Patience and Fortitude: Power, Real Estate, and the Fight to Save a Public Library

 by Scott Sherman. Melville House, Brooklyn., 2015 205 pp. $24.95 ISBN 978-1-61219-429-5.

Patience and Fortitude are the names of the two lions that guard the main entrance to the New York Public Library building on 42nd street. Since its completion in 1911, that library has represented the grandeur and promise of one of the great public libraries in the world.

Beginning in 2011, Scott Sherman, an investigative report for The Nation magazine, crafted a series of articles outlining the relatively secret plan hatched by Tony Marx and other administrators of the NYPL to radically change the internal structure of the main library on 42nd street. Approximately three million books would be removed from the shelves beneath the Rose Reading Room and sent to a storage facility in New Jersey. The emptied shelves would then be demolished and replaced with a circulating library replete with scores of computers. To help pay for the estimated $300 million cost, the NYPL would sell two libraries: The Mid-Manhattan Library and the Science, Industry, and Business Library.

Sherman’s initial piece in the December 2011 issue of Nation stirred up a huge reaction from scholars, architects, and others who believed strongly that the proposed Central Library Plan (CPL) was completely inappropriate, poorly designed, and secretly arrived at. During the next three years a crescendo of criticism rained down on Marx and his the NYPL board, until in late 2014 they caved and terminated the plan.

Sherman’s book is a detailed account of how the CPL came about and how it eventually unraveled under the storm of popular protest. It is not necessarily an historical work, although Sherman does cite the Phyllis Dain’s magisterial history of the NYPL. Nevertheless, Sherman tells a good story of a daring plan that went awry mainly because the leadership of the NYPL dared to act in secret about making radical changes to one of our most treasured public libraries.

Ed Goedeken, Iowa State University