Two lions in winter: How to save a public library

Book review: Scott Sherman tries to expose the corporate-vs-literary battle over the venerable New York Public Library


Patience and Fortitude by Scott Sherman.  No Credit.


Scott Sherman

Change usually makes people nervous. When that change involves a radical overhaul of a beloved icon like the grand New York Public Library on 42nd Street, emotions are bound to be volatile. The library’s resplendent reading and research rooms have been used by everyone from Leon Trotsky to Bob Dylan. During the Great Depression, mayor Fiorello La Guardia dubbed the two lion statues guarding the library’s entrance Patience and Fortitude, a way to boost the city’s morale. As Sherman shows, patience and fortitude, as well as arrogance and chutzpah, were all in play in a recent clash of visions over the future of the library.

The NYPL is a private non-profit organization, rather than a wholly government-controlled entity. In 2007, as part of a “bold” plan to boost the library’s ever-troubled finances, the NYPL’s board of trustees, and its president and CEO, Paul LeClerc, quietly implemented the “Central Library Plan.” Wanting to take advantage of the pricey New York real estate market, they resolved to sell several branches, and relocate three million books in the stacks of the iconic 42nd Street library to a facility in Princeton, N.J. The savings would allow for a $300-million renovation to the flagship NYPL, making the main library more consumer-friendly and financially viable.

In a series of articles in The Nation magazine in 2011, Sherman chronicled the battle over the controversial Central Plan, the difficulties it faced after the 2008 market meltdown, and the vocal and ultimately successful opposition that was mounted against it. For those who want to know more, his book delves even deeper. Half of it is the story behind the plan, and the other is the story of how it was stopped by an organized protest of writers, historians and other luminaries appalled by the business approach adopted by LeClerc (the villain of this tale).

Sherman, however, is an outsider trying to open doors that remained closed; as he concedes, few of the key players in this Seinfeldian melodrama would talk to him. As a result, too much of the book is based on the accounts of individuals removed from the intrigue, or taken from newspapers, magazines, even blogs. Its lesson, though, resonates beyond those closed doors and the city they’re a part of: Libraries, including the one at 42nd Street and Fifth Avenue, may not be as well-used as they were 25 years ago, and we may be living in the digital age, but some sacred institutions are best left alone.

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Two lions in winter: How to save a public library

  1. I just learned of 1800 scrolls preserved in a library buried by Vesuvius while listening to “I am a River” and Oceania:
    (MLB fan says) I can endure anything because I know my history. If one person can do it, why not emulate:
    the resilience of a Spartan, the wisdom of any Greek Philosopher, the kindness of Jesus, the bravery of Martel, the bravery of Socrates.
    They were more than my equal as they had no model to copy from; they single-handedly created Western Civilization. They were afraid they’d be conquered by a more powerful nation or civil war. They didn’t know if their works would survive posterity. MLB fan is happy I have their mistakes and successes to learn from to make my world a better place. History is necessary to know otherwise you will repeat the mistakes of other civilizations that didn’t survive.
    There are many artifacts (other than the charred scrolls of Herculanean) I’ve left (consider the song titles too), you’ll find if you use a ground-imaging technology. GPR is not powerful enough. (me) Neutrinos? Yes!
    We are an urban nation. Urbanity is important because you choose who to associate with and learning who is useful to you makes you better at choosing other aspects of your life; other aspects are also choices. (He) is partial to Jesus as Jesus is his favourite Roman, but Jesus is really not that good without Greek rationality (my mind drifted here).

    • My thoughts were the Greeks weren’t perfect, but they predate Islam and Christian religions. And they showed a path to greatness that relied upon bettering one’s self. I think the more we can learn of who they were, the better alternative to a lot of the power posturing and killing that goes on in the world committed by those who belief in only the Koran or only the Bible, while ignoring what we’ve learned since and what was learned before. Neither of those books are very useful to me in dealing with human extinction threat problems that have suddenly been thrust upon me.
      I’d guess Democritus is the smartest person who lived. I’d love to uncover a text penned by him. We could fund the Papyri of Herculeneum excavation, and we could align our synchrotron beamlines to exeriments conducive towards reading the scrolls, and we could perfect and develop the relevant synchrotron techniques necessary to read complete works. We could fund neutrino research necessary to find future such sites. It would be good stimulus money for the region and for our cutting edge science. A reason to kill income splitting.
      If there is a better way to get the middle east to stop killing eachother I’d love to hear it. A CBC radio show interviewed a knowledgable Middle Easterner about war in the region, perhaps Gaza, and he gave very calm interview until Israel was mentioned and his voice immediately become emotional. I was not able to hear Intrepid’s hidden cartoon music messages about WWII until I controlled my emotions.