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.
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.
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.
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: email@example.com.
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.