The struggle to save a New York icon.
Patience and Fortitude, the names of the venerable lions flanking the entrance of the New York Public Library, serve well as the title of journalist Sherman’s debut book about the determined and courageous protestors battling vast changes to the library. Based on articles that he published in the Nation, Sherman presents a scathing exposé of a proposed Central Library Plan that would have demolished the NYPL stacks, sent 3 million books off-site to Princeton, New Jersey, and left branch libraries destitute. Many noted writers and scholars were aghast: Salman Rushdie signed a protest letter, as did Tom Stoppard, Ann Patchett, Donna Tartt, Jonathan Lethem, and others. But the library’s board of trustees were equally notable—including Toni Morrison, former Harvard president Neil Rudenstine, and historian Robert Darnton—and they struggled to address the institution’s dire economic straits. The NYPL, the only private library among the world’s great research libraries, “must find about 70% of its revenues from the private sector.” Benefactors’ donations temporarily stemmed the erosion of money, but soon after Brooke Astor donated $5 million, for example, the library was once again broke. In the 1980s, under Vartan Gregorian’s presidency, the NYPL’s endowment rose to $172 million, but the need for more funds never abated. The library took to selling off art and property, closing branches, and retaining architect Norman Foster to revamp the Fifth Avenue building, de-emphasizing research but creating modern, inviting spaces. It would become, one critic said, “a vast internet cafe,” where visitors could check email and read e-books. Many of the library’s trustees would not talk to Sherman, and even Bill de Blasio, who supported the protestors, declined to be interviewed. Nevertheless, Sherman has unearthed convincing evidence that the CLP was misguided; the library, he urges, “needs government regulation” and “a new generation of public-spirited trustees.”
A compelling exploration of the battle over “a world-class library that lost its way in the digital age.”