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second column on New York Public Library research collection

Intellectual Affairs

For Books, Against Boilerplate

April 25, 2012

Over the past couple of weeks Anthony Marx, the president and CEO of the New York Public Library, has appeared in various public venues to defend the library’s plan to ship much of its research collection off-site, so that the stack space can be used for more computers. I have been among the people suggesting that this is a bad idea. It rests on assumptions that are dubious at best, but ever more widespread; and the damage, once done, won’t be remediable. At very least we need to be lucid about what is happening, and what is at stake.

In the statement he published here at Inside Higher Ed in response to my column, Marx said that he wanted to clear up “some misconceptions” it had spread. I shall certainly try to return the favor. For example, he declared “unequivocally that there is no scenario in which fewer than two million volumes” from the research collections would “remain on-site at 42nd Street.” Perhaps there is no such scenario. But there certainly was one -- and not long ago, either -- in which the figure was 1.5 million. The more pleasingly rounded figure appeared once the public started expressing concern.

The new, improved 42nd Street library will have longer hours, plus work spaces for 400 scholars and writers. An appealing thought. Still, the promises would be far more credible if budget cuts had not already done so much damage to the NYPL system at large, including serious reductions in professional staff. How likely are the improvements to survive if – no, make that when -- the belt is tightened?

Efforts to spin the news are to be expected. Much more of a problem with the proposed changes is the lack of transparency. The actual Central Library Plan itself had not been made public last year, when The Nation published Scott Sherman’s long report on the proposed changes. Four months later, it still isn’t. Nor are officials responsive to serious questions. When the New York writer Caleb Crain was invited to join an advisory panel concerning the Central Library Plan, he assumed it meant the administration would be forthcoming about details. At least he cleared up that misunderstanding pretty quickly. “I don't think anyone should expect this advisory panel to have much investigative authority or capacity,” Crain wrote on his blog two weeks ago. “I've pressed as hard as is consonant with civility, and I'm afraid I don't have much to show for it publicly. I've been given private answers to some of my questions, but I worry that unless the answers are offered to the public, there's no way to recruit outsiders to help fact-check them, and no way to hold the library accountable later for promises implicit in its reassurances.” [See update at end of column.}

The boilerplate is wearing thin. Perhaps the Doctoral Students’ Council at the Graduate Center of the City University of New York can make a dent in it tomorrow (April 26) at a forum from 3 to 5 pm, with Ann Thornton, director of the New York Public Library in attendance. Getting from the Center to the 42nd Street library takes about five minutes on foot -- so the CLP is, in effect, a campus issue. Linda Neiberg, a graduate student in English tells me that a large turnout is likely, since the proposed changes would have an effect on almost everyone.

On the Writing on Communication Across the Curriculum blog at Baruch College. Neiberg described the importance of having materials on-site and easily available -- particularly for working students and independent scholars who might have one day a week to do research at the library. She also noted “the serendipitous aspect of research,” which probably is not something a hedge-fund manager on the board of directors would lose much time considering.

“While reading a particular text, “ she says, “I have often been guided to additional sources via footnotes and bibliographical entries. I then request those texts and receive them in an hour or so. Threads of thought have the best chance of coming to fruition when they are unbroken, when one can engage with several texts at the same time. Trying to hold on to a thread — before it even becomes an idea — for days before one can consult a needed text is difficult, if not impossible.”

It's easy to anticipate the likely response to this concern. In the words Marx addressed to IHE’s readers: “We have received many questions about whether we can really meet a 24-hour retrieval time for these materials. The answer is yes: 24-hour turnaround is made possible by major service enhancements already in the works, most notably by bar-coding every item.”

Did I mention that 24-hour turnaround comes with a “guarantee”? It's enough to make a cat laugh. Books currently stored offsite are bar-coded, but still take up to two days to a week to reach patrons. How fulfillment  time will improve once more books are in New Jersey has never been explained. So forget about serendipity in research. Under the brave-new bar-code system, the only luck patrons will enjoy is luck of the draw.

Smart and not-readily-placed people are paying attention, and the discussion is anything but over. More than 500 scholars, writers, and teachers have signed a letter recently circulated by Joan Scott, a historian at the Institute for Advanced Study in Princeton, NJ. At least one of the signatories is a Nobel laureate. Plans are under way to make the letter public soon. When it does, the entire board of directors should go on a retreat to study and meditate upon it. 

One paragraph struck me as applying to any number of cultural and educational institutions:

“One of the claims made about the CLP is that it will ‘democratize’ the NYPL,” but that seems to be a misunderstanding of what that word means. The NYPL is already among the most democratic institutions of its kind. Anyone can use it; no credentials are needed to gain entry. More space, more computers, a café, and a lending library will not improve an already democratic institution. In fact, the absence of expert staff will diminish the accessibility of the collections to those who aren’t already experienced researchers, narrowing the constituency who can profitably use the library. They will be able to borrow books, to be sure, but they won’t be inducted into the world of archives and collections if staff aren’t there to guide them. Also, in the age of the web, we need, more than ever, skilled, expert librarians who can assist us in navigating the new databases and the back alleys of cyberspace. We understand that it is often easier to raise money by attending to buildings (and naming them), but the real need at the NYPL is for the preservation of a great library and the support of its staff.”

That seems really on the money, in all senses. Using a library involves certain skills; they must be conveyed between human beings, rather than Googled. But the notion of investing in anything so hard to analyze on a spreadsheet is not self-evident. By contrast, once the computer terminals are in, you can quantify usage to the heart's content. For that matter, why keep thinking of the research library as a place defined by the need to preserve and transmit the printed word from one generation to the next? The decision to abandon that idea makes perfect sense if every piece of writing is going to be digitized, sooner or later.

The NYPL board of directors started drawing up its plans in the ‘00s, when the Google Books settlement seemed in the offing, as Charles Petersen, an associate editor of n+1, points out in “Let Them Check Email,” an article that will run at the magazine's website within the next week or so. (As with Joan Scott's letter, I will post a link here when it becomes available.) But even if that Gordian knot were sliced through tomorrow, it would be a decade or two before “the availability of digitized books [would reach] the point where one could be confident of finding what one needed, in a way one can still be confident (albeit decreasingly) upon arriving at the New York Public.”

Even judged by the standards of speed and efficiency, it's hard to see how the Central Library Plan makes sense. The thought that it might inspire, or shore up, similar plans at other institutions is depressing. It's time for the New York Public Library's board of directors to slow down, rethink their assumptions, and start listening to the public, instead of crafting its talking points.

UPDATE: Since writing this column, I've learned that a library official recently informed Caleb Crain that he is no longer a member of the advisory panel.

 

 

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