The New York Public Library Central Library Plan and its Critics
ACRLog welcomes a guest post from Polly Thistlethwaite, Acting Chief Librarian at the City University of New York Graduate Center Library.
NYPL made public its general plans for Reimagining the 42nd St. Schwarzman Building (now called the Central Library Plan or CLP) in February 2012 following December 2011 publication of Scott Sherman’s alarm in the Nation. Sherman condemns the plan as costly and ill-conceived. He alleges repeatedly and sensationally (e.g. on the WNYC Leonard Lopate show) that NYPL seeks to construct “a glorified internet café” to replace the closed book stack below ground level. Sherman’s compatriot Caleb Crain also blogs against nearly everything the CLP represents, with special focus on the MaRLI pilot program. Crain fears that loaning NYPL research library books to vetted scholars may someday deprive someone of quick onsite access to a desired title. NYPL’s new lending practice is undemocratic, he argues, on that account. NYPL’s President Tony Marx has responded to CLP criticism on Leonard Lopate’s show, in the Huffington Post, and in Inside Higher Education. There is new detail in Frequently Asked Questions about the CLP on the NYPL site.
Critics express anxiety about the CLP’s return of the SIBL and Mid Manhattan libraries (and their readers) to the NYPL Schwarzman Building. Moving books from the NYPL book stack to the New Jersey RECAP repository, critics fear, means books will be only inconveniently retrieved for on-site examination in Manhattan. Writers seeking texts and solitude in the Main Library will be forced to mingle with the non-writerly public under conditions unconducive to writerly activity. Scholarship will fail. Novels will not be written. Civilization will suffer.
These are visceral reactions to shifts in scholarship already well underway. Readers steadily consult a variety of digital and physical formats, and readers and scholars themselves intersect and overlap in non-exclusive combinations. Libraries must reconfigure to deliver and to preserve a changing mix of media to a changing mix of readers and scholars. Google Books, Hathi Trust, and other world repositories offer growing caches of resources already and perpetually available online. Digital delivery allows anybody to get more, faster and cheaper, than from print-only, building-bound physical volumes. Souped up printers like the Espresso Book Machine can supply print copies for those who want them. NYPL and academic interlibrary loan systems can, with adequate support, turn around requests for PDF articles and book chapters within hours. It is impossible to retain every book for retrieval for onsite only use from a closed, environmentally unstable book stack, and at the same time perpetuate and avail a first-rate research collection.
Leading research libraries, including NYPL, already hold a substantial portion of their holdings off-site (also see the British Library, The Center for Research Libraries (CRL), Harvard, Columbia, NYU). No research library, no matter how magnificent, is able to collect everything. There is too much. All research institutions rely on resource-sharing and lending networks; retrieval and delivery systems are crucial to even the largest collections. The CLP adds an open, circulating collection where there is currently none. Selected special collections and heavily-used scholarly resources remain at the Main Library. Repeatedly requested works stay onsite within reach by NYPL scholars. In addition, the CLP improves retrieval service for every reader. Online retrieval requests made before 2.30p.m. are promised by opening the next day, an improvement over the onsite paging service in place now. Rather than doubt the NYPL’s capacity to provide this delivery, we must insist on it. Weekend retrieval is important, and NYPL says Saturday deliveries are possible. But to insist that all scholarly materials be retained in Midtown, just in case promised deliveries fail, is to subvert the mission of the NYPL and to undermine real improvements in space and service.
The MaRLI program affords CUNY faculty and graduate students unprecedented access to local research collections. About 1/3 of MaRLI registrants are CUNY affiliates, the largest class of NYPL registrants. MaRLI offers longer loan periods than CUNY now provides, and the prospect of resource-sharing among NYU, Columbia, and NYPL libraries and their faculty and grads is the most democratic gesture under discussion. Should the institutions agree, a request for a NYPL title unavailable from RECAP could be satisfied for an identical copy from the NYU or Columbia cache. CUNY researchers would continue to tap CUNY libraries and a substantial Interlibrary Loan network. Books are durable objects intended to be loaned, pored over, and shared. With the exception of certain singular, fragile, or expensive titles, books collected by the NYPL research collections are not irreplaceable. A book’s value is realized only if it is read. To encase a book, to leave it undisturbed, to restrict its distribution, is to deny its purpose. Books are built to circulate.
CUNY scholars will gain from the CLP call for expanded 2nd floor scholarly study space and longer hours (til 11 p.m. – better than the current 8 p.m.). NYPL’s Wertheim Study hosts around 300 vetted scholars, 1/3 of whom are CUNY grads or faculty, and a smaller number of Cullman Fellows and Allen Room scholars. Tourists and branch library borrowers will not be herded from the lower levels toward them. The CLP offers scholars and writers more room and more time to work alone or together, but different classes of library users needn’t mingle unless scholars decide to break for coffee or tourists put cameras down to settle in the Rose Reading Room. Thankfully the NYPL, like every other library, will offer vended caffeine shots, but the CLP doesn’t replace the reading rooms with an internet café. That scholars mix it up with the hoi polloi, just a little, in a few spaces, is hardly a detriment – it’s a gift to scholarly life. The New York Public Library’s Central Library Plan, embracing a future mix of readers and reading material, promises that the world’s premier urban library will continue to shape and reflect the city’s cultural capital.