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column on New York Public Library research collection

Intellectual Affairs

Stop Cultural Vandalism

March 28, 2012

The New York Public Library’s proposed Central Library Plan (CLP) is a case of long-term planning at its most shortsighted. It will affect scholars and writers in both the United States and abroad, and will have a particular impact on some fields of study in which the library has especially important collections, such as Russian literature. And the plan embodies an unreflective approach to the trade-offs between print and digital media that is problematic in the best of cases, but intolerable when it involves a research library.

In short, the CLP needs to be stopped. The stakes are not just local, and I hope readers of this column will do their part in spreading the word, whether they live in the city or on the other side of the planet.

The CLP calls for transferring 3 million volumes from the New York Public Library building on 42nd Street (the one with the lions) to storage facilities in New Jersey so that the space they now occupy can be redesigned to accommodate computers for public use. Not that books will disappear from the 42nd Street branch altogether. It will become a lending library, rather than a research collection that is available to the public but restricted to use within the building.

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While a quarter of the size of the Library of Congress, the 42nd Street collection contains a good deal of material not available in the country's largest public research library. So I have learned while trying to track things down over the years. If CLP goes into effect, the three million volumes will remain available – but not within a couple of hours, as has been the norm in the past. You will place a request for a book on 42nd Street and the book will then have to cross state lines, which, as the surly expression goes, will take as long as it takes. You might want to go see a Broadway show or something. For scholars living elsewhere, traveling to do research there will be a bit of a gamble.

The gutting… er, the transformation of the library will be complete by 2015, provided that the board of directors raises another $150-$200 million beyond the $150 million made available by the city. And where would that money come from? According to Scott Sherman’s investigative reporting for The Nation, “The NYPL expects to raise another $100–$200 million by selling off two prominent libraries in its system: the busy (but decrepit) Mid-Manhattan branch library on 40th Street, and the Science, Industry and Business Library on 34th Street, a research library that opened in 1996 to considerable fanfare.”

But hey, at least you’ll be able to check your email while on 42nd Street.

**

So far, the CLP has generated alarmingly little concern among scholars -- who, after all, will be on the losing end of it. The major exception has been a couple of blog posts by Caleb Crain (here and here) which make a thoughtful and worried assessment of the CLP's likely damage to the 42nd Street Library's cultural role. And in a comment appearing at Library Journal's website, Hal Grossman, a reference librarian at Hunter College, describes the pedagogical stakes:

“I regularly refer students to the New York Public Library's research collection when they are doing advanced research,” he writes. “This great collection gives our students, many of whom are the first in their families to go to college, access to recorded knowledge that's on a par with what Columbia or NYU students have.… Many of our students work while studying, and they often cannot wait for material to be shipped to New York for them to use. Offsite storage also creates another barrier between our students, who often lack the self-assurance of affluent students at private universities, and the world of ideas.”

Grossman ends with a point of principle applying well beyond the five boroughs: “It's wrong to say that the closed stacks at NYPL are not public space. True, we can't walk around there, but they exist to serve the public's research needs. They are unique. Seven floors of computers are not. This is a poor tradeoff.”

Now, I am by no means hostile to e-reading, which certainly has its place. But that place is wherever you happen to be doing it, at the time. The reading possible at the 42nd Street library is far more location-specific. It is a distinct kind of public-intellectual space, where a reader coming from anywhere in the world can sit down with the very copy of a book that Alfred Kazin or M.N. Roy studied there decades ago, and that may never have been removed from the shelf in the meantime.

The links so created are not hyperlinks. And what makes the CLP worrying -- beyond its consequences for one research library, however important -- is the massive devaluation of “offline reading” it represents. Obviously this is not just a New York problem. A campaign to oppose this tendency is well overdue, and we might as well start now.

Please take the time to read and mull over Scott Sherman’s article and Caleb Crain’s blog posts, cited above -- and circulate them to others as well. There is a Facebook page against the CLP, created by an ad hoc committee of scholars and writers now in formation. Beyond that, initiative is encouraged. Bloggers can blog, Twitterers can twitter, and scholarly organizations can issue polite but firmly worded statements of concern.

You might also write to Anthony Marx, former president of Amherst College and currently CEO of the New York Public Library, to ask why a collection of three million volumes gathered over more than a century is being treated as a distraction, rather than as the institution’s entire claim to cultural significance. His public email address is: president@nypl.org.

To be fair, let's keep in mind that the library did respond to Sherman's exposé with a statement. It reads as follows: "The NYPL is enthusiastically pursuing a systemwide major transformation plan, including the Central Library project announced in 2008, which will house the biggest circulating library in the country and continue to serve our existing users with even better facilities. Any transformation requires difficult choices. Thus we are working to ensure that we receive the advice, input, and reactions of all the library's constituents, staff, users and trustees." I suspect this was written not just on a computer, but by one, running the software preferred by rogue investment bankers and politicians facing scandal, though not currently under indictment.
 
The belief that every pre-existing cultural and intellectual expression must be digitized or else downgraded is destructive. The time has come to challenge it clearly. More on this campaign in a later column, as it develops.

 

 

 

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