Scholars Fight Over NY Library Plan





In the mid-1990s, when digital life had just arrived and branches of Barnes & Noble were embedding themselves in the city’s neighborhoods like moths in a coat rack, it would have been hard to foresee a time, well into the next millennium, when the matter of libraries might ignite passion and fury. And yet here we are. During recent weeks, the debate surrounding the New York Public Library’s plan to expand its central branch at Fifth Avenue and 42nd Street has fiercely intensified in print, online and in public forums. Amid the heat and acrimony, few have taken the time to recognize what this might signify for the progress of civilization in a world otherwise dominated by 140-character discussions of “Mob Wives.”...

It might be easier to join the protest if the library’s plan didn’t have as one of its most vocal proponents Robert Darnton, a library trustee who is himself a Rhodes scholar, a pre-eminent librarian and one of the academy’s most celebrated historians of France. Several years ago, a television writer I know who sat on a panel with Mr. Darnton at Harvard, where he teaches, was told he had never seen “The Sopranos.” It is hard to see someone like this as a populist crusader intent on squashing the significance of research and turning the library into the Circle Line.

But what the debate suggests, and why it should not be dismissed, is the extent to which a certain kind of intellectual life, a certain kind of quiet existence, has been marginalized in New York. Beneath the rhetoric is a sense of hurt feelings and betrayal by a city that seems to ever narrow its status definitions to exclude all but the wealthy....



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