Libraries

Essay on usage statistics and the research library

Intellectual Affairs

In a passage surely written with tongue in cheek, Friedrich Nietzsche states that a scholar of his era would consult 200 volumes in the course of a working day. That’s far too many, he suggests: a symptom of erudition’s decay into feeble bookwormery and derivative non-thinking. “During the time that I am deeply absorbed in my work,” he says, “no books are found within my reach; it would never occur to me to allow anyone to speak or even to think in my presence.” A noble modus vivendi, if not quite an admirable one, somehow.

Imagine what the philosopher would make of the 21st century, when you can carry the equivalent of the library of Alexandria in a flash drive on your keychain. Nietzsche presents the figure of 200 books a day as “a modest assessment” – almost as if someone ought to do an empirical study and nail the figure down. But we’re way past that now, as one learns from the most recent number of Against the Grain.

ATG is a magazine written by and for research librarians and the publishers and vendors that market to them. In the new issue, 10 articles appear in a section called “Perspectives on Usage Statistics Across the Information Industry.” The table of contents also lists a poem called “Fireworks” as part of the symposium, though that is probably a mistake. (The poem is, in fact, about fireworks, unless I am really missing something.)

Some of the articles are a popularization -- relatively speaking -- of discussions that have been taking place in venues with titles like the Journal of Interlibrary Loan, Document Delivery & Electronic Reserves and Collections Management. Chances are the non-librarians among you have never read these publications, or even seen them at a great distance, no matter how interdisciplinary you seek to be. For that matter, discussing the ATG articles at any length in this column would risk losing too many readers. They are peer communications. But the developments they address are worth knowing about, because they will undoubtedly affect everyone’s research, sooner or later, often in ways that will escape most scholars’ notice. 

Most of us are aware that the prominence and influence of scholarly publications can be quantified, more or less. The Social Science Citation Index, first appearing in 1956, is an almost self-explanatory case.

As an annual list of the journal articles where a given paper or book has been cited, SSCI provides a bibliographical service. Counting the citations then yields bibliometric data, of a pretty straightforward kind. The metric involved is simplicity itself. The number of references to a scholarly text in the subsequent literature, over a given period of time, is a rough and ready indicator of that text’s influence prominence during said period. The reputation of an author can be similarly quantified, hashmark style.

A blunt bibliometric instrument, to be sure. The journal impact factor is a more focused device, measuring how often articles in a journal have been cited over a two-year period relative to the total number of articles in the same field, over the same period. The index was first calculated in the 1970s by what is now Thompson Reuters, also the publisher of SSCI. But the term “journal impact factor” is generic. It applies to the IDEAS website’s statistical assessment of the impact of economic journals, which is published by the Research Division of the Federal Reserve Bank of St. Louis. And there's the European Reference Index for the Humanities, sponsored by European Science Foundation, which emerged in response to dissatisfaction with “existing bibliographic/bibliometric indices” for being “all USA-based with a stress on the experimental and exact sciences and their methodologies and with a marked bias towards English-language publication.”

As the example of ERIH may suggest, bibliometric indices are not just a statistical matter. What gets counted, and how, is debatable. So is the effect of journal impact factors on the fields of research to which they apply – not to mention the people working in those fields. And publication in high-impact journals can be a career-deciding thing. A biologist and a classicist on a tenure committee will have no way of gauging how good the candidate’s work on astrophysics is, as such. But if the publications are mostly in high-impact journals, that’s something to go by.

The metrics discussed in the latest Against the Grain are newer and finer-grained than the sort of thing just described. They have been created to help research libraries track what in their collections is being used, and how often and intensively. And that, in turn, is helpful in deciding what to acquire, given the budget. (Or what not to acquire, often enough, given what’s left of the budget.)

One contributor, Elizabeth R. Lorbeer, associate director for content management for the medical library at the University of Alabama at Birmingham, says that the old way to gauge which journals were being used was to look at the wear and tear on the bound print volumes. Later, comparing journal-impact factors became one way to choose which subscriptions to keep and which to cancel. But it was the wrong tool in some cases. Lorbeer writes that she considered it “an inadequate metric to use in the decision-making process because sub-discipline and newer niche areas of research were often published in journals with a lower impact factor.”

From the bibliometric literature she learned of another statistical tool: the immediacy index, which measures not how often a journal is cited, but how quickly. In some cases, a journal with a low impact factor might have a higher immediacy index, as would be appropriate for work in cutting-edge fields.

She also mentions consulting the “half-life” index for journals – a metric as peculiar, on first encounter, as the old “count the footnote citations” method was obvious. It measures “the number of publication years from the current year which account for 50 percent of current citations received” of articles from a given journal. This was useful for determining which journals had a long-enough shelf life to make archiving them worthwhile.

Google Scholar is providing a number of metrics – the h-index, the h-core, and the h-median – which I shall mention, and point out, without professing to understand their usefulness. Lorbeer refers to a development also covered by Inside Higher Ed earlier this year: a metric based on Twitter references, to determine the real-time impact of scholarly work.

One day a Nietzsche specialist is going to be praised for writing a high-twimpact paper, whereupon the universe will end.

Other contributions to the ATG symposium paint a picture of today’s research library as a mechanism incessantly gathering information as well as making it available to its patrons – indeed, doing both at the same time. Monitoring the flow of bound volumes in and out of the library makes it relatively easy to gauge demand according to subject heading. And with digital archives, it’s possible to track which ones are proving especially useful to students and faculty.

A survey of 272 practicing librarians in ATG’s subscriber base, conducted in June of this year, shows that 80 percent “are analyzing [usage of] at least a portion of their online journal holdings,” with nearly half of them doing so for 75 to 100 percent of those holdings. It’s interesting to see that the same figure – 80 percent – indicated that “faculty recommendations and/or input” was used in making decisions about journal acquisitions. With book-length publications entering library holdings in digital form, the same tools and trends are bound to influence monograph acquisition. Some of the articles in the symposium indicate that it’s already happening.

Carbon-based life forms are still making the actual decisions about how to build the collections. But it’s not hard to imagine someone creating an algorithm that would render the whole process cybernetic. Utopia or nightmare? I don't know, but we're probably halfway there.

Editorial Tags: 

Library groups see double standard in Authors Guild's stand against HathiTrust

Smart Title: 

Academic library associations try to use Authors Guild's position in the Google Books lawsuit to undercut its stand against HathiTrust.

Libraries say Supreme Court case could make lending foreign-made books illegal

Smart Title: 

Library associations say Supreme Court case could make it illegal to lend books and other materials that were manufactured overseas.

Research foresees demand-driven book acquisition replacing librarians' discretion

Smart Title: 

How could the rise of patron-driven acquisition at academic libraries affect the university presses that rely on librarians to buy unpopular monographs?

Comparing universities' sports subsidies to library spending (essay)

Everyone talks about the amount of money spent on college football, superstar coaches, television contracts and stadiums. They worry about an imbalance between the expense of university sports programs and the challenge of funding the academic enterprise. These real concerns provoke often-impassioned responses from those who defend or attack the current state of intercollegiate athletics in America.

Unfortunately, much of the noise tends to focus on extreme examples, spectacularly paid coaches of whom we may have only a dozen or so out of the hundreds of college sports personnel, super-sized stadiums and sports department budgets when most sports programs operate on a more modest scale. The targets are attractive because the celebrity status of big-time football and basketball fill pages of newspapers and specialty magazines, appear endlessly on multiple television channels, and enjoy the attention of rabid fans.

Yet college sports is a complicated enterprise that serves many interests at institutions public and private, large and small. Sports are a pervasive part of American culture, and like other high-profile activities (such as finance, real estate or banking), there are bad actors, people of questionable integrity, and errors of commission and omission that attract justifiable outrage and response.

Those of us who live in the academic world, however, sometimes have trouble sorting out the real impact of college sports on our lives. We can understand this competitive world better if we separate the institution of intercollegiate athletics into its various parts, including the engagement of students, the lives of student-athletes (both celebrity performers and regular participants), the involvement of alumni and public, and the financial consequences of sustaining these programs.

Of these, the financial elements are most accessible thanks to data collected by the NCAA and required by various federal reporting rules. Money in universities is always important, especially in these difficult economic times, and we looked for a way to index the university’s cost of intercollegiate athletics to the institution's budget.

Sports expenses are funded from earned revenue (tickets, television, sales, gifts and similar revenue generated by the athletic activity itself), and from institutional revenue available for any purpose (student fees and university funds). The institutional revenue is a subsidy for an enterprise that in the best of all possible worlds should earn its own way in much the same fashion as other university nonacademic enterprises such as food services, bookstores, parking, and housing.

All but a few universities, however, subsidize athletics from student fees and general university revenue. We should ask how significant that subsidy is within the general framework of the university's academic activities. With some sense of the relationship between subsidy and academics, we can assess when sports consume too much of our academic resources.

We could compare the sports subsidy to the cost of a college of business perhaps, or to the cost of an honors program. Each university's organization is substantially different, however, making these units hard to compare.

Libraries, especially for research universities, are stable, standard enterprises central to the work of the university in a continuing way. In addition, the Association of Research Libraries (ARL) has maintained standard data on library expenses, revenue, and budgets (as well as other statistics of significance) for many decades. We anticipated that a comparison of the athletics subsidy to the expenditures on the research university's library could provide a useful reference for understanding the wide variation in the financial impact of college sports on academic institutions.

Aiding in this illustration are the data compiled by USA Today on college sports finances, although its data involve only Division I public institutions whose information is available under freedom of information rules. Private universities prefer we not see their numbers.

If we take the 64 Division I public research university members of the Association of Research Libraries (all major research universities of varying size and complexity) and compare their athletic subsidies to the cost of their libraries as reflected in the ARL data, we can get a useful distribution of the impact of sports subsidies on academic enterprises. These research universities maintain libraries to support their instructional and research programs, compete for the best students and faculty, compete as well for the external funding that makes research at this level possible, and require strong libraries for their success.

The size of the libraries reflects an institutional commitment to the academic enterprise, while the sports subsidy for the sports program reflects a commitment to the nonacademic competitiveness of athletics. The subsidy also represents an institutional investment that the institution could have allocated to academic enterprises but instead uses to pay part of the cost of the intercollegiate athletic program, a nonacademic enterprise.

The table below clearly illustrates that the impact of college sports on the academic enterprise varies widely from those institutions whose sports programs require no subsidy (and therefore have no detrimental impact on the academic enterprise) to those sports programs whose subsidy reaches one and a half times the total library budget, clearly a major impact.

These varying impacts are not the result of dramatic changes over time in the library expenditures (which have followed the general trend of university budgets throughout recent years). The impact is the consequence of a college sports environment that requires growing expenses to sustain competitive or even functional programs at the Division I level. When the university must subsidize the athletic program, it indicates that sports at that institution do not compete well enough to earn sufficient revenue from attendance, television, sponsorships, alumni and donors, and must spend university money to stay within the competitive context of Division I.

The wide variation in subsidy also indicates that if the revenue of public universities continues to decline, some institutions may find their level of subsidy for athletics at the expense of academics too high for the other benefits sports provides. That could prompt a change in competitive division within the NCAA, or the elimination of a variety of high-cost sports.

However, those of us who have lived in various institutions know that while talk of curtailing expenditures on sports is common and enthusiastic among many faculty and some outside commentators, the constituencies for college sports among alumni, trustees, elected officials, and fans are passionate at unbelievable levels. Trustees, alumni and elected officials, in addition to fans of all kinds, want their sports regardless of the subsidy required at the expense of the academic enterprise.

Perhaps along with the other financial requirements for participation in the NCAA Division I, we might expect such programs to limit their institutional subsidies to less than a third of their library budget. That may, however, be asking too much.

Subsidy of College Athletics (2010-11) and
Library Expenditures (2008-9)
Division I Public Research Universities

Institution

Total Library Expenditures

Total Sports Subsidy

Ratio Subsidy to Library

University of Delaware

$18,734,280

$28,535,457

1.52

Ohio University

$13,268,842

$19,576,760

1.48

University of Massachusetts at Amherst

$15,403,001

$22,043,976

1.43

Kent State University

$12,551,309

$16,717,874

1.33

State University of New York at Stony Brook

$13,772,703

$17,887,144

1.30

University of California at Davis

$19,932,904

$20,953,181

1.05

University of Houston

$20,149,427

$20,142,457

1.00

State University of New York at Albany

$12,506,329

$12,444,324

1.00

State University of New York at Buffalo

$21,026,650

$20,823,478

0.99

Colorado State University

$15,334,082

$14,128,711

0.92

Southern Illinois University at Carbondale

$15,228,311

$13,961,656

0.92

University of California at Riverside

$13,395,277

$11,872,584

0.89

Rutgers University

$33,219,035

$28,475,523

0.86

Washington State University

$14,356,836

$11,531,641

0.80

University of New Mexico

$20,809,647

$16,605,866

0.80

University of Cincinnati

$20,330,143

$14,708,672

0.72

University of Colorado at Boulder

$22,131,757

$15,518,149

0.70

University of Hawaii

$19,076,939

$11,986,408

0.63

University of Maryland at College Park

$25,783,433

$15,861,641

0.62

University of California at Santa Barbara

$19,197,432

$11,484,580

0.60

University of Connecticut

$26,831,009

$15,029,723

0.56

University of California at Irvine

$21,947,912

$11,833,894

0.54

Virginia Tech

$14,177,077

$7,591,114

0.54

Georgia Institute of Technology

$12,511,623

$6,454,071

0.52

University of Louisville

$19,533,056

$10,061,012

0.52

University of Illinois at Chicago

$20,616,384

$10,360,432

0.50

Florida State University

$15,750,486

$7,528,006

0.48

Arizona State University

$24,640,095

$10,660,952

0.43

University of Utah

$23,948,377

$9,381,567

0.39

University of Virginia

$34,248,073

$12,973,298

0.38

Auburn University

$12,276,211

$4,307,040

0.35

Oklahoma State University

$17,886,909

$6,187,333

0.35

University of Alabama

$17,430,914

$5,235,300

0.30

University of Arizona

$30,645,753

$7,396,592

0.24

Texas Tech University

$26,049,443

$5,788,180

0.22

University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill

$40,769,990

$8,829,369

0.22

University of California at Berkeley

$51,973,099

$10,505,850

0.20

University of Minnesota

$41,225,580

$7,778,861

0.19

University of Wisconsin at Madison

$43,732,756

$7,237,901

0.17

Iowa State University

$23,250,210

$3,739,115

0.16

University of Missouri at Columbia

$17,235,752

$2,681,641

0.16

University of Florida

$28,147,202

$4,367,071

0.16

University of Oregon

$16,074,716

$2,419,855

0.15

University of Kansas

$23,042,922

$3,436,907

0.15

University of Georgia

$22,802,390

$3,197,387

0.14

Michigan State University

$26,411,564

$3,650,280

0.14

University of South Carolina

$19,284,992

$2,248,275

0.12

University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign

$41,600,882

$3,983,640

0.10

Indiana University at Bloomington

$33,147,603

$2,686,769

0.08

University of Washington

$43,956,131

$2,458,983

0.06

University of California at Los Angeles

$50,205,645

$2,587,439

0.05

University of Tennessee at Knoxville

$23,515,580

$1,000,000

0.04

North Carolina State University

$28,483,805

$1,088,895

0.04

University of Kentucky

$21,734,374

$819,124

0.04

University of Iowa

$29,517,181

$564,680

0.02

University of Michigan

$53,134,323

$272,684

0.01

Texas A&M University

$36,374,551

$9,856

0.00

Louisiana State University

$13,428,011

$0

0.00

Ohio State University

$38,818,365

$0

0.00

Pennsylvania State University

$49,451,130

$0

0.00

Purdue University

$24,830,291

$0

0.00

University of Nebraska at Lincoln

$15,230,621

$0

0.00

University of Oklahoma

$23,865,613

$0

0.00

University of Texas at Austin

$46,205,263

$0

0.00

Sports subsidy and library budget data refer to public Division I universities whose libraries are members of the Association of Research Libraries.

Sources: Association of Research Libraries (in The Chronicle of Higher Education) and USA Today.

 

John V. Lombardi is a professor of history at Louisiana State University at Baton Rouge.

Studies shed more light on student research skills

Smart Title: 

Undergraduates might not be great at research, but study suggests that the information literacy of first-generation students does improve over time.

Essay considers whether librarians lose touch with books

When I became a librarian, something most unexpected happened. I became estranged from my books. Which is surprising, given the envy most acquaintances express vis-à-vis their perception of my primary duty, which they universally believe to be, as they so often express in our conversations: passing countless hours with my feet up on the desk, casually perusing the latest Twilight or Hunger Games installment, a bowl of bonbons by my side.

It's the truth. An actual question I was asked on a recent date began something like this: “So, a librarian, that’s pretty neat. You just sit around all day and read books then?” Not wanting to shatter her image of my privileged lifestyle, a key to securing any chance of making it past the dessert course, I glanced across the table, did my best Clint Eastwood squint, and replied, “Yes, that’s what I do.” This, I followed with a quick, “Would you please pass the pepper?”

As you can see, my spoken eloquence is unrivaled, and it remains a great mystery to all that I am single. However the greater mystery still is what happened to the luminous relationship I once shared with my books.

It’s not that my books have left me, or I them. We still coexist in our home, shuffling by one another throughout the day with pining looks and knowing gazes.

Some have been with me a long time, and I keep these on bookshelves. Then there are the ones that came into my life since I entered the world of librarianship. These I haven’t yet read, and so I place them in piles on the floor. This is my system. Remember, I am a librarian.

So the books and I, we are still together, but we no longer communicate on an intimate level. I don’t find myself in bed late at night, sensually turning my books’ pages as they slowly reveal to me their innermost secrets, nor do I awaken to find my books draped comfortably, lovingly, across my naked, beating chest. Ahh, you say, I know what he’s getting at here: The book is passé and he’s using his e-reader!

Not exactly. This is not another one of those gushy laments eulogizing the passing of books. You know, the one that usually starts something like: Friends and loved ones, we are gathered here today to mourn the passing of our dear books. Back in the '80s, books abounded and pleasure was plentiful .....

No, no, the book isn’t dead yet. Far from it. It’s that since becoming a librarian I am just so busy reading professional books and materials that I don’t have time for any of my books – the fiction that sweeps me away with its intrigue and wows me with its literary finesse.

This is not something my books want to hear. They think it’s an excuse. I can tell from the passive-aggressive vibes they often give off when I glide by as they await my consideration, unjustly deprived of my affections. He’s being selfish. It’s always about him and his needs.

And the betrayal, by my own admission, runs even deeper than they know. You see, when I read materials for work, I am sure to do it outside the view of my books. Because if they saw me, then they would know, and next thing you know a private investigator is snapping my picture from behind a bush as I try to steal a few moments alone with the latest issue of Library Journal at the corner café.

So my books, you see, need some attention. And I just can’t give it to them right now. Fortunately, I am a librarian, and so I know a thing or two about loaning books. So come on over sometime. I’ll set you up with a borrower’s card and you can check out a few books and take them home with you, while I hide in the spare bedroom tenderly opening up tomes on current copyright trends, or sit in my car out in the driveway to steal delicate glimpses into the latest interlibrary loan initiatives.

Now I am aware that to some, this whole arrangement may seem a bit promiscuous, but in the world of librarianship we tend to look at this type of affair as a simple matter of resource-sharing.

Michael English is the access services librarian at Salisbury University.

second column on New York Public Library research collection

Intellectual Affairs

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.

Essay defending the planned changes at New York Public Library

The goal for the New York Public Library’s new Central Library Plan is ambitious: to ensure NYPL’s position as one the world’s greatest libraries, with unparalleled research collections and a premier circulating library. Of utmost importance is to preserve the integrity and atmosphere of the majestic Rose Main Reading Room, as well as to maintain the special collections at the highest possible levels. We are also making major enhancements to the unique resources we already offer scholars from the world over. All this will be achieved in a plan that increases the long-term funding available to support and enhance the library’s invaluable collections.

Many questions have been raised about the plan since the launch of our public engagement process two months ago. This is a period we have dedicated to soliciting users' and staff members’ suggestions and concerns. As part of a continuing discussion, I would like to address issues — and some misconceptions — raised by those who depend upon the research collections. Our intention is to take into account as many realizable ideas as possible.

The Need for Change

Libraries, as we all know, are facing challenging times during which we must meet patrons' needs in a fast-changing world of information. The one constant is the need to maintain one of the world’s greatest research collections. Yet our book budget has been steadily declining for well over a decade. At the same time, we are facing storage and preservation conditions that put the collections — and their availability for generations to come — at risk. Materials in our current stacks, built over 100 years ago, are in serious jeopardy due to lack of environmental controls.

By selling the buildings currently housing the Mid-Manhattan Library and the Science, Industry and Business Library (SIBL) and incorporating their collections and services into the 42nd Street building, we reap a number of advantages. First, by opening up underutilized rooms and outdated stack areas, the new main building will actually have more public space — up to an additional 20,000 square feet — than the three libraries now offer in total. This will result in a sizeable increase in dedicated space for scholars and writers, as well as new browsable stacks. We expect these changes to lead to much greater use of the research collections. A fresh infusion of researchers and writers will help realize our goal of generating even more intellectual energy in this iconic building, a center of scholarly and civic life.

It is critical to increase funding for future acquisitions in order to maintain the breadth and depth of the collections, and for curatorial staff and services. We anticipate that the sale of the two libraries — which will not be possible without the Central Library Plan — will result in an additional $10-15 million a year we can spend on library priorities.

Enhanced Resources for Scholars and Writers

Our patrons — academics, researchers, professional authors, first-time novelists, poets, playwrights, artists, teachers, students, and others — have been working with essentially unchanged facilities for decades. One of the most exciting plans now possible is the creation of a new scholars and writers center on the second floor of the 42nd Street building. This will allow us to accommodate 400 writers (more than double the current number), with the Cullman Center remaining the crown jewel. In addition to work areas with carrels or open tables and desks, scholars and writers will have personal shelves to hold books for extended periods — theirs or ours, including books suggested by our librarians, opening even more research possibilities. We also want those working in the library to be able to stay later — a top user request — to 11 p.m. most evenings. (The latest the 42nd Street building is now open is 8 p.m. two days a week).

Accessibility of Books and Materials

Many patrons have expressed apprehension about the removal of the stacks from 42nd Street and what that would mean for access to these volumes. This is a very important area of concern to address for any scholar, and I would like to correct a number of misunderstandings.

Currently, there are approximately three million volumes in the closed stacks under the Rose Main Reading Room. While we are working hard to determine which might be moved — in close consultation with curators, librarians, and a scholars advisory group (including skeptics of the plan) — I want to state unequivocally that there is no scenario in which fewer than two million volumes, about 95 percent of which would be from those closed stacks, will remain on-site at 42nd Street. (The remaining 5 percent or so would be high-use volumes from other collections that we want to keep on-site.) All of this is in addition to the millions of manuscripts, prints, photographs, pamphlets, and maps that are not being moved.

It is important to note that already half of the research collections are stored off-site (a standard, necessary practice of major research libraries) in our state-of-the-art preservation facilities. Every year we acquire tens of thousands of new books, and must send about the same number off-site to make room for the new titles. In deciding which volumes to move, our curators have long taken into account a number of considerations, including usage, rarity, date, condition, and format.

Research materials that will remain on-site in the Central Library Plan will represent at least 90 percent of current research usage. Frequently or even rarely used volumes and materials, all special collections, and items belonging to unique collections — these will stay at 42nd Street. At a minimum, we expect to retain all humanities, social science, and business books from the last two decades; and all core history, literature, area studies, art, genealogy, technology, and business and industry materials that would be difficult to access elsewhere. Whenever possible, we will err on the side of keeping books on-site. Plus, we will leave additional space for unanticipated needs (such as bringing back books requested for the first time). To be clear: if we need to make space for even more books at 42nd Street in order for NYPL to remain one of the best research libraries in the world, then we will do so.

Materials that would be moved off-site might include books that have not been used in many years, and books, journals, and other items that have been digitized. 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. (Not having a modern system for tracking has long been the major impediment to efficient delivery.) In addition to the 24-hour guarantee, patrons will be able to place their orders online and receive Saturday delivery. We will also be increasing the number of retrieval staff and instant downloading options so that even more materials, including public domain books and scholarly journals, can be accessed digitally.

The Need for Quiet Space

By moving the Mid-Manhattan and SIBL libraries into the 42nd Street building, foot traffic will increase, but that will not compromise our commitment to research. Rather, the redesigned building — home to a world-class combined research and circulating library — will reinforce synergistic intellectual pursuits while bringing in new energies. This will attract new readers drawn to explore the unique collections. Still, there will be strong and clear delineations of space. The research areas will be on the upper floors of the building, with a business research center having its own separate space. On the ground floor would be the new Mid-Manhattan, with a street-level entrance for circulating library patrons.

We know that researchers come to the library for quiet work spaces, and they will find more of them, in both our historic areas and the inspiring new ones. Those who want to collaborate or attend talks and workshops will find separate spaces for those activities.

Our core mission and lodestar will always be to provide as much access as possible to users who depend upon us to be New York City's leading free educational institution for scholarship and intellectual inspiration. But we know that to achieve this transformation, we need our patrons’ advice. Please share your reactions, comments, and suggestions here.

 

Anthony Marx is president of the New York Public Library.

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