Sunday, April 13, 2014

The Fate of 42nd

This is a pretty direct transposition of an exchange I had on Facebook with a friend in response to this Humans of New York post.  I decided to present my mostly off-the-cuff response here, unedited and unalloyed, because I've seen a petition going around combating the contentious situation described by the Human of New York in question.

You're entitled to your opinion on the matter; this is mine.

[Context: my friend posted the entry to my Wall with the comment "DO NOT LIKE."  To which I go...]

I'm of two minds about this.  The gut reaction is, of course, that this must be a bad thing (and I'm willing to give more credence to it as bad due to my own experience and the fact that this is a sentiment held by at least one employee of the institution).  There's history here, and more importantly, there's access.  We don't want to lose those.


In today's day and age, there's really no reason we need to take up space on-site with research material in many locations--especially not in midtown Manhattan, where space is at such a premium, and where that space might be better spent fostering creativity and community in an all-too-often cloistered culture.

What about all that lovely research material, you say?  Well, depending on the system NYPL is able to put in place, there's no reason why it shouldn't remain just as accessible to the conscientious researcher as it is now.  People don't realize all the time that the main library there is a closed stacks environment anyway--you can't just walk around browsing and take what you want.  With the collection removed, if you're going to spend a few hours researching, you can submit requests and probably have what you need in your hands within the hour.  The canny researcher may well submit such requests ahead of time and have it all waiting for him upon arrival.  (Now, whether that works out in real life will probably be a process of working out kinks and dealing with the reality of the Lincoln and Holland Tunnels.  Not ideal, but for the trade-off...)

And on top of that, most of the research people are going to do these days probably won't involve dusty tomes from 1850.  Maybe some, but even a lot of that is being digitized.  So that being the case, why should we take up seven stories of the most premium real estate in the world with books that people might want to use out of nostalgia, but don't actually *need* to use?

I'm a proponent of what detractors sneeringly refer to "library-as-internet-cafe."  Because that isn't what it's about--we're not trying to be Barnes and Noble.  But we do have to compete with Barnes and Noble (and, increasingly, Amazon).  So we might offer some superficial perks here and there to get bodies in the building.  What's awesome is the stuff we do with the bodies once we have them.

Wait, that came out wrong.

(Disclaimer: Though I have been somewhat following this story, I don't know all of what NYPL plans to do with the research collection and how it plans to provide access to it.  My comments are based primarily on the models offered by certain other institutions but which, if NYPL is smart--and it is run by some very smart people who write job descriptions I will never qualify for--they will emulate.  And no, this doesn't answer the shameful reduction in the business etc. materials, which I hope they are making sensible provisions for as well.)


(PS This article confirms many of my dim recollections and assumptions, and adds a few more details and heartily-worded statements of support for the new model:
I do hope that what NYPL is trying to do, in its considered and professionally vetted way, won't be subverted by the kneejerk reactions of people wedded to the past and with no knowledge of oncoming trends.)

And the more I think about it, the less leeway I'm willing to give Chicken Guy, because he seems the most overly-nostalgic and kneejerk of them all.


Now, my fellow librarians--where do you stand on this issue?  And anyone else, feel free to chime in.

1 comment:

  1. I know I'm posting a comment very late in the game, but I hope you see it. :-) By the way, I love your blog posts - so well-written and thoughtful - definitely brain-food! Now, for my comment on your blog about the NYPL. I'm right there with you. (Remember Bufflora?) As long as the books can be provided without too much trouble from a storage facility, I think they should go. Right now, they seem to be serving more of a decorative function than anything else. Libraries are about providing information regardless of format and librarians are about facilitating meaningful relationships with that information. So what does that mean for the removal of the books that I am sure very few people have even noticed let alone read (the common notion being, 'don't ALL libraries contain books')? Nothing. That's right, nothing. Except for this fellow and a few others, I doubt that anyone will really care that the books are gone. Hopefully, though, people will notice their replacement(s) - access to information in a way that makes sense in today's networked society, amazing programming, the sky's the limit. Libraries should not focus solely on the past - leave that for mausoleums or museums - instead they should be dynamic places of learning shaped by the past, rooted firmly in the present, but always looking to the future.

    Here endeth the rant.