Last summer, as the City of Ottawa was putting forward a controversial plan for the future if its downtown main library branch, I picked up a book on a similar fight in New York City. The reasons for having well-funded, centrally-located public libraries are countless, yet the threat to their existence seems to surface regularly. As such, so have the campaigns to save public libraries, and perhaps, I thought, this book could provide some tactical insight and inspiration.
In this short but dense series of investigative pieces, journalist Scott Sherman reviews the latest round of attacks on the New York Public Library (NYPL), an institution well known in the city for its prized academic collections and as a community hub. Contrary to what some may think, the NYPL has not technically been publicly-owned like we would define it in Canada for quite some time. Despite the name, it is managed independently as a non-profit corporation, and has long been dependent on both private and public funding to sustain its operations.
The book gives a historical perspective on how today’s NYPL, with more than 50 branches across the city, has come to be: from the debate to charge user fees, to that of selling off high-priced assets to secure revenue, and even to selling buildings, the NYPL has seen it all.
In the lead-up to the 2008 financial crisis, administrators developed a plan to sell off major branches of the library to generate revenue. At the same time, the plan was to relocate thousands of books from its research collections to a remote storage facility. The whole thing was justified under the guise of bringing a “modern” and “technological” approach to managing the library. Through the campaign and the work of a small but mighty group of academics, activists, writers and others, this fight was brought out of the boardroom and into the public sphere and the streets. The campaign’s goal was to expose the plan as merely one to give away public assets to the benefits of condo and luxury hotel developers – a plan that had little to do with keeping the interest of the library at heart and accessible to people.
At one point, the campaign was struggling to gain broad support and recognition. The book briefly chronicles the moment when the campaign was able to get a few high-profile, younger, allies, and hit social media in a big way. Young blogger and activist Matthew Zadrozny was featured on the blog Humans of New York, and his profile was an appeal to save the NYPL. It worked, and the coverage helped to bring the campaign into the mainstream. The book could have gained in chronicling other key campaign turning points such as this one.
The fight in NYC, although related, has little to do with the fight to oppose the threat facing the Ottawa Public Library, and so there is little to learn from this book in terms of tactics and arguments that will resonate with the situation in Ottawa. There are still lessons to gain, though, and they have to do with the fact that if there is money to be made by selling space, assets or ideas, then even the most prized of institutions are not immune. To learn more about the NYPL, its historical significance, quirky anecdotes and the colourful characters that have defended it over the years, this book is worth a read.
Patience and Fortitude: Power, Real Estate and The fight to save a public library, Scott Sherman, Melville House, 2015