[Review] Patience and Fortitude: Power, Real Estate, and the Fight to Save a Public Library
September 17, 2015
Scott Sherman's Patience and Fortitude: Power, Real Estate, and the Fight to Save a Public Library is a nuanced, enlivening, and ultimately sobering account of the birth and death of a plan to renovate and reorganize the New York Public Library, whose iconic main branch on Fifth Avenue in midtown Manhattan has welcomed millions of scholars, researchers, and readers since it opened in 1911. While the book is an impressive exercise in investigative journalism — providing, as it does, a meticulously researched account of the development of the "Central Library Plan" (CLP) — and the loud public rejection of said plan — it is also a paean to the NYPL and the power of citizen engagement.
Indeed, were it not for the impassioned voices of countless New Yorkers raised against the CPL, people like author Junot Diaz, who wrote, as part of a campaign protesting the plan, that "[t]o destroy the NY Public Library is to destroy our sixth and best borough; that beautiful corner of New York City where all are welcome and all are equals, and where many of us were first brought to the light," it is likely the institution's leaders would have succeeded in "repurposing" the library for the digital age while creating an enormously valuable parcel of land in the heart of one of the priciest real estate markets on the planet.
Taking its title from the two granite lions standing guard at the entrance to the library's landmarked building on Fifth Avenue, Patience and Fortitude examines in detail the plan's origins, as well as the objections to it, which focused on the proposal to transfer three million books from the library's basement stacks to a state-of-the-art storage facility in Princeton, New Jersey. In the process, Sherman, who first reported on the CLP in The Nation, reminds his readers that, throughout its storied history, the NYPL was funded by New York-based business and civic luminaries — Astor, Carnegie, and Rockefeller, among them — in the name of private philanthropy for the public good. The CLP, in contrast, was designed by consulting firms with an expertise in real estate and appears to have been driven by a handful of wealthy library donors, including some sitting trustees, with their own interests in mind.
But if Sherman does a nice job depicting the sometimes messy collision of the nonprofit and for-profit worlds, it is his willingness to ask tough questions about governance, transparency, and perceived conflicts of interest involving multi-million-dollar real estate deals and various construction contracts that really grabs the reader's attention. His profiles of various trustees and their personal motives in backing the plan, as well as anti-CLP community organizers and their effective use of both traditional and social media to fight the plan, are compelling. And his description of the public outcry in opposition to the plan — a groundswell that grew to include the likes of Vaclav Havel, Salman Rushdie, and Mario Vargas Llosa, among others — should be a reminder to every nonprofit board member about the crucial importance of public opinion: with no real chance of ever generating significant public support, the CLP, in its original form, was dead on arrival the minute it saw the light of day.
Ultimately, the NYPL's majestic main branch building on Fifth Avenue and its world-famous basement stacks were saved from a "renovation" that would have changed the character of the institution permanently, but not before other NYPL properties were sold at radically below-market values and more than three million books were sold or moved from the stacks to off-site storage — yet another case of public goods sacrificed for private profit. Today, Patience and Fortitude stand guard over bookless bookshelves. "The empty stacks," writes Sherman, "are the lasting image of the controversy." Meanwhile, it is ironic that the souped-up digital library of the future envisioned in the original CLP may never come to pass, not least because "the [p]lan's radicalism," as Sherman writes, "was closely linked with the techno-utopian moment in which it was born; by the time it was set in motion, Google was digitizing millions of books." A few years later, however, the Google Books project would get tangled up in "the complexities of copyright law, and "[i]n the wake of that legal decision," Sherman notes, "most of the books in the NYPL's vast collection are not electronically accessible."
Without the NYPL and its rare treasures, my own scholarly journey might not have been possible. Over several weeks in late 2000, in the stately grandeur of the library's main reading room, I viewed each and every article published between 1899 and 1998 in the social science journal The American Anthropologist, hunched over musty volumes that could be viewed only at that location. I, too, delighted in the Beaux Arts splendors of the building, as does Sherman, who describes sunbeams streaming "through the tall windows of the Rose Reading Room, glazing long wooden tables. Chairs lightly scrape the floor; librarians murmur to one another; serenity prevails." After reading Sherman's account of the years-long struggle to counter what the late E. L. Doctorow called a "mutilation" of the library, I can't help but reflect that a century of valuable anthropological research now is among the millions of absent books and publications — and that any serenity to be found in this great research institution must be balanced against the dusty loneliness of the now-silent stacks.