Because I grew up in a small town, I thought that every town had exactly one library. It wasn’t until I started college in Cincinnati that I realized branch libraries exist. As an example, the New York Public Library has some eighty-seven branch libraries through out the five boroughs of New York City. But the most recognizable of these seven dozen branches is the one that sits between Fifth Avenue and Bryant Park. It is the main branch of the library system, was finished in 1911 and has some 75 miles of shelving. But where are all these books? I’m a little embarrassed to admit it, but even after visiting the library I’m not sure I could tell you. They weren’t exactly hiding (how do you hide 75 miles of shelving?) but were in a less glamorous part of the building underneath the photogenic, Beaux-Arts reading room. It took a year to move all of the books into the new shelving.
It’s now a hundred years after the library’s completion and when the library announced that architect Norman Foster would be giving the branch a $300 million dollar update, folks had lots of opinions. One of these folks is Alda Louise Huxtable, whose articulate and somewhat acerbic critique of the library’s plan can be read here. She argues that you can’t update a masterpiece, saying:
“This is a plan devised out of a profound ignorance of or willful disregard for not only the library’s original concept and design, but also the folly of altering its meaning and mission and compromising its historical and architectural integrity. You don’t “update” a masterpiece. “Modernization” may be the most dangerously misused word in the English language.”
So what will the new library look like? Until now, we didn’t know. That’s because today, the library is releasing renderings from he office of Foster + Partners, in part because of the clamor generated by the announcement to overhaul the library. And guess what? These seventy five miles of shelving that I wasn’t sure existed are the center of the action. There, the firm will relocate a significant chunk of the library’s print holdings to make way for more generous and technologically-savvy spaces. But what’s more interesting than the pixels of these particular renderings is whether or not the images will assuage critics. Was the racket because we hadn’t seen the building? Was it image insecurity? Or is it truly just a bad idea to change the building in this way?