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Book Review: Patience and Fortitude

Book Review: Patience and Fortitude

October 14, 2015 | by Elizabeth Rohn Jeffe, Vice-Chair
Article from the Fall 2015 Newsletter

For anyone interested not only in preservation, but also in saving its story, Patience and Fortitude: Power, Real Estate, and the Fight to Save a Public Library by Scott Sherman is must reading.  (“Patience” and “Fortitude” are the names given by Depression-era Mayor Fiorella La Guardia to the statues of the lions flanking the stairs at the entrance to the 42nd Street Library.)  Sherman’s richly documented volume, published this year, provides a compelling account of the recent fight by a group of academics, writers, book lovers, and preservationists to save the 42nd Street Library in both form and function.  The battle was fought to block the implementation of the NYPL board’s Central Library Plan (CLP), which sought to redesign the magnificent Carrère and Hastings edifice, merge the other three midtown libraries into the 42nd Street library, remove all the books from the famous stacks to offsite storage, and destroy the stacks themselves. As Sherman summarizes it, this was “a brawl about democracy, architecture, and crucially, the role of books in the digital age.” Ultimately, the opponents of the CLP won the battle.

The CLP, first conceived by the NYPL Trustees in 2004 under the leadership of then-president Paul LeClerc, was a radical vision that virtually abandoned the famous landmark library’s role as a research institution in favor of remaking it into a media center and neighborhood gathering place. The engine running the CLP was a desire to gain much-needed revenues for the library system. (Sherman does point out that contrary to its name, the NYPL is actually private and must raise its own funds. The NYPL system, serving Manhattan, Staten Island, and the Bronx, is an awkward combination of branch libraries that receive government financing, and the 42nd Street Library, which does not. The latter has been bleeding financially for many years in spite of the largesse of such patrons as Brooke Astor.)  Hence, the CLP included a provision to sell some of the NYPL’s real estate, including its three midtown libraries: the Manhattan Midtown library on Fifth Avenue between 39th and 40th Streets, the Science, Industry and Business Library at 34th Street and Madison Avenue, and the Donnell Library on West 53rd Street just off Fifth Avenue. The contents of these libraries would be moved to create a vast circulating library at the 42nd Street Library in a dramatically altered physical space. 

Essential to the plan was a Google version of the future in which digital resources would take precedence over print.  This approach would essentially dismantle the long-revered function of the NYPL as a world-renowned research resource.  In the opinion of many scholars, this simply would not work. As writer Caleb Crain is quoted in Patience and Fortitude, “I halt at the problem of how to reproduce digitally the phenomenon of having a dozen physical books open to different pages at once on my work table. In the future, will I need to buy a dozen iPads?”  With pressing financial burdens facing them, the Trustees took their cues from individuals on the board whose backgrounds were in real estate or finance.  They also modeled the CLP on businesses such as FedEx and Netflix, with heavy consulting input from McKinsey and Company and Booz Allen Hamilton, none of which relate to libraries or scholarly pursuits. In fact, according to Sherman, as the CLP began to take shape, NYPL librarians who used to be included in discussions about library policy were shut out entirely from planning and evaluation.

In March 2008, when LeClerc announced that financier Stephen A. Schwartzman intended to give the NYPL a $100 million gift, the CLP had been expanded to include plans to place the books in the famous stacks in offsite storage and, most shocking of all, to destroy the stacks themselves.  (As Sherman points out, this new wrinkle was not mentioned in a New York Times article on Schwartzman’s gift until the 20th paragraph. Indeed, the secrecy of the process in which the NYPL Trustees were engaged is a major theme of the book.)  The final effect of the CLP, therefore, would be to destroy a beloved research institution in order to create a media and social hub. Gone forever would be the much-beloved experience of requesting a book, having it delivered from the stacks, and then perusing it in the Rose Reading Room. Now visitors would have to wait for books to be delivered from Princeton.  Also in 2008, British architect Norman Foster was charged with remodeling the revered Carrère and Hastings edifice at a projected cost of $300 million. The noble structure was renamed the Stephen A. Schwartzman Building; as Sherman wryly points out, the founders of the library, Tilden, Lenox, and Astor, have their names appear only once, but Schwartzman’s is chiseled into the structure in five places.

The recession of 2008 delayed the implementation of the CLP, and by 2011, Sherman’s editor at the Nation asked him to write an article based on reports of distress that were surfacing about the NYPL Trustees’ plan. Sherman’s article, published in December and entitled “Upheaval at the New York Public Library,” served as wake-up call, and public outrage ensued.  Joan Scott, a historian at Princeton, wrote an e-mail protest signed by the likes of Salman Rushdie and Tom Stoppard. Stanley Katz at Princeton also got on the bandwagon of protest in the early stages as did CUNY professor and bestselling biographer David Nasaw. (By this time, LeClerc was no longer president of the NYPL and his successor, Anthony Marx, was left with the task of implementing the CLP.) Early in December 2012, the venerable Ada Louise Huxtable, then the architecture critic of the Wall Street Journal, penned a scathing indictment of the CLP entitled “Undertaking Its Destruction.”  This was Huxtable’s last preservation essay; she died soon after writing it. 

A cadre of opponents to the CLP had organized initially under the leadership of Simeon Bankoff and the Historic Districts Council, and in May 2013 the not-for-profit organization called the Committee to Save the New York Public Library (CSNYPL) was created. Early leaders in the CSNYPL were architects Charles Warren and Theodore Grunewald as well as film director and producer Zack Winestine.  In 2013, the CSNYPL managed to persuade then-mayoral candidate Bill de Blasio to speak for a few minutes in front of the library in favor of saving it from the CLP.

It is beyond the scope of this review to relate the entire story of the battle, and Sherman’s wealth of detail and engaging narrative are well worth the purchase of the book. (For research purposes, Patience and Fortitude boasts an excellent index.)  What is probably the most important “takeaway” for preservationists is the detailed account of how the struggle became organized and what made it effective, and the lessons here are highly instructive. For one thing, the CSNYPL fought a modern campaign, using Twitter, a website, a Facebook page, and other social media such as the “Humans of New York” photo page in Facebook.  Yes, traditional journalism and activism (including two lawsuits) were important, but new outreach by—and to—younger preservationists was critical.  Indeed, there is no small irony in the fact that the digital vision at the heart of the CLP was defeated by a strategy that effectively used social media. The story of the fight also highlights what Sherman views as sorry performances by some elected officials and the LPC, which, according to Sherman, simply “rubber-stamped” elements of the CLP. 

In the end, CSNYPL emerged victorious, and the 42nd Street library was saved from physical and functional alteration.  However, some provisions of the CLP were not forestalled. The Donnell Library was indeed sold and has been temporarily housed at significant expense on East 46th Street. A hotel and apartment structure now stands in its former location. The NYPL still plans to sell the Science, Industry and Business Library, which has always been underutilized, but the Mid-Manhattan Library was retained and will be fully renovated by 2020.  The saddest part of the story for scholars and “drop-in” readers may be the fact that the books removed from the stacks at 42nd Street remain in offsite storage.

Patience and Fortitude is an engrossing read in its own right as the story of a preservation battle, and Sherman certainly makes a strong case against the plan, but readers’ understanding of the complexity of the issues would have been expanded had individuals on the NYPL board and other key CLP supporters agreed to be interviewed for the book.  But most of them, according to Sherman, did not take the opportunity to do so. In any case, Patience and Fortitude serves as a playbook for preservationists on fighting a campaign to save not only a structure, internally and externally, but also an aspect of intellectual life through its focus on access to scholarly resources. Sherman’s book is just the kind of precise narrative that educates activists on what to anticipate, what to be wary of, whom to listen to, and how to use all effective means to save our City’s cherished public spaces and what they offer.  Sherman has done a remarkable job in weaving together a host of facts to demonstrate that cohesive and passionate opposition by those who love the 42nd Street Library and what it represents saved it from destruction.

Above: Cover of Patience and Fortitude; Courtesy of Melville House