Saturday, May 16, 2009

Open Letter to New York City on the Topic of Libraries

After closing the Donnell Library, and planning to close the Mid-Manhattan, the city now plans to cut library funding as well. This is completely unacceptable and I have written my representative as such. You should do the same here. I wrote the following:

Dear Sirs:

I do not need the library. I am by no means poor. I have a Midtown corporate job and own an Upper West Side Co-op (and therefore pay a variety of taxes). I am an insatiable reader, but based on my income there is no reason why I couldn’t purchase my books at Barnes and Nobles, or buy a Kindle and subscribe to Amazon’s eBook service.

The person who taught me to use the library is the same person who taught me to be an insatiable reader: my father. As a child, every Saturday included a trip to the library, where I would wander the stacks (first the children’s, then the young adults’, then the adults’ science fiction, reading H.G. Wells’ The Time Machine while still in grade school, when my peers were hanging out in the school yard, braiding each other’s hair and kissing boys behind parked cars). Perhaps I missed out on one kind of socialization, but I gained another kind of skill and knowledge, ultimately far more important. My parents, I would like you to note, could not have afforded to buy any book they pleased, much less the literally hundreds of books I devoured. If it had not been for the library then, I likely would have found some other kind of lonely dissipation, far less constructive than the social criticisms of Wells and Bradbury (another childhood favorite).

As an adult and a graduate student at Columbia University, I was shocked by the shabbiness of that institution’s libraries. I obtained and Access card and did most of my research at the NYPL’s main library, which, without fail, had the books and periodical issues I needed. I wrote much of my thesis under the soaring ceilings of the main reading rooms, inspired by the generations of great thought surrounding me.

Now that I work in the MetLife building, I go to the Mid-Manhattan branch on my lunch breaks to return old books and check out new ones. My reading list is over 100 volumes long, and, the more I read, the longer it seems to get. But imagine my surprise when, last summer, at a meeting of the WNYC Community Advisory Board (of which I am a member), an audience member asked why the station hadn’t done any coverage of the closing of the libraries. I didn’t know what she was talking about—it seems there was very little coverage indeed of the proposed sales of the Donnell and Mid-Manhattan libraries (there seemed instead to have been a cover-up!). A Google search turned up only one New York Times article, one or two mentions on the development blog, and a short press release hidden away on the NYPL’s website. It seems that Mayor Bloomberg, who is also by no means poor, and who can afford to purchase all of his books, decided to dispense with the two main branch libraries in the city—they only circulating libraries in Manhattan that offer any chance of having the book you’re seeking, if you’re seeking something more erudite than a best-selling murder mystery or romance (for the branch libraries, forgive me for saying it, have unpardonably shabby collections).

Mr. Bloomberg’s offense is unforgivable. His role as mayor is custodial, one of stewardship, not ownership. The libraries, and the land on which they stand, belong to the people of this city, for their betterment. The Donnell is to become a hotel, a thing of which Manhattan offers hundreds. And the millions of dollars received in exchange? Funneled to some other, undisclosed project, since Mr. Bloomberg now proposes to cut library funding. It seems to me that with the imprudent auctioning off of the NYPL’s most precious asset—Mid-town real estate—there would be plenty of liquid funds available to not only maintain the remaining library services as-is, but in fact augment them! Was that not the stated plan, when hedge fund mogul Stephen A. Schwarzman pledged $100 million for the refurbishment of the main library, so long as it featured his name engraved on the stone fa├žade?

Generally, I walk the streets of my city, overflowing with pride and gratitude. But every time I think of what is becoming of our libraries, I am filled with shame and disgust. The closure of libraries is not something that happens in America’s most intellectual and cosmopolitan city—it is a story belonging to the dark history of the Soviets, to totalitarian regimes operating by the backward, feudal principle that the people live to serve the government. In America, the government is for the people, and so are the libraries.

The tumbling down of the economy because of the past decade’s wanton profligacy points to one reason why I’ve always favored libraries to bookstores. As a recent installation at the Guggenheim proposed, we possess books in our minds, not our hands. The purchasing of books wastes two kinds of paper—the stock on which the words are printed, and the green-printed, cotton stock for which they are exchanged. After one’s bought a book, what does one do with it? I’ve found that many people don’t even read the books they’ve bought, but assuming they have, then what? It’s either stacked on a bookshelf at home to collect dust, or thrown into the trash heap. The lucky ones get passed onto a friend. Library books, conversely, are shared, read again and again. Nothing is more “green” than a library, which recycles knowledge through the community and reduces ignorance and thus despair, all by enabling books to be reused.

I ask your forgiveness if this letter has meandered; I’ve aimed to give you full access to my thoughts and feelings about this issue. In exchange, I hope that you will reconsider your plan to restrict access to libraries for me and my fellow New Yorkers, many who need that access much more desperately than I do. Every weekend I volunteer at 826NYC, which offers free drop-in tutoring for students ages 6-18. Every weekend I take a crash-course in a different topic, since students come in with projects and essays on topics about which, for some reason, they have no knowledge. I find myself saying, so often, “let’s find a book and look it up.” Without the library, where would these students go to find the answers to their questions about Ancient China, World War II, and Acids and Bases (three topics I’ve helped students research this April)? Wikipedia, as commendable a project as it is, cannot be the sole purveyor of knowledge for the next generation.

The city needs more from its libraries, not less—especially now, when fewer people can afford books from the bookstore and have internet access at home, when people desperately need help putting together resumes and finding work. New Yorkers, myself included, have chosen you, with our votes, and pay you, with our tax dollars, to care for our city and its institutions. You do not have our permission to cut library funding further.

With greatest sincerity,


1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Hi Ms. Dahl,

I noticed your entry on re the NYPL crisis.

A committee has formed called Save the Donnell, which is an offshoot of the W 54/55 St Block Association. We hold sporadic/monthly meetings, and conduct lobbying with the electeds, community presentations.

Please come to our upcoming meeting, which is tomorrow night at 7 p.m. at the Warwick Hotel, 65 W 54 Street, First Floor, Davies Room.