A $350 million plan to renovate the iconic 42nd Street building of the New York Public Library has been attracting attention in recent weeks. Among other changes, the plans calls for consolidating the research collection housed there with the lending library across the street. The bottom line is that several million books currently stored on 42nd St. will be moved to New Jersey, from which they’ll be shipped upon request. In place of the stacks will go new public spaces–including circulation desks, computer terminals, and possibly a cafe–designed by the celebrity architect Norman Foster, who’s best known for London’s revolting “Gherkin“. (For a detailed account of the plan and its origins, see the recent piece by Charles Petersen in N+1).
As the Brooklyn-based writer Caleb Crain has tirelessly argued, there’s a lot to dislike here. Perhaps the worst is the way it reflects a degraded and all too common understanding of democracy. It would be philistinism if the books were moved out simply to save money. But NYPL President Anthony Marx’s PR shop claims that doing so is a way of “moving toward the original vision of the building as a democratized ‘People’s Palace.’”
The thought, as I understand it, is that while the non-circulating collection of the current library is oriented toward researchers, writers, and students, the renovated building will also serve casual readers and tourists. A broadened appeal means more visitors. More visitors means more democracy.
This line of argument mistakes popularity for democracy. More precisely, it replaces the elevating democracy of open access with the degraded democracy of consumer demand. The research collections at the NYPL are democratic insofar as they are free and can be used by anyone, without special permissions or institutional affiliations. They are exclusive, however, in the sense that fewer people are interested in using those resources than they are in borrowing copies of The Hunger Games, snapping photographs, or sipping cappucinos. But if mass appeal were the essence of democracy, Disneyland might be not only the happiest, but also the most democratic place on earth. Is the Sleeping Beauty Castle, then, the People’s Palace?
Of course, no defender of the renovation plan would go so far. They seem, for the most part, to be well-intentioned people who want the library to flourish in times of austerity. But the assumption that democracy requires cultural institutions to be not just open to all, but actually of interest to all has become something like a dogma of modern public life (in the UK, it is in some cases a condition of government funding). In practice, the result is not the dissemination of “the best that has been thought and said”, as Matthew Arnold famously put it. It’s gorgeous buildings filled with costumes from Star Wars.
A number of academics and intellectuals have gotten up a petition against the plan. It’s worth signing whether you are a library user, visitor to New York, or simply a friend of books. Research libraries are literally conservative institutions. A first-class research library is a public good worth conserving.