Saturday, July 13, 2013

Deceptive Representations By New York Public Library On Its Central Library Plan: We’re NOT Shrinking Library Space, We Are Making MORE Library Space!

It does seem as if more and more often the perfunctory and somehow now acceptable public relations ploy for public officials with an objectionable or weak narrative they want to peddle to the public is to simply declare that they are doing the opposite of what they are actually doing and see if anyone notices.

Does Bloomberg’s Mid-town rezoning proposal, almost doubling the density of Manhattan around Grand Central Terminal, raise the specter of absolutely unbearable congestion?: Sell the idea as a plan intended to relieve the congestion the public already perceives as oppressive!

So it is when the New York Public Library schemes to sell off library real estate.  (We are speaking of the NYPL’s Central Library Plan, “CLP”.)  If you sell off your library real estate you are going to have less library space to serve the public.  That’s something the public isn’t going to like to hear.  Right?

Solution?: Simply tell the public that shrinking library real estate way down actually amounts to increasing it!

How completely does the NYPL indulge in this reverse logic game?

Let’s first review how much library real estate the CLP discards as it shrinks library space and then consider how the NYPL depicts it all as an increase. 

The Shrinkage of 380,000 sq ft is pared down to only 80,000 sq ft

The consolidating shrinkage of the Central Library Plan involves taking about 380,000 square feet of library space and shrinking it down to 80,000 square feet.  Two libraries, together constituting about 300,000 square feet of space, the Mid-Manhattan (about 139,000 sq ft), and SIBL, the Science Industry and Business Library (160,000 sq ft), will be sold off.  In addition, in a further loss of space, the research stacks (80,000 sq ft*) underneath the Rose Reading Room of the 42nd Street Central Reference Library, serving that room, integrated into the room's function, and providing its structural support will be demolished, decommissioning the Central Reference Library as the world-class institution it was designed to be.  All of what was in the 300,000 sq ft space of the two sold-off libraries will then be squeezed into the space where the irreplaceable research stacks will have been destroyed at enormous cost to the public.  Astoundingly, it will be accessed through one small door and that perhaps says something dispiriting about how library officials really do view this as a significantly reduced space.

As recently as 2003, when growth plans were abruptly supplanted by shrinkage plans, it was proposed that Mid-Manhattan be almost doubled by adding 117,000 additional sq ft to it.  Indeed, there is good reason to argue that Mid-Manhattan should have been increased by an even greater amount than planned in 2003 because, in 2007, when it was announced that the former Donnell Library was being closed for shrinkage the public was assured that one of the reasons it needn’t regret the space disappearing from Donnell was that many of that library’s functions and collections were being transferred to Mid-Manhattan!
(* I am stating the calculations here in a way that actually underestimates the reduction of space by treating the square footage of the research stack area as being the same before and after the changes the CLP would effect, deferring to the NYPL's calculation that afterwards there will be 80,000 square feet of space.  Arguably, the seven floors of stack space constitute more than double that, 162,000 square feet of space.  You will see, reading on, that the NYPL inaccurately asserts the stacks constitute even more space than that.  But the seven floors of the stacks are not “stories” or  “floors” in a typical and conventional sense: Each is about 7’ tall, shorter than a normal ceiling height, and the floors are thin marble catwalks supported in the steel matrix of the structure with open slots of about 4 inches between the catwalks and the shelves that allow air to circulate freely between floors.)    
Statements in which library officials (and Mayor Bloomberg) assert that they are increasing library space rather than shrinking it.

The day after Nicole Gelinas of the Manhattan Institute published an opinion column in the New York Post lambasting the Central Library Plan as a “vanity real estate” boondoggle in which she said the  Mid-Manhattan and the Science, Industry and Building Library would be  “crammed” into the 42nd Street building (see: Real-estate fiction-NY Public Library’s risky scheme, July 7, 2013), the NYPL’s Chief Operating Officer, David Offensend, responded in a letter to the Post denying that fact and describing that space reduction as, instead, being an increase with these words: “There will be more public space available than currently exists in all three buildings” (Make book on this, July 8, 2013.)

Space is space and inherently valuable, so the only way in which to describe a space reduction as an increase in space is to side-step an apples-to-apples comparison of space by substituting other contrived measures of evaluation; for example being oblivious to that fact libraries are far more than what Mr. Offensend might selectively characterize as space that is “publicly open” and oblivious to how  the NYPL is getting ride of books and librarians, themselves significant assets that are part of properly serving the public.

This contrarian idea of describing significantly “smaller” as greatly “bigger” so as to confuse the public isn’t new.  It may be a reason why the public and the press accepting statements from the NYPL at face value haven’t raised the extraordinary outcry you would expect in reaction to plans to cast off these irreplaceable assets and crown jewels of the library system.

Go inside the 42nd Street and Fifth Avenue Central Reference Library building and you will find pretty but difficult-to-interpret schematics hung up as PR canvasses advising you that all the complexity represented there reassuringly boils down simply to this (see image below): The NYPL is “Doubling Public Space.”

That’s the “big type”!  If you diligently read the small print you will find that you are even more reassuringly told (emphasis supplied) that: “The plan will more that double public space at  42nd Street by converting an area the size of seven football fields— the closed book stacks — into a lending library and other educational spaces.” . ..  Note how easily the ambiguity of the word  “closed” allows the reader to mistakenly infer that the research stacks are no longer used and no longer have function.

“Seven football fields”?  That's clearly a reference to the square footage of the seven floors of research stacks that will be torn out given the telltale “sevenreference, but it is an inaccurate and a misleading statement in several respects, the most significant being that the square footage of the space planned to replace the stacks (80,000 square feet) will be only 39% more than the size of one football field, an American football field being 57,600 square feet.  But the idea that there are “seven football fields of stack space to be converted is balderdash in that each floor of the stacks is only about 23,000 square feet, far less than half an American Football field, with the entire seven floors of that space adding up to only only about 162,000 square feet.  That's fewer than three American football fields.  Soccer, rugby and virtually every other kind of football fields are bigger than an American football field which would throw the NYPL's calculations even more wildly off.  Does anyone want to bet that when the NYPL does its space calculations it switches over to measurements of cubic square feet whenever that boosts its exaggerations?
A sectional view of the research stacks as they appeared on the cover of "Scientific American".  “Seven football fields” of claimable space per the NYPL?  Hardly.
Around the bend you will discover other NYPL visuals that deceptively misrepresent the volumes of space being reshuffled and severely contracted as the NYPL discards is assets selling off real estate, somehow, counter-intuitively, at a probable net financial loss that is being downplayed.

Above you see the `explanatory’ canvasses at the 42nd Street Central Reference Library and below you see a version of the same NYPL-supplied visual picked up in a Library Journal article about the two lawsuits recently filed to block the demolition of research stacks that would ruin the function of the Central Reference Library.  (See: Second Suit Filed to Halt NYPL Central Renovation, by Meredith Schwartz, July 11, 2013.)  Observe that Library Journal simply reproduces the NYPL image without noting any of its oddities.

The NYPL promulgated visual above is startling in the way that it deceptively misrepresents what the NYPL is proposing to do in terms of shrinking down library space (which is one of the reasons the NYPL is getting rid of books).  The Science, Industry and Business Library (SIBL) is diagrammed as if it is the smallest of the spaces they are dealing with.  It is actually the largest of the library spaces at 160,000 sq ft.  Mid-Manhattan at about 140,000 sq ft is the second largest although it is made to look about the same size as the representation of the 80,000 sq ft of space where the research stacks are now that would be ripped out.  Even though, bottom line, 380,000 square feet of library space is being shrunk down to just that 80,000 sq ft (to be accessed through only one small door way in the back of the building), the diagram almost makes it look like it could all fit without throwing away the books they are throwing out.

Also, just looking at the diagram and not reading what it says you might think that Central Reference Library books are not being moved off-site to Princeton, New Jersey and/or elsewhere.  And you might think that the stack space under Bryant Park is not already being used, that it did not previously exist, nor that it had the intended purpose of also covering future expansion which it will, under this plan, no longer be able to do.  It would be incorrect to suppose any of the above.

This silliness is replicated in an even more forcefully misleading way, in a video animation inserted in a five-minute NYPL-produced film that plays on a loop in the 42nd Street building’s lobby and is available on its web site: “A First Look at NYPL's Central Library Plan.”  I have made just the animation segment available in the video below.

NYPL animation misrepresenting space shuffling as part of CLP Plan

If the spacial relations were more correctly depicted it would look like this.

click to enlarge
Or wouldn’t it be better to better to depict the entire before and after this way?
click to enlarge
The NYPL was not alone in making the misrepresentation to the public that what was going on was a seeming increase to the supply of publicly owned library space with the building of libraries bigger than had ever been previously seen.  Mayor Bloomberg has done the same thing.  They must be conferring on strategy.

Bloomberg has been starving New York City libraries of funds so that the fact that the libraries are underfunded and in disrepair can be cited as an excuse to sell them off.  See the chart of increased usage versus drastically reduced city funding below.  If the public comprehended that this tactic was translating into sale of libraries and shrinkage of the system they would be outraged, but instead Bloomberg spoke to them in his February State of the City Address informing the public that he was doing something sounding like it was certainly the opposite:
In midtown, we’re helping the New York Public Library build the largest circulating and research library in the world.
(WNYC text: Bloomberg's Final State of the City Address, Thursday, February 14, 2013)

Bloomberg was not telling the public that the new large midtown library was intended to consist of the shrunken remnants of Manhattan’s formerly great libraries: Mid-Manhattan, SIBL, the Donnell Library (shrunk from 97,000 square feet to 28,000 square feet) and the world-renowned Central Reference Library.  Nor was Bloomberg saying that it was already announced that the program of sale and shrinkage of libraries was being exported to Brooklyn with the intended sale of the Brooklyn Heights and Pacific Branch libraries, and others yet unspecified in line afterward, and with a consolidating cramming of space that will affect Brooklyn’s main library at Grand Army Plaza.

Arguments For Smaller Libraries?

Maybe there are possible arguments for smaller libraries but usage of New York City libraries is way up, 40% programmatically and 59% in terms of circulation.  Demand for physical books is up and a new Pew Study tells us that our modern age youth are far from ready to give up their physical books: American Youth Read Books in Print (For Now), by Aron Chilewich, June 26, 2013.

If smaller libraries really are truly better wouldn’t library officials be telling us that?  To an extent they might actually be endeavoring to do that, quibbling a bit bout the space calculations, speaking in terms of equivalent space, usable space, “found” space and the “flexibility” of replacement space built without fixed walls.  See: Friday, May 24, 2013, Previews Of The Proposed New Donnell Library: The NYPL Unveils Its Version Of The “Silk Purse” Libraries It Envisions For Our Future and Thursday, April 25, 2013, Building a “Murphy Library”.
The bleacher/stairs can be used to show people David Niven movies in the daylight- Go to NNY's earlier article to see, with picture, what Ronald Reagan film probably ought to be shown.
Sometimes it almost appears that library officials are, in fact, ready and intending to implement these ideas about these new smaller, flexible library spaces.  When I wrote my own article reviewing the plans for the depressingly reduced `replacement’ for the Donnell Library that is largely sadly bookless,  I did not slow down enough to observe things about this (above) promotional visual of the new staircase-shaped “piazza” that this anonymous reader of Librarian News did:
If you look at the picture carefully you see some odd things. Movie playing on the wall. Musicians playing in the corner and a person speaking in front of them.     
That’s not to mention that the movie is being played while daylight comes in from the street above.  (See: State of the Art Library to Open on NY's Upper West Side in 2015...But Existing Libraries Find Funding Slashed, birdie.)

Another commenting reader cites several reasons he/she doesn’t think David Niven would approve of the perhaps hazardous design.

But, in point of fact, we know that the truth of the matter is that smaller libraries aren’t better.  We know this because if library administration and city officials really thought this was true they wouldn’t be spending so much time making the opposite case, that big is better, going out of their way to tell us how they are building bigger libraries when they actually aren’t.

They really do have a problem truthfully making their case: Right now advertising history is being made by AT&T with its new “It’s Not Complicated” campaign.  That’s one where kids are interviewed by a deadpan adult about how “fast is better” than “slow” and “bigger is better” than “small.”  (See: How AT&T Got Kids to Make Some of the Year's Best Ads- BBDO spins comic gold from their crazy brains, by Tim Nudd,  April 15, 2013.)

In that spirit I conclude this post with some AT&T “It's Not Complicated” `bigger is better’ commercials, because you know what?  It’s true: It isn’t complicated.

(Note: More about the opposition to the Central Library Plan and the selling off and shrinkage of New York City libraries, including a petition that can be signed, two recent lawsuits brought against the CLP and statements against the sales and shrinkage by the New York City Comptroller and the New York City Public Advocate- both candidates for mayor- and other elected officials and candidates is available from Citizens Defending Libraries, a group of which I am a co-founder.)      

AT&T TV Commercial - It's Not Complicated "Tree House"

It's Not Complicated High Fives Commercial AT&T

AT&T TV Commercial - It's Not Complicated "Infinity"


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