9 May 2012

Lions in Winter, Part Two

This piece is a preview of Issue 14. Subscribe now. Part one appears here.

The main building currently houses around 5 million books. About 3 million reside in an extensive series of stacks that occupy the center of the building. They are made up of structural steel, some of it created by the Carnegie steelworks—as originally built, these stacks held about sixty-three miles of shelves. An additional 1.2 million books are held in “compact shelving” beneath Bryant Park, with the stacks on rollers; the rest are scattered through various parts of the building. There is an undeveloped floor beneath the compact shelving under the park, which could hold another 1 to 2 million books, but it has significant problems with water leakage, and the library is unlikely to spend the $20 million necessary to get it into shape.

At present, if you want a book from these miles of stacks, you get it the old-fashioned way: by filling out a paper slip and handing it to a staff member. Until the mid-2000s, the slip would then have been whisked away through a system of pneumatic tubes to the library’s “pages,” who track down books in the stacks. As older staffers retired, I’ve been told, the cylinders that ran through these tubes began to disappear, mementos of a long career. Today, in the main reading room, the call slips go through the dumbwaiter system, which still runs, and which carries the books back from the stacks. In my experience, it takes about twenty minutes to get a book. When the library opened, it took about six minutes. Such is the burden of age.

With Google Books the results come back much faster than with the New York Public Library’s steampunk system. Google has scanned more books more quickly than anyone a decade ago would have thought possible, and the scans, while not perfect, are quite good. Some cataloging information gets lost, sometimes pages are missing, but it’s certainly no worse overall than what you’d find at the average library. And the possibilities for research with Google Books are astonishing. The entire world library system holds about 6 million editions that were published before 1923, the rough cut-off date for copyright in the US, and Google has already digitized more than 2 million of them. Once all of these books are digitized, the history of the 19th century, or at least how it’s researched, will begin to look rather different. (Books published prior to the 19th century are generally too fragile for Google to scan, and many have already been scanned by companies like Gale and ProQuest and made available in subscription databases such as “Early English Books Online.”)

But the vast majority of books were published after 1923. While the world’s libraries hold about 6 million editions published before that date, they hold around 26 million that were published after, a number that is only growing. Google was never going to be able to do much with many of these books, because the rights-holders are still around; the scanning project might have sped up the rate at which publishers were able to provide digital copies of their back catalogues, but just because Google had scanned The Great Gatsby didn’t mean Scribner was going to start letting Google Books offer one of its biggest money-makers for free. The greatest predictions about Google Books, rather, arose from what the service was supposed to do with “orphan works,” the millions of books published during this time whose copyright no one has claimed but which, also, no one has disavowed. It’s pretty much guesswork as to how many orphan books there are, but the best guesses put it at about half of all books published since 1923. And herein, it turned out, lay the problem.

For the first several years of the project, Google was happily scanning anything it could get its Elphel 323 cameras on. Then the Authors Guild and the publishers sued Google for copyright infringement. The parties eventually put together a proposed settlement, which would have made it possible for Google to provide millions of orphan books to the public, with money set aside for any copyright holders who came forward. But that settlement is dead. For some reason, this news doesn’t seem to have penetrated: the Google Books settlement, as described ad nauseam in the press in the late 2000s, exactly the time when the New York Public Library and its consultants were thinking through their current plans, is quite simply not happening. All the talk of a “Google terminal” in every public library, which would have allowed anyone anywhere to read millions of out-of-print books, was effectively thrown out the window last March, when Judge Denny Chin of the Southern District of New York issued his opinion stating that the problems at stake were too large for a court to determine. Congress, Chin said, should decide what happens to orphan works, not Google, the Authors Guild, and the publishers.

This was a victory of sorts for the public sphere, since it stopped Google from establishing a monopoly on orphan books. But the decision left the problem to Congress, and Congress, which almost invariably takes the side of copyright holders, isn’t exactly in a rush to deal with the problem of orphan books. Until Congress acts, if it ever does, the best that Google will legally be able to provide when users request orphan books is “snippet view,” the annoying feature that lets you search through a book and see a line or two whenever a particular word occurs, but nothing else. “Snippet view” is great for fact-checkers, translators, and book reviewers, who just need a few lines of text, but it’s of little use to researchers without access to the book itself. I use it all the time at the main branch of the New York Public Library—and when I find a book that looks interesting, I go and put in a call slip.1

It’s likely that, sooner or later, a solution will be found, if not necessarily through Google. The historian Robert Darnton, who became director of Harvard’s libraries in 2007, has argued forcefully for a kind of public option: a “grand coalition of foundations,” hopefully to be joined by Congress and private industry, should pay for the books to be scanned and made available for free; it’s in the public interest, Darnton argues, and our books are part of the national patrimony. (For just this reason, the French government has pledged $1.1 billion for the digitization of much of the holdings of the Bibliothèque Nationale.) No doubt there will be other solutions. But even if Congress were to act tomorrow, whether to break the Google Books deadlock or to fund Darnton’s plan, the availability of digitized books to the point where one could be confident of finding what one needed, in the way one can still be confident upon arriving at the New York Public Library, is still some years away. Five years? Ten years? Certainly closer to ten, probably closer to twenty. Yet the main branch of the New York Public Library has to exist in the present day. And the renovation is slated to start as early as next year and to be finished in 2017 or 2018.

Norman Foster’s preliminary plans have not yet been made public, but looking at some of Foster’s other projects you can begin to imagine what the new library will look like. The constraints of the space greatly limit what will be possible: Foster cannot add a new glass dome to the building, as he did at the Reichstag in Berlin, because the main reading room on the top floor cannot be touched; adding an entire skyscraper, like the addition at the Hearst building in New York, would of course be impossible. Instead, according to a former staff member who has seen the initial plans, Foster’s design may well call for the demolition of not just the stacks but of much of the marble facade that currently stands on the Bryant Park side of the building, and whose windows and marble pillars are exactly aligned with the rows of steel stacks inside. If the stacks go, the facade is likely to go as well. In the facade’s place, we will likely see some kind of ambitious new glass entrance; Foster’s designs are distinguished by their commitment to bringing natural light into interior spaces, and Foster will no doubt try to brighten up a building that is, in spots, a little gloomy. It also seems possible that the new library could expand horizontally, to take up the space where a restaurant currently sits, on the eastern edge of Bryant Park. Since the main building is landmarked, such an addition would require multiple approvals and will certainly be opposed by preservationists. It is unlikely that the preservationists will succeed. What’s most remarkable about the idea of adding an entrance on the Bryant Park side of the building is that there isn’t one there now.

Beyond that, it appears that the library inside the new glass entrance will be a compromise between huge open spaces like the main reading room and smaller meeting rooms where groups can congregate and talk and work—the activities the library’s administrators, following the latest trends among education visionaries, believe will be the main way people will learn in our post-book, post-sustained-silent-reading world. It will not be a giant internet cafe, exactly, as the Nation’s Scott Sherman and others have suggested. But much of the renovation will look more like what university administrators like to call a “learning commons” than what we tend to think of today as a library. In response to the question “What will replace the stacks?” the library’s website says, “Books!” That’s just not true, and it’s certainly not true in the long term. Micah May stated to me plainly: “We can’t build the new renovation around circulating books.” The new library will retain the circulating collection for a little while, but it will be designed for the digital future.

As for the research-level books, most of them are leaving. Of the 5 million books currently housed at the main building, only 2 million will remain. The chance that a book you want will be in Manhattan will drop from around 70 to around 20 percent. The administration says the standard turnaround time for books from the New Jersey facility will be twenty-four hours. This strains credulity. The small number of books already housed at Princeton typically take closer to three days to make it to Manhattan, and the new system will be dealing with many more books and requests. Anthony Marx, a political scientist and former president at Amherst who took over as library president last year, says that barcoding all the books will speed up the process. This is a non sequitur: the New Jersey facility only accepts barcoded books; it’s the books in the main building that haven’t been barcoded yet. Barcoding them won’t make the process in New Jersey any faster. Not that speeding up the storage facility would help: the workers there already get all requests to the loading dock on the day they are made. It’s in transporting the books from New Jersey to Manhattan that the library has been failing.

Even if the turnaround were twenty-four hours, it would significantly diminish the library’s value as a research facility. Imagine if every time you Googled something it took twenty-four hours to get a result. Only 300,000 of the 5 million books held at the main building, it’s true, were requested last year; the 2 million books that will remain on-site, moreover, are said to contain around 90 percent of the books being used. But these statistics are less meaningful than they appear. A better number might be how many people currently don’t request books at all because they would have to wait three days to get them. The library’s plan is unprecedented for a reason: no other research library has eliminated the vast majority of its on-site collection because no library can predict what books the next person through the door will request—and no researcher can know what books she will need until she begins to read, and sees where the footnotes, and her curiosity, take her.

Over the course of the past two years, I’ve met with over fifty current and former library staff members to discuss the recent and upcoming changes at the library. Many of the librarians with whom I spoke had been forced out following the reorganization of 2007–08, and some had signed “Separation Incentive Program” agreements that offered small payments in exchange for agreeing, among other things, not to “disparage or encourage or induce others to disparage” the library. This is why so many former staff members mentioned in this article are cited off the record. One who did speak to me on the record was John Ganly, the former assistant director of SIBL, who started at the library in 1973 and retired in 2009. What struck me most about Ganly was how up-to-date and well-informed he was. His pet project, unrealized at retirement, was to work with Madison Avenue to archive, from conception to realization, the many digital advertising campaigns that appear online every year. Another former staff member, Howard Dodson, whom I interviewed before he stepped down as head of the Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture, told me about his desire to archive pages on sites like MySpace and Facebook so future researchers would be able to track how young African Americans have constructed their identities online. Yet another former staff member, Donald McCormick, the former head of the Rodgers & Hammerstein Archives of Recorded Sound, knew the ins and outs of digital copyright law as well as anyone I’d ever met. He told me about a project he had wanted to undertake to digitize and stream the library’s holdings, including cylinders made by Thomas Edison.

With few exceptions, the older librarians with whom I spoke were similarly technologically up-to-date. Unlike newspaper and book publishers, who greeted the internet and e-readers with fear, librarians have little attachment to books, since they have long provided patrons with everything from papyri to scrolls to broadsides to prints to photographs to manuscripts to 78 rpm records to CDs to 16mm films to VHSs to DVDs to databases. Librarians pride themselves on knowing more about how to access information than anyone. No matter how old the librarian, and no matter how much I learned about the latest trends, I continued to find that most everyone I spoke with knew far more about how to find things online than I did.

Nonetheless, almost every single former librarian with whom I spoke opposed the plan to renovate the main branch. Why? Ann Thornton, the system’s newly appointed top librarian, suggested that the concerns of former librarians are due to the fact that, as she put it, “Change is really difficult.” The change the older librarians had trouble dealing with, however, was not technological. It was the change in the library’s mission. No former staff member said to me, “The administration doesn’t care about books.” Rather, they said, “The administration doesn’t care about research.”

There was, for a time at least, a stronger alternative vision of what the research library could become. In 2007, the administration hired Josh Greenberg, a thirtysomething digital guru with a PhD in Science and Technology Studies, to help guide the transition to digital. Greenberg had been one of the principle creators of Zotero, a leading tool in the “digital humanities” movement which allows dissertation writers and others to easily embed and keep track of references to scholarly articles in their texts. At the New York Public Library, he was supposed to set up a research and development center to figure out what a public research library could do online that academic libraries and circulating libraries couldn’t. This center was to be called NYPL Labs, modeled on Google Labs, and it was supposed to create experimental beta projects that took on important research questions and involved the wider public in their solution—“crowdsourcing” at a high level. 

Unfortunately, the financial crisis prevented Greenberg from starting many of the projects, and instead his team spent most of their time moving the library’s obsolescent website, which as late as 2009 still relied on individual HTML files, to a more flexible system. Greenberg himself ended up leaving for the Sloan Foundation in 2010. One of the few projects to move forward, the library’s “map warper,” gives an example of what NYPL Labs might have looked like. The project enables untrained users to stretch and pull old maps onto contemporary digital maps, until they overlay perfectly. Once enough users and libraries get involved, this project could create a kind of Google Books for old maps, allowing users to look up an address anywhere in the world and see how the landscape and its representations have changed.

Such a project could have been done over the course of decades with well-trained geographers and limitless funds; or it could be done now for practically nothing and with the help of dedicated amateurs. The difference is like that between Britannica and Wikipedia. Private companies can undertake such a project, but not for the public good; private universities can do it, because they have the money and the map collections, but they would not likely involve the public; an open-source collective of map enthusiasts could do it, but they might have trouble getting the old maps. The New York Public Library, by contrast, is uniquely well-positioned for exactly this kind of project: the library has the resources necessary to create new knowledge, in the form of millions of old books, maps, images, and so forth, and it also “has more surface area than any other institution of its kind,” as Josh Greenberg put it to me, “touching communities from the broadly public to the highly specific academic.”

The past decade and a half has seen a significant flattening in how research is done and what resources people use to do it. Media critics sometimes say that if the New York Times had been thinking straight in the mid-1990s, it would have invented Craigslist. By the same token, one could say that the New York Public Library should have invented Wikipedia, or the Internet Archive. At this point those projects are well-established, but it is not too late for the library to take the lead on initiatives that could excite similar enthusiasm among online independent scholars.

The library’s other most successful online project, aside from the map warper, involves inviting the public to transcribe its collection of approximately 40,000 menus, many of them handwritten. It has gotten off to a fast start. The library has also begun digitizing its Shelley archives and started a project to help navigate the recently released 1940 federal census records. But a handful of projects doesn’t exactly create an “NYPL Labs.” As Greenberg’s successor, Ben Vershbow, told a reporter at the Atlantic, NYPL Labs is “more an idea than a real unit.” The group’s other projects include a site that animates old stereograms, small collections of librettos and theatrical lighting plans, and a tie-in for an exhibition.

Learning about these developments, I was troubled that the library seemed not to be doing enough in a field they claim to want to embrace; I was troubled too by the degree to which the communications department had become involved in these projects, and by their insistence that the library’s online exhibition on Voltaire’s Candide, mostly designed to be used by school-age children, represented a genuine contribution to scholarship. The head of communications and marketing, Deanna Lee, would speak to me only off the record, but in the Atlantic she was quoted as saying, regarding her involvement with NYPL Labs, “PR and content are all tied together now.” With so much money going to construction, and with the library failing to maintain the budget for research-level acquisitions and expert staff, it’s hard to see where the money will come from for serious R&D projects in the future.

The other thing that stuck out in my conversations with former staff members was how skeptical they were of the administration’s reliance on statistics and consultants to justify their plans. Statistics have long been kept at the New York Public Library, but they were rarely given much attention, precisely because there’s no simple way to measure the creation of knowledge. A collection, moreover, has to be built with not just the present but the future in mind. In the last ten years, everyone told me, all of that has changed. What’s been behind this move to statistics and consultant-driven thinking? High finance has always been behind much of the library’s funding, and the board of trustees includes such Wall Street stalwarts as Alan “Ace” Greenberg, former chairman of Bear Stearns, and John Gutfreund, former chairman of Salomon Brothers (and one of the anti-heroes of Michael Lewis’s Liar’s Poker). But former librarians attributed the changes to the increasing presence of a new kind of board member—hedge fund managers, private equity kingpins (Stephen Schwarzman of the $100 million gift), and media tycoons like ex officio trustee Michael Bloomberg, whose mayoral administration has contributed mightily to the war chest that will make the renovation possible. Another is Joshua Steiner, the vice chairman of the board of trustees quoted earlier in this article, who was chief of staff in Bill Clinton’s Treasury Department before becoming an executive at Lazard, Quadrangle, and NBC Universal.

This new breed of trustee is more data-driven and results-oriented. Heike Kordish, who resigned as director of the main building in 2008, told of giving a presentation to the trustees about the incredible materials in the library’s collection. “And people were surprised. ‘Oh my god, that’s in this collection?’” she said. “But it’s not something that you see. It’s not thirty children being read to.” Or as Victoria Steele, director of collections strategy, put it to me, the New York Public Library now has “a business sense that informs our activities, so that we are thinking about the costs that we’re putting into something and whether we’re getting sufficient return on our investment. . . . It’s more informed by people who understand business and metrics.”

Many conversations returned to the figure of David Offensend, co-founder of Evercore Partners, a private equity firm with a market capitalization of a billion dollars. Offensend joined the library in 2004, in part because the trustees felt that the institution’s money was not being handled with due care; he now serves as chief operating officer. According to staffers, Offensend has been instrumental in the shift toward a “business and metrics” sort of thinking. He told the Princeton alumni website in 2009, “If an organization is receptive, the application of business world experiences can have a huge positive impact.” But what kind of business and what kind of metrics? It was under Offensend that Booz Allen was brought in; it was under Offensend, and in the wake of the Schwarzman gift, that the ambitious plan to fundamentally reconfigure the library took shape. Offensend described the plan to me this way: “We did not think that putting the central library in [the main building] was an investment per se in the branch libraries versus the research libraries. It was rather one plus one will equal significantly more than two.” We can see here the familiar arithmetic of corporate downsizing.

No one I spoke with questioned the need for the library to change, but practically everyone questioned the direction in which it was heading. One former staff member summed up the concerns of many librarians like this: “The problem is you’re applying methodologies and analytic tools that were maybe best suited to a Starbucks or a Wal-Mart. For your collection of Dickens, so what, you get four readers a year, is that relevant? You’re supposed to be a research library looking not two months ahead of time but two hundred years ahead of time.”

The public has been consulted only very minimally on the library’s decisions. There was no open architectural competition for the design of the renovation; there have been no public forums for a discussion of the plan in general. In recent months, as resistance to the plan mounted in scholarly circles, Anthony Marx, who inherited the plan from Paul LeClerc, began defending it in much the same manner in which it was conceived. Marx says that the plan will bring great savings—sometimes the number is $10 million a year, sometimes it’s $15 million (Offensend told me that “conservatively” the library is banking on $7 million)—but, most of all, that it will be “democratic.” In the words of the library’s website, the plan will return the main branch to “the original vision of the building as a democratized ‘People’s Palace.’” It is an attractive vision, and in a sense the increased number of people who will undoubtedly come to the more open, light-filled, renovated library would indeed make it more “democratic.”

But the New York Public Library has since its founding been democratic in a more than simply numeric sense. In 1911, the first request to be filled was for Moral Ideas of Our Time: Friedrich Nietzsche and Leo Tolstoy, a book in Russian. The patron who requested it was David Shub, a 23-year-old Russian-Jewish immigrant who lived at 1699 Washington Avenue, in the Bronx. The 1910 census entry for Shub’s apartment building shows that almost all of his neighbors were recent immigrants, with occupations from dressmaker to printer to laborer to clerk. Did they, too, go to the library? It’s possible. Shub, who himself worked a series of manual jobs, was part of that great movement of autodidacticism that swept the Western world in the late 19th and early 20th century, and which was responsible for the flourishing of institutions like the British Museum and the New York Public Library. Back then, ideas like democracy, a living wage, and an eight-hour day were still relatively new, and it seemed possible that the empowerment of the working class would lead to a new world of wide public research, in which every man and woman would be able to undertake a study of whatever interested them—just like the wealthy gentry of the past, who studied poetry, animal husbandry, or whatever else struck their fancy. This would be a productive use for one’s newly acquired leisure, otherwise known as the weekend and the late afternoon.

Shub, for his part, after more than forty years in the New York Public Library, where he met Trotsky and Bukharin, introduced many of his friends to the riches of the Slavic division, and wrote several small-circulation Yiddish texts, offered up the fruits of his research in the form of his one and only English-language book, Lenin: A Biography, which appeared in 1948.

A lot has changed in the hundred years since then, and especially perhaps in the last ten. A modern-day David Shub might spend his or her time editing Wikipedia, or watching a complete series of lectures about literary theory on YouTube. (This is in fact possible: Yale has recorded Paul Fry’s lectures and made them freely available. The first episode has 100,000 hits.) Given the possibilities for learning online, it can be hard to see why the public would support a marble mausoleum to what can seem like a dying ideal, the independent scholar, or why philanthropists would donate to an institution that serves impoverished researchers, rather than the illiterate. The typical user at the research library is “well educated but poor,” as Heike Kordish put it to me. That’s not a demographic that anyone, politician or philanthropist, is desperate to serve.

But that’s what the library was set up to do, and that is what it has done for the past hundred years—and while I certainly don’t begrudge the administration’s decision to devote resources to the users of its branch libraries, it is simply absurd to suggest that providing the best possible resources to anyone who walks through the door is somehow undemocratic because not every member of the public happens to make use of them. The people who do go to the library make the trek to Midtown precisely because they can’t get access to its resources elsewhere. Many of the heaviest users are students at City University and City College; it is frequently said that City University’s Graduate Center could not receive accreditation if its students didn’t have access to the New York Public Library, because the rest of its holdings are so paltry. The main building is in effect the university library for every local student, teacher, and professor who isn’t at NYU or Columbia. That’s a strong claim to a democratic purpose.

This isn’t to say there shouldn’t be a large and attractive circulating branch at the center of Midtown. But the library administration has been very creative in its real estate dealings in the past. In the early 2000s, the administration worked with the architecture firm Gwathmey-Siegel on a plan that included a gut renovation on the Mid-Manhattan building and the addition of eight more floors on top. The estimated cost was $120 million, and the result would have been 117,000 square feet of additional space. The plans, canceled after the dot com bubble burst, looked hideous, but they show what is possible. What the library could do now is tear down Mid-Manhattan; temporarily house the books at SIBL; build a brand-new building on the Mid-Manhattan lot, with the same amount of public space currently available at SIBL and Mid-Manhattan; then sell SIBL and move both the big circulating library and the science and business library into the new building.

With the sale of SIBL, valued at around $100 million, and the money from the city, the administration would have at least $250 million for such a project. The entire Rem Koolhaas–designed Seattle Public Library, by way of comparison, cost $156 million. It’s more expensive to build in Midtown, of course, but the 52-story Random House Tower, built in 2003, cost $180 million. With the money left over, the library could restore the research budget or build more new branch libraries like the $50 million Bronx Library Center, which actually brings in half as many visitors as Mid-Manhattan.

And if, two decades from now, the stacks at the main branch have begun to grow dusty, the copyright and licensing issues have been worked out with the help of Congress, and every book imaginable is only an iPad-fingertap away, then the administration can sell its attractive mini-skyscraper, dust off the Norman Foster plans, and go toe-to-toe with the preservationists and the last of the book lovers to build a glass box into the side of the beaux arts masterpiece in Bryant Park. In the (likely) event that physical books remain central to learning and scholarship, we’ll still have the stacks on hand; and in the (also likely) event that digital scholarship takes shape in a way no one today could expect, we won’t have spent $350 million on a structure designed for the “ebook age.”

That’s one way, in any case, of planning for the library’s future. I’m sure a public discussion with library administrators, staff, researchers, and citizens could yield many more. Instead, visitors to the library’s website are invited to “join the conversation” by submitting comments. The comments, however, do not appear on the website and there is no space for public discussion. The “conversation” goes one way. Similarly, when the administration, in response to growing criticism of the plan, convened a panel of scholars and writers to serve as an advisory board of sorts in the spring of 2012, it almost immediately vitiated whatever legitimacy the board could have by disinviting the respected essayist Caleb Crain, who had written about the advisory board, quite circumspectly, on his blog. This, unfortunately, is the way it was always meant to go. In a slideshow that presented the renovation plans to staff in 2008, there was a single box for how the administration would involve the public: “Communicate and market the strategy to key internal and external stakeholders.” Communicate and market—this is what “managed democracy” looks like.

Whenever I asked the administration about the direction they had chosen, I was told the plan was fundamentally democratic because it gave the people what they want—and what the people want could be determined through the endless surveys and focus groups conducted by the library’s consultants and its own internal strategy department.

When librarians expressed concerns about the renovation, they got the same response. This constituted a huge shift in the library’s decision-making process. Where before members of the library’s staff were involved in an open process at almost all levels, with an internal committee of librarians parallel to a faculty senate at a university, now a few librarians are interviewed by consultants, and senior management makes virtually all large-scale decisions on its own. An internal culture of collegial debate, protected by an understanding that senior librarians had a form of tenure which gave them security to express themselves candidly, has been replaced at the library by what my interviews suggest is a culture of secrecy and fear.

Of all the justifications for the renovation, none is more disingenuous and misleading than the claim that the library is simply trying to make the main building more “democratic.” This is a facility that has stood for over a century and provided unparalleled service to a public that no other institution gives a damn about. It is the most democratic research library in the world, far more welcoming to the average user than the Bibliothèque Nationale, the British Museum, or the Library of Congress, let alone the libraries at Harvard and Yale. The only American institution to offer a similar combination of excellence and public access is the University of California system, where anyone who wants to can attend a community college, and anyone who can handle it can attend a great research university.

If there really were no way to maintain a great research library and a great branch system, one could see why a democratic society might choose to give up on the research library and devote its resources to the branches. Similarly, one could see why California, faced with budget difficulties, might let Berkeley and UCLA decline in excellence, so the Cal system can continue to offer access to the wider public, and so funds could be freed up for community colleges. But that outcome would unquestionably be a lesser realization of an ideal democratic society, since fewer people would get the education they deserve. While the administration at the New York Public Library likes to pretend the renovation will not affect researchers, when pressed they insist the main building must be “democratized.” The result is a bad dialectic between the casual readers, who like to check out books, and the fussy, over-educated “elite” readers, who want obscure volumes. The administration thus recapitulates a familiar antagonism in contemporary American political life, one whose necessity the library, by offering the best possible resources to the widest possible public, has for the past century by its very existence refuted.

More than anything, this rhetoric reveals the fundamentally anti-democratic worldview that has taken hold at the library. It is of a piece with what the new Masters of the Universe have accomplished in the public schools, where hedge funders have provided the lion’s share of the backing for privatization, and in the so-called reforms to our financial system, where technocrats meet behind closed doors to decide what will be best for the rest of us. Oligarchs acting in the people’s name (with the people’s money) is not democratic; selling off New York’s cultural patrimony to out-of-town heiresses, closing down treasured divisions and branches, pushing out expert staff, and shipping books to a warehouse in the suburbs, all without consulting the public, is not democratic. If the reconstruction goes through, scholarly research will be more, not less, concentrated in the handful of inordinately wealthy and exclusive colleges and universities. The renovation is elitism garbed in populist rhetoric, ultimately condescending to the very people the library’s board thinks they’re serving. It suggests that no one other than an Ivy League professor or student could ever hope to engage in scholarship or original research. Leave the heavy lifting to the folks at Harvard and McKinsey (and the quants in our commodities division), the financiers are saying; for the rest of you, there will be lovely sun-filled spots to check your email.

1 Even “Snippet View” is currently being challenged by the Authors Guild in court. If the Authors Guild wins, and Congress doesn’t act, Google not only won’t be able to do anything at all with as much as 90 percent of the 20 million books that it’s digitized—the company may even be forced to delete the scans altogether, because it might not have had any right to create them in the first place.

Image: Construction of the New York Public Library's Main Reading Room circa 1906.


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