Sunday, May 13, 2012

"To the degree that we can ... replace books with people, that’s the future of where libraries are going.”

That's Anthony Marx, the President of New York Public Library, quoted in a 2011 article in The Nation.  He's talking about a plan to convert the Central Library to a circulating library as well as research facility.  The plan involves ripping out a lot of stacks, adding a lot of computers, and closing two branches to pay for the renovation.  I learned about the plan from a passing comment on the Fuse#8 blog--a Guardian article on the subject makes it clear staff are discouraged (forbidden?) from commenting.  However, library users have not been silent.  And there are some irate Slavic scholars out there.

I was fascinated by the controversy.  I worked at Providence Public Library during what we now refer to as "the split," when the branches were taken over by a non-profit.  Now there are two library systems in Providence.  The Providence Community Library board runs the eight* branches or "neighborhood libraries" using tax dollars, and the Providence Public Library board runs the central library using money from the endowment.

So I'm familiar with the tension between central libraries and branches, rare books and facebook, community space and stacks, transparency and funding.  I don't yet have a position on the Central Plan, but I have some observations, and for those who would like to educate themselves, some links.

A photo from my own visit to the 42nd street library.
I recommend starting with The Nation article that sort of broke the news and the Inside Higher Ed column that urged people to "stop cultural vandalism," followed by updates on the controversy at the Guardian and the New York Times.  For a more supportive position, you can read the ACRL blog post, written by a librarian at the City University of New York.  That last one is refreshingly scathing, and I must say it swayed me quite a bit.  I just love passionate librarians.  However, I was swayed back a bit by scholar Caleb Crain's post which brings it all back to the library's mission ... or should I say "missions."

So here are my observations:
  • In The Nation article, Scott Sherman demands transparency from the library.  He and many scholars feel that library resources belong to the public and decisions to move them off-site should be put before the people.  As a librarian, I am pretty much always in favor of sharing information.  But if cities don't fund their libraries--if the money to add to collections and renovate buildings is coming from other places--how can "the city" demand to know how the money is being spent?  I'm not arguing against transparency--I'm arguing that cities should fund their libraries.

  • It's important to know why these changes are being made. Is it to save money?  Is it to democratize library services?  Is it to ensure the survival of libraries in a changing world?  The description of the plan on the NYPL website suggests that the real reason is to attract more people to the library, while much of the media coverage focuses on economic factors.  It seems to me that the new Central Library is a sort of declaration, in the form of a physical building, of what the future of libraries should be.  So perhaps the people who disagree with the plan have a different vision of the library of the future.  What is that vision?  Honestly, I haven't heard a real alternative to this idea of library-as-community-space. It seems that most library leaders think this is what we have to do to survive, but I'd be sincerely interested in alternative visions.

  • A number of the plan's detractors have some snooty things to say about branch people, with their coffee-drinking, facebook-checking, DVD-ordering ways.  I'm a branch person, but I can also be snooty.  In college, my best friend and I referred to the University Library as NHQ, which stood for Nerd Headquarters.  The idea was that some people own the football field; some people own the dance floor; we owned the library.  So I understand the proprietary feeling and the fear that something special will be destroyed if other people discover it.  I think it's interesting that some library systems, including NYPL, have created "teen branches," rather than find a way for teens and people of other ages to coexist in one library.  Does that mean that the best way to serve different kinds of users is in different spaces?  Or is that "separate but equal" thinking?  I'm interested to see the actual design of the renovation and how it will accommodate different kinds of library use and users.  

  • I'd also like to point out that there's already a small, public, circulating section of the 42nd street library: the Children's Center.  I visited it as a tourist (see photo) and thought it was modest but magical.  It also in no way detracted from the research experience on other floors and in other wings.  I feel like maybe some of the irate scholars should stop by for story hour and remember that a love of literature often begins with bedtime stories.  They are the gateway to Slavic special collections, so to speak. 

  • There's been paltry talk about changes in technology in the discussion of this plan, but I know everyone's thinking about it.  Whether we like it or not, the existence of the Internet forces us to reconsider the purpose of physical libraries.  As more documents are digitized and more library procedures are done online (searching the collection, placing holds, even applying for a card), will fewer people come to the library?  Does that mean we decrease the footprint of libraries?  Or do we try to attract people in other ways--cafes, programs, the desire for a little human interaction? Is it important that libraries have buildings?  Is it important that the buildings have people in them?  
ETA: Is it ironic that the opposition has a facebook page?  Or am I oversimplifying?  It's kind of funny, right?

*Actually, there are 9 libraries.  My mistake!


  1. Uh hem--9 neighborhood libraries, Washington Park is open again.

  2. Very helpful summary of articles and comments on this issue, Emily. Thanks for posting! Will libraries go the way of banks, where most transactions are handled either online or via ATM? Will borrowers one day be able to drive up to the drive-through ARM (automatic resource machine) at the local library, insert a library card, and wait a few minutes while some robot and/or complex conveyor system retrieves the desired item and plops it into a waiting hand? It's both exciting and dreadful at the same time. I am not yet settled into a position on this, but now that you've provided such great links, I can expand my knowledge beyond the one NYT article I'd read.

  3. There are definitely some patrons who place a bunch of holds online and just come to the circ desk to pick them up. They would probably love an ARM! As you say, this is both exciting and dreadful. I think we need to consider ideas like this if we want to survive. Doesn't mean we have to go in this direction (automated, anonymous, convenient), but I think it should be part of the brainstorming process.