Thursday, April 25, 2013

Building a “Murphy Library”

Murphy Bed to Murphy Library?
Library officials want to sell, tear down and shrink existing libraries as part of a hand-off of library system real estate to hungry developers eager to convert most of that public property to other uses.  As the officials attempt to explain their plans they are describing what they say are their reduced space needs by telling us they want to build Murphy Libraries.”

Let me explain what I mean when I say they want to build “Murphy libraries.”  This is a paraphrase of what they are describing as their ambitions and the term “Murphy libraries” is my own coinage.

Many of you may know what a “Murphy bed” is, although perhaps you are more likely to call it by that name if you are older: A “Murphy bed” is a pull down-bed hinged at one end, designed to be swung up to store vertically against the wall in a cabinet when not in use.  It allows you to more flexibly use a small amount of space.  (In the old Max Sennett slapstick comedies and cartoons people would get folded up into the cabinets with the beds.)

Library officials are talking about the desirability of demolishing libraries to build smaller spaces because they talk about the advantage of replacing bigger libraries with spaces that can be more flexibly used thus making the smaller spaces more equivalent in their calculations to the original space, and, they would have you believe, more desirable than what will be lost.

I myself value flexibility and creative solutions.  In fact, my first major investment when I was establishing myself in a very small apartment in Brooklyn in the 1970s was a Murphy bed.  I used to have fun telling people how I lived in what I called a “Murphy apartment.”  It took creative flexibility to the max.

When I wanted to sleep in my Murphy apartment,” my queen-size Murphy bed folded down out of the wall.  When I wanted to eat or have a dinner party the bed went up into the wall and a double-drop leaf table came out from its position where it was collecting mail in the entrance way and I was then able to seat a party of six where the bed had been.  If I wanted to work on papers or research I could fold down a desk I had designed and built into the bookshelves that, folded down, revealed a set of shallower bookshelves behind.  The desk used the same space as the put-away bed and dinner table.  My kitchen was a narrow Pullman kitchen behind glass French doors along another side of the living space.  When the French doors were open, that living space became the amount of room one needed to move around and cook or do dishes.   It may have been intimate, but there was room for one additional guest because the couch doubled as an extra bed.  (It was originally a Civil War army officer’s cot.)

Did it work?  Certainty it did and I was proud of the creativity I put into using the space efficiently.

This beautifully orchestrated use of space eventually came to an end: My landlord who lived in the two-bedroom apartment next to my space ended my lease and moved forward with plan to join the apartment I was renting with his own.  My living room/bedroom/dining room/kitchen/office and study became just one additional bedroom in a much larger apartment.

I don’t begrudge my landlord his decision to have more space.  My wife and I have since that time done exactly the same thing, combining apartments (that were originally one apartment) in order to have more space.  Having space is nice.         

It needs to be acknowledged that these combinations to create greater aggregations of space are symptomatic of other relationships in society.  On the same Brooklyn Heights street where I used to inhabit my Murphy apartment a family member of mine for many years afterwards rented a one-bedroom in a townhouse that provided homes to approximately nine renting families.  It was purchased by a hedge fund entrepreneur who, with his newly minted wealth (he won his bets) intends to occupy the entire building after he evicts all the long-term tenants.   More space tends to be devoted to those with greater wealth and, as income disparities accentuate, a reallocation of space towards the wealthiest is likely to ensue.

Most of the time I don’t know exactly how to respond to the library officials as they excitedly come up with reasons to sell libraries and shrink the system’s publicly owned assets.  I find myself highly suspicious.  I note that they seem to contradict themselves as they burble forth as many reasons they can think of why they should immediately put public assets in the hands of private developers.  In one presentation they say that buildings should be torn down because there are not enough private places for people in the libraries to work on their résumés and that nobody should have to work on a résumé in public.  In another presentation (or maybe even the same one) they talk about the need for big open rooms with sight lines so that everything going on is visible to everyone. The common denominator to whatever they say is that they seem excited about reasons to sell, demolish and shrink existing assets, not work with those assets to build upon them and create a better, more robust library system in a time of city growth, increasing city wealth and greatly expanding library use.

Today I was listening to a BBC report on another new kind of library being built across the country: Presidential Libraries.  The report said these libraries are getting hugely bigger for several reasons: Because size connotes importance (the presidential libraries are “shrines”), because of the role that money plays in American politics and how much of it there is, and because there is more information than ever to be stored and made available to the public.

If New York City’s libraries are being shrunk at a time when it would make sense for them to be getting bigger, it probably says that decision-makers view our city libraries differently: They view them as unimportant, they see and capitulate to the fact that the money in American politics is pushing to have these temples of democracy, these economic levelers, sold, and, lastly, that they consider that there is less and less information that the public actually needs to know. . .  at least that's they way they view it.

I still have my Murphy bed and I still have a terrific affection for everything it represents.  It still folds up into the wall, but the truth is that I haven’t folded it into its cabinet in many years.  It's more convenient to leave it down.  It was nice to have the flexibility in my old apartment to be able to use the same space alternately for many things, but it was a lot of work.  While there was flexibility in the arrangements there was a certain lack of flexibility too.  One couldn’t slip away from the dinner table and retire earlier than the rest of the party. . . nor could you leave the dishes on the table to do some work at the desk between the main course and dessert. . . there was no leaving the bed unmade in the morning.   You see what I mean.

While flexibility has its merits in terms of generating possibilities, space itself is nice and generates possibilities too. What’s more, sometimes the formality of dedicated spaces acknowledges the importance we ascribe to certain functions and activities in life.

Let's give the devil his due: The “Murphy library” is a very clever idea as a rationale for how we ought to shrink our public assets.  But it may just be too clever by half!

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