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Let in the Riffraff: In Praise of the New York Public Library’s Renovation Plan

Over the past several months, there has been a biting back and forth over the New York Public Library’s planned renovation (the so-called Central Library Plan or CLP), which would close two midtown circulating libraries, open a circulating library within the main research library on Fifth Avenue at 42nd Street, and move several million books off-site to make way for new facilities. 

It might be more accurate to say that there’s been a lot of pushing back and not much pressing forth. The plan has been criticized in The Nation, The Village Voice, The New York Times, and elsewhere. A letter objecting to the plan has been circulating since mid-April, and has earned endorsement from over 200 prominent figures, according to the Times. Literary scholar Caleb Crain has devoted more than 9,000 skeptical words to the subject since March. Anthony W. Marx, the Library’s beleaguered president, has taken to several platforms to defend the project. 

Many objectors raise valid concerns: the introduction of wait-periods for newly off-site books, the prioritization of renovation over investment in library staff, the potential harm to the architectural integrity of the building. But some do not raise valid worries: among them, those who fret that the scholars stand to lose even if the masses stand to gain—that creating a circulating library within the research library will diminish the place of scholarship. “[S]cholars are people, too,” wrote historian Edmund Morris in the Times last Sunday, “and we are beginning to feel, well, if not threatened, increasingly crowded out.” University of Chicago historian Joan Scott, author of the letter circulated to intellectuals and academics, writes that she fears the NYPL will cease to be “a destination for international as well as American scholars” and instead will become “a busy social center where focused research is no longer the primary goal.”

My main complaint with such concerns is the presumptuous distinction that they draw: the scholars and the others. Libraries—the NYPL in particular—are where people go to become scholars. Isn’t a studious thirteen-year-old a scholar? A journalist, who visits the library to immerse herself in some arcane matter? How about a lawyer, chef, or dancer investigating a kink in history that forever altered her profession? Or, for a specific example, consider Alfred Kazin, who composed On Native Ground at the NYPL far before he was established. “[T]he spacious twin reading rooms,” he later wrote, “gave me a sense of the powerful amenity that I craved for my own life, a world of power in which my own people had moved about as strangers.”

Sure, there are branch libraries where the same mind-expansion can be accomplished, but it’s hard to argue that the local library inspires the same degree of reverence as the Rose Reading Room, to say nothing of the disparate resources between the two entities. (According to 2009 research by the American Libraries Association, the NYPL contains 16 million books, behind only the Library of Congress and the Boston Public Library in its collection size.) The magic of places like the NYPL is that they give anyone who enters not only the benefit of the doubt but profound implicit endorsement of his intellectual capabilities. (Several years ago, I approached a NYPL librarian with a pleading and exasperated request to help me make sense of the index cataloging John Muir’s letters. Certainly, came the crisp and prompt response. No proof of my credentials was requested, which was good, because they didn’t exist.) 

Of course, opponents of the CLP aren’t arguing that access to this great research institution should be limited. And its true that inviting more people into the main research library will mean more people in the “serious” sphere who are texting their friends and updating their Facebook profile. (Though, according to Marx, there will also be expanded spaces for the “scholars”—at least 400 desks in a special “scholars and writers center.”) But, in Morris’s objection to the squeaking of sneakers in the marble lobby—he cites this irksome noise as an ominous harbinger of worse things to come if the CLP progresses—there’s a barely suppressed disdain for the idea that anyone (in sandals even!) can and should use all the NYPL has to offer. This is wrong. Among the riffraff might be the next great novelist or cultural critic, someone without a stamp of approval from an institution, but who knows enough to know that he doesn’t know enough—which just might be the most valid intellectual credential of all.

Chloë Schama is a deputy editor at The New Republic. Follow @ChloeSchama.