Wrecking ball illustration by Shonagh Rae

A few years ago, the doughty trustees of the New York Public Library decided they needed an architectural upgrade. So they asked Norman Foster, the renowned British architect, to design a 21st-century interior for one of their iconic Manhattan buildings, one that would be practical, cutting-edge – and cost-saving.

Late last year these $300m-and-rising plans finally went on display – and sparked a bitter fight. Never mind that Foster has proposed removing some of the dark, 19th-century features to create a light and airy vista; what has really sparked controversy is that he wants to remove the old stacks of barely used books from the above-ground areas and put them in underground storage.

That would let the library house popular collections from elsewhere in New York (and sell other buildings), as well as creating a café. “We want to use the above-ground areas for people, not book storage,” explains Anthony Marx, head of the NYPL. Or as Foster says: “There is an opportunity to create a major public space for New Yorkers.” The plans horrify some New York grandees. “Do we really want a Starbucks there, instead of books?” asks one big New York philanthropist. Indeed, Michael Kimmelman, the celebrated New York Times architecture critic, recently issued a furious attack on the “celebrity architect”, claiming that his plans were “a cramped, banal pastiche of tiers …[a] potential Alamo of engineering … a money pit”.

But in truth there is far more at stake than just architectural taste. For the key question that men such as Marx are grappling with is this: what on earth is the point of a public library at all these days? Why would anyone really need those physical book stacks – be that in an airy, Foster-designed Manhattan building, an underground warehouse, or anywhere else?

It is a very fraught issue. When the NYPL was first created in 1895, by merging a collection of small private library collections, it seemed obvious why libraries were needed. Books were precious stores of knowledge and entertainment, and it was difficult for academics (or poor people) to get access to them.

So, in true American style, philanthropists stepped in to support the public good and leave an ego-enhancing legacy. Grandees such as Samuel J. Tilden and John Jacob Astor gave vast sums to New York libraries, while in 1901 Andrew Carnegie donated $5.2m, one of the biggest single donations in history. The tradition continues: in 2008, Stephen Schwarzman, the private equity guru, donated $100m to refurbish the most iconic NYPL building on 42nd Street. That ensures that his name is now attached to the building in perpetuity and inscribed at the base of the pillars (an honour which some New Yorkers think was sold far too cheaply).

But while men such as Schwarzman might care about the pillars, what is less clear is whether modern citizens really care about those physical books. Library visits and book circulations across the western world have been declining in recent years, as more people turn to ebooks, Wikipedia or Google. The library world is fighting back by installing systems to lend ebooks, give online access to publications, and enable borrowers to get books on delivery. Some of these experiments are increasingly bold – or desperate. This month, for example, a county in Texas decided to create a new library to serve their community – but exclusively online, without any tangible books or buildings at all.

But this horrifies many academics, publishers and librarians. After all, they argue, ebooks tend to be very impermanent; physical books, by contrast, have historical value. And the sheer act of visiting libraries creates a sense of community. Or as Marx admits: “We are not designed to live alone in caves with computers; we need to get out and meet people.”

Nevertheless, Marx also knows that the pressures for change are growing. As it happens, his institution is one of the few western libraries where attendance has actually been rising – not falling – with 18.2 million visits last year, up 3.4 per cent from 2010. But it is not necessarily those book stacks that are pulling people in.

On the contrary, the library runs a dizzy array of community projects, commercial events, language training and educational programmes, as well as free internet services and ebook lending programmes. Since 2009, the NYPL has quadrupled its budget for ebooks, and spent $1m on 45,000 ebook copies. Indeed, Marx envisages his library as being akin to a giant cyber educational hub, offering anyone access, anywhere in the world, however poor. “We need to be the leading educational programme, cradle to grave,” he says.

But that, of course, is why Foster’s design is so symbolic – and so controversial. If you believe in Marx’s vision of elearning, cafés and computers make sense; if, however, you want libraries to be reverential museums, they do not. Personally, I think the crucial issue is creating community and egalitarian access to knowledge. But either way, the debate could get very noisy – even amid those solemn, historic book stacks.


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