Patience and Fortitude: Scott Sherman on the Fight to Save the NYPL

Patience and Fortitude - Scott Sherman - NYPL Rose Reading Room
The NYPL's Rose Reading Room © jiawangkun/Shutterstock

In the 1930s, beloved populist New York City Mayor Fiorello La Guardia named the two lions that stand guard outside the Fifth Avenue entrance of the main library. As Scott Sherman notes, in his book of the same title, La Guardia decided upon "Patience and Fortitude -- virtues, he felt, that city residents needed to endure the Great Depression."

Jump ahead seventy years to the Great Recession, and those virtues were sold down the river like the fine artwork that once lined the library's walls. During the financial crisis, trustees of the NYPL came up with the Central Library Plan, which called for selling off major library "assets" (aka "libraries") and removing the seven-story stacks of research material. Millions of books and other materials sit directly beneath, and support, both intellectually and structurally, the magnificent Rose Reading Room. (If you’ve never been, go. At a later date.)

The levels of secrecy amongst the elites behind the CLP would make Richard Nixon blush, as they put a scheme into action that emphasized property values and latte machines over scholarship. The fate of one of the world’s foremost research libraries is at the center of Sherman’s rippingly-good Patience & Fortitude. The machinations of what goes on behind closed library doors, and the underdog activists who fought on behalf of literary lions, might not sound riveting. Trust an NYPL regular, at under 200 pages, Sherman’s book reads like the best of intrigue-filled political thrillers. All the Librarian’s Men. 

Sherman, 46, is a contributing writer at The Nation and has written for all sorts of publications like Vanity FairDissent, and the London Review of Books. Shortly after returning to New York form his new home in Turkey, Sherman spoke with Signature about the fight to save one of Gotham's greatest cultural institutions.

Signature: Before we get into the book, why did you move and how have you found living in Turkey?

Scott Sherman: I’d been in New York City for twenty-three years, my wife almost twenty. She’s from India, so we’re closer to her parents, which was part of the move. Mainly though, we felt like we reached a point in life where we needed change. Istanbul is a fascinating city, an edgy city. On May Day, we had street-fighting, tear gas, and water cannons, but it’s also much more laid back than New York.

SIG: For readers who aren’t familiar with the library story, what was the basic problem with the funding that led to putting the CLP plan in motion?

SS: It’s a big system that includes the main New York Public Library, multiple branches, and four other research libraries. Funding libraries has always been hard. The branches get their money from the city, and many were allowed to rot, but the research facilities are paid for through philanthropy. By 2005, those facilities were facing a severe financial crisis that the trustees thought would never end, so they responded by selling off the library’s most famous painting -- “Kindred Spirits” by Asher Durand -- to a Walmart heiress for $35 million. By 2007, there were no more paintings left to sell, but there was a real estate boom, so the NYPL leaders decided to sell their own property. In theory, it’s not a terrible idea, but they should have consulted the public and spoken to their own librarians about it.

SIG: So if historically they’ve had funding problems, was it a case that they were more acute in the mid-2000s, or that it was decided to "solve" them during the real estate boom?

SS: Funding issues are built into the institution’s DNA. The Library of Congress is funded by the federal government, which is great for them, but the NYPL is a private non-profit corporation. As such, that means you have to find money. Since the 1950s, it’s been a search for dollars because government funds are limited and philanthropy is unreliable. That’s risky, philanthropic dollars go up and down.

SIG: I was amazed that the libraries used to be open seven days a week, ten to twelve hours a day…

SS: Think of America from the 1890s-1950s, the country had very strong governmental action on behalf of citizens for a better society. There was a belief that the working class should be able to go to a library, which meant keeping it open all week, especially at night. In New York City, starting in the 1960s, it became difficult to sustain that level of service. Most libraries are now closed on Sundays, which is an awful thing, because that’s a carefree day you often want to go to a library.

SIG: The powers-that-be claimed the research stacks were a dangerous fire hazard and needed to be removed, did they provide any evidence of that?

SS: There’s a law in New York state called the "Open Meetings Law," which I was unaware of prior to reporting the story. It says library trustees have to give over their minutes to anybody who requests them. I read ten years of trustee meeting minutes, and they said nothing about the stacks having ventilation problems. They invented that excuse after the plan became controversial. Is it true the ventilation system needed an upgrade? Sure, but critics of the plan, myself included, argued that it made way more sense to fix the ventilation at $30 million than to destroy the stacks at $500 million.

SIG: It seems they were so desperate to put the plan in motion that common sense often went out the window, like spending $5 million for a temporary library?

SS: You’re talking about a temporary replacement for the Donnell Library, which still hasn’t reopened. The original was on 53rd, while the temporary one is on 46th, behind Grand Central Station. They spent $5 million but also signed a lease that was $850,000 in rent for the first year alone, with language that said there could be increases. Maybe it was a million the next year. That is a lot of money for a library system.

SIG: You think of what a million dollars could do for small branches in the Bronx, do you agree with the person in Patience & Fortitude who says the trustees only care about the main library?

SS: That quotation came from a former NYPL executive. I won’t comment other than to say I think the neglect on the branches is largely due to New York City politicians. But if the trustees were willing to spend $300 million, which went up to $500 million, on the main branch, then that suggests the quote is true.

SIG: Patience & Fortitude isn’t about defense contractors, it’s about a library. Were you as surprised as I was at the level of secrecy, stonewalling, no-commenting, and not talking to you about the book?

SS: One of the beats I cover at The Nation is the non-profit sector, foundations, and organizations. I’ve noticed over the last decade it’s been harder and harder to get information from many of these organizations. They have aggressive PR flacks who’ve often gone to law school and are skilled at containing journalistic inquiries. The entire non-profit sector is becoming more rigid and corporate, but I was still staggered by the CLP secrecy. If the 2008 recession never happened, they would have put the plan into action and it would have been finished by the time Mayor Bloomberg left office.

SIG: There is no better example of the trustee hubris than not including librarians in the process…

SS: If you're the president of the NYPL, you need to work with the trustees, but you also need to be in charge and make decisions. My reporting shows that Dr. Paul LeClerc basically turned over the library to a handful of wealthy real estate developers and businessmen. He stepped aside and let them do what they want.

SIG: There was also this notion that the research function of the library is not as important in modern times. Isn’t that antithetical to what a research library is for?

SS: Yes, but the plan was conceived at roughly the same time that Google was saying they would digitize all the world’s books. The trustees went in believing Google would copyright and deliver books to everyone’s laptops and mobile devices. The Google deal fell apart when a federal judge rejected it, but the trustees had already jumped the gun. I'm sure they were shocked, but they should have waited to find out how the digital age will affect scholarship.

The NYPL is sitting on thirty million items, but the trustees don’t seem passionate about its research function. So what will the library be if they don’t want to be a research library? They should give the items to a library that wants them, but oftentimes they can’t because they’re gifts that can’t be transferred by law.

SIG:  In a broad sense, it feels like libraries today are pushing coffee bars and free Wi-Fi, in lieu of serious scholarship…

SS: I used the 42nd St. library for twenty-five years and there was no coffee bar inside. In the rain and cold, I had to go across the street to the deli, so I think it’s fine that they now have a cafe. The more crucial question is eBooks vs. paper books. At no point during the NYPL controversy could anyone say, go read a more recent eBook because only books prior to 1923 are fully accessible in the NYPL databases. If you want a book about Dwight Eisenhower from the 1950s, the digital version will be fragmented. I did a story for The Nation on the state of University Presses, of which there are roughly one hundred from Harvard to the University of Alaska. I asked a number of publishers if scholars prefer eBooks or paper books. How are they reading today? There is a general sense that if a scholar is skimming a book, which scholars do every day, then eBooks are fantastic. However, for scholars who want to carefully read, actual physical books are preferred.

SIG: (Spoiler Alert) In the last third of Patience & Fortitude, the ostensible good guys come together to protest and rally support, and they win. The plan is scrapped. You had a front row seat to the activism, which had to be fairly exciting?

SS: The fight was basically won by independent scholars, library lovers, and historic preservationists. I sound like a Nation magazine writer here, but it was a reminder that citizen action is still important and being done successfully.

SIG: On the other hand, three million books were removed from the stacks, and are sitting in a New Jersey warehouse. Are they going to be returned anytime soon?

SS: I asked repeatedly to clarify where the books are and where they’ll go, but never got any answers. I’m 100% sure that in 2013, when the stacks were quickly emptied, some books and photographs were damaged, even if the NYPL communications department denies it. Overall, it was only a partial victory. The stacks were not destroyed and the mid-Manhattan library was saved. Important victories, but the fact that the stacks are empty remains problematic. It’s expensive to store books offsite. If books are in Princeton, someone has to pay for storage, and for the gas and the driver to retrieve them. It’s not free. The stacks were beautifully-designed to store books—

SIG: I want to clarify, the stacks are free of books, so they are just serving as load-bearing support for the Rose Reading Room?

SS: Yes. The library’s justification is they can't put the books back in the stacks until they have proper ventilation, to which the critics say… There's unfinished business with the stacks.

SIG: Patience & Fortitude got to me because I’ve spent a lot of time reading and writing in the incredible Rose Reading Room and the utilitarian mid-Manhattan branch across the street. Do you have a personal attachment to the NYPL?

SS: I started my freelance career in 1993. Just to get out of my apartment, I went there to do work. I love the 42nd St. library. It became a secondary, then my primary, office. I’ve had a bit of a peculiar career because I’ve always been a longform journalist. I’d spend two-three months on a piece, something I was passionate about. I’ve written on subjects that aren’t covered a lot: The history of the Ford Foundation, the Spanish Civil War, the 1965 slaughter in Indonesia, student strikes in Mexico City, Robert Caro, Barbara Ehrenreich… These are 5,000 word articles that require a significant amount of research, all of which was done at the 42nd St. library. I loved filling out those call slips and getting books fifteen minutes later.

When I started reporting this story, I knew the building, and some of its people, well. I believe strongly that the New York Public Library matters and we should have a full debate on its future. The fight for the library grew so loud because New Yorkers have a sense that their great cultural institutions are under threat from the forces of financial capital. There is no doubt that the CLP was put into motion by a prominent real estate developer and a right-wing philanthropist. Many activists and citizens believe these institutions need to be watched and defended.