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New York Public Library redux

May 18, 2012

I’ve already mentioned the challenges facing the New York Public Library in this post.  I’d like now to mention a “Room for Debate” feature at the New York Times on the planned changes.

Here is a summary of the proposed changes:

The project would convert the main library, now strictly a reference operation, into a hybrid that would also contain a circulating library, many computer terminals and possibly a cafe. The Mid-Manhattan branch and the Science, Industry and Business Library would be sold and their operations folded into the main building. To accommodate the new services, up to half of the three million volumes in the stacks under the main reading room would be moved into storage in New Jersey.

Critics say that the money would be better spent refurbishing deteriorating branch libraries, and that the changes will diminish the library’s role as a leading reference center, essentially turning it into a glorified Starbucks. Of particular concern: how long it will take the library to retrieve books from storage.

“The library is being repositioned less as an institution that thinks of research and scholarship than as a kind of fashionable place for intellectuals that is more about entertainment than depth of knowledge,” said Ilan Stavans, a professor in Latin American and Latino culture at Amherst College[….] “Research is going to pay a heavy price with this change,” he added.

Monica Strauss, an art historian, said: “The age of the book is not yet over. It may be over in 40 years, but it’s not over now.” […]

Designed by the British architect Norman Foster, the renovation is to be financed with $150 million from the city, proceeds from the sale of the two libraries and private donations.

Joan Scott, a social science professor at the Institute for Advanced Study, who helped draft the letter of opposition, called the plan disturbing.

“The idea that these reforms are going to make it more democratic doesn’t make sense to me,” she said.

Critics question how users of the libraries to be sold will fit inside the main building (its number of annual visitors — 1.6 million — is expected to more than double) and whether books moved to New Jersey really will be available within 24 hours, as the library has promised. Off-site books currently often take longer than that to obtain.

From the Debate page, here is Caleb Crain’s submission (Caleb’s blog has long been in our blogroll):

Research Will Be Delayed and Impaired

Caleb Crain is the author of "American Sympathy,” a study of friendship between men in early American literature. He blogs at Steamboats Are Ruining Everything.

May 17, 2012

Until recently, there were about 5 million books in the New York Public Library’s 42nd Street building (the one with the lions in front). To walk up the stairs was to enter a universe of written information, and a visitor could zip from one end to the other with dizzying speed.

Want to read Herman Melville’s Moby-Dick? A librarian was able to bring it to you in minutes. How about the treatises on whaling that Melville read while writing his novel? Sermons by the minister who offered to help Melville’s wife escape her marriage? The navigational charts that Melville mentions in chapter 44? A compilation of letters that Melville’s great-grandson exchanged in the 1980s with a graduate student? All you had to do was fill out a call slip.

Research will become slower and far less improvisational if the library’s administrators bulldoze ahead with their plan to ship 3 million books to a storage facility in New Jersey.

Curious about a book you only learned of a few minutes ago? They’ll be able to get it for you in a day or two. Or three.

The number of books published each year has exploded, and a certain amount of offsite storage is inevitable. But downgrading from 5 million books onsite to 2 million is like downshifting from a car’s engine to a lawnmower’s. Or like trying to drive a car in Manhattan with an engine located in New Jersey.

Online publishing has changed the way researchers read, but because of copyright law, the vast majority of books ever published are not available online. Unless Congress writes a new law (don’t hold your breath), they may never be.

It may even turn out that researchers of the future will prefer to read some kinds of books in tangible form. We just don’t know enough yet, and it’s too soon for the New York Public Library to say goodbye to ink and paper.

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