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Bookshelves of the vanities; Tom Wolfe, Jackie O. and other literati lavishly raise millions for the New York Public Library. So why don't they care that the neighborhood branches are dying?

Tom Wolfe, Jackie O, and other literati lavishly raise millions for the New York Public Library. So why don't they care that the neighborhood branches are dying? his winter, a New Yorker writer paid a visit to the modest St. Agnes branch of the New York Public Library (NYPL) and found the demise of Western civilization reflected in its ugly, modem door. This portal of knowledge on West 8 1 st was soon to be closed on Saturdays, a casualty of New York City's budget crisis. As the writer sat "elbow on the table, chin in hand," it seemed only a matter of time before erudite tears would begin to flow.

The New York Public Library, that redoubtable emblem of Manhattan culture, has found itself in a bit of a pinch. And The New Yorker is not alone in sniffling. In a space of just two months, The New York Times has made two passionate editorial pleas for philanthropists to step forward and save the struggling branch libraries from the disastrous results of three years of city budget cuts.

The situation at the 82 branches-the front line of the city's educational system for both children and adults-is indeed grim. In January, forced by the city to reduce its budget for the third time this year, the NYPL announced 27 staff layoffs, the first since the dark days of 1976. As a result, 62 of the branches were compelled to shut their doors nearly half the week. Thousands of latchkey kids were left without a quiet place to read after school. Literacy programs, which taught 5,000 adults to read last year, were ravaged, as were English classes for immigrants.

As Mayor David Dinkins prepares draconian cuts to offset a $3.4 billion city deficit, many of New York's eight million library users must be thinking along the same lines as the Times: If only there were some way-just for the duration of the city's budget crisis-to supplement the library's public funding with private funding. If only there were some entity out there, with a huge accumulation of ready cash, that could help bail out the branches, which serve the city's poorest and least-educated readers. If only there were some way to keep the library doors open for the kids....

Wake up, New York. The benefactor is under your nose. And his name is the New York Public Library. The NYPL, which serves the boroughs of Manhattan, the Bronx, and Staten Island, is among the Forbes 500 wealthiest nonprofit institutions in the country, with annual revenues of $155 million from private gifts, public funds, and an enormous endowment. Thanks to trustees and supporters like Brooke Astor, Tom Wolfe, Bill Blass, and Jackie O, that endowment surged from $148 million to $214 million between 1986 and 1989 (the last year for which records are available). Its executives are numerous and handsomely compensated. And "when it comes to scaring up cash," notes New York magazine, "nobody does it more stylishly than the New York Public Library."

So what's all this about branch closings? A little scrutiny suggests that the New York Public Library crisis isn't a symbol of civilization's decline, after all. What it really symbolizes is the myopia of tax-deductible New York charity. As they trade on their "public" name and falsely earned reputation as providers for the city's underprivileged, NYPL:s renowned trustees and executives preside over a system designed to ensure that the proceeds of their lavish parties and the gifts of ladies bountiful won't trickle down to the kids.

On March 28, as library officials prepared to lay off scores of workers and close branch libraries for weeks or months at a time, NYPL came up with the funds to throw a party in commemoration of the 50th anniversary of Virginia Woolf's suicide. Against a background of gorgeously carved Austrian oak woodwork, the invited guests-limited to trustees and Friends of the Library-could admire Charles Dickens's desk and an assortment of Woolf manuscripts from the library's collection, the largest assortment of original Woolfiana in the world.

It was a grand affair. As The New York Times reported, "tea flowed from a silver run, waiters in tuxedos ferried a steady stream of shrimp perched on cucumbers and the luxurious like. Tiny posies graced their trays; yellow roses presided over reading tables. . . . This is the top, everything leads here,' declared Timothy S. Healy, library president."

Not too giddy to remember what a public library is supposed to be about, Reverend Healy took time out from the shrimp to speak of five-year-olds who at that moment might be reading comic books in one of the South Bronx branches, taking the tentative first step toward the liberation offered by great books. "If it takes," he pronounced, "they end up here." A lovely sentiment, but as he spoke those words, three of the I I branch libraries in the south and south central Bronx regions were closed, and another four had eliminated morning hours.

What kind of message do parties like these send to the users of the beleaguered branches? "I don't feel we're creating a vicious symbol," says Healy from his office in the gargantuan Fifth Avenue mansion known as the Central Research Library. "The two are totally detached."

That, Reverend Healy, is precisely the problem.

It's hard to question the fiscal priorities of the almost universally admired New York Public Library without appearing churlish. Yet the numbers are tough to ignore.

In the last year for which figures are available, NYPL reported a $12.2 million excess over operating costs. The library is quick to point out that $4 million of this money was invested in renovations and new equipment, but even so, that leaves $8.2 million. Just half that sum could have reestablished service at July 1990 levels, when more than half the branches were open five days a week. Instead, the library reinvested that money in its already well-endowed endowment.

To comprehend why neighborhood libraries struggle for survival while their parent institution sits on a heap of gold, one must understand that the NYPL is, in fact, two systems with two budgets: The 82 branches, which circulate materials, receive only 7 percent of their funds from private sources, with the rest coming from city, state, and federal agencies. NYPL:s four nonlending research libraries receive the lion's share of private gifts. Consequently, whenever the city reduces its funding to the NYPL, only the neighborhood branches-the traditional outposts of learning for the hoi polloi-are hit hard. That explains why, when layoffs were announced in late January, virtually every NYPL staff member who received a pink slip worked in a branch library providing direct public service. In March, many of those librarian trainees, information assistants, and clerks were hired back-but only until the end of June, when even more drastic cuts are expected. No employees of the library's central administration, which accounts for 187 of NYPus 2, 1 81 full-time workers, lost their jobs; nor did any of the 202 managers and supervisors in the branches or the research libraries.

The librarians' union has repeatedly asked NYPL to protect jobs and branch services by dipping into the corporation's endowment, but President Healy has stated unequivocally that he will never do it. Even during the seventies' financial crisis, when the branch system lost one-third of its full-time staff and half of its service hours, the board of trustees refused to use the endowment to compensate for city cuts, pointing to the 1901 agreement by which Andrew Carnegie consented to build 65 branch libraries for New York City on the condition that the city maintain and operate the branches in perpetuity. As the city has grown and new branch libraries have been added, the Carnegie principle has been consistently applied. "We are afraid that if we start replacing public money with private money, the city will relinquish its responsibility for operating the branch library system," explains Herb Scher, a spokesman for the library. In other words, NYPL is willing to deprive New York's neighborhoods if that's what it takes to make the city honor its side of the 1901 agreement. President Healy even says as much. "I'm not responsible for the deprivation of people," he exclaims. "That's the city's business."

It's the Carnegie principle that ensures that the vast majority of new gifts to the library go not to branches like St. Agnes but to the rarified archives, which include special collections on Japanese prints, performing arts, and slavonic history. While $53 million of NYPL's endowment is completely unrestricted, all of its income goes reflexively to the archives, and virtually all of the library's sophisticated fundraising campaigns are conducted for their benefit. "In a sense," says Joan Gambeski, coordinator of NYPL's conservators program, "you'd have to go out of your way to donate to the branches." And you wouldn't get much help from the library.

Just five months before the January layoffs, an unrestricted $7.4 million donation arrived in the mail. It could have reversed the deterioration of the branches; it went instead into NYPL's treasure chest. CFO magazine, in a profile of NYPL Vice President for Finance Anthony Jiga, lauded the library's finance expert for the wily bookkeeping he employed when the anonymous donor sent the check with no strings attached:

Such windfalls are, of course, always welcome,

but they, too, can cause complications. "How,

for example, can I convince the [state and federal]

governments that we still need their money

when I have a $7.4 million gift on the

books?" asks Jiga. In discussions with his outside

auditors, Jiga found an answer for this particular

case: Enter the money on a separate line

as a bequest and put it immediately into the endowment

from which the library will draw investment


"That's almost an outrage, isn't it?" asks John Berry III, editor-in-chief of Library Journal, a trade magazine based in Manhattan. "It's bizarre thinking, and I'm not sure how they justify it, but they have repeatedly received gifts from people who say, The library saved my life,' and it turns out it's a library in downtown Manhattan-yet the money goes to the research library."

Dead poets society

On April 17, which happened to be National Library Day, some 80 people seated themselves in plastic folding chairs in the children's room of Harlem's George Bruce Library to celebrate the branch's 75th anniversary. A middle-aged author of young-adult books, the son of an illiterate father, took the microphone to tell the dozens of children in the audience how he gained mastery over language at the small desks in that very room.

But those were the old days. The supervising branch librarian was left to account for the new ones. Laurence Sherrill explained that although the American Library Association billed the occasion as the Night of 1,000 Stars, "our star is a little dim today." He lamented the need to shut down the library on Saturday and mourned the loss of "our very valued young-adult librarian," Linda Arcy.

Since the January cuts, hours in the George Bruce children's room have been curtailed and the 125th Street Poet's Posse, a group of 19 teenaged poets formed by Arcy, has disbanded. "In this neighborhood, it is particularly unkind to have to let go of your young-adult librarian," says Sherrill, one of the two librarians left to serve the throngs of kids who overrun George Bruce the four afternoons it is open. "She got them enthusiastic about reading."

Young adults aren't the only ones feeling the cuts. Outreach programs are now inaccessible to working adults because George Bruce is closed all weekend and open past 6 p.m. only one day a week. Both in the children's room and on the adult floor downstairs, the effects of this year's 37 percent cut in the library materials budget are also glaringly apparent. The Central Research Library's peerless collection of Woolfiana notwithstanding, the shelves of the George Bruce branch yield up only two paperbacks by the British author. A nearby section marked "Parenting" consists of 15 books. One of them, strangely, is How to Grow a Young Reader.

"I just can't say we're providing good or even standard service at this point," says Sherrill. "We lose one person and we can't operate."

If only the same could be said for the library's corporate structure, which is beginning to resemble that of a bank. In 1989, two vice presidents were enough to administrate NYPL. Today, that task requires the services of six, including one executive vice president and two senior vice presidents. This way, apparently, the library will have enough handsomely paid experts on hand to measure just how bad things are at branches like George Bruce.

The edifice complex

Today's library crisis-worse even than during the Great Depression, when libraries were open six days a week-comes, ironically, at the end of a record-breaking campaign to feed NYPL's endowment.

By the end of New York's fiscal crisis in the seventies, that endowment, created in 1895 by the merging of the privately funded Astor and Lenox reference libraries with the Tilden Trust, had become anemic. So in the eighties, NYPL began an inspired fundraising campaign, led by chairman and former Time Inc. CEO Andrew Heiskell and NYPL president Vartan Gregorian, to restore its health. Together, the two men exceeded their five-year goal of raising $307 million, largely by persuading wealthy New Yorkers that libraries are chic. By 1989, when Gregorian left to become president of Brown University, the regal edifice on Fifth Avenue was again glistening, right up to the 22 corinthian columns and the trademark stone lions. Best of all, the Park Avenue crowd had been convinced that books and free access to them were things it should care about.

For some, though, the primary concern was not so much Great Books as Great Parties. As Vogue explained in 1988, "There was a time not long ago when an invitation to a charity event was viewed as a slightly better class of junk mail. . . . Things seem to be changing for the better, if the two parties held in May for the New York Public Library and the Central Park Conservancy are any indication. These are the heavy metal of social events, and they set the standard by which all other galas are judged."

At the institution's Ten Treasures Dinner, a Who's Who of New York society created tableaux around precious objects from the library's collection. Cowboy-wear designer Ralph Lauren, for example, built a giant wigwam at the foot of a marble stair to showcase 19th-century drawings of native Americans; Bill Blass created "Voyages on Paper" using swatches from the rare-map collection. In Vogue's view, these decorations were "perhaps unmatched since Francis I entertained Henry VIII on the Field of the Cloth of Gold."

Of course, the fundraisers were handsomely rewarded, too. IRS documents show that Gregorian, working only 10 months, earned $247,469 in salary and bonuses in 1989, nearly twice what the governor of New York makes. "You're looking at an executive on the level of a president of a major university," says library trustee Conrad K. Harper, president of New York City's bar association. "It was astounding to us that he was willing to come to us at a salary well below what he ought to have been paid." In 1988, Gregorian's $37,570 benefit package alone was more than the starting salary of a supervising branch librarian. In fact, his total compensation of $300,000 was roughly the same as the cost of running the George Bruce branch for one year. But someone had to host all those parties.

Little orphan annexes

Probably the most famous of the charity galas is the annual Literary Lions dinner, for which guests like Oscar de la Renta and Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis pay up to $1,500 to hobnob with renowned authors. One Literary Lion, who calls the event "a-chic she-bang," describes the transition between the cocktail and the banquet portions of the meal one year: "A group of us were standing around drinking among the columns when a bunch of young people came out in tuxedos and blew a fantastic flourish of trumpets-and that was the call for dinner. I don't think I'd ever been to a party where they trumpet you to dinner."

Now Jackie-couldn't you and your friends make sure some of the revenue generated by these lavish events goes to the branches? John Berry, the Library Journal editor, is one of the few who'll broach the subject. "I don't think this very elitist crowd who are trustees of the public library should receive every penny, even though they raise much of it," he offers. "The people who run the public library are a substantial distance from the realities of life in the branches, which are the life-blood of the city."

As it happens, the Mid-Manhattan branch at 40th Street and Fifth Avenue is quite close to the lionized research library. From a window inside the branch, you can literally watch the red carpet being rolled out for the Literary Lions extravaganza. "They used to have librarians attend this affair," says librarian Mark Rosenzweig. "But this year they eliminated the librarians altogether."

Still, the public library has taken one important step to aid the branches. Its new Adopt-A-Branch program, a public-private partnership announced this March, gives private donors the opportunity to supplement but not supplant city funds with a $500,000 gift. Two Bronx libraries have been adopted," and NYPL is looking for foster parents for two more branches in East Harlem and the East Village. But the program depends entirely on new donations; endowment interest and other surplus funds will not be touched.

Raising new funds for the branches may be tough going, for it flies in the face of high society's philanthropic inclinations. "Most people who would give us this kind of enormous gift would be interested in the research library," explains Susan Linder, assistant coordinator for services to the Friends of the Library. And, as Linder acknowledges, library officials encourage the trend.

About a decade ago, as the library was recovering from its fiscal crisis, the owner of Coach Leatherware, the purse company, gave NYPL a grant to keep the St. Agnes branch-the very branch that made The New Yorker go misty-open on Saturdays. Today, that sort of donation might be resisted by library officials. "I think the library administration is a little more savvy as to the ramifications of this sort of thing," explains Linder. "We raise money for nonbudgetary requirements of the branches, like programs or certain segments of book collections. The library is concerned that the city will say, Well, if you're so good at raising money, why don't you do the whole thing?' "

If even the conscientious rich find it difficult to help the struggling branches, it is probably time to reexamine the terms under which the city of New York has retained the NYPL as its tax-exempt cultural contractor-to ask why the presiding principles in a time of crisis are ones of turf, not kids. Yet as branches in the Bronx and Harlem and the Lower East Side close, no one-not Wolfe nor Astor nor Blass nor even David Dinkins-wants to question NYPL's priorities. Instead of convening to challenge the Carnegie principle, instead of using excess funds to keep the branches open, the library's elite trustees seem content to let these critical outposts of education bleed.

As an April 4 Times editorial observed, "Government cannot escape its responsibility. But the spirit of philanthropy that created the libraries is urgently needed to keep them alive." Here, here. So let's start with the New York Public Library itself.
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Author:Gill, John Freeman
Publication:Washington Monthly
Date:Jun 1, 1991
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