By PATRICIA COHEN Published: November 18, 2009
After 16 years at the helm of one of the world’s largest library systems, Paul LeClerc announced on Wednesday that he would step down as president of the New York Public Library in the summer of 2011 to give the institution plenty of time to search for a replacement.
Mr. LeClerc, 68, a scholar of French literature and the former president of Hunter College, has presided over the sprawling library system during a revolutionary period of change, as the world has shifted to the digital era. When he first came to the position in December 1993, the library did not even have a Web site.
The advent of search engines like Google and Yahoo rivals “the impact of Gutenberg,” the developer of the first printing press, Mr. LeClerc said this week as he sat in his office opposite a portrait of Benjamin Franklin at the library’s headquarters, at 42nd Street and Fifth Avenue.
The combination of a vast research collection — more than 50 million items and the world’s largest online catalog — and an extensive network of lending libraries throughout the Bronx, Manhattan and Staten Island makes the New York system unique, Mr. LeClerc said. (Queens and Brooklyn have separate library systems.) “Historically it’s a staggering level of ambition and generosity that no other library system in the world has,” he said.
Although previous presidents have been scholars, Catherine Marron, chairwoman of the library’s board, said that the new leader could come from any number of fields — academics, technology, the nonprofit sector. “What Paul has represented is intellectual leadership,” she said, which is particularly important to the library to maintain its worldwide reputation for scholarship and to provide vision. She and Vice Chairman Joshua L. Steiner will lead a search committee and hire a firm to help them find a successor. Mr. LeClerc made clear that he intended to steer clear of the entire process.
In the current economic crisis the library has seen greater use of its resources than ever, at the same time its financial resources have been strained. Visits to branches increased by 11 percent, to 18 million, in the past year, while Internet visits hit 26 million. In the spring Job Search Central opened at the Science, Industry and Business Library at Madison Avenue and 34th Street; a specialist in job searches is stationed at every branch to help visitors write résumés and look for jobs.
“The financial situation has been tough on everybody,” Ms. Marron said, adding that she nonetheless felt the library was in “solid financial shape.” The library’s annual budget of $254 million is comprised of money from its endowment, contributions from the city, private donations and earned income.
During Mr. LeClerc’s tenure — longer than any of his predecessors’ — the library started digitizing its collection, and entered partnerships with companies like Google and Apple to expand access to materials. It also provided free wireless and undertook $500 million in capital projects. The redesigned Web site, nypl.org, using free open-source software will be available in January. The library has also acquired a number of archival collections from Jerome Robbins, John Cage, Merce Cunningham, Malcolm X and The New York Times. The Voltaire collection, which is Mr. LeClerc’s specialty and is now on display, has also grown.
Mr. LeClerc said his basic approach boiled down to a simple formula: “find out what people want and give it to them.” Libraries are now open for longer hours than at any time in its history, he added.
Although long-term questions about print versus digital are unresolved, Mr. LeClerc is confident that for the foreseeable future both print and digital resources will be in demand. Libraries have had the same function for 5,000 years, Mr. LeClerc explained, as “storehouses of exceptionally important written documents.” The New York Public Library’s fundamental responsibility to acquire materials, keep them and let people look at them, he said, remains the same.