The architectural team of Mecanoo and Beyer Blinder Belle has been hard at work on the New York Public Library’s (NYPL) master plan for more than a year. The process has been guided by NYPL’s desire to avoid a repetition of the bruising controversy set off by Foster + Partners’ 2013 proposal to replace the stacks and its books with what some derided as an internet café. So, this marvel of efficiency, with a capacity of three million books, was excluded from the architects’ program. An omission that mocks the term “master plan.”

Just before NYPL’s trustees unanimously approved the new master plan to renovate the 42nd Street library last November, one trustee asked if it was wise to approve a proposal that excluded the building’s historic book stacks (about 1/5 of the its cubic space). Assurances were made, but the question went unanswered. A few weeks later, Iris Weinshall, NYPL’s Chief Operating Officer, was asked to release floor plans of the proposal; she claimed not to have such “technical documents.”  Stonewalling comes naturally to leadership within the two foot thick marble walls of this 1912 Carrère & Hastings masterpiece. But what responsible stewards would agree to spend $144 million on a project with no floor plans?

NYPL presents the master plan with a film (watch below) including still and animated renderings that describe changes to the building—a new entrance cut into the landmarked south facade adjacent to a stair/elevator core driven through four floors of its historic fabric; a vastly enlarged gift shop that displaces Davis Brody Bond’s 2002 learning center; and a new café that displaces the library’s renowned map collection (the learning center is moved to the basement, but where the maps will go is unclear). Narration and text describe plans to refurbish building systems and to repurpose long closed rooms. These spaces were once home to special collections, now they will become “multi-purpose rooms.” Priority is given to shopping, dining, and the movement of visitor groups between a new, basement learning center and the lower floors now, theoretically, zoned for more active public functions. One unspoken objective is to facilitate catering services to the magnificent rooms that are rented out for lavish private parties after hours. To enhance these profit centers, collections and classrooms must be moved out of the way.   

Public meetings and surveys conducted by NYPL determined that quick access to the library’s vast research collection (over 8 million books and countless other documents) was the highest priority of library users. Newly fitted out underground storage has begun to address this need, but because NYPL chooses not to upgrade environmental control systems in the main stacks, their seven floors of shelves are mostly empty and the majority of NYPL’s books are stored in New Jersey. Delivery of off-site books takes a day or more. Evidently readers and researchers must wait, even if approval of this vague, incomplete master plan cannot.

Dreams of a digital Library of Alexandria, with all human knowledge available at a keystroke, dance in the heads of some NYPL leaders. But such a totalizing information monoculture carries risks of impermanence, instability, and unwanted surveillance—the digital revolution is a work in progress. As we ponder its unintended consequences, we know that more paper books are published every year and, with ever expanding archives, they will require storage space close to curators, readers, and scholars. NYPL’s research library, in the center of New York, is uniquely suited to meet these needs. It is hard to comprehend a master plan that ignores them.