The end of the Central Library Plan

On the New York Times website early Wednesday afternoon, Robin Pogrebin reported that the administrators of the New York Public Library have decided to abandon the Central Library Plan, a scheme that would have dismantled the century-old bookshelves in the landmark building on 42nd Street and replaced them with a new circulating library. An hour or so later, Jason Farago reported on the news for The Guardian, and a little after that, Jennifer Maloney confirmed the story in the Wall Street Journal. Scott Sherman, who to my knowledge is the first journalist ever to report on the plan, summed up the turn of events in a post for The Nation at the end of the day.

I’m very happy the library’s leaders have changed their minds. It takes courage to do so in public, and it’s a sign of health that the organization has been able to respond to new information and to criticism. In 2012 I wrote many posts on this blog decrying the plan as a setback for scholars, but after about six months I had to excuse myself in order to regroup my energies, and I’m grateful to the reader-citizens who went on to create such coalitions as the Committee to Save the New York Public Library, Citizens Defending Libraries, and the Library Lovers League and continued to press the library to do the right thing.

Proposed alterations to the New York Public Library’s facade

New York City’s Landmarks Preservation Committee will hold a hearing on the New York Public Library’s proposal to change its facade on Tuesday, January 22, at 2pm, in its conference room on the ninth floor of 1 Centre Street. In advance of the hearing, details of the library’s proposal, as prepared by Foster + Partners, were on display today at the Landmarks Preservation Committee’s office, and I took photos, which I’ve uploaded here. Please note that these plans don’t reflect any of the changes that have been proposed for the interior of the building, because only the facade has landmark protection.

Notes on the NYPL’s press conference for the Central Library Plan

A Norman Foster monograph displayed next to a Carrère & Hastings monograph, detail of 'Entrance, the view of the new lending library when patrons first enter through Gottesman Exhibition Hall.' Credit: dbox / Foster + Partners, 2012.

On 19 December 2012, at 11am, the New York Public Library presented in outline the architectural plans for its Central Library Plan (CLP), a proposal to close the Mid-Manhattan Library and the Science, Industry, and Business Library and replace the bookshelves that house the 42nd Street building’s research collection with a new circulating library. The library’s president Anthony Marx and its chosen architect Norman Foster spoke. In the weeks since this press conference, architecture critics have begun to weigh in—some positive, some negative. I took notes, and though I’ve already written up my first impression, Marx and Foster released a number of details that don’t seem to have made it into press accounts, and I thought I would share my notes here. (When I can’t resist editorializing, I’ll set off my comments with parentheses and italics, like this.)

“Our aim,” said Marx, in his remarks at the press conference, “is to provide to New Yorkers and to all comers the greatest library facility in the world.” The CLP, he said, aspires to “bring back to this building the two halves of this great library”—its circulating and its research missions. He described the new space, which is to be inserted in the space under the Rose reading room, where the bookshelves of the research library now stand, as “a brand-new state-of-the-art Mid-Manhattan Library and Science, Industry and Business Library,” adding that because the future of all libraries, including the New York Public, remains unclear, the new space will be flexible.

Marx insisted that the 42nd Street building would continue to be a “great space for exhibitions.” He said that the building’s research collection was “currently housed in stacks with almost no climate control or fire safety” and that under the new dispensation, the books would be much better cared for—in fact, five times better cared for. (Though he didn’t name it, Marx seems here to have been referring to the 42nd Street building’s rating on the Time-Weighted Preservation Index, a measurement scale devised by the Image Permanence Institute. As I explained in an earlier blog post, the 42nd Street stacks are currently rated 44.5, which means that a book held there suffers as much damage in 44.5 years as a book stored at 68 degrees Fahrenheit and 45 percent relative humidity would suffer in 50 years. Under the CLP, by comparison, books would be stored in conditions where it would take 163 to 244 years for them to suffer an equivalent amount of damage.) The books will get what they need, Marx said, and the people, what they need. Marx claimed that the administration expects the CLP to make available to the library an additional $15 million a year. (There’s a touch of spin here: The library’s chief operations officer has estimated that the savings from consolidating three buildings into one would amount to only $7 million a year. The difference between $7 million and $15 million is to come from interest that would accrue on new funds raised for the CLP.) Marx promised that the renovated building would stay open until 11pm most nights, “revitalizing the evening experience in this neighborhood.”

Marx acknowledged that the CLP had come in for criticism, and he asserted that “we heard concerns about the plans,… and we adjusted and improved them.” He said that no public spaces in the building were going to change. In fact, he said, spaces not previously open to the public were going to be made newly accessible. In closing, he remarked that in the days just after Hurricane Sandy, visits to the “aesthetically challenged” Mid-Manhattan Library had doubled, and as proof of the library administration’s commitment to serving the public, he pointed out that despite recent, unexpected budget cuts, the library hasn’t closed branches or cut hours.

The architect Norman Foster then presented a slideshow, which surveyed the changes to the 42nd Street building over time and his proposed alterations to the structure. Foster began by noting that the Rose reading room is 51 feet high and that a visitor has to climb 50 feet through the 42nd Street building in order to reach it. Returning to this symmetry, somewhat later in his remarks, Foster observed that the volume that contains the bookshelves under the Rose reading room is roughly the same size as the volume of the Rose reading room itself. Foster pointed out that there had been a circulating library inside the 42nd Street building once before, in the space now known as the Bartos Forum, and that there had previously been a children’s library in rooms on the ground floor currently used for administrative offices. At the moment, Foster said, 30 percent of the building is open to the public; the CLP would make 66 percent of the building publicly accessible. (It seems worth pointing out that the proportion of the 42nd Street building open to the public may not be the most pertinent statistic. The CLP calls for the closing of two other facilities: the Mid-Manhattan Library and the Science, Industry, and Business Library. I suspect that the total amount of floorspace open to the public will remain little changed. Also, it would be possible to open new writer’s spaces on the second floor of the 42nd Street building and a new children’s library on the ground floor without removing the building’s bookshelves.)

Foster noted that in the 1980s, a space for an underground parking lot had been excavated beneath Bryant Park, next-door to the library, and after the city intervened, one of two levels in this space was devoted to book storage instead of parking. The second level was left empty for years, but thanks to a gift from Abby and Howard Milstein announced in September, soon this second level, too, will be able to hold books. (This is a significant alteration to the CLP, and a major concession to critics like me who were concerned that the CLP would drastically reduce on-site book storage. I, for one, appreciate it greatly.) Thanks to the Milsteins’ gift, the capacity of the Bryant Park Stack Extension will grow from 1.5 million to 3 million volumes. The above-ground stacks in the 42nd Street building, meanwhile, hold 3 million books. In an animated diagram, Foster showed the books that used to be stored in the 42nd Street building flowing into the new facility under Bryant Park. (Foster was indulging in a little sleight of hand here. The 3 million books once stored in the 42nd Street stacks will indeed fit in the new Bryant Park storage facility—but only if the 1.5 million books that were formerly stored under Bryant Park are sent away to off-site storage in New Jersey. This is an improvement over the original plan—which was to send 3 million books to New Jersey and keep only 1.5 million under Bryant Park—and as I said, I appreciate the improvement greatly, but it remains true that the CLP will entail a loss of on-site storage.)

Foster then showed images, including a video “fly-through,” of the construction he proposes for the space under the Rose reading room currently occupied by bookshelves. In Foster’s fly-through, visible here, a viewer enters the building from Fifth Avenue, crosses the vestibule known as Astor Hall, walks through the exhibition space known as Gottesman Hall, and emerges on the third of five floors (or the second of four, depending on whether you count the lowest level) that Foster would like to insert into the space under the Rose reading room. These four (or five) levels looked to me a bit like loggias in an opera house. They’re hollowed out in the center, as if around an orchestra pit. The proscenium that they face is the western façade of the library, which looks out onto Bryant Park.

Foster acknowledged that the Rose reading room is currently supported structurally by the cast-iron “stacks,” or bookshelves, under it. He said that the engineers who would handle the removal of the stacks are those responsible for the recent creation of new spaces under Carnegie Hall and under City Hall, and that he was confident that they were up to the challenge. (Marx later identified the firm as Robert Silman Associates, and indeed they seem to have an excellent reputation.) Foster said that the delivery desk in the Rose reading room, the central point for receiving and distributing books, would remain unchanged. He said that it was still “early days” in terms of design choices, but that he expected the new space would be furnished in wood, bronze, and stone, materials “which age gracefully” and are used elsewhere in the building. He said that he hoped to recycle some of the existing book stacks as shelving in the new space. He asserted that the new space would be 65 feet high, and that as he planned for the ceiling, he was struck by the frosted-glass skylights elsewhere in the 42nd Street building—a hint that he was considering installing an artificially lit frosted-glass skylight.

During the question-and-answer period, Scott Sherman of The Nation asked Foster if he had any misgivings about the CLP in light of Ada Louise Huxtable’s recent strong critique in the Wall Street Journal. “No,” Foster replied. “The history of the building is one of change over time. The world today is not what it was in 1911,” when the 42nd Street structure was built. “I respect your question,” Foster continued; “I disagree with you.”

Someone else asked about the structural hazard that the demolition of the stacks posed to the Rose reading room, and Foster replied by shifting the question to a different danger: “The Rose reading room is currently at risk,” he said. “It’s the only public space in New York that sits on an un-fire-protected space…. If part of the story [of the renovation] is protecting the books, then another part is that we’re also protecting the Rose reading room. I cannot speak for the engineers, but they’re some of the best in the world.” In response to a second question about the logistics of renovating without endangering the Rose, Foster explained that in an initial phase, the engineers would create structural elements between the stacks that would hold up the Rose. Then, once this new supporting structure was in place, the engineers would remove the stacks. Foster said that he expected the new facility to open in 2018, and Marx promised that the 42nd Street building would stay open during construction.

I raised my hand and asked how books would reach the Rose reading room from the Bryant Park storage facility, since the plans suggested that the elevator that formerly raised books to the Rose delivery desk would soon be no more. I gave an account of the exchange in an earlier post, and to save time, I’ll repeat it here:

There’s currently a conveyor belt that brings books from the Bryant Park Stack Extension into the library building, and in reply to my question, Marx said that a second conveyor belt would be added to it, and a new elevator built somewhere on the south end of the building. The architectural historian Charles Warren followed up my question with a few others: Would the new elevator be put where the Art and Architecture reading room is now located? No, it was to be to one side, probably in the southeast corner of the Rose room. How would books get from the southeast corner of the Rose to the delivery desk? There might be room to build yet another conveyor belt in the crawl space between the floor of the Rose Reading Room and the drop ceiling of the new circulating library. Was this crawl space large enough for a person to walk in it? No. Then how would the conveyor be repaired if it broke?

Marx and Foster assured Warren that they would be able to come up with an answer.

Another questioner asked about the project’s funding, and Marx answered that the CLP was “self-funded.” He repeated the claim that the CLP will improve the library’s bottom line by $15 million a year, but he also said that financial gain was “not the driver of this project.” (The finances behind the CLP seem to be growing more obscure. Until this press conference, the library had consistently said that it estimated the cost of the renovation to be $300 million and that it had been promised $150 million from New York City and expected to raise about $200 million more by selling the properties that currently house the Mid-Manhattan Library and the Science, Industry, and Business Library. Indeed, in June, the library quietly sold five floors of the science library for $61 million. In a New York Times article published the morning of the December 19 press conference, however, the library gave a new explanation for the sources of the CLP’s funds. The library still says that $150 million is going to come from the city, but according to the Times, it now claims that $50 million is coming from the 2008 sale of the Donnell branch and $100 million from the sale of the Annex, an offsite storage space on West 43rd Street, as well as from the sale of several floors of SIBL. I can’t quickly find the date that the Annex was sold, but I think it was before 2008. (UPDATE, 7 January 2013: I guessed wrong. It turns out that the library sold its West 43rd Street annex for $45 million in August 2011.) At the bottom of an ink-on-paper press release, the library adds this sentence: “The Central Library Plan is a unique public-private partnership made possible with generous support from Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg, City Council Speaker Christine C. Quinn, the New York City Council, the Empire State Development Corporation, Manhattan Borough President Scott Stringer, Stephen A. Schwarzman, Abby S. Milstein and Howard P. Milstein, and an anonymous donor.” The allocation from the city explains the politicians’ names, and the Milsteins’ names are accounted for by their gift for the Bryant Park storage facility. By also listing Schwarzman and an anonymous donor, the library seems to be suggesting that it considers their gifts, too, to be sources of the CLP’s financing. If you add up all these sources of money, you get a sum twice as large as what the library claims that the CLP will cost. I doubt there’s anything very fishy here. I suspect that the conflicting accounts mean only that the library plans to spend down its endowment—to which the sale of the Annex, the sale of the Donnell, Schwarzman’s gift, and other gifts have contributed—in order to pay for the reconstruction, and then plan to replenish the endowment by selling the Mid-Manhattan and Science, Industry, and Business properties. One last financial note: In its press release, the library now concedes that “we expect the actual budget to be somewhat higher” than the previous estimate of $300 million.)

Asked about modifications to the building, including the possibility of an entrance directly into Bryant Park, Marx said that the cloak room at the north entrance of the building, on 42nd Street, would be “opened up.” He said that four revisions to the building would require approval from the Landmarks Preservation Commission: replacing a stretch of wall on the south side of the building with a new loading dock, installing a new air conditioning unit on the roof, converting two windows on the west façade into emergency fire exits, and modifying several windows so that they could open during a fire if necessary. As for a Bryant Park entrance, Marx said he personally thought it would be a great idea, but that the library had decided against it, so as not to compromise the western façade and in order to be “mindful of the park’s interests.”

Someone asked what lessons the library had learned from Hurricane Sandy. Had the library taken sufficient precautions against flooding? Would it acquire a new emergency generator? Yes, Marx replied, the library will have a new emergency generator. As for flooding, he noted that the Bryant Park Stack Extension is built on the foundations of a 19th-century water reservoir, whose retaining walls are 16 or 17 inches thick. An inspection after Sandy discovered no leakage. Flooding from above is not a danger, either, he said; sea levels would have to rise 55 feet before they could reach Bryant Park.

A final questioner asked why the library couldn’t simply improve the air conditioning in the stacks. Marx asserted that it would cost $50 to $75 million to bring the air conditioning up to the level the library wants, and that the stacks would in that case remain vulnerable to fire.

Further impressions

I’m still thinking about my position in this debate. As I’ve said, I’m grateful that the library has agreed to store more books under Bryant Park. Nonetheless, I still wish that the library were leaving the 42nd Street building alone and instead doing a stand-alone renovation of the Mid-Manhattan Library, as I suggested in the spring. There’s a hint that such an alternative might be more feasible than ever. In October, the New York Times reported that Mayor Bloomberg is pushing to re-zone midtown so as to allow for more skyscrapers. The Mid-Manhattan Library is just outside the border of the proposed new zone, and if the city were to draw the new perimeter so as to include the MML, the library might be able to pull off on that site the sort of bold but money-making construction project that the Museum of Modern Art managed a few years ago. In any case, even if the CLP now has too much political momentum to be stopped, there’s something to be said for continuing to pay attention and for trying to hold the library to its promise to sustain its research mission.

I’m not terribly impressed with Foster’s architectural plans, but in his defense, it should be said that the constraints on his design are considerable. As Foster himself noted, the space of the Rose reading room is comparable to the space below it, so one way to imagine the new space is to stand in the Rose and consider how the space downstairs differs from it. The windows in the lower space are narrower than those in the Rose and admit less light. There are windows on two sides of the Rose reading room but only on one side of the space below. The windows in the Rose are raised well above the street, but those in the space below look out onto the backs of two restaurants that abut the library, blocking a considerable portion of the view, especially on the southern half of the western facade. The Rose has only one floor, but four levels will be sandwiched into the space below. The Rose is an echoey space, but visitors to it are asked to be quiet. Will noise be a problem in the space below?

Foster and Marx emphasized in their remarks that the new space will be built so as to be easily repurposed if the library’s needs change. That flexibility is prudent, but it’s disappointing that Foster’s design gives little sense of his vision of the library’s needs now. What function or functions is this form meant to serve? At the press conference, it seemed to me telling that Foster hadn’t considered the problem of how to bring books into the Rose reading room. More than a few people I’ve spoken with have likened the new space to an airport lobby, perhaps because it’s so little shaped by the purposes that people have when they come to a library. Where’s the check-out? Where do you return books? Where will visitors access the catalog? If catalogs are not going to be a first resort, will there be other ways for visitors to discover what the library has to offer? It’s been pointed out to me by several people that in the architectural renderings released by Foster, multiple copies of books are displayed on shelves face out, as they sometimes appear in bookstores, rather than single copies spine out, as they almost always appear in libraries. (See the image detail at the top of this post for an example, which displays a Norman Foster monograph next to one on the New York Public Library’s original architects, Carrère and Hastings.) Will music and film be lent, or only books? Will there be computers for people who don’t own one, and if so, where? Are there going to be places in the new library where book groups can meet, or where job applicants can learn how to shape a resume? Where’s the information desk? Which shelves will be for ready reference, and which for books to be checked out, and how close will the two kinds of shelves be to desks? Or will the library encourage visitors to use online reference sources? Where are the librarians, and how will the design shape their interaction with patrons? I understand that preliminary sketches can’t be expected to answer all these questions, but it seems fair to expect the general principles with which these problems will be approached.

First impression of Norman Foster’s NYPL plans


This morning, I attended a press event at the New York Public Library for the unveiling of Norman Foster’s architectural plans. The library administrators’ proposal to replace the bookshelves of the 42nd Street research branch with a new circulating library has been controversial, and I was curious to know what the proposed renovation actually looked like. I’m still mulling over my impressions, but I want to convey two things, quickly (and to post my photos of the architectural model, which doesn’t seem to be available on the library’s website).

The first is that I am deeply grateful to the administrators and trustees of the library for agreeing to double the library’s storage capacity under Bryant Park. Library trustee Abby Milstein and her husband Howard Milstein gave $8 million to the library in September, for the purpose of outfitting the second, currently unused level of the Bryant Park Stack Extension, soon to be renamed in the Milsteins’ honor. The library administrators’ original plans called for a reduction of onsite book storage from 4.5 million to 1.5 million volumes, but thanks to the Milsteins’ gift, the reduction will only be to 3 million. I appreciate the generosity of the Milsteins and the flexibility of the library’s trustees and administrators.

The second is that I remain a skeptic of the proposed renovation nonetheless (though out of a recognition of personal limits, probably a less vocal one than I was last spring). Books used to arrive in the Rose Reading Room via an elevator under the delivery desk in the center of the room. Squinting at the architectural model this morning, I saw that the space under the delivery desk is now empty, so during the question-and-answer period, I asked how books would arrive under the new plan. There’s currently a conveyor belt that brings books from the Bryant Park Stack Extension into the library building, and in reply to my question, Marx said that a second conveyor belt would be added to it, and a new elevator built somewhere on the south end of the building. The architectural historian Charles Warren followed up my question with a few others: Would the new elevator be put where the Art and Architecture reading room is now located? No, it was to be to one side, probably in the southeast corner of the Rose room. How would books get from the southeast corner of the Rose to the delivery desk? There might be room to build yet another conveyor belt in the crawl space between the floor of the Rose Reading Room and the drop ceiling of the new circulating library. Was this crawl space large enough for a person to walk in it? No. Then how would the conveyor be repaired if it broke?

Marx and Foster assured Warren that they would be able to come up with an answer, and I have no doubt that they can and will. But it seemed telling that getting the books into the reading room was an afterthought, a detail not yet worked through. In Carrère and Hastings’s original plans for the 42nd Street building, the concern was central. The whole structure was designed around it. I look forward to reading what others, especially architecture critics, make of Foster’s plans.


How digitization can harm research

A hole made by a worm in a 15th century manuscript from the Dubrovnik archives, via @EmirOFilipovic
[On Friday, 26 October 2012, I spoke on a panel about libraries at In Re Books, a conference on law and the future of books hosted by the New York Law School. My talk was about how the digitization of books harms research. I think that New York Law School will be posting video of the conference in a few days, but in the meantime, here’s a version of my talk.]

Good afternoon. I’m here to play the role of Luddite. I’m going to talk about how the digitization of texts can slow and even harm research, which I believe is the traditional mission of libraries.

If digital texts were no more than supplements to printed texts, they wouldn’t threaten research at all. But in the real world, where budgets and resources are limited, the option of digital texts provokes change. I began to explore Luddism with a vengeance this past spring, when I found myself opposing the New York Public Library’s plan to consolidate its midtown Manhattan real estate by shipping most of the books in its research collection to New Jersey. I knew that offsite storage was a necessary evil, but evil, unfortunately, was the word. The New York Public Library’s books were supposed to be able to travel from New Jersey to Manhattan in two days, but they usually took three or four, and sometimes longer. The trustees, moreover, were proposing a proportion of offsite to onsite that was extreme. Of the 5 million books stored in the lion-adorned humanities library on 42nd Street, only 1.8 million were to remain. The library’s plan had been conceived in 2008, when the world was breathless with the promise of Google Books, but in 2011, Judge Denny Chin had killed a proposed settlement between Google Books and the Authors Guild. For the foreseeable future, copyright was going to keep most books out of digital circulation. A monkey, as he swings his way through the jungle, can see the next tree limb he needs to grab, but not always the tree limb after that. A scholar proceeds much the same way, finding in one book’s footnotes the name of the next book he needs to read. The New York Public Library’s consolidation plan threatened to slow scholars down to the speed of one tree limb every two or three days. That’s a slow monkey.

Scholars circulated a petition; journalists wrote articles for The Nation, The New York Times, and the journal n+1; I blogged so copiously in protest that the New Republic made fun of me; I was invited to join a library advisory committee; I was thrown off the advisory committee; library administrators debated critics at a New School panel; and passionate letters to the editor were printed in the New York Review of Books. Last month, the library’s administators announced that an $8 million gift by trustee Abby Milstein and her husband Howard Milstein would make it possible for the library to store an additional 1.5 million books under Bryant Park. This compromise mitigates the damage of the consolidation plan considerably, and while I still have reservations, I am grateful for the Milsteins’ gift and for the willingness of the library’s trustees and administrators to respond to scholars’ concerns. (In the past six months, the library has also radically improved delivery from offsite storage, and currently books often arrive within twenty-four hours.)

Today, I’d like to talk in a more general way about the dangers that research faces in the digital age. Even a Luddite like me can acknowledge that digital proxies are wonderful as supplements. Many times they have helped me locate a quote that I remembered reading but couldn’t find again. The ability to search millions of old newspaper pages is invaluable to a historian. Nonetheless, it’s worth noting that the e-book medium, on its own, is inconsistent with the requirements of research. Its permanence, for one thing, is unproven. Printed books can burn, and the wood fibers in paper can grow brittle—problems that the old research-library system countered by storing multiple copies in multiple locations. What catastrophes are electronic texts subject to? Will they survive, say, unexpected power outages during a military conflict? What about steady change in file formats? I still have the digital files of essays that I wrote in college, twenty-five years ago, but I can’t read many of them, because no translators exist to open them in current word processing programs. Maybe electromagnetic storage will endure for centuries, and maybe file formats will be stable from now on, but we don’t yet know for sure. [During the Q&A period at the end of the panel, a fellow panelist told me that the files stored at the Internet Archive have to be replaced every four years or so; their hard drive are constantly churning, because digital preservation requires ceaseless effort.]

Then there’s copyright, which today controls, and effectively blocks, digital circulation of 26 million of the 32 million titles ever published, unless Congress and other legislative bodies intervene. Just a few major American publishers sell e-books to libraries, and one of them sells only a license that expires after twenty-six checkouts. A library full of self-erasing books is a researcher’s nightmare.

Digitization isn’t the first fever to break out among librarians, and many of the objections that Nicholson Baker made to microfilming, more than a decade ago, apply to digital proxies as well. Digitization has the effect of making a few scans of a book into master copies. What if these master copies are flawed? What if later, after the original books have become rare or difficult to access, someone wants to see the book at higher resolution? What if someone wants to see the book in color? What if the people making the scans choose copies that don’t include all of the issues, volumes, or editions of the work? Recently, while researching the War of 1812, I wanted to check Basil Hall’s Fragments of Voyages and Travels, a British sailor’s memoir so popular that it went through many editions. The New York Public Library has shipped all its editions of the book offsite, but its online catalog page for a nine-volume edition printed in Edinburgh has a link to Hathi Trust. Unfortunately, Hathi Trust only has a scan of one of the nine volumes. The trust does have scans made at other libraries, but one of these files is corrupt, another has lopped off the bottom two lines of every page, and still others are of an abridged American edition. On Hathi Trust, I could only find readable scans of three of the nine Edinburgh volumes, and only three more in Google Books. (I would have checked the Internet Archive last night, but the site was down.) The New York Public Library’s physical copy of volume 4, meanwhile, has gone missing. When I asked to see it, a note from a librarian advised me to look in Hathi Trust.

E-books, when available, are easier to fetch than printed books but harder to read. A historian of the early modern period recently explained to me her experience with a 1696 French history of the city of Lyon. Each of the book’s parts has its own pagination, she noted, some with Arabic numerals, and others with Roman. The parts aren’t in chronological order, and in digital form, it’s hard to find one’s way around. In my own experience, a digital proxy is fine if all I need is to confirm that a fact appears on a particular page, and very convenient if I’m trying to assess whether a book is worth further study. But if I’m reading a book carefully, I want to be able to flip to the map if I can’t remember whether a fort is located on Lake Ontario or Lake Erie, to the end notes in order to judge whether the author really has the documentary evidence to prove his claims, and to the index so as to be able to remind myself of the back story of a figure last mentioned a hundred pages before. That’s not to mention the information conveyed by a book’s paper quality, binding, and size, all lost to a digital proxy. Maybe the next generation of reading devices will overcome these drawbacks, but we’re not there yet.

Let me mention here a potential unintended consequence of digitization. The New York Public Library’s administrators hope to minimize the inconvenience of offsite storage by making it a priority to ship offsite books that have been digitized. The American Council of Learned Societies, meanwhile, has assembled high-quality digitizations of 3,500 books recognized by scholars to be among the most important in their fields, and the New York Public Library subscribes to the council’s database. Here’s the paradox: the 3,500 books in the council’s database are by scholarly consensus titles that a specialist is likely to want to sit down and read all the way through—and by virtue of that, they’re in danger of being prioritized to go offsite. At smaller research libraries, without the luxury of offsite storage, they’re in danger of being discarded altogether.

Nicholson Baker came in for ridicule when he lamented digitization’s first encroachment into the library: the displacement of the card catalog. Cataloging, after all, is the sort of function that a computer ought to be able to do better than notecards and a typewriter. So you would think, anyway. When first introduced in the 1970s, the New York Public Library’s online catalog didn’t index all of its books. Forty years later, it still doesn’t. I write a blog called “Steamboats are ruining everything.” The title comes from a line in The Trippings of Tom Pepper, an 1847 novel by a friend of Herman Melville’s. There’s no listing for the book in the New York Public Library’s online catalog. But the library does have it, the first volume, anyway; I checked it out on Tuesday to make sure it was still there. The handwritten entry for it is printed in the bound volumes of the library’s now-demolished card catalog. As is an entry for John Spencer Bassett’s seven-volume 1926 edition of the Correspondence of Andrew Jackson, which also fails to appear in the library’s online catalog, unless you are canny enough to search for it under its series title, “Carnegie Institution of Washington Publication number 371.” Which, even if you were a reference librarian, you might not know.

The library has had decades to improve its online catalog. Instead, a few years ago, they introduced a social-media update of it, which the library’s own staff privately advise scholars to circumvent. A good online catalog is possible. Harvard’s is excellent, and I often use it in order to find things in New York Public by a sort of metadata triangulation. But trouble in online cataloging is widespread. If you’ve ever tried to search Google Books, Open Library, or the Internet Archive for a particular volume of a multivolume series—for a particular year of, say, Napoleon’s correspondence—you’ll learn that these resources are incapable of distinguishing one volume from another, unless the original scanner was thoughtful enough to add the volume number to the end of the title as a kludge.

Research takes place even in small public libraries, which are obliged to throw books out in order to make room for new ones, in a process known as weeding. Thirty years ago, when I worked as a teenager in my town’s public library, the librarians weeded according to due dates. If there weren’t many stamped in the back of a book, or if all the due dates were old, out the book went. Not very surreptitiously, one of the librarians sabotaged the system, palming the date stamp and wandering the stacks in order to stamp her favorites to make it look as if they had been recently checked out. There were books she couldn’t bear discarding, she explained, even if they weren’t popular. While engaged in the NYPL controversy, I received emails from librarians worried that no such sabotage is possible today. The computers know when a book isn’t earning its shelf space, and there is no way for a merely human librarian to assert that a book ought to stay even if it’s challenging. In libraries that perfectly optimize usage, these librarians worry, best-sellers push out classics, and an earnest and curious reader may not be able to find anything but entertainment.

My larger point is that the new capacities and energies of the digital age are sometimes deployed for their own sake, and in libraries, they need to be deployed in the service of research. Right now, the digerati have the ear of power and money. If you say bulldoze, they bulldoze. Please be careful.