This Human of New York Takes His Libraries Seriously

Last seen eating chicken at the intersection of 42nd Street and Fifth Avenue. Likes books and people. Loves the institution that brings books and people together.  
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Meet Matthew Zadrozny. He loves the New York Public Library.

On Saturday, he spent five hours handing out flyers on the street and talking to people about the library—specifically, the NYPL's plan to renovate the main branch and sell two other branches, which Zadrozny thinks will be "a disaster." He was recruiting participants for the "work-in" protests he's started organizing on behalf of the grassroots Committee to Save the New York Public Library.

On Monday, Zadrozny ate his lunch outside the NYPL's main branch on Fifth Avenue and 42nd Street, a place he knows quite well. There, on the steps of what he calls "the most important building in New York City," Zadrozny was approached by Brandon Stanton, the photographer behind the popular Humans of New York blog. 

"You want to photograph me eating chicken?" Zadrozny asked. "Yep," said Stanton. "Well, if I let you, I need you to help me deliver a message."

Zadrozny knew the nature of the opportunity he had at that moment. He had seen Stanton's website. He knew that this photo was going to be seen by thousands of people and that it would be accompanied by a quote. He wasn't crazy about the idea of this photo featuring him eating chicken—"I tried to get Brandon to take a different shot but he really wanted that shot," Zadrozny said later—but he decided, "all right, well, if he quotes me, then it's fair." And Zadrozny had spent so much time advocating and organizing against the library's proposed renovation that the right words were on the tip of his tongue.

What the NYPL is planning to do, and what has patrons like Zadrozny so upset, is tear down seven floors of the main research stacks at the flagship building on Fifth Avenue and 42nd Street, relocate the contents of these stacks to storage (NYPL says many of these books will remain "on site," in an underground space called the Bryant Park Stack Extension.), and consolidate the collections from the Mid-Manhattan Library and the Science, Industry, and Business Library into a single circulating collection at 42nd Street in place of the research stacks. The sale of the Mid-Manhattan and SIBL buildings would partly defray the estimated $300 million cost of renovations at the main building. The main building would go from housing a non-circulating research collection to being the largest circulating library in the United States, one that stays open until 11 p.m. on weeknights.

Zadrozny explained as much to Brandon Stanton, using slightly different language. Humans of New York published that language and a photo of Zadrozny— hovering, fork-in-mouth, over a stainless steel pot, perched on a granite slab outside the Stephen A. Schwarzman building of the NYPL, looking out at 42nd Street— online on Tuesday morning. The post went viral

"I'm not sure I'm ever going to live down the photograph," he says. He probably has nothing to worry about, though. One needn't look very far down the line of over 8,000 comments posted on Facebook to find flattering compliments, statements of solidarity, and even marriage proposals directed at Zadrozny. He just earned a ton of admirers and multiple tons of allies in his fight to stop the NYPL's "Central Library Plan." 

After taking a moment to swoon over this, the discovery of what one Facebook member calls "the ideal man" (in other words, "a library loving, chicken eating, photogenic, determined, badass man"), let's consider more carefully the cause for his crusade: What exactly does the Central Library Plan entail, and would it really be a disaster for the NYPL?

Actually, hold that thought. There's no shortage of links to click for news and opinions surrounding the plan. Scott Sherman laid it all out for The Nation in November 2011 (and again in September 2013), and Paul Goldberger spent nearly 7,000 words examining the issue for a December 2012 Vanity Fair feature. If you want to consider all the nuances of the plan—why Tony Marx, the president and CEO of the NYPL, believes it's truly necessary; where the $300 million to execute the plan is supposed to come from; what's up with the NYPL budget; how many books are going to be taken out of the library and sent to a storage facility in New Jersey—then go read one of those articles. 

I'd rather write about why Matthew Zadrozny, the computer programmer, is determined to stop the Central Library Plan from happening. He alludes to his concerns on his personal website with a list of questions ranging from how logistically feasible the plan is to the political and financial interests that may be involved. He worries that eliminating the Mid-Manhattan and SIBL branches will mean less public space for research and learning, and especially for kids to safely study: "Please do not call this a 'renovation,' as [the NYPL has] rebranded it," he says. "It is not. They intend to close two branch libraries in the process, and squeeze the public into a space 1/3 of these." But what emerges during a conversation with Zadrozny is that he is a man who, like so many of us living in the digital age, is fundamentally concerned with the death of print. He believes in reading on paper. 

Ensconced in the Central Library Plan is a subtle embrace of technology (it's not exactly "going digital," but there will be more computers)—perhaps not dramatic enough to warrant the phrase "glorified internet café," but certainly emblematic of a greater cultural shift. Zadrozny mentions overhearing a stranger exclaim recently, "I just realized there are no more bookstores!" He tells me, "I think that in all likelihood most bookstores are going to disappear." But libraries have always been different from bookstores, and Zadrozny thinks, "In the digital age, libraries are going to be special precisely because they have paper books."

Zadrozny grew up in Tarrytown, New York, and even then he would come into Manhattan just to spend time in the NYPL because he liked it so much. He attended the University of Pennsylvania and then lived in Argentina before moving to Edinburgh, Scotland, to earn a Master's degree in computational linguistics. The NYPL has remained his favorite building in the world this whole time.

In addition to organizing protests at the library, Zadrozny and the Committee to Save the NYPL have been encouraging people to email Mayor Bill de Blasio, who officially expressed concerns about the renovation plans in July 2013 but has been silent on the issue since. The Committee's website, SaveNYPL.org, temporarily crashed from all the traffic it got on Tuesday. 

At the HONY blog, Brandon Stanton was compelled to post a response from the NYPL's public relations team clarifying that Zadrozny, who said he "works" at the library, is not an employee. (As a regular patron, he works from the library, or in the library, but not for it.) The NYPL also communicated three other points: "The vast majority of research books will remain on the site (in far superior storage conditions)"; "None of the public spaces he and others enjoy will change, and we'll be returning a circulating collection to this main library (it had one for its first 70 years)"; and "This plan will be greatly expanding access to the library. The renovation will allow all New Yorkers—scholars, students, educators, immigrants, job-seekers—to take advantage of this beautiful building and its world-class collections."

In reaction, Zadrozny says, "It's kind of funny because I have been all of these things. I've done research, I've been a student, I've actually taught a fair amount, I['ve been] an immigrant, and I've been a job-seeker." 

Still, he says, "I am a strange person to be making this case" for the love of print. "I am living a very digital life in many ways. Anybody that's doing computational linguistics needs digital texts. The funny thing is I mostly live in the digital world, but in recent months I've gone back to reading on paper because—paper is better."

"The paper book," says Zadrozny, "is not an obsolete technology. It's not replaced by e-books." He goes on to extol the virtues of the paper book as a "dedicated device," one that doesn't encourage multi-tasking the way a tablet does. 

"Your eyes get tired faster reading on a screen," he says. "When you think of someone like Edmund Morris doing research in a library all day—it's hard to imagine people doing serious research over an extended period of time always looking at screens." These comments bring to mind Jacob Mikanowski's essay in the Los Angeles Review of Books, "Papyralsis," all 4,420 words of which I'm certain Zadrozny would thoroughly enjoy (and which I emailed to him after our interview). "Invented before gunpowder or the stirrup, the book lasted longer than the steam engine and the rotary phone," writes Mikanowski. "Every part of it was adapted for human use over hundreds of years of trial and error. . . . Do you see the width of these pages? They’re set in relation to our natural vision span, which relates in turn to the size of the macula in the human eye." 

Zadrozny continues: "I would argue that books are slow information. It takes time and money to put together something that's printed. Slower, printed, expensive information is usually better information." He says that printed publications are often subject to higher standards of review than digital ones. 

"We know that digital reading isn't anonymous reading," he says, again echoing Mikanowski. ("We're living in a weird moment. Everything has become archivable. Our devices produce a constant record of our actions, our movements, our thoughts.") 

Zadrozny does not mean to suggest that the changes pending at the New York Public Library can be reduced to a philosophical debate over the death of print. "There are so many things at play here," he says. But he has a lot of questions, and he thinks you should, too. 

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Svati Kirsten Narula is a former producer for TheAtlantic.com.

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