Category Archives: Buildings

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.

Collision Spaces

Please welcome Laura Braunstein to the ACRLog team. Laura is the English Language and Literature Librarian at Dartmouth College’s Baker-Berry Library. She has a doctorate in English from Northwestern University, where she taught writing and literature classes. She has worked as an index editor for the MLA International Bibliography, and serves as a consultant for the Schulz Library at the Center for Cartoon Studies in Vermont. Her research interests include collaborative learning, using archival materials in teaching, and the impact of the digital humanities on teaching and learning. She coproduced the ACRL Literatures in English Section promotional video, “Literature Librarians and Faculty: Partnering for Academic Success.”

A biologist friend just moved in to a beautiful new laboratory building on campus. Her old lab had been crowded and outdated: her graduate students made coffee in her office and there were women’s restrooms only on every other floor. Now she has state-of-the-art research facilities, a spacious office, and her graduate students have their own lunchroom. There’s a restroom right around the corner. So why does she miss the old, inefficient building? Because she never sees anyone anymore. Gone are the chance encounters and serendipitous meetings that would happen, even in the restroom, when a colleague in another department would ask how her research was going.

What my friend misses are the “collision spaces,” those informal physical gathering places, corridors, and hubs on campus where people collide and interact. In a recent blog post, the Ubiquitous Librarian wrote of his visit to TechPad, a collaborative office environment for startup companies near his campus. He mused that academic libraries could learn from the way that business incubators build into their floor plans collision spaces for “serendipitous conversation and discovery.” What does it take to enable an academic library to become a collision space? A cafe? Comfortable seating? Shelter from the elements? A fortunate position in campus geography? Tolerant food and drink policies?

As many lament the coming irrelevance of the academic library, I keep seeing evidence that these rumors of our demise have been greatly exaggerated. The most vibrant collision space on my campus is the library. Day after day it is packed with students, faculty, community members, and visitors to campus. Since we’re in a rural area, we don’t limit access to ID holders from our college. We have long embraced our identity as a resource for the community, and we value the connections that are enabled by being a crossroads for different kinds of users.

Social networking has certainly helped many of us make opportune connections in the virtual world. I would be truly sad, however, if our face-to-face arenas for networking disappeared. Day after day my work is enriched by being able to say: hey, it’s great to run in to you! How is that project going? What are you teaching this term? What can I do to help?

The Distributed Library: Our Two-Year Experiment

This month’s post in our series of guest academic librarian bloggers is from Erin Dorney, Outreach Librarian at Millersville University, Pennsylvania. She also blogs at Library Scenester.

Last week, a small fire* forced all faculty, staff, and library users out of our nine-floor building for about an hour. As I stood the requisite 50 feet away and watched four trucks full of firefighters lug fans, ladders and various pointed objects inside, my colleague posed an interesting question:

“Wow…where are all these students going to go during the renovation?”

As I looked around us at hundreds of students standing in the lawn – laptops unplugged but open in hand, juggling cups of coffee, fingers flying over cell phones and cameras snapping shots of the flashing red lights – I shivered with excitement. It was great to see a visual reminder of who my colleagues and I work to serve: the users. Okay, maybe excitement laced with fear as well, but the good kind of fear – the stuff that drives you forward.

I am about to embark on my first journey into a daunting academic library renovation project. When I interviewed for my position as Outreach Librarian at Millersville University during the spring of 2008 (straight out of graduate school from Syracuse University), the search committee asked me how I would design a marketing campaign to provide awareness to students and faculty before and during a renovation. Little did I know that those interview scenarios were true!

I tried to catch your attention with the fire opening (no one likes the idea of books burning, right?), but if that didn’t do the trick maybe this will: During our upcoming renovation, the majority of our 350,000 physical items will be going into storage. Offsite. With no retrieval. For a period of two years.

Are you listening now?

With a building that is over 40 years old, the Millersville University Library will be gutted and completely renovated starting in the fall of 2011. Everyone currently working in the building will be relocated to other spaces on campus (and we’ll be testing out embedding librarians in different academic buildings). As the role of academic libraries has changed significantly, our facilities are in dire need of a makeover. The new building will provide students with the staples of the academic library space: natural lighting, flexible furniture, secure spaces, programming areas, exhibit space, physical accessibility, ubiquitous technology, 24-hour public areas, a café and more. Thus far, no one has complained about what the new library will look like. Instead, I spend most of my time calming fears about the transition period – the two years when our current building will be under construction, with most of the print books boxed up and out of sight.

There are so many questions, and I’ll be the first to admit that we don’t have all of the answers about how this will play out. I can assure you that we are committed to meeting the research needs of current and future Millersville students. Over the past few years we have been building our electronic book collection and focusing on article databases that will make scholarship available to students no matter where they (or we) are located. Our mutual dependencies with other libraries for things like ILL will become more important. However, the services that we currently offer will continue to be offered during the construction period.

We are also committed to being as transparent as possible about our decision making process and have been inviting student feedback through our renovation website and the creation of a library student advisory board. My goal is no surprises… or, rather, only pleasant ones.

Beyond the impact on students, this renovation project has major implications for other institutions of higher education. What happens when the physical library goes away for a little while? Or, what happens when the library’s resources are distributed around the campus, or move towards electronic access more quickly than anyone anticipated? People have asked me if I’m afraid that this is the end of the academic library, wondering if we will become irrelevant during the two years we’re out of the building. My response? I guess it’s possible, but only if I sit on my hands for the next two years. Instead, I’ll be out integrating the library into campus, infiltrating academic buildings, increasing thought-provoking programming, and providing top-notch service to the campus community so that when we do come back into the new library, we bring everyone along with us. In my world, you can probably have a library without printed books. You can’t really have a library without people.

This is an opportunity for us to put libraries out there, to challenge ideas of what a library can and should be. If you are interested in learning more about the project, I invite you to visit our Renovation Website, where the most up-to-date information is posted. I welcome any comments and questions – have you dealt with a major library renovation? How is communication handled within your library? Tips or lessons learned?

* in a heating vent, no worries!

My College Advice? Learn How To Do Research

The New York Times recently asked 7 academics to offer advice to students entering college. If they had asked me, my advice would have been to learn how to do research, to practice it, and get really good at it.

Of course, as an academic librarian, I may be biased. But as someone whose academic interests tilted toward some not so obviously useful humanities disciplines, the one practical life skill I’m supremely grateful to have is the ability to find and use information. Try going on a job interview without researching the employer and you will not get the job. Try buying a house or a used car without doing research and you will pay more than you should. Try raising a child without being able to research everything from health issues to schools and you’ll be even more lost than most parents. In almost everything I do, I continue to be surprised at how crucial information is to getting a good outcome. If you spend the time and have the patience to ferret out a small but crucial bit of information, you will often find that you will get the job, get a better price, and have better experiences.

Having access to a college or university library is a great privilege; its power has changed many lives. When I was 18 I thought I knew everything. Then I walked into my university library and looked up. “Oh my god, I don’t know anything!” I realized. I’ve been trying to catch up ever since.

Or, as a poster to McSweeney’s puts it: Dudes! Did You See The Library They’ve Got Here?

I tell you what, though, dudes—you only get a chance like this while you’re in college. After we graduate, we’ll have to figure out how to fit studying into our work schedules, make time to get to the city library branch and its crappy little collection. Yeah, while I’m here on campus, my life is totally going to revolve around that library.

Library As Place – For Air Conditioning Books

Here’s an interesting vision for the future of academic libraries from Adrian Sannier, Chief Technology Officer at Arizona State University. Sannier was the keynote speaker at the Campus Technology 2008 conference, and you can watch the video of his presentation, “A New American University for Next-Gen Learners” at the Campus Technology website. In his talk Sannier discusses strategies for putting in place groundbreaking plans that will serve the next generation of students. But in his vision, next-gens apparently don’t need physical libraries and the books they offer. He says:

If you were starting an educational institution right now would you build a giant air-conditioned building to house books? Is that what you would do? That’s what you did if you founded a university in the previous century. You made sure you could have as many books as you could possibly have. In fact that’s how you measure universities one to the next. How many books you got? If you were starting one today, how many books would you have? I know what I would do. I’d have none. I’d have zero. Well that would change my cost picture relevant to you and that would make my university’s knowledge so much more accessible to you both when you’re there and when you weren’t there. That kind of reinvention is what we’re talking about.

Later in the talk when Sannier is discussing his six ways to transform higher education he provides further advice on how to transform the academic library:

Here’s my favorite one. Burn down the library. C’mon, all the books in the world are already digitized. Burn the thing down. Change it into a gathering place, a digital commons. Stop air conditioning the books. Enough already. None of us has the Alexandria Library. Michigan, Stanford, Oxford, Indiana. Those guys have digitized their collections. What have you got that they haven’t got? Why are you buying a new book? Buy digitial. Enough. And let’s spend some more time making those things [Note: not sure if he means library buildings or collections] level, flat, transparent, so a single search turns up everything…Let’s just start releasing the stats…How many people are using the indicies we’re all paying so much for…

Keep listening and you’ll hear Sannier attack the traditional scholarly publishing system next. He’s with the librarians on that issue. Now, do I think Sannier really believes what he’s saying? Do I really think he advocates universities with no books and no library building? Yes, to an extent I think he’s really serious – not the part about burning down the library. If you can get past the objectionable hyperbole about the library Sannier has some messages we need to hear. As hard as it may be to believe that the top IT professional at a major research university could be so completely and utterly misinformed about the state of digitized libraries, I think Sannier really believes what he’s saying about book digitization. He also seems to have a poor understanding of how higher education works if he really believes that all 4000 U.S. colleges and universities have curriculums that are so alike that no student or faculty member will ever need any book other than the ones that Michigan and Stanford have digitized (and let’s not even get into his lack of knowledge about how Google Book Search really works or that academic libraries share their resources at cost-saving levels that would shame the gross inefficiencies of most campus IT departments).

But if I can put aside his anti-library rant for a moment, no doubt delivered to be intentionally controversial, I think he makes some good points. Academic libraries, as operated today, are increasingly unsustainable. None of us has the room or budget to meet all the just in case needs of our user community, and trying to get there is an exercise in futility. And he’s dead on when he says that we use the size of our book collections to judge who has the best library; in the age of outcomes assessment those traditional measures seem to grow more pointless. I’m actually glad that Sannier is sharing his views in public forums with his IT colleagues because it should serve as a warning to all academic librarians that the folks who control the networks and the technology may very well have it in for us. If academic libraries are being dismissed as one big book air conditioner then we better start doing some of our own transforming to make sure our operations are lean yet productive, and that we have the data to prove to the top administrators that our libraries deliver the best service for the tuition dollar. It must be shown that academic libraries directly contribute to students achieving learning outcomes and persistence to graduation.

But rather than make up your mind about Sannier and his radical vision for academic libraries based on my post, take some time and watch the video. There is no denying that he’s a dynamic speaker who will command your attention – and get you thinking about the future of higher education. Heck, you’ll probably still be in “WTF – did he really just say that” mode when he tells the audience to burn down the libraries – even after you heard it here.