The Culture of the New York Public Library’s Research Divisions

Every institution has its own culture—its distinctive way of doing things. In the best cases, the culture is functional. Over time, people who work in the institution have figured out good ways of solving the problems that recur, and these ways have become a part of their collective memory.

The research division of the New York Public Library has such a culture, and one of my fears about the proposed Central Library Plan is that it will disrupt this culture profoundly. Right now, the NYPL is a destination, a place where scholars and writers can do research with a speed and efficiency that can only be matched at places like the Library of Congress and the British Library. But I fear that the Central Library Plan will turn it into little more than a book-delivery system for professors within commuting distance.

To explain why I fear this, let me start by outlining the culture of a university library, a kind of library that many people who do research are familiar with, and then describe how the NYPL’s culture differs.

A university is not a democratic institution. It’s hierarchical, even if one considers only the intellectual work done there. At the top, intellectually speaking, are tenured professors. In descending order below them are professors without tenure, graduate students, undergraduates, and extension-school students. At the bottom are visiting outsiders, if they can be said to have any place at all (with one important exception, to be named in a minute). The mission of a university library is to serve the scholars at its university, and such a library naturally measures out access in accordance with this hierarchy. A professor, for example, may be able to check books out for a semester at a time, but an undergraduate may only be able to borrow them for a few weeks. There are safety valves in the system; an undergraduate can ask even a tenured professor to return a book. And there’s an advantage to the strict boundary between insiders and outsiders: every user of the library has been screened by an admission committee or a hiring committee, and is, as a member of the university community, subject to a number of subtle and not-so-subtle disciplinary controls. When a university library loans a book, there’s good reason to believe it’ll come back in good condition.

There are downsides, though. A university-library culture wastes what you might call book-hours. Professors and students are busy multi-taskers; their time is a premium commodity. If a spare hour comes along, they want to know they can make use of it, and so it’s in their interest to have all the books they’re likely to need ready to hand—even if that spare hour doesn’t come by more than a few times a week. In other words, they hoard library books. For example, it might only take two work-days to read a book, but the fourteen hours in those work-days may be spread over months or even years, and so it’s in their interest—it’s a matter of scholarly survival, in fact—to keep possession of that book for many more book-hours than they actually need it.

As a graduate student, I sometimes shifted to my second- or even third-choice paper topic because all the books on my first-choice topic had been checked out. True, I could have recalled the books relating to my first-choice topic, but if I had done that, the first user of the books might then have recalled them from me in turn, after my two weeks of exclusive use were up. Is there anything more excruciating to a scholar than losing access to books that you’re in the middle of writing about? I’d have had to wait two more weeks before I could see the recalled books again. So it was more prudent to alter my plans and use books that no one else had recently laid claim to, even though that was hardly an optimal choice from a merely intellectual point of view.

At the highest level, the book-hours squandered by hoarding aren’t a terribly big problem because the interests of tenured professors are so specialized. There isn’t likely to be more than one Milton scholar in any single English department. The book-borrowing needs of the top dogs therefore rarely overlap. Few undergraduates plan far enough ahead to be able to wait the time it takes for a recalled book to be returned, so they’re not likely to disturb a professor’s long-term use of a book, and graduate students are constrained not only by a habit of deference but also by the sort of fears outlined in the paragraph above. In a university library, the problem of wasted book-hours really only rears its head with undergraduates, and there’s a workaround for it: course reserves. Since the book-borrowing needs of undergraduates overlap whenever they take courses together, books on a syllabus are put on reserve, where they can only be checked out for a few hours at a time.

I don’t think it’s an accident that the course-reserves desk is often in an unprepossessing part of the library. Undergraduates are low on the totem pole, and some of those who rely on course reserves are doing so to save money. There’s a punitive flavor to the need to return the book by a set time. It’s hard to relax, if one knows the clock is ticking. And because time is short, a reader is usually obliged to read the book on the spot—the unprepossessing spot. At the course-reserves desk, one is reminded in a number of ways that one is at the bottom of the academic food chain.

I dwell on these aesthetic drawbacks because almost everyone who went to college has experienced them and because in terms of institutional culture, the course-reserves desk is one of the few parts of a university library that resembles the way things work at the New York Public Library’s research division. Only one other part of the university library resembles it more: the part at the very top. Remember how I said that visiting outsiders have almost no place in a university library? The one place they do have, paradoxically, is the nicest one in the building: the rare book and manuscript room. If a visitor is able to present himself as a serious researcher (credentials like a Ph.D. help, but a book contract will do, and sometimes just a knowledgeable and polite demeanor are sufficient), he may be admitted to a special room, usually furnished with some luxury, where archivists will ask about his research project in detail, make any number of helpful suggestions, and then bring out, as he needs them, handwritten letters by famous authors that have never been published and rare, precious books that are only to be found in a few libraries anywhere. If you don’t really need the resources of this room, its librarians won’t let you in. But if you do really need them, it doesn’t matter who you are or where you come from.

When a person accustomed to a university library first walks into the New York Public Library’s research division, it’s confusing. You can’t check the books out. Does that mean it’s like course reserves, or that it’s like a rare book room? Am I at the top or the bottom? Neither, really, and if you’re coming from the hierarchical world of a university, that may spark some anxieties. I know that when I first started using the NYPL research division, after having used the libraries at Harvard and then Columbia, I found the system annoying. Harvard and Columbia trusted me to take their books home. Didn’t the NYPL know how special I was?

No, as a matter of fact, it didn’t know. And it didn’t need to. As a public library, its mission is to serve everyone. There are no insiders, and there are no outsiders. Doesn’t this let in the riffraff? Maybe, but the absence of screening poses little or no threat to the books, because the books never leave the building with anyone. For the same reason, there’s almost no waste of book-hours. If you want to read a book, and the New York Public Library’s research division has a copy, you can read it—unless someone else happens to be reading it at that very moment. Books can be put on reserve, and there are shelves in the building where scholars working on long-term projects hold books. But if you want a book and it’s on one of those shelves, it’ll be fetched and brought to you, within minutes, so long as the other user doesn’t happen to have the book open on his desk right then. Any number of Milton scholars can share a set of Milton’s collected works on that understanding, because even tenured Milton scholars read Milton rarely in an absolute sense.

It’s hard to trust that this culture will work if you’re coming from a culture where it’s necessary to hoard library books. But it does. In fact, it’s better, and here’s why: Even if you’re a very rapacious and competent hoarder of library books, you can only hoard so many. What if, in the midst of research, you discover you need a book it hadn’t previously occurred to you to hoard? You face the much-dreaded monster Delay after all. But not at the New York Public Library. Virtually any book is within your reach. This changes the way you work. “There’s this thing that happens, where you start paging books just because you’re curious about them,” a friend told me, a month or two after I had started working at the NYPL on a regular basis. “Have you started doing it yet?” I admitted that I had. The strange thing was that I hadn’t done such a thing at Columbia. Even though its stacks were open, looking for books was such a hassle and a crap shoot that I only went looking for them if I already knew more or less what I wanted to look at them for.

Still, a book checked out and waiting for you at home is awfully convenient. Is the New York Public Library’s research division so superior that it offsets the inconvenience to a local professor of an hour’s subway commute? For years many thought it was, thanks to the depth of its collection and the ready availability of its books. The variables in the equation began to shift, however, in the year 2000, when the library started to move books to an offsite storage facility. Right now, most of the library’s books are still onsite, and a reader has access to them within minutes, but a fair number—somewhere between 24 and 33 percent, by my estimate—are now offsite and take at least two days to arrive. If the Central Library Plan goes through, the proportion of books offsite will jump to somewhere between 67 and 86 percent. Never mind the serendipity of following one’s curiosity. Mere competence will be threatened. That’s reason number one for my opposition to the Central Library Plan. Offsite storage is here to stay, so long as the library doesn’t plan to throw books out—and nobody wants that. But I don’t see the point of making a bad situation needlessly worse.

But there’s another, less obvious danger. It seems likely that if the CLP goes through, the pilot program known as Marli will be continued and expanded. Marli allows a select group of NYPL’s users to check books out of the research division. That isn’t what it was for, as originally conceived. Its stated purpose was to allow NYPL’s users to have access to the research libraries at Columbia and NYU, in exchange for allowing users of those libraries access to NYPL. The tricky part was that Columbia and NYU professors were already as free as any other citizen to use NYPL. Columbia and NYU were only willing to grant access to NYPL’s users if NYPL was willling to give something more—and in negotiation, that something more turned out to be the right to take books in NYPL’s research collection home. As a matter of fair play, it then only made sense for NYPL to allow its own vetted users to take the same books home.

Ann Thornton assured me last week that feedback from Marli’s users has been overwhelmingly positive and that far more NYPL-based users take advantage of the exchange than do Columbia- or NYU-based users. And she pointed out that NYPL has been sending books out of the building through Interlibrary Loan for years, and that the only books cleared for borrowing through Marli are those in good condition that were published after 1900.

What concerns me is that through Marli, though no one seems quite to have intended it, the culture of the NYPL research division is being assimilated to the culture of the university library. What’s unique about NYPL—its democratic access, and the ready availability of its books—has been compromised. NYPL now has a hierarchy, awarding borrowing privileges to some users but not others. And it now allows book hoarding. Research books can be checked out for 60 days, and the wait for a book to be recalled is bound to be even longer than the wait for a book to come from offsite storage. The program is only a year old, and so far it’s quite small. Ann Thornton told me that only about 1700 NYPL books have been loaned out, and only one of these books has been recalled by another patron. At this size, one would expect the side effects to be minimal—scarcely even noticeable. But if the program continues, I suspect it will grow, as those outside the borrowing group start to notice that books are less often available and ask for the same privileges. Eventually every serious user of the library will want to be in the Marli program. Why wouldn’t you want to be? And once you can take books home, and once books are only erratically and dilatorily available at the library, why bother to work there? I fear that the Marli program, especially in combination with the CLP plans to move the bulk of NYPL’s books offsite, will reduce the library to no more than a book-delivery service.

Can’t the NYPL keep its distinct culture? Must all research libraries be the same?

The NYPL’s Central Library Plan: Updates and Corrections

Interior Work. Construction of the Stacks. New York Public Library, 42nd Street and Fifth Avenue, June 24, 1907.

Last week, when I wrote about the New York Public Library’s plans to remove the stacks and most of the books from its research collection on 42nd Street, I contrasted the different ways that writers and readers use a library. I was trying to convey the different missions of a research library, which allows access to deep, little-visited stores of knowledge, and a circulating library, which makes culture available to the public for free. A few people wrote to tell me that it’s not only writers who rely on the New York Public Library’s research collections. You’re right! My distinction between writers and readers was only a metaphoric way of speaking, and it was imperfect. Creative people in other arts also need access to the cultural tradition, and mere curiosity leads many people to investigate who have no intention of addressing the public. It’s also the case that the New York Public Library, located in a transit hub, serves academic researchers throughout the Northeast who teach at colleges that have only modest research collections on their own campuses.

In last week’s post, I drew on statistics on the library’s own website to estimate that there are now 5 million books at 42nd Street and 2.5 million offsite, and that after the Central Library Plan (CLP), there will be 1.5 million onsite and 6 million offsite. A friend points out that the situation after the CLP will actually be even worse than I estimated. Until recently, the books in the research collection at the Science, Industry, and Business Library (SIBL) were only a short walk away, at Madison Avenue and 34th Street. Under the CLP, SIBL’s research collection is also slated to move to the library’s storage facility in New Jersey (except for a small subset of special historical value, which will remain at 42nd Street). I can’t find a good number for how many books are in SIBL’s research collection. In 1996, the New York Times reported that it had 1.2 million books; I’ve heard that there are 3 million now. Whatever the number is, it makes the “before” picture that much better, and the “after” picture that much worse. If SIBL has 3 million books in its research collection, for example, then the ratio will go from 8 million books onsite and 2.5 million offsite to 1.5 million onsite and 9 million offsite.

On the other hand, during a cordial, on-the-record telephone conversation on Monday, Ann Thornton, the Andrew W. Mellon Director of the New York Public Libraries, told me that the library hopes that it will be able to store more than 1.5 million books onsite after the CLP. She said that the library isn’t altogether certain of the capacity available in the Bryant Park Extension, the shelving that’s underneath Bryant Park. They hope that there will turn out to be room for more than 1.5 million research-collection books; administrators are also trying to find storage space for them elsewhere within the 42nd Street building as well. Ann didn’t, however, provide a new number.

There are a few other pieces of news and fact-checking to report from that conversation. When I asked whether any steps had yet been taken to implement the CLP, Ann said that the library was “in schematic design”—in other words, Norman Foster’s architectural firm is now drawing up blueprints—but that no demolition or construction had yet taken place. Books, however, have already begun to leave the building. As they’re bar-coded for the move, some books are being sent to a temporary offsite storage facility run by Clancy-Cullen. The books aren’t going to Recap, the library’s offsite storage facility in Princeton, New Jersey, because the library has filled its allotment of shelves there and needs to build more space. While the NYPL’s books are at Clancy, they can still be paged by readers and retrieved for use at the 42nd Street library.

A number of colleagues have told me they find appealing the proposal in the CLP to provide 400 to 500 desks for writers at 42nd Street. I asked whether there was a firm commitment on the library’s part for these desks, and Ann said it was just a proposal, though something the administration did hope to do.

On the webpage where the library discusses the CLP, the library has said that only 300,000 out of 5 million ink-on-paper volumes were used at 42nd Street last year. I asked about the data behind that statistic, because the research library switched to an electronic-based circulation system only in the last few years. Ann said that the statistic was based on data from the new electronic circulation system and on analysis of call slips that don’t go through the electronic system. Is there comparable data for earlier years? Not quite, given the recency of the electronic system, but Ann said that the library had done what she called “snapshot analysis” in earlier years, based on the analysis of ink-on-paper call slips collected over a certain interval of time. She said they began performing these “snapshot analyses” before the offsite storage program was inaugurated in 2000, and that they’ve performed several in the years since. The library’s data indicate that use of the research collection has been declining, though not as fast as the decline at other institutions that belong to the Association of Research Libraries. (She thinks the NYPL is doing better than average because of recent efforts to make its manuscript and archival collections easier to find.) One of my worries here is that comparisons across time may not be statistically significant if the means of data collection has changed so markedly. From paper call slips and pneumatic tubes, it’s a big jump to bar codes and computers.

Ann mentioned that the library had stopped collecting in science at a research level before 2008, deciding to focus on its strengths in the humanities, but she assured me that it is still collecting in Slavic, though Czech literature isn’t considered a particular strength. She said that the library looked forward to hiring more curators, with special expertise in Latin America and other areas. We also talked extensively about Marli, the program that allows users to check books out of the research collection for the first time, and I hope to write more about this complex topic later.

Our conversation didn’t give me the sense that the library’s administrators are yet reconsidering their plan to remove the 42nd Street building’s bookshelves of Carnegie steel—which, by the way, are featured in beautiful archival photos that illustrate a 2010 essay on the library’s own website.

Build More Deliberately

On Monday, 12 March 2012, I was a guest on WNYC’s Leonard Lopate Show, along with the journalist Scott Sherman. We were invited to discuss Scott’s recent article for The Nation about the $350 million renovation that the New York Public Library is contemplating for its landmark building at 42nd Street and Fifth Avenue. (The New York Times has also written about the plan, and the library has released some details on its own website.)

The proposed renovation, known as the Central Library Plan (CLP), is making scholars like me nervous, and to spell out why involves thinking about the library’s mission. Or rather, missions. The New York Public Library isn’t one thing. It’s two: a circulating library system and a research library system. The circulating library is primarily for readers. The flagship is the Mid-Manhattan building on 40th Street and Fifth Avenue. In that building and in eighty-eight other branches, any New York City resident may check out books, movies, and music for enjoyment at home. These books and DVDs aren’t meant to last forever. They’re meant to be enjoyed now. If you bring the latest Franzen novel home from the library and your dog eats it, the library may ask you to pay for a replacement, but the mission of the circulating library system is not thereby impaired.

The research library system, on the other hand, is primarily for writers. Its flagship is the white marble building at 42nd Street and Fifth Avenue—the one with the lions out in front. There are three other locations: the Science, Business, and Industry Library (SIBL) at Madison Avenue and 34th Street; the Schomburg, which is in Harlem; and the Library of the Performing Arts, which is in Lincoln Center. It’s not considered okay if harm comes to the books, manuscripts, and works of art in the research library system. Many are irreplaceable, and the intention is to keep them safe for future generations, as well as make them available for use by the present one. Access is balanced with preservation. There are different ways for a research library to protect its collections. Historically, the New York Public Library has done it with a simple rule: Nothing leaves the building. Nonetheless, anyone who walks in the door is free to read, watch, and listen to all of these works. It doesn’t matter who you are or what your motive is. (As I mention in the radio show, the NYPL has, however, begun to experiment with altering this bargain, in a pilot program that allows a vetted group of researchers to take books home. I signed up myself, but I have strong reservations about it.) The NYPL’s research collection is world-class, containing in its four locations and in an offsite storage facility in Princeton, New Jersey, more than 15 million books. In North America, only the Library of Congress (22 million books) and Harvard’s library system (16 million books) are comparable. Harvard’s library isn’t open to the public, and the Library of Congress is in, well, Washington, D.C. The New York Public Library is in New York —where the writers are. To single out a particular strength, the NYPL’s collection of books from Russia and Eastern Europe is sometimes said to be the greatest on this side of what used to be the Iron Curtain, and given the checkered history of free expression in that part of the world, it may in some cases document the twentieth-century history of those countries better than their own libraries do.

On the third floor of the library’s 42nd Street building, there’s a grand, city-block-length reading room. It sits on top of Carnegie-era shelves that house 3 million books. If the library’s administrators carry out their Central Library Plan, they will remove those shelves and ship the books on them to an offsite storage facility in Princeton, New Jersey. In the books’ place, they will install a new circulating library, full of public computers—a substitute for the Mid-Manhattan branch library across the street. The Mid-Manhattan building would be sold. The space currently occupied by SIBL would also be sold, and SIBL’s books would be consolidated with the research collection in the 42nd Street building.

As a personal matter, I have many reasons to be grateful to the New York Public Library’s research division. I was a fellow at the library’s Cullman Center in 2002 and 2003; for a year I received an office and a stipend, and I experienced the fellowship as a vote of confidence in my writing, which felt to me like a lifesaver. But for several years before, and over the decade since, the library also mattered to me in a very practical way: It made possible the research that is the basis of my career. In writing about everything from abolitionist Thomas Wentworth Higginson to the inconvenient truth about the original Tea Party, I have depended on the library. My review-essays have sometimes been pretty research-intensive, but I haven’t had regular access to a university library, as most scholars do. Thanks to the NYPL, I’ve been able to write my essays anyway. In fact, I’ve come to feel that the NYPL is much better than the library at Columbia, where I earned my doctorate. Most of the books at Columbia circulate, and it often happened during my research there that a teacher or another student had checked out the book I wanted. Or that the book had been lost long ago, and I was chasing a ghost that haunted the library catalog. Books are sometimes stolen from the research collection at the New York Public Library, but by and large, the NYPL has what its catalog says it has, which is quite a bit. In nineteenth-century American history and literature, it’s hard for me to imagine a collection more comprehensive.

So it’s as someone who loves the library that I am concerned about the recent proposals to alter it. Unfortunately, my confidence in the decision-making process of its administrators was shaken by their controversial 2005 decision to sell off Asher Durand’s famous painting Kindred Spirits, and I think the administrators’ new plans ought to be scrutinized carefully.

To put my concerns bluntly: What problem is the Central Library Plan (CLP) meant to solve? It will cost $350 million, it will disrupt the research library during construction, and it will permanently impair the ability of the research library to serve scholars. I’ll explain more about that impairment shortly. But I want to begin by stressing that I simply don’t understand what the CLP is for.

Is it to make the 42nd Street building more democratic? There have been suggestions of that in the administrators’ rhetoric. A research library, however, is as democratic as a circulating library. Technically it may even be a little more democratic. Literally anyone can use the NYPL research libraries; only New York City residents can check books out of the circulating libraries. True, there are fewer writers than readers in the world, so a library that serves writers will never be used by as many people as a library that serves readers. But it’s a mug’s game to pit writing against reading. They’re necessary to each other, in complex ways. The question that the CLP poses about the 42nd Street building isn’t democracy; it’s whether the allocation of space between book storage and visitor space is balanced and is appropriate to the library’s two missions. It seems misguided for NYPL administrators to suggest that one mission should give way to the other.

Is the goal of the CLP to make available more internet access? Publicity materials on the library’s website note that library users have said in surveys that they wish there were more computers. Libraries should offer computer access, but it would be risky to stake too much of the library’s identity on providing a particular technological service. Technologies change, and lately they’ve been changing quickly: witness all the now-little-used Ethernet ports in the tables of the third-floor reading room. What if the mayor’s office were to decide a decade from now to provide city-wide wireless internet access? What if a decade from now, almost everyone has a smartphone and almost no one uses a laptop let alone a desktop computer? Then what would the purpose of the new CLP library be?

Is the goal to bring literacy education to children? To bring them instruction in English as a second language? These goals, too, are mentioned in the publicity materials on the library’s website. But you don’t need a new central library to accomplish either. It would make much more sense (and cost much less) to upgrade the branches of the circulating library, as needed, and conduct education programs there, closer to where people live.

Is the goal to save money? Then why not just renovate the Mid-Manhattan library? That’s not likely to cost $300 million. You could probably knock down the Mid-Manhattan library and build a whole new one in the same place for less than the cost of retrofitting a new facility into the marble landmark on 42nd Street and Fifth Avenue. (For a rough comparison: Wikipedia claims that the 52-story Random House Tower cost $300 million. That was in 2003, but the library doesn’t need 52 stories.) It does seem reasonable to me to close SIBL and return its collections to the 42nd Street building, their original home. Closing SIBL will save the library a fair amount of money, in both the short and long term, and it can be done without altering the structure of the 42nd Street building. Moderation in all things. The shrinking of institutional footprints is not an end in itself.

It’s worth pausing on SIBL as a cautionary tale. It was installed in the old B. Altman department store building in 1996 in the hope that local proprietors of small businesses would be attracted by access to CD-ROMs and online databases. This was a bold guess about the future of information technology, and like most bold guesses about the future, it turned out to be a little off target. Today SIBL isn’t much used as a research library. The lesson, perhaps, is that cultural institutions like the New York Public Library shouldn’t aspire to be bleeding-edge. The marriage of computers and literature is still very much a work in progress. Every year of late has brought sweeping and unforeseen change. (Blogs! Kindle! Twitter! Google Books! The Nook! Amazon is a publisher! Blogs are dead! Google Books is dead! The Ipad! Etc.) Are we sure that researchers of the future won’t much care whether they have access to ink-on-paper books? One of the hottest scholarly fields in recent years has been the history of the book, which requires hands-on access to real physical volumes. What if it turns out that the e-book is a great invention for reading as a consumer, but not much use for reading as a scholar? What if it turns out that it’s simply not possible to apprehend a book in electronic form the way it can be apprehended in print form? I know that whenever I try to imagine reproducing my scholarly methods electronically, I halt at the problem of how to reproduce digitally the phenomenon of having a dozen physical books open to different pages at once on my work table. In the future, will I need to buy a dozen Ipads? Why not wait to reconceive the library until we know a little more about how scholars will use books and e-books in the digital age?

The library’s administrators have suggested that “certain materials [in the offsite storage facility in Princeton] could be requested for online delivery.” Columbia has a scan-and-email service of the sort that they probably imagine, and a few years ago, when I had access as an adjunct to Columbia’s libraries, I used it. It’s great for articles in scholarly journals and individual chapters of books, but the legal rationale depends on not scanning much more than one article or chapter at a time. The Google Books deal is dead, so most books published in the twentieth century—which is to say, most books period—will remain under copyright, and there’s not going to be any legal way for the library to transmit digital versions of entire books unless Congress intervenes. I wouldn’t advise holding your breath for Congress. (As I mentioned in the radio show, it’s also worth bearing in mind that electronic versions of books have no proven archival value. File formats change, and they often can’t be opened on new operating systems. I know I’m not the only person who keeps his old laptops because his new one can’t read the files on the old ones. Even apart from compatibility questions, it’s simply not known how stable electronic data is over the long term. Paper and ink, on the other hand, seem to last indefinitely, as long as they stay dark, dry, and relatively cool.)

If the CLP goes through, scholars will be dependent on the physical delivery of books from Princeton to 42nd Street. How much of an obstacle will this be? Administrators have promised delivery within twenty-four hours. Alas, that’s hard to credit. I’ve looked through my old emails, and in 2003, when the offsite storage facility was young, I did indeed get offsite materials the day after requesting them. In 2006, the emails confirming my requests grew a little more cautious, and promised only that the materials “should” be available for use within twenty-four hours. By 2010, the emails said that my materials “should” be available for use within forty-eight hours, and added that “Any requests submitted on Friday, Saturday and Sunday should arrive by the following Tuesday.” But by this time I, like most researchers at the NYPL, had learned to allow three to five days for delivery of offsite materials, and to let myself be pleasantly surprised if they came sooner. So I expect that if the CLP does go through, the library will be pretty good about twenty-four-hour delivery—for a year or two.

If you know in advance which books you’re going to need, and if you’re starting far ahead of your deadline, a three- to five-day delay isn’t lethal. But it will put a crimp in your style. It may not be until you get one of those offsite books and start leafing through it that you’ll realize that it’s another offsite book altogether that you really need—and now you’ll have to wait three to five more days to get it. If you’re on a tight deadline, though, a delay renders the library useless. A book you can’t get to in time might as well not exist.

As you may have gathered, I already find the library’s use of offsite storage fairly annoying. How much worse could it get? The library’s website claims that the 42nd Street building now holds 5 million research collection volumes. If the CLP were put into effect, only 1.5 million would remain at 42nd Street and there would be 6 million in offsite storage. That means there must be about 7.5 million books total, and about 2.5 million books in offsite storage now. So the ratio of present books to absent ones today is 5 : 2.5, or 2 : 1. After the CLP, it would be 1.5 : 6, or 1 : 4. To put those numbers another way, if you want to see a book in the NYPL’s 42nd Street research collection now, your odds that it’s on site are about 67 percent. After the CLP, your odds would drop to 25 percent. Actually, the odds would probably be even worse, because the research volumes currently at 42nd would be competing for space with those moved in from SIBL.

The greater number of delays will likely become so irritating that researchers who can go elsewhere will. If the research library becomes unusable, the next step will be to phase out its mission. Does this prediction sound alarmist? Unfortunately, in the past decade, we’ve seen that cultural institutions rarely have the good fortune to die suddenly, at the top of their form. Usually they go a little cruddy first, as their stressed-out custodians lose track of priorities. A newspaper sheds reporters, stops printing book reviews, forces its more-experienced editors into early retirement, and by the time it actually goes bankrupt and closes, few are sorry to see it go.

There are other signs that the NYPL is shifting away from its research mission. Many senior staff have been let go, a loss of human capital that has been largely invisible, except for the 2008 shuttering of the library’s Slavic and Baltic Division. I’ve translated Czech literature and written about it. The Nation will print next month an article of mine about Václav Havel that draws in part on notes I took while reading in the Slavic and Baltic Division years ago, before it closed. During my fellowship year, I gave the division a set of Czech literary journals that I thought they would be better custodians of than I could be. With the closing of the division there seems to have come a loss of curatorial expertise. In preparation for the Leonard Lopate show, I tried a simple test: I looked up the recent winners of three Czech literary prizes: the Jiří Orten Prize, the Jaroslav Seifert Prize, and the Magnesia Litera Prize for book of the year. It turns out that the New York Public Library has no copies of the books that won these prizes in the past three years. And as it happens, the book that won the Jaroslav Seifert prize four years ago was the eighth and final volume of Václav Havel’s collected writings. The NYPL doesn’t have that book, either—an embarrassing lacuna not only on account of Havel’s importance as a politician and writer but also because Havel gave a signed copy of the first seven volumes to the library in person in 2003. (I was there. I was too starstruck to speak, but I tagged along and rode in the elevator with him and his security guards.)

An example of an omission in a rather different field: I’ve been revising a novel, and a friendly reader recently wondered about a piece of slang that one of my characters uses. I heard it twenty years ago and I could swear I’ve remembered the word and its meaning correctly, but the internet isn’t backing me up. Fortuitously, a few weeks ago the New York Review of Books described Green’s Dictionary of Slang, three volumes compiled on the historical principles of the OED, as “truly great.” I’d like to look my word up in it. Unfortunately, Green’s Dictionary costs about $600, and although Chambers published the book in 2010 and Oxford in 2011, the New York Public Library doesn’t own a copy.

Should the library continue to collect foreign literature, just because it used to? Should it continue to serve scholars and writers, when most public libraries limit themselves to lending out books for casual enjoyment? These are fair questions, if sad ones. When, in advance of the radio show, I canvassed a dozen colleagues about the CLP, a few were angry, but others expressed a mix of regret and resignation. Though they appreciated a proposal in the CLP of more desk space for writers, they saw that the CLP would make their lives harder overall. But they wondered if maybe it was fitting for them to give way. Maybe in the modern world, with its shrinking affordances, the convenience of scholars is simply fated to take a back seat to . . .

I might be able to share in this resignation if I understood exactly what we were being asked to take a back seat to. Library officials claim that fewer people are using the physical books, though it’s not clear to me that they were able to track such numbers until the past year or so, when they began scanning users’ library cards and books’ bar codes. (Before that, the library paged books with slips of paper and pneumatic tubes.) It may be that usage by dedicated scholars was never much higher than it is now. In the age of Wikipedia, the library probably no longer sees many high school students writing term papers, and in the age of the website, far fewer need to trudge to the microfilm room. But the library’s core collection remains as indispensable to scholars as ever, and the ideal of the library—the belief that anyone should be able to walk in off the street and find out as much about a topic as has ever been published—is not susceptible to “metrics.” Still, maybe it’s the case that because writers migrated into universities over the past half-century, there are relatively few writers today without a university library. Maybe there’s less need for a public research library than there once was, even in the intellectual capital of America. If so, it’s still worth stopping and thinking about what’s happening. The New York Public Library is a scholarly resource of national, if not international, significance. If it is abandoning its research mission, the larger community of writers and scholars should be alerted. Should the research collection and its buildings be given to the federal government, and operated as a second campus of the Library of Congress? If the library isn’t abandoning that mission, it needs to renew its dedication to it. Instead of a grand building project, it needs to return its focus, and its money, to the hiring of staff with expertise as librarians, curators, and scholars, and to the collection of books, manuscripts, and works of art.

Postscript. On Monday afternoon the library responded to the treachery of my appearance on the Leonard Lopate Show by inviting me to join an advisory panel. So there’s reason to think an earnest debate on these issues may take place.