NY Public Library Sells Out for (Not So) Big Bucks

I’m the first to admit it: I am a big, fat, wallowing cynic and have been since I was about twelve years old.  So news items like the following headline from Alternet.org don’t surprise me. They should–I would dearly love them to–but they just don’t and that  is likely to say a lot more about me than it does about the unholy marriage between libraries’ need for funds and the cash-heavy world of Big Business. That said, this is hitting me in a very unhappy spot this morning.

To wit, feast your ocular sensory organs upon this tidbit:

NY Public Library Trades Naming Rights to Greedy hedge Fund Billionaire for Big Bucks.

You may commence vomiting at any time.

"But wait a minute, you pretentious, hypocritical, lout," you say, "did you or did you not slobber all over Andrew Carnegie in your last post?" Well, yes, I did.  But I think I was justified in doing that, and here’s why.  Carnegie amassed a fortune of about $1 billion, of which he left $300 million to fund public libraries all over the world.  In 2008  dollars those values would be worth something like  $20 billion and  $6 billion respectively.

Got that?  That’s a $6 billion dollar endowment in today’s dollars to build a world-wide system of public libraries.  Nothing like it had ever been done, neither the gift nor the project it funded.

According to the linked article NYPL sold the name of their main building in exchange for a donation of $100 million. That’s it.  100 million stinking greenbacks that aren’t worth  anything like what they were worth in 1914 and will continue to be worth less and less every year, considering the Federal Reserve Bank’s current attitude towards inflation (i.e., if it keeps the country working a bit longer, it’s worth it.) And that just to change the name on the main building.  If there is an exchange of something of genuine value here, I’m not seeing it.

Granted, $100 million buys a lot of library resources and even in the world of Richistan is not quite chump change, at least, not yet.  But it’s not $6 billion, either. In those terms, in my not so humble opinion, they should have held out for a lot more.  If Stephen A. Schwarzman wanted to buy his way into history, then fine.  But he should have paid what the related goodwill (as accountants call it) was worth.  Had the call gone out for a $1 billion capital drive and had he written a check on the spot for the entire amount (or hell, even half the full amount) I could have lived with it.   I would still be pissed since the NYPL is the jewel in the crown of the city’s public library system, but $1 billion (or $500 million) is real money and the gesture would have been genuine.

As the Yoruba say, "The world is the marketplace," and that’s fine.  Public libraries are always short of funds and sometimes bend over backwards to encourage rich folks to jam crowbars in their wallets, and that’s fine, too.  But this time did they have to settle for so little ?

About Jon Frater

A gaming industry stalwart dating back to the 1980s, Jonathan Frater is the co-author of roleplaying game books Robotech: Return of the Masters, and Robotech Adventures: Lancer’s Rockers, both for Palladium Books. Jonathan also wrote a column on writing and game design called The Tome in Gateways magazine. He’s currently a librarian at Metropolitan College of New York. Article 9, the first in his ambitious Blockade Trilogy, is Jonathan’s first full-length novel.

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