DEBATE Paul Brodeur, a former reporter for The New Yorker, is demanding the return of the entire collection of papers he donated to the New York Public Library. He has built a shed in his backyard in Cape Cod to store the boxes.
By MICHAEL BARBARO, Published: April 22, 2011, NYtimes
Thirty feet below Midtown Manhattan, there is an elite club that admits just a few members each year: the archives of the New York Public Library, guardian of the personal papers of luminaries like Thomas Jefferson, Truman Capote and Herman Melville.
Authors and intellectuals spend lifetimes trying to earn a coveted place inside. Now, one of them is fighting desperately to get out.
In a move that has turned scholarly heads, Paul Brodeur, a former investigative reporter for The New Yorker, who donated thousands of pages of his work to the library, is demanding that the papers be returned. He claims that an institution renowned for its careful stewardship of historical documents has badly mishandled his.
The charges are roiling the genteel world of research archivists, who usually toil in dust-jacket obscurity, and inciting a lively debate about which pieces of the past are worth preserving.
Over the past few weeks, Mr. Brodeur — known for his zealous pursuit of asbestos manufacturers and corporate polluters as a journalist — has mounted an elbows-out campaign to shame the library, firing off e-mails to dozens of prominent academics and authors pleading his case and enlisting their support. The library, which rebuts Mr. Brodeur’s claims, is refusing to return all of his work, escalating a year-old dispute that has played out on an unusually public stage. Beginning last month, Mr. Brodeur and the New York Public Library posted dueling accounts on the Web site of the Authors Guild Bulletin, an influential newsletter for writers.
The back-and-forth has prompted several high-profile writers and academics to weigh in. Laurence Tribe, a Harvard law professor, told Mr. Brodeur in an e-mail that his experience seemed to be “a distinct departure from the standards of ethical propriety and intellectual integrity that I would have expected the New York Public Library to maintain.”
After learning of the controversy, John Stauber, author and founder of the Center for Media and Democracy, told Mr. Brodeur, “This is shocking.”
Ann Thornton, a top official at the library, called the situation “very unfortunate.” Mr. Brodeur calls it something else: “A breach of trust.”
During his years at The New Yorker, Mr. Brodeur, 79, a novelist turned award-winning reporter, built a career out of exposing the environmental hazards and health risks created by industry. In the process, he also filled an ever-expanding wall of file cabinets in his office. Mr. Brodeur said a colleague at the magazine, Philip Hamburger, mentioned that he had donated his own papers to the library and suggested that he do so as well. In 1992, Mr. Brodeur gave the library some 300 boxes.
In 1997, he recalled being told, the documents had been reviewed and prepared for public viewing, a claim confirmed by a senior library curator at the time.
That year, Mr. Brodeur and his wife toured what was described as the “permanent collection” of his papers in the main branch’s stacks, which stretch 88 miles. Mr. Brodeur watched, contentedly, as giant mechanized glass panels opened up to reveal the files behind his biggest exposés — on the flesh-eating enzymes in household detergents, the erosion of the ozone layer by industrial gases and a corporate cover-up of the links between asbestos and cancer.
So he was baffled a year ago — nearly two decades after his donation — when the library notified him that it no longer wanted three-fourths of his papers. He was instructed to either retrieve the undesired documents or to allow the library to destroy them, according to copies of the correspondence he provided to The New York Times. “As I’m sure you understand,” William Stingone, a curator at the library, wrote him, “we need to manage our ever-diminishing resources, including space, even as our collection grows.”
As it happens, Mr. Brodeur did not understand. He was livid. In a June 2010 letter to the library demanding the return of his entire collection, Mr. Brodeur wrote, “I no longer have confidence in the New York Public Library’s stewardship of the papers I donated more than 18 years ago.”
The staff at the library called the episode a misunderstanding. Despite what Mr. Brodeur might have been told, curators said, they did not finish sorting through his papers until last year.
In a series of letters and phone calls to Mr. Brodeur over the summer, they explained that, as they did with every donation, they had carefully weeded out what would be useful to generations of researchers (original letters and rare primary documents) and excluded less-meaningful artifacts (photocopied news stories and multiple drafts of New Yorker writings). In the process, an original donation of about 320 boxes had been whittled to 53.
On a recent afternoon, Ms. Thornton, who oversees collections and exhibits, showed off the results of that winnowing, displaying a detailed catalog and a sampling of documents on a long table outside the library’s Rose Main Reading Room. The Brodeur collection appeared carefully labeled by subject and date. There were folders containing fan mail from readers (one called an article he had written for The New Yorker “extremely provocative and well-researched”). There were copies of letters from Mr. Brodeur to his colleagues at the magazine (including an angry missive to Seymour Hersh, who had backtracked on an endorsement of a much-debated Brodeur book about the dangers of electrical power lines in 1997. Mr. Brodeur called him “craven” and “lame.”). And there was an unfinished draft of a novel, titled “Coral Sea,” about an investigative journalist who stumbles on an important secret.
Ms. Thornton said that before last year, Mr. Brodeur’s papers had been largely undigested. The documents, she said, “had no catalog record, no archival finding aid, no collection guide.” She added: “The collection was not usable.”
But those claims have pitted the library’s current staff against a highly regarded former colleague, Mimi Bowling, a senior curator who contended in letters to Mr. Brodeur that the library had finished organizing his collection by 1997, around the time she invited him to tour the archives. Any claim to the contrary, Ms. Bowling wrote to Mr. Brodeur, “is simply not true.”
Ms. Bowling, who now consults as an archivist, declined to comment, but did not dispute the authenticity of her letters.
Archivists said that 18 years was an extraordinarily long time for a library to process an individual’s papers, and they wondered if the library had changed its mind about the value of Mr. Brodeur’s donation. But they noted that Mr. Brodeur had explicitly given up all rights to the papers when he signed a “deed of gift” donating them to the library.
According to that deed, the library “reserves the right to return” any items it wishes and “may dispose of the same as the library determines in its sole discretion.”
Even so, Richard J. Cox Jr., a professor of archival studies at the University of Pittsburgh, said the library might have mismanaged the situation. “Waiting 18 years, coming out of the blue — that sounds like not necessarily the best way to handle this,” he said.
The library cited a backlog of donations for the 18-year wait.
Mr. Brodeur says he now wishes he had donated his papers to an environmental organization, a journalism school or a small university — “any of which,” he wrote in the Authors Guild Bulletin, “might have been more appreciative of them than the New York Public Library.” The library has told Mr. Brodeur he has until August to retrieve the unwanted papers. He has vowed to continue fighting for the return of all his work. “None of this would have happened if the library had decided to return my collection,” he said. “No, they are going to play tough guy. Well, I am going to do the same.”
Finding a place to stockpile all those boxes has proved tricky. Mr. Brodeur considered renting a storage unit or making room in his house on Cape Cod. But he settled, in the end, on using his backyard. He has built a small shed that he says can fit his entire collection.
The shed is not temperature controlled, like the stacks at the New York Public Library, but it will keep out the rain. “Let’s put it this way,” Mr. Brodeur said of his humble home archive, “it’s certainly an extraordinary change of venue.”