The novel as weapon

All’s fair in love and war, and in Anne Brontë’s The Tenant of Wildfell Hall, one of the weapons is literature. After Helen Lawrence marries for what she thinks is love, she learns, to her chagrin, that her husband, Arthur Huntingdon, has bad habits—drinking, gambling, and womanizing—and finds life insufferably dull without them. Will he desert her for the big bad city of London, or will he learn to be contented with a quiet life at home? Briefly he tries to amuse himself by telling stories of his old love affairs, but Helen reproves and silences him. Their domesticity would be bliss if only he could content himself with her sort of fun: the reading of nice books.

He’s unable to. “He never reads anything but newspapers and sporting magazines,” Helen reports. “When he sees me occupied with a book, he won’t let me rest till I close it.”

But because this is a Brontë novel, and not a Sunday school treatise, books aren’t entirely benign. During the couple’s first quarrel—in recollecting a married woman who once romanced him, Arthur is insufficiently moralistic, and Helen becomes upset—Helen gives him the silent treatment, and literature becomes a tool that enhances her power not to pay attention to him.

This is a neat reversal of the conventional slur on novels in the period, which was that they vitiated women’s minds by filling them with fantasies and distracting them from duty. Arthur is revealed to be weak precisely because he can’t or won’t read novels. “From dinner till bed time, I read,” Helen reports, of the progress of their combat. “Meanwhile, poor Arthur was sadly at a loss for something to amuse him or to occupy his time.” Because it’s rainy, he can’t take his horse out for a ride, and he is reduced to fidgeting indoors—”watching the clouds, cursing the rain, alternately petting, and teazing, and abusing his dogs, sometimes lounging on the sofa with a book that he could not force himself to read, and very often fixedly gazing at me, when he thought I did not perceive it.” Helen, on the other hand, “managed to preserve an undisturbed, though grave serenity throughout the day.” #Winning.

After dinner, Arthur drinks “an unusual quantity of wine,” and the weaponizing of books becomes explicit:

I returned to my reading; and he endeavoured to occupy himself in the same manner; but, in a little while, after several portentous yawns, he pronounced his book to be “cursed trash,” and threw it on to the table. Then followed eight or ten minutes of silence, during the greater part of which, I believe, he was staring at me. At last his patience was tired out.

“What is that book, Helen?” he exclaimed. I told him.

“Is it interesting?”

“Yes, very.”


At this point Helen discovers that literature offers a further tactical advantage over one’s spouse:

I went on reading—or pretending to read, at least—I cannot say there was much communciation between my eyes and my brain; for, while the former ran over the pages, the latter was earnestly wondering when Arthur would speak next, and what he would say, and what I should answer.

Even when you’re losing, a book can make you look like you still have the upper hand.

A New Plan for the New York Public Library

In 2008, the trustees and administrators of the New York Public Library came up with a bold idea. The future of the e-book looked bright and the use of the library's print books had been steadily declining, so they proposed shipping at least 3 million of the 5 million books in its 42nd Street research library to storage in New Jersey. Into the vacated space, they hoped to fold the Mid-Manhattan Library (MML) and the Science, Industry, and Business Library (SIBL). The cost of the dismantling and construction looked high—the current estimate is well over $300 million—but the library expected to be able to sell the real estate occupied by MML and SIBL in order to help pay for it. The economic downturn of late 2008, however, forced the plan into cold storage.

This February, as real estate prices began to recover, they pulled the plan out of cryo. It wakes up into a different world. E-books may be a hit with readers, but at the moment few major publishers are willing to license e-books to libraries, and last year a federal judge struck down a deal that might have allowed Google Books to provide digital copies of books whose copyright owners can't be found. Until Congress passes a new copyright law—don't hold your breath for that—researchers remain dependent on ink-on-paper books, even if they prefer electronic ones. In fact, in the years since 2007, the use of ink-on-paper books at the library's 42nd Street branch has been stable and steady, according to the library's own statistics. Surprise: 2012 doesn't look quite like what the futurologists of 2008 predicted.

Is it really necessary therefore to compromise the architecture of a landmark building? Is it necessary to damage the library's research mission by drastically lowering the number of books within quick reach? I haven't been alone in wondering whether the Central Library Plan (CLP), as it's called, still makes sense. A petition is circulating that asks the library's trustees to reconsider, and it's been signed by Thomas Bender, Peter Brooks, Judith Butler, Natalie Zemon Davis, Jonathan Galassi, Anthony Heilbut, Jackson Lears, Jonathan Lethem, David Levering-Lewis Mario Vargas Llosa, Salman Rushdie, Lorin Stein, and hundreds more. I've written previously on this blog about my doubts of the CLP's alleged merits and about my dismay at the prospect of degrading a research library into a mere book-lending service for local academics. In this post, I'd like to suggest a way out—an alternative plan.

What if the library chose to sell only one property—the site of the Science, Industry, and Business Library—but before doing so, used it as a temporary home for the Mid-Manhattan Library while that building was being renovated? I'll go into detail below, but let me say at once that I'm sure my alternative plan can easily be improved. Please consider it a rough draft. I offer it only as a means of suggesting that there must be other ways to achieve the library's goals.

What are those goals? As far as I can tell, the CLP offers three boons. First, it would upgrade the Mid-Manhattan Library, the flagship of the city's circulating libraries, which is in bad need of repair. More New Yorkers check books out from the Mid-Manhattan Library than any other branch in the system. Renovating the MML seems to me to be the best part of the CLP—maybe the only part that's unambiguously a good thing. The funding of the circulating libraries is the city's responsibility, and I doubt it's a coincidence that the amount that the city has agreed to contribute to the CLP—$150 million—is equal to the estimated stand-alone cost of renovating the Mid-Manhattan. In my opinion, spending $350 million to do a $150 million renovation isn't the way to go about it, but I do believe that the renovation is worth doing.

Second, library administrators have claimed that the CLP's consolidation of three buildings into one will save the library around $10 million a year in operating expenses. However, administrators also claim that the plan will increase the number of square feet open to the public, they haven't named any services they expect to cut, and many of the costs of operating the buildings have long been footed by the city, which reexamines its contribution to the library every budget cycle with an eye toward lowering it. It's difficult, in other words, to know how solid this benefit is likely to be. Its exact size may also depend on whether the library is able to raise enough funds for the plan so that some portion of the money realized by the real estate sales can be added to the endowment. It's worth keeping in mind, when considering this part of the benefit, that donors might be as willing to contribute to an alternative plan as they are to the CLP.

Third, the library's administrators have recently begun to say that the books stored at 42nd Street are not being well cared for and will be safer in storage in New Jersey. Indeed, the temperature, light, and humidity controls at the New Jersey facility are state of the art. There is nothing structurally wrong with the bookshelves at the heart of the 42nd Street building, though—to the contrary, they hold up the Rose reading room above them—and the library did install heating, ventilation, and air conditioning systems in the 1980s. Still, improved preservation conditions do constitute a benefit and are worth taking into account.

Are there ways for the library to achieve some or all of these three goods without damaging its architecture or its research mission?

An alternative path to construction

This suggestion involves a three-step plan.

1. Give SIBL a temporary home inside the 42nd Street building.

At the moment there's a great deal of space in the 42nd Street building not being used to full advantage, including the Salomon room, the south wing of the second floor, the rooms that formerly housed the Slavic & Baltic and Asian & Middle Eastern divisions, and the South Court.

The Science, Industry, and Business Library (SIBL) was conceived of as a research library when it launched a little more than a decade ago. Its research collections have been little used since, however, and much of the space is now given over to computer training and job-search assistance. A permanent home can be found for the research functions—the original nugget of SIBL—in the 42nd Street building, and a temporary home can be found there for the computer training and job-search elements of its current mission.

2. House the Mid-Manhattan Library in SIBL's old building while Mid-Manhattan is renovated.

Once the functions of SIBL have been shifted into the 42nd Street building, SIBL's building can be re-outfitted as the temporary home of the Mid-Manhattan Library for two years, the time needed for the Mid-Manhattan site to be renovated. Defenders of the CLP have expressed concern that the city will renege on its support if the CLP is tampered with in any way. I think that sells city officials short. Why wouldn't they remain willing to pay the $150 million cost of the Mid-Manhattan's renovation even if the library comes up with a different way of doing it? If zoning laws—or the political will to alter them—permit, a basement-to-rooftop renovation of the Mid-Manhattan Library could add space. Maybe a little space: enough to house the computer training and job search programs formerly at SIBL. Mabye a lot: enough to lease out extra floors for commercial uses, improving the library's longterm bottom line. Even if no space can be added, a gut renovation will surely allow for a more rational use of the space in Mid-Manhattan and greater efficiencies.

3. Sell SIBL's old building.

Once the renovation of Mid-Manhattan is complete, the site of the former Science, Industry, and Business Library can be sold, and the proceeds can be added to the library's endowment. True, the library's trustees will only realize the value of selling one building, not two as in the CLP, but instead of spending $350 million, they'll only be spending $150 million plus the cost of temporarily re-outfitting SIBL. (If that cost turns out to be prohibitively high, there might be less-expensive places to house MML during its renovation. Perhaps additional floors could be rented in the building where the new Donnell is to go?) The $150 million renovation, moreover, will likely be covered by the city. Even if private donors contribute no funds at all to this alternative plan—an unlikely eventuality; are donors going to be mad at the library for having realized that ink-on-paper books are important after all?—this alternative might well result in a larger contribution to the library's endowment than the CLP could deliver. Meanwhile, after SIBL is closed, three buildings will be consolidated into two, realizing a significant portion of the operational efficiencies offered by the CLP. If you add together the alternative plan's contribution to the endowment (possibly larger than the CLP's) and its improvement of operational efficiencies (probably smaller than the CLP's), you get an impact on the library's annual bottom line comparable to that proposed by the CLP. (It's impossible, unfortunately, to do the arithmetic with any amount of precision until the library releases the numbers underlying its own calculations.)

Other ways to improve the research library

The following suggestions are stand-alones, and many could be adopted even if the library bulldozes ahead with the CLP.

1. Give every researcher who wants one a reserve shelf

Once the new Mid-Manhattan is open, job-search and computer-training programs can move into it, and there will once again be a great deal of space in the 42nd Street building not used to full capacity. The CLP calls for assigning much of that space to scholars and researchers, to be used as writing spaces. That's a great idea, but I have two reservations. First, if the library continues its Marli program, which allows research books to be checked out, there will eventually be few serious researchers who want to work onsite. The NYPL will come to resemble university libraries, whose users expect the finding of books to be a chore and therefore hoard books in compensation. Serious researchers will visit to pick their books up, but there won't be much reason for them to stick around. After all, the advantages of working onsite in a research library—reliable, nearly instant access to the collection—will have been lost. My second reservation: assigning special places to a limited number of writer-researchers is in conflict with the public mission of the New York Public Library. The library already does have special writing spaces, of course: the Wertheim room is for anyone working on a long-term project, the Allen room for anyone with a signed book contract, and the Cullman Center is the home of a competitive fellowship. But the Cullman Center, which awards a stipend, only admits a few people each year, and there are long waiting lists for the Allen and Wertheim rooms.

Meanwhile, the affordances of these rooms aren't really optional to serious research at the NYPL any more. Supporters of the CLP have accused critics like me of failing to realize that offsite storage is inevitable, given the explosion in the number of titles published and the finite nature of Manhattan real estate. That's not true in my own case. I recognize that offsite storage is inevitable. In fact, I've been working with and around the NYPL's offsite system for more than a decade. It's a real pain, but it's become a fact of life, and I've come to realize that the best weapon against the delay and inefficiency caused by offsite storage is a reserve shelf. If you can order a few dozen books on your topic from offsite and hold them for a month or two, the damage is minimized. Upstairs in the Rose reading room, though, a researcher can only put three books on reserve for a week at a time. Three books! I've worked under those conditions. It's very hard to do serious research three books at a time, and it's nearly impossible if, the moment you return the fourth book, it boards a truck to New Jersey.

It would be easy to remedy the problem. If the library's administrators really wanted to, they could do so tomorrow. Sit in the Rose reading room and look up: there's a balcony running all along the room's interior, currently closed to the public. This balcony now houses, among other things, the black volumes of the NYPL's printed catalog (still sometimes useful, but there's an accessible copy in the catalog room next-door) and the green volumes of the National Union Catalog (oudated and immensely bulky, and crying out to be sent to New Jersey). In other words, the shelves on the balcony are prime real estate, not well deployed. What if the stairs to it were opened to the public, and what if the shelves were cleared, numbered, and assigned on a rotating basis to researchers? It should be a "permeable" reserve, like the system currently in place in the Allen, Wertheim, and Cullman rooms: that is, if someone else in the library wants a book on your shelf, a librarian will fetch it for them, unless you happen to be reading it at exactly that moment. When you want the book again, you just ask for it back. What if it were possible to arrange online for the setup of such a shelf, a day or a week in advance of visiting the library, and ask for books to be delivered to the shelf in advance as well? Then a researcher would be able to hit the ground running. Probably a large number of people would sign up for the shelves when they debuted, but if you set the shelves up to expire automatically if no new books have been requested after, say, a month, they'd turn over quickly and I doubt that the library would run out of shelf space. Since no books on these reserve shelves would be leaving the Rose reading room, and all users of them would be in an open, well-patrolled space, there would be no security issues beyond those that already obtain in the Rose.

2. Give local faculty and graduate students special working areas.

What to do then with the smaller rooms on the second floor of the 42nd Street building? Please consider this element of my proposal very speculative. Despite my concern about the Marli program, it does allow scholars who go through NYPL access to Columbia and NYU's collections, and it would be nice to preserve that access. The trouble is that Columbia and NYU share with the rest of the human race the regrettable trait of selfishness. What's in it for them? Their faculty, as members of the public, are already able to use every service that NYPL provides, so in exchange for granting NYPL users access to their collections, the current bargain gives them something more: the right to take NYPL books out of the building. As I've explained before, I fear that in the long term the ability to take books out of the research collection will alter the culture of the research library for the worse.

What if, instead, NYPL were to offer its Marli collaborators something different? Maybe they could offer some of those beautiful rooms sitting empty in the south wing of the library's second floor, for example. What if, in exchange for Marli access, NYPL granted Columbia's and NYU's faculty and graduate students special reading rooms with reserve shelves, much like the Allen and Wertheim rooms today? No books would leave the building. As elsewhere, the reserve shelves would be permeable. There would be privacy in these rooms, but since the users would have been vetted by their home universities, the privacy wouldn't create security issues any greater than those that currently obtain in the Allen and Wertheim rooms. I see the obvious objection: it's hardly in accordance with the NYPL's democratic, public mission to give away space to private institutions. This is a fair objection, but the benefit that Marli offers to the public—access to Columbia and NYU's research collections for free—is substantial, and I think you could argue that the bargain would be worth it. Moreover, it's in the NYPL's interest, in the long term, to cultivate working relationships with scholars at local institutions, and such an agreement might go far to solidifying those relationships. Would Columbia and NYU go for it? Would they be willing to let NYPL's users check out their books in exchange for special rooms at the NYPL? I don't know, and that's one reason this suggestion is highly speculative. (For the record: It's been half a dozen years since I taught at Columbia, and I would not personally benefit from this suggestion.)

A further thought: The most avid users of the Marli program are the graduate students and faculty of CUNY, and CUNY has a special claim of the library's resources, because it's a creation of the city, whose support for the library is old and deep. I'd therefore argue that CUNY faculty and graduate students, too, should be given a dedicated reading room in the library with reserve shelves.

In short: Mend Marli, don't end it. Instead of giving collaborating institutions the right to remove books from the building, give their faculty and grad students a special reason to come to the building and work there.

3. Activate the second floor of the Bryant Park Stack Extension.

If the library's administrators refuse to alter the CLP, the least they can do is mitigate its impact. When the Bryant Park Stack Extension (BPSE) was first built, space was dug, and concrete poured, for two floors. Only one of the floors was ever outfitted for use; it's now estimated to hold 1.2 million to 1.5 million books. If the library goes through with the CLP, the number of books onsite will drop from 5 million to 2 million. But if the second floor of BPSE were outfitted, the drop would only be from 5 million to 3.2 million.

If the 42nd Street building left intact, the second floor's state-of-the-art preservation conditions could become the home of any materials currently in the stacks and considered especially vulnerable. (Of course, vulnerable items could be shifted into the already existing floor, too. And there are other potential remedies to the administrators' concern about heat, light, and humidity in the stacks: the HVAC system could be upgraded, and UV filters could be added to the west-facing windows.)

Since I'm blue-skying, I'll throw out one more idea. What if the second floor of the Bryant Park Stack Extension were Mansueto-ized?

4. Experiment with new shelving algorithms.

In the days before computers, a book's call number told you where it was. If you had the call number, the way to find it was to look on a map and see where books with that call number were shelved. A librarian could move a whole array of books with the same call number, so long as she updated the maps, but she couldn't move a single book from one place to another unless she altered its call number—or else she'd lose it. In preparation for the CLP, the library has at last undertaken to put bar codes on all the books in its collection. Once the bar-coding is complete, it will for the first time be possible to separate a book's call number from its location. The bar code on a book will become its most important reference point, and it will be possible to place the book anywhere so long as the computer catalog is told its new location.

The library is already taking advantage of this separability. If you browse through books in the JFD call range, you'll see that although most books published more than twenty years ago have already left the building in anticipation of the CLP's implementation, books with neighboring call numbers that were published more recently are being allowed to stay. This book-by-book individuation is only possible because the computer catalog is being relied on to remember which books are where. The call number alone no longer tells you.

Here's another possibility: Suppose that whenever an offsite book is returned, the computer catalog remembers the date and time of its return and categorizes it for a year as being stored on a special range of shelves in the 42nd Street building with a name like "Ready Recall." As offsite books are returned, the physical books are added to the Ready Recall shelf in the order in which they are returned, and a librarian marks the end of the day by inserting a divider of some kind into the bookshelf. If anyone later wants a book in Ready Recall, the computer spits out the date and time of the book's last return, which tells the librarian where in the Ready Recall shelf it is. After a year, any book still on the Ready Recall shelf in its original position is returned to offsite storage, and the catalog is updated to change its location from "Ready Recall" to "Offsite." But in the meantime, any offsite book used in the past year is available onsite, quickly.

It might be that books requested from offsite are rarely requested again—in which case this suggestion of mine isn't worth the bother. But I suspect that books requested from offsite are more likely than other offsite books to be requested again—in which case my suggestion would minimize to-and-fro and reduce delivery delays.

5. Allow NYPL staff to speak freely.

Perhaps the most upsetting discovery I've made in the course of blogging about the CLP is that the New York Public Library powerfully discourages its staff from speaking freely. I did not expect, when I started voicing my concerns, to be receiving emails from library staff members who explained that they were writing under pseudonyms, from email accounts that they earnestly hoped were untraceable. I've been told that departing staff members are often required to sign gag orders in order to receive their severance packages. The library could take a small step toward opening up—humanizing, even—its management culture by unilaterally declaring that it considers all such gag orders unenforceable. To free up the staff currently working at the library, and to tap the full value of their intellectual capacity, the administrators will have to do more than make declarations. They will have to work for years to regain their trust.

Please keep in mind, as debate continues, that the library's culture of secrecy has made it hard for me and other critics to find answers to basic questions about the CLP. I repeatedly asked library administrators to break down for me where they expected the savings from consolidation to come from, to no avail. I repeatedly asked them to clarify how they're counting the books in the building, also to no avail. I expect that some of the suggestions that I've made in this post will turn out to be impossible to implement because of facts that the library has chosen not to disclose.

6. Set up a permanent advisory committee of scholars and writers.

If Columbia University had proposed removing the stacks at the core of its Butler library, or if Harvard had proposed the same for its Widener library, the faculty would have revolted. But the people in charge of those libraries would never have made such proposals, because they're in touch with the scholars who use them. When librarians at those institutions need to move books offsite—and I repeat that I understand that offsite storage is a necessity, for as much of the history of the printed book as remains to be lived through—they consult the professors expert in each field before they do so. Rather late in the game, the NYPL is trying to make such a consultation now, through the advisory panel that I was briefly a member of. But my own experience with that panel suggests to me that the administrators aren't entirely sure whether they're conducting a conversation or a public-relations exercise, and in any case, an ad hoc panel convened in a crisis is inadequate. The library needs a permanent advisory panel to keep its administrators and trustees in touch with the researchers who use it. How many members it should have, how long they should serve, whether outside organizations like the American Council of Learned Societies or the American Historical Association should appoint the members—these are questions to be worked out by people who know more about such entities than I do. All I know is that the library needs such a panel, and that the panel should have a measure of self-governance and a guarantee of free expression.

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.

A few early, expensive comments by the novel about the other talent in the room

I recently read a stack of Elizabeth Taylor’s novels, in preparation for writing an introduction to her novel A Game of Hide-and-Seek, to be reprinted as an NYRB Classic in February. In one of her later novels, In a Summer Season, published in 1961, there is a description of the advent of television into an upper-middle-class British household, which strikes me as an early attempt by the novel to reckon with its new rival. I wonder if anyone has made a collection of such scenes.

The book’s heroine is named Kate. Her adult son Tom lives with her, as does her second husband, Dermot, and an aunt named Ethel who tries to keep out of everyone’s way. The two men are to a certain extent allied against Kate in not-quite-reputable habits of leisure. Their unseemly alliance culminates in Tom’s purchase of a television set.

“Why can’t you read a book instead?” Kate asked [Tom]. She disdained such ways of passing time, not realising that she very seldom read herself these days and was just off for an evening in the pub with Dermot. Tom kept the television set in his bedroom and he and Dermot liked to sit there with curtains drawn against the sunshine, watching cowboy films. “Too good an evening to waste out of doors,” Dermot would say, taking a last glimpse out of the bedroom window while the set was warming up—Ethel’s dog lying on the hot gravel down there, a column of gnats dancing in the shaft of light under some trees and high above the trees some cirrus clouds paling and dissolving. “Right!” Tom would say, drawing up two uncomfortable bedroom chairs. On the screen, rods of light ran blindingly into one another, the picture steadied until they were able to see a packet of soap powder capering on tiny legs, singing a ditty. It then took a dive into a washing-machine, and a head of jostling bubbles, singing too, rose up.

The scene visible through the window is quiet enough to lend itself to a meditative description; the screen, by contrast, is too loud to meet with anything but sarcasm. But even more telling is the perfidy of Ethel, who means to resist but isn’t strong enough to.

Sometimes Ethel joined them, looking in with a trivial excuse, begging them not to stir and lingering to watch, but as if her attention was only momentarily caught. After hovering for a while, she gradually merged into the shadowy background and was forgotten, until at last, with sick-bed caution, she tiptoed away. Like hares before a serpent, Tom and Dermot sat rigid and in silence. From time to time, their hands groped on the floor for their glasses of light ale, their cigarettes burnt to their fingers.

A chapter or so later, after deprecating the television in a gossipy letter to a friend, Ethel is mesmerized by a broadcast of Swan Lake on ice.