Rescuing the Stacks

The city of New York is about to make a $37 million mistake. That’s the size of a proposed cut to the budget of the New York Public Library system. This is more than a matter of trimming a little fat-it threatens the next generation of New Yorkers with intellectual malnutrition.

I moved to the city in 1986 to study history at Columbia University. When I finished my graduate coursework, I found myself adrift, thanks in part to a corrupt landlord who cleaned out almost everything I owned. I lost interest in an academic career and took a job at Oxford University Press, which just covered my part of the rent on an apartment I shared with three others on West 136th Street. The crack epidemic gripped New York.

But one municipal institution worked, at least for me. The public library helped me find my path. I studied American history independently. In the 1990s, I drew heavily on both the circulating collections of the branches and the holdings of research libraries to compile and edit a set of anthologies. These were hardly notable contributions to literature, but my work on them taught me much about history, and how to structure a book. In the library, I discovered my future.

The public library is the most powerful and cost-effective wealth-transfer mechanism ever invented. Instead of simply ameliorating problems, libraries create opportunity. As generations have learned, the aisle between the shelves is a corridor out of poverty, a bypass around inadequate schools, an expressway that adds momentum to even a first-rate education. The New York Public Library is hardly a passive pile of books: It offers training and education programs, bringing the digital revolution to those without the means to take part.

The public library is the great leveler of society, granting equal access to cultural treasures. Fine art can be viewed firsthand only in specific galleries and museums-or only by private collectors. Films can only be viewed as their creators intended, on big screens in theaters, for short periods of time, with increasingly expensive tickets. But the greatest literature ever written, the fundamental works of scholarship on which all our science, culture and intellectual life are based, can be enjoyed by anyone, free of charge, at a local library branch.

Of course, the system is not free. If it does provide a big bang for the buck, it still requires bucks. So it’s important to remember that the New York Public Library is also one of the city’s essential competitive advantages, thanks especially to its four research libraries. They serve to make the city a Mecca of the mind.

This, too, I encountered firsthand. When I was working on my biography of Cornelius Vanderbilt, The First Tycoon, I drew heavily on the archival riches of the Science, Industry, and Business Library and the Main Research Library. There I pored through microfilm of long-lost newspapers; examined the papers of Horace Greeley, Samuel Tilden and many long-forgotten figures; and read the records of the New York Central Railroad, among many other collections.

The Dorothy and Lewis B. Cullman Center for Scholars and Writers, located in the flagship building on Fifth Avenue, gave me both a stipend and an office during a critical phase of my work. My fellowship was not funded by tax dollars; rather, it turned me into a resource for the library, whether through speaking to students or helping to identify what important manuscript collections contained.

It is all part of a critical synergy between the library and the city. My fellow fellows were a remarkable set of writers and scholars from around the globe. I later moved to the Allen Room, a study for writers working on major projects. There I found a shelf of books that were largely written there, including Robert Caro’s The Power Broker. It awes me still to think of the great writers who worked in the same rooms. And they came to New York in large part because of the public library.

It is a rare institution that is vital both to internationally renowned artists and scholars and to impoverished immigrants. Cutting $37 million from the library budget-part of a citywide financial assault on the arts-will cripple one of the city’s engines for rising out of this crisis, and smother one of the wellsprings of New York’s greatness.

 

T.J. Stiles is the author of The First Tycoon: The Epic Life of Cornelius Vanderbilt, winner of the 2010 Pulitzer Prize for biography and the 2009 National Book Award for nonfiction. He held the Gilder Lehrman Fellowship in American History at the Dorothy and Lewis B. Cullman Center for Scholars and Writers at the New York Public Library from 2004 to 2005.