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Among other useless skills and trivia picked up in my misspent youth, I know how to use a Research Library.

What lies behind the battle over the New York Public Library

Jason Farago, The Guardian

Saturday 7 July 2012

Libraries across America are facing swingeing budget cuts and uncertain futures. But here in New York, home to the second-largest library in the country, the future is now.

The hottest cultural controversy of this already hot summer concerns the New York Public Library (NYPL), and a plan to disembowel its main building – a plan that will slice open the stacks and “replace books with people”, in the words of the NYPL system’s CEO, Tony Marx. It’s enraged writers and professors, demoralized a staff already coping with layoffs, and called the entire purpose of the system into question.

Unlike the borough branches, the central library does not lend books. It’s a research institution, and compared to establishments of the same caliber – the Library of Congress, say, or the collections of Harvard and Yale – it is exceptionally open. You don’t need an academic affiliation. You don’t need to pay for a reader’s ticket. You don’t even need to come up with a convincing excuse to call up Walt Whitman’s manuscripts if you want to have a rifle through. Just fill out a call slip and you can have it in about an hour.

The new Central Library Plan, though, will move 3m books (about 60% of what’s now on site) out of the central facility, to be immured in some bunker in New Jersey. Researchers have been promised that they can summon these books with a day’s notice. But the library already promises that for books currently off-site, and it doesn’t really work that way; in practice, it takes closer to two or three days.

What will take the place of the books? Well, the closed stacks will be smashed open to make way for a smaller lending library, to supersede the large one across the street from the main facility which the NYPL plans to sell off. That worries not just researchers but architectural preservationists. The library, designed by Carrère and Hastings, is a masterpiece of engineering; unusually, the grand reading room sits at the top of the building, perched on stacks that were state of the art in their day.

A research library has a different mission from a lending library; it’s there to put everything, not just the most popular volumes, at our disposal. If you hit an intriguing footnote that references another publication, or if you find an irregularity in a text and want to check it against another source, all you have to do now is grab one of the library’s stubby golf pencils, write down the title, and it’s yours. That will soon be gone, and its effect on research will be brutal if not mortal.

The central library plan might not be irredeemable. Several advocates have proposed a sensible alternative that would keep most of the books in town. But the NYPL has shown no inclination to listen to its own users, or even to make its deliberations public, and that is the truly worrying thing. Replacing books with people may look accessible and anti-elitist. But the real popular gesture is to keep research free for all.

Instead, on the advice of some of the world’s most profitable consultancies and a board full of oligarchs, we are being told that what we really deserve is not a world-class library, but comfy chairs and blueberry muffins.

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