library are boiling with frustration. It wasn’t supposed to be this way. In 2014 the library, under pressure from a coalition that included four senior scholars, abandoned its controversial Central Library Plan, which entailed gutting the stacks at the 42nd Street Library and selling the popular Mid-Manhattan Library across the street. But the situation hasn’t turned out how many critics had hoped.
... In early 2012, Joan Wallach Scott, a historian at the Institute for Advanced Study, in Princeton, was shaken by what I had reported [about the plan to move books off-site]. My article, she recalled in 2014, "was an invitation to act" in defense of an institution "that matters to me more than almost anything else."
In the 1950s the library had helped to ignite Scott’s interest in French history; she would spend her vacations from college at the 42nd Street building, where staff members would allow her to read newspapers that appeared in Paris during the Revolution of 1848. Some were in fair condition; others turned to dust in her hands. She still remembers "the sheer excitement of touching real paper from ages gone by." Scott went on to become a leader in her field and in feminist scholarship.
She told me that in 2012 she found herself "feeling angrier and angrier about — I don’t know what to call it — neoliberal capitalism and feeling powerless to affect it." For decades her activism — building women’s-studies departments, defending academic freedom — had been confined to the university. But as she learned more about the New York Public Library plan, she found herself ready — and eager — to venture off campus.
Scott phoned an old friend, Stanley N. Katz, who was down the road at Princeton University’s Woodrow Wilson School. In the realm of higher education, Katz wears many hats (though he prefers elegant bow ties): elder statesman, power broker, commentator, activist, maverick. A member of Harvard’s Class of 1955 and an ardent old-school liberal, he has numerous friends in the highest echelons of journalism, philanthropy, and politics, and he maintains a punishing schedule that would challenge a person half his age.
Katz is not only an esteemed legal historian but also an expert on the nonprofit sector, and he was curious about NYPL’s trajectory after LeClerc’s departure. Indeed, Katz had known the library’s new president, Tony Marx, who took over in 2011, when the latter was a graduate student at Princeton and had extolled Marx’s accomplishments as president of Amherst College, from 2003 to 2011.
Like Scott, Katz had an emotional attachment to the library at 42nd Street. As a graduate student and young professor, he had relied on its resources — especially the old American History Room, which was abruptly shuttered in 1980 over the objections of scholars like Arthur Schlesinger Jr., who complained about a "rather mysterious" decision-making process at NYPL. The loss of that intimate room, with its open shelving and camaraderie, is still keenly felt by Katz: "It was a refuge, a haven, an incredible resource," he says. "I could be sure that every reference work that existed was there and available."
Scott and Katz decided to write a protest letter: "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," they said. Scott didn’t know how to create an online petition, so the letter was dispatched from her personal email account....
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