I fell in love with the grand reading room of the 42nd Street branch of the New York Public Library long before ever setting foot in the place. The occasion was Damon Knight's Charles Fort: Prophet of the Unexplained, the first biography of America’s great chronicler of strange phenomena.
Fort, who died in 1932, tirelessly collected reports of spontaneous teleportation, poltergeists, downpours of frogs (the one in the film Magnolia is a nod to Fort) and mysterious objects hovering in the pre-Wright Brothers sky. He wrote about them with tongue in cheek, to mock scientific confidence in the fundamental rationality of the universe. It would be fair to call him a surrealist historian. Fort’s irony went right by me at the age of 12, but I had a typical prepubescent interest in the paranormal (fueled in part by rumors that The Exorcist was so scary that it had actually killed members of the moviegoing public or driven them insane) and Fort’s biography was shelved somewhere along that stretch of the Dewey decimal system.
Fort's interest in anomaly notwithstanding, it was Knight’s description of an ordinary scene in the eccentric writer’s daily life that burned itself into my memory as vividly as any episode of Kolchak: The Night Stalker. The passage is bit long, but as the evocation of a place and a mood it is magnificent:
“In the reading room of the New York Public Library, that mausoleum, designed by some schoolmaster with memories of hard oak, dust and gloom, there are men who sit day after day, bulwarked by stacks of books, scribbling, scribbling in the little pools of light from the green-shaded lamps on the long oak tables, and you look at them and wonder what will-o’-the-wisps they are pursuing day after day, year after year. One of them may be writing a history of dentistry in America, another studying explosives in order to blow up the world, a third gathering evidence that Shakespeare wrote the Bible. Their faces are pale and grim. The only cheerful people in that place are those who do not read the books, but only handle them as they come from the dumbwaiter, and set them on the counter like mouldy slabs of beef. Those who sit at the long tables day after day are dedicated men; some of them are brave men. There is death in old books from the stacks of a great library; the dust that impregnates their pages is death and darkness; the dust says, These are books that no one has opened for twenty years, fifty years, eighty years; and when you have written your book, it too will gather dust. White book dust, bone dust: garden dirt and axle grease are clean in comparison; they are living and unctuous; rubbed into the skin, they do good. The dust of books causes blains and hangnails; ingested, it provokes dyspepsia, flatulence, and heartburn; in the lungs it is cancerous. Who would not choose, if he could, to sit chained to an oar in a Roman galley, in the sunlight and salt air, rather than in this sunless crypt where, in the years from 1905 to 1920, Charles Fort sat? Many people must have wondered why he was here behind his tall stack of books: but one does not ask. Perhaps there is another like him there today, silent and determined under the green-shaded lamp.”
Finally able to do research there 20 years later, I was disappointed to find the main reading room somewhat less gloomy than depicted. (A later visit to the manuscript archive proved more satisfactory on that score.) I was there on a hunch that there might be a review of C. L. R. James’s World Revolution in a Canadian Marxist splinter group’s newspaper from the 1930s, as indeed there was. Knight was right about dust -- the brittle paper flaked with every turn of the page. It was an experience of deep connection, both with the history I was there to study and with the countless geniuses and cranks who had worked at the reading room’s long tables down the many years.
In 2012 it looked for a while as if Fort’s specter might end up homeless. Efforts were afoot to transform the library -- to remove books from the shelves in its vast basement and send them to New Jersey, and replace the reading room itself with something more cheerful and revenue enhancing. A tourist-friendly spot, where you could get a coffee, perhaps, and check your email.
Plans to renovate the 42nd Street library only became public knowledge when Scott Sherman revealed it in a cover story for The Nation, where he is a contributing writer. Following his lead on the story, I wrote this column on the impending disaster. Anthony Marx, the library’s president, responded with an article designed to mollify scholars -- who, as my reply indicated at the time, were not falling for it.
The more the word got around, the greater the outcry. There were letters. There were petitions. The library was flash-mobbed by a group called Books Not Billionaires. The architecture critic for The New York Times weighed in on the plan and found it wanting, not to say atrocious. By May 2014, the plan was dead.
Now in Sherman’s book, Patience and Fortitude: Power, Real Estate, and the Fight to Save a Public Library, published by Melville House, we have the full story -- or as much of it as can be told at this time, given the refusal of some parties to be interviewed. The title might sound a little bit portentous, but it isn’t: Patience and Fortitude are the two famous marble lions outside the library’s main entrance. The sculptor did not christen them. The names are part of the building’s lore, coined by Mayor Fiorello LaGuardia and adopted by patrons.
Sherman’s deeply researched but swiftly paced account of the rise and fall of the Central Library Plan (as it was called) doubles as a record of how deeply the institution became rooted in the city’s history and folkways since it opened its doors in 1911. None of which, it seems, counted for much in the scheme that was in place on the library’s centenary.
From thousands of pages of documents he obtained under New York’s Open Meetings Law, the author reports that the CLP, “conceived in the boom years preceding the recession of 2008, was a mystifying combination of austerity and devil-may-care overreach” that “was pushed along, in absolute secrecy, not by professional librarians but by a tight, core group of wealthy trustees from the worlds of finance and real estate.”
Sherman credits the trustees with having had good intentions, but it is worth stressing that he found none of the pseudopopulist rhetoric about “democratizing the library” during the planning phase. That was secreted only when necessary, like ink from a frightened squid. Once details of the plan were made public and subject to debate, the rationalizations collapsed -- as the 42nd Street structure itself might have, given the deep architectural flaws in the proposed renovation.
Patience and Fortitude makes clear that if the library had a golden age (a decade or so on either side of World War II, by the author’s reckoning) it has nonetheless had a long history of fiscal turmoil, and of leadership that was better suited to facing the challenges before it at some times than at others. What became an issue for the first time only in the most recent crisis was the fundamental understanding of the 42nd Street library as a world-renowned cultural institution that occupies some prime real estate, rather than the emphasis being the other way around.
Stone lions alone cannot defend such a unique location. Patience and Fortitude show how writers, teachers, students and scholars intervened before things reached the point of no return. Scott Sherman’s book is certain to find appreciative readers, because it is one for readers, who desperately need an advocate once the money starts talking.
What happens to academic libraries as they slide sideways into a new world of superabundant information? What happens to their colleges and universities?
The process of change is not easy. Inside Higher Ed has described recent campus conflicts regarding the future of academic libraries. Carl Straumsheim ("Clash in the Stacks") reported that several library directors at liberal arts institutions have lost their jobs. However, tensions about changing libraries are not restricted to one type of institution.
Academic libraries are undergoing a public, challenging and frequently contested transformation. The change and obsolescence of academic libraries as we know them represents an event of unprecedented magnitude in higher education. Rarely has a core institutional activity faced such formidable prospects for change.
At the same time, librarians will be unsuccessful in planning for the future on their own. They possess much expertise about libraries, but less about trends in research and curriculum. Moving forward, the process of recreating the library must be one that involves many people in many roles on campus.
The library as a collection of print books and journals is an idea that has left the building. The library -- if that is even the appropriate name for what seems to be emerging -- is no longer focused exclusively on organizing and providing access to information. The library is fast becoming a multifaceted center designed to support a wide variety student learning and faculty research activities.
Many libraries in institutions focused on undergraduate education now include spaces where students find a one-stop learning environment that incorporates writing assistance, tutoring and multimedia production, as well as institutionally unique centers focused on civic engagement, multicultural dialogue or service learning.
Many libraries in research institutions provide expertise and specialized technologies to support the work of faculty. Areas of emphasis might include data management and visualization, scholarly communication and institutional repositories, the mining of humanities texts, and geographic information systems, to name a few.
By default, much of the responsibility for adapting to a changing information environment seems to fall to library directors who forge ahead at their own risk. Straumsheim quotes Bryn I. Geffert, college librarian at Amherst, as saying that directors need a high degree of “social smarts” to navigate the rapids of change.
To my way of thinking, three smarts stand out. The first involves understanding the complex and ambiguous decision-making processes of higher education. It is no surprise that decision making in colleges and universities is frequently characterized as organized chaos. Recognizing invested stakeholders is not as easy as it would seem. This is not a top-down environment. And every institution is somewhat different.
Second, working with complexity: after 20 years of experience and research, I have come to appreciate that university processes succeed best when leaders promote interactions that permit the academic community to learn its way forward to a common understanding of what can and should happen. Complexity theory suggests that effective leaders do not predetermine the outcomes of change initiatives; they create the conditions whereby the community can engage them and take steps forward.
Third, library directors must approach library change with humility. In their efforts to create conditions for campus engagement, they are the stewards of the process, not its owners. As stewards and facilitators of the process, they don’t have the answers; they offer possibilities. While they may be experts in academic library trends, librarians and directors are not necessarily experts in how those trends fit into the institutional community, curriculum and culture.
One of the hazards of organizational change is presuming that it should take place in a certain way. The future is a collective production based on many factors. Colleges and universities are communities of people with various commitments, interests and activities that intersect with libraries and information services. What we can do is open up opportunities for discussion, collective dreaming and actions.
However, the issue of library change goes far beyond the personal attributes of library directors. Our institutions will not succeed if large-scale change relies on individuals. Sure, someone needs to lead the charge, but meaningful change doesn’t occur because of one person; it requires widespread engagement, not merely acquiescence. College and university administrators and faculty -- across disciplines -- must recognize their own interests in this change.
This leads to my central point. It will take a university community to shape a future library that meets the specific needs of learning and research at that institution. This transition is not just about libraries. It is about how colleges and universities come together to solve a collective challenge. Libraries cannot puzzle out their future alone.
The library is only as effective as its ability to understand and support the emerging information needs of its campus. Beyond organizing and providing access to information, academic libraries are now incorporating a variety of nontraditional resources, services and expertise. But what exactly will change, and how fast, is a campus conversation.
I am reminded of Harold Howe’s statement: “What a school thinks about its library is a measure of what it feels about education.” The two are connected. Libraries are changing. Education is changing. How academe responds to the transformation of libraries says a lot, not only about its view of libraries and education, but also about its capacity to address institutional change. The university’s engagement in library change might be considered a barometer of its ability to respond to other change as well.
But how can we, and our institutions, establish strategies that promote strategic responses to changes in the social and economic conditions that surround us? How can we work collaboratively and intentionally, bringing our expertise to bear, taking risks in order to do what higher education is called to do: to lead social and culture change that makes a positive difference in the world?
I’ve come to believe that the issues we face in our current institution are the same ones that we face wherever we go. Greener grass is not the issue. Working with the grass that we have is. Wendell Berry reminds us that meaningful work and life results from our commitment to place, to nurturing our communities.
At a very basic level, we must care about the institution, about the people we work with and about the library. The future of libraries, and academe generally, requires us to learn our way forward together as a community. There are no easy answers, only our commitments, our skills and patience with each other as we find our way into the future.
The future of our libraries is our own future. Higher education is at a turning point, with libraries as one of the most visible signs of change. How we choose to recreate libraries may be a reflection of how we adapt to changing and critical social, political, economic and environmental issues throughout the world.
Dane Ward is dean of Milner Library at Illinois State University.
According to academic libraries, there’s a just-over-the-horizon golden age in which “you always have whatever scholarship you need access to, at any time and wherever you are.” This quote comes from my library’s “welcome” page, but it could as easily come from many American university libraries.
Having e-books supersede and replace physical books is essential to the vision. Accordingly, libraries have made great advances in digitizing their paper book collections and making them available online through Google Books, HathiTrust and other digitized collections. These superb collections make the vision seem possible, enticing and even closer than we might imagine. Many university libraries have taken another step toward its realization by instituting policies that either prefer or require new book acquisitions to be in digital rather than paper format, when available.
But there is a fundamental difference between digitized versions of physical books and born-digital books. While the former move us closer to the “anyone, anytime, anywhere” future, the economics of the latter are pushing us in the opposite direction, toward a future in which access to digitally published titles is restricted and provisional.
This difference becomes apparent when we consider interlibrary loan. I regularly explain to patrons that they cannot use an e-book licensed by another University of California campus and that their best option is to request a paper copy by interlibrary loan. In one recent case a patron wanted a book that had been published only online and only as part of a package. Since subscribers to the package were prohibited from sharing any of its contents via interlibrary loan, there were only two options for the patron: either she had to read it while physically situated at a subscribing library, or my library would have had to pay many thousands of dollars to license the package.
To understand what is happening, it is first necessary to understand that digitizing projects like Google Books and HathiTrust are possible because libraries own the physical books they contain and because they choose to exercise the option to make them available in this fashion. The key point is ownership. Acquisition of a physical book brings with it a consistent and well understood set of rights and restrictions that have been clearly defined and relatively stable for more than a century.
Collectively we refer to these rights as conferring ownership. The principle that the sale of a book extinguished the right of the seller to control the subsequent disposition of a book was established by the United States Supreme Court back in 1908 in Bobbs-Merrill Co. v. Straus and reaffirmed only last year in Kirtsaeng v. John Wiley & Sons, Inc. Known as the first-sale doctrine, this principle underpins fundamental practices of a research library. It means that libraries can do pretty much what they wish with their books as long as those actions do not violate copyright (or other) law -- such venerable library practices as lending books to whomever they choose and for however long they wish, sharing them through interlibrary loan and selling or giving them away derive from the first-sale doctrine.
First-sale doctrine also provides the legal basis for such innovative practices as digitizing books; if the digitized books are in the public domain, then libraries can make them freely available, as they do with the full-view titles in HathiTrust. Copyright law and court decisions also permit digitization of in-copyright books for such transformative uses as full-text searching (you can find out if a term is used in a book, and how often, even if you can’t see it online) and data mining of digitized collections to discover patterns of thought and word use. One of the most exciting uses of digitized in-copyright titles is to provide print-impaired readers with full-text, screen-readable access to a body of literature orders of magnitude greater than previously available.
Born-digital e-books are very different animals than digitized e-books, even though they may appear similar on the screen. Where digitized e-books are owned by libraries, born-digital e-books are almost always only licensed from either the publisher or a third-party vendor, not purchased outright. The distinction between owning and licensing means, among other things, that the digital file is located on the seller’s server and not on one owned or controlled by the library. Additionally, the bundle of rights associated with ownership of a physical book is not transferred intact when a library merely pays for access.
E-book licenses vary widely. At one end are subscription packages with low per-title prices and few rights; a library’s patrons can access a subscription title only as long as it pays an annual subscription fee, effectively renting the books like you rent a car. Libraries’ ability to share titles acquired this way is extremely limited.
At the other end are licenses that ensure the library’s access to the title “in perpetuity,” for a one-time fee, permitting the library to engage in many of the practices associated with owned books. Most limited perpetual access e-books licensed by libraries (in contrast with inexpensive personal copies) generally cost about the same as a physical book, but add on rights and users and prices quickly escalate by three and five times. (The per-title cost drops if book packages are licensed, but bulk acquisition has problems of its own, and in my opinion should be avoided.)
I am aware of a single major vendor that permits the purchase of an e-book allowing a library to download and maintain a copy of the title on its own hardware, but the rights that accompany a title purchased this way are still far more limited than those associated with a purchased book. For example, it would be a violation of the purchase agreement to send one of these books out on interlibrary loan; only a single chapter can be shared per request.
In addition, the fact that titles are licensed enables the owner to engage in practices that libraries traditionally reject. Foremost among them is gathering data about readers. For libraries, protection of reader privacy is a core value, and they routinely break the connection between borrower and book as soon as the book has been returned.
Vendors, on the other hand, can monitor and record individual patrons’ book choices. They can even assert control over readers’ behavior. Once, when I was skimming an e-book, a “Browse Warning!” appeared, asserting that I was either illegally copying pages or “navigating the book in an inappropriate manner.” Were I to continue my inappropriate navigation, the vendor warned, it might not only cut me off from this book, but from all its books. I never skimmed one of the vendor’s titles again.
Finally, there is a separate problem associated with the practice of licensing, not purchasing e-books. The perpetual access model assumes that the publisher or vendor of the title is a stable, financially secure corporation that possesses the expertise to write -- or at least vet -- complex legal instruments and has invested in whatever backup mechanisms are needed to provide satisfactory assurances of access, perpetual or otherwise. However, there are ever-increasing numbers and varieties of small, individual and ephemeral publishing outlets that lack the resources to meet library standards. Consequently libraries are simply unable to acquire the e-books produced by a growing segment of the publishing industry.
For all these reasons, born-digital e-books pose significant challenges to libraries’ abilities to operate effectively, protect their patrons and meet their needs, and acquire the books they need at a reasonable cost. If libraries are to continue to provide the unique services they offer, if they are to realize the “anyone, anytime, anywhere” vision, and if they are to support the future use of their holdings in ways we cannot yet imagine, they need to own, not merely license books. And e-book ownership needs to be more closely equivalent to ownership of a physical book than is currently the case.
In short, we need to renegotiate the way libraries operate in the e-book marketplace so that they can fulfill their unique and irreplaceable functions while also ensuring that publishers and authors receive their due. It will be expensive, if we can ever get there. Books will cost more and libraries will have to develop the infrastructure needed to host, preserve and deliver the books they acquire. Fortunately, we do not have to start from scratch. We have some existing, if imperfect, purchase models on which to build. It will take time, and the golden age may be farther off and not as perfect as we had hoped. In the meantime, libraries should ease off on their preference for licensing e-books instead of buying physical ones.
Daniel Goldstein is an arts, humanities and social sciences librarian at the University of California at Davis.
A global subscription company that served as intermediary between college libraries and journal publishers has declared bankruptcy. Libraries face financial losses and time-consuming process to assure journal access.