Earlier this year the New York Public Library (NYPL) announced, to considerable outcry, a plan to remodel the historic main branch on Fifth Avenue at Forty-second Street. This plan included removing books from seven stories of underground stacks and building a lending library in that space. Then, last month, after receiving additional funds, the NYPL announced they would build additional underground stacks below the new lending library in order to keep more books close at hand. As patrons we won’t see these books, but we’ll know that they’re resting below us in Dewey decimal order in temperature-controlled vaults. The new plan makes everybody feel better because it recognizes that books are special things, and that this is what the NYPL is all about.
But let’s take a look at what’s happening right across Fifth Avenue at Mid-Manhattan Library (MML), NYPL’s main lending branch. This six-story library spreads its collections in the first four floors, with offices in the floors above. For over fifteen years the new books, most-lended books, DVD’s and CD’s were kept on the first floor, while other, more esoteric, less-lended books were kept on higher floors. It made perfect sense, because people could run in, conduct their business on the first floor, and run out. Then earlier this year the folks at the MML moved the stacks of (worn, scuffed, spine-damaged) most-lended books, which felt like the heart of the place, to the second floor to make room for more DVD’s. So now about half the floor has been given over to CD’s and DVD’s, just as people are, more and more, consuming music and movies digitally. While people are also, more and more, consuming books digitally, it’s the library’s original mission to house books. And MML was a one-of-a-kind urban library. It offered the exquisite comfort of endless rows of books, but housed inside a hideous brutalist building with turnstiles, security guards, buzzing fluorescent lights, and, at all hours, an eclectic, energetic stream of patrons. Now, except for perimeter shelves holding new fiction and non-fiction, the entire first floor is given over to music and movies. Shouldn’t it be all about the books?