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.

Cockney Keats?

“Keats Speaks,” my essay about whether the real Keats spoke the way the one in the recent Jane Campion movie does, appears in the 1 November 2009 issue of the New York Times Magazine.

You can read the Blackwood’s Edinburgh Magazine article that accused Keats of “Cockney rhymes” here (though signed “Z.,” it was by John Gibson Lockhart, and it appeared in the August 1818 issue). Just as infamous was a similar attack in the Quarterly Review by John Wilson Croker (though the issue was dated April 1818, it actually appeared in September).

Attack of the kittenheads

Jodie Silsby, Portsmouth Vernacular 2008

"Pixies, Sheilas, Dirtbags, and Cougar Bait," an essay of mine on slang, appears in The Nation of 29 December 2008. Revealed: a glimpse into the interior world of a "literary" gay couple in Brooklyn, and the sordid truth about the low intellectual level of their home banter. Including: lots of words so dirty you may not know what they mean. Plus: the return of Gordon Bennett.

[Image above: Jodie Silsby's Portsmouth Vernacular, the dialect of Portsmouth, England, printed as a street map. Buy a copy here. Via Jacket Mechanical, who got it via Creative Review.]