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The Daily Need

A rumble in the stacks

What is the role of the library in the digital information age?‎

The New York Public Library today. Photo: Flickr/Wally Gobetz

The New York Public Library, a place usually synonymous with quiet and calm, has recently been making a lot of noise. Plans to close down and sell off two branches are underway, as are efforts to expand the landmark Stephen A. Schwarzman building on 42nd Street. According to NYPL, these renovations, called the “Central Library Plan,” are estimated to cost in the neighborhood of $300 million. Seven levels of stacks that hold three million research books in the flagship library will be moved out to New Jersey to make room for a lending library, computers and possibly a café. The hope is that these changes will eventually save the system anywhere from $12 to $15 million per year in operating costs.

The NYPL, which comprises four research centers and 87 branch libraries, relies on endowments and donations as well as a steady stream of financial support from the city. Since the onset of the 2008 recession, it has been re-jiggering and cutting back, facing a loss of $20.7 million in city funding. According to The Nation’s Scott Sherman, the workforce has been reduced by 27 percent since 2008, while its acquisitions budget for books, CDs and DVDs has been slashed by 26 percent.

There doesn’t seem to be an end in sight to the cuts: the mayor recently proposed to slash the city’s funding to the NYPL by $42.6 million for fiscal year 2013. That’s in addition to the $20.7 million cut that’s been imposed since 2008. According to NYPL President Anthony Marx’s testimony to the city’s Council Committee on Finance in March, if the proposed cuts go through, the NYPL will be forced to lay off 610 employees, reduce service to four days and delay ordering new books.

However, NYPL officers contend that it can staunch the cutbacks with its new renovation plans. NYPL Treasurer David Offensend said NYPL’s “capital position was…bolstered”  with the anticipated infusion of $100 million from selling two library buildings. The city has also offered to partially subsidize the the costs associated with the Central Library Plan with a one-time grant of $150 million.

Reactions have been evenly split between those patrons and bibliophiles who view these changes as part of the institution’s mandate to stay current and those who see them as harbingers of a larger cultural decline. Author Jesse Browner, who penned chunks of her five published books in the iconic main reading room, writes in The Wall Street Journal:

Yes, the Reading Room is a little more crowded than it once was, and likely to be a little more so in the future…[But] like all living things it has to grow and change and thrive. And so long as I can still find a seat at a table at the far end of the Rose Reading Room, I will be happy to sit back and watch and, if I’m very lucky, grow and change with it.

The NYPL during late stage construction in 1908. Photo: Library of Congress

However some say that the goliath efforts to modernize and rewire, like adding computers and e-books while shipping out physical books offsite, might be too early an effort.

“I’m not sure libraries should be bleeding edge,” said New Yorker contributor Caleb Crain in an interview on WNYC’s Leonard Lopate Show. “It might make more sense to wait and find out how the digital book is evolving before the library decides to have this grand renovation.”

Last month, The New York Times held an online debate about the NYPL’s controversial plans. Some called it “an unavoidable necessity” in light of dwindling funds while others saw it as a radical path that will make research “slower and far less improvisational if the library’s administrators bulldoze ahead with their plan to ship 3 million books to a storage facility in New Jersey.”

Literary giants like Mario Vargas Llosa, Salman Rushdie and Jonathan Lethem along with nearly 200 others signed a letter of protest to NYPL president Anthony Marx. Marx has since gone on a media blitz to champion the renovation plans.

The NYPL is not alone. Public library systems in Los Angeles, Seattle and Camden, N. J., are threatened with budget shortfalls; they’re left to choose between shorter operation hours or closing down completely.

Author Zadie Smith recently bemoaned the news that Willesden Green Library Center in northwest London – where she grew up – would be demolished, making room for an “ugly block of luxury flats.” She writes in the New York Review of Books that libraries shouldn’t be based on the bottom line.

A library is a different kind of social reality (of the three dimensional kind), which by its very existence teaches a system of values beyond the fiscal. I don’t think the argument in favor of libraries is especially ideological or ethical. I would even agree with those who say it’s not especially logical. I think for most people it’s emotional. Not logos or ethos but pathos.

But the reality may be that personal affinity isn’t enough to save libraries, especially when pitted against the new world of digitized literature. Bygone are the days of unavailable books or due date stickers. Today, everything from “Moby Dick” to “The Marriage Plot” is available as single-click downloads. There are also several digital libraries (e.g., International Children’s Digital Library and the Google Books Library Project) that grow larger each day, prompting some to ask if libraries are becoming obsolete in today’s digital age.

Or scarier still, maybe it’s just the act of reading that’s on the wane. According to a report released this past April from the Pew Internet & American Life Project, 19 percent of surveyed adults did not read a single book over the past year, a jump from 16 percent who responded similarly in 2005.

What may really be lost is not so much access (whether physical or digital) to literature and research, but perhaps the idea of a quiet communal public space. Libraries are congregations of disparate people: the student cramming for an exam, the unemployed guy looking for a job at the public computer, the child checking out her first “Harry Potter.” Maybe that’s the greater threat of what could be lost as libraries are forced to turn off their lights.

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