Thanks to Zite, this week I found myself reading Jon Reiner's account of the state of main branch libraries in many US cities.
Reiner begins by reporting on the controversy surrounding the New York Public Library's plan for re-purposing its iconic building at 42nd and 5th. Fewer stacks, more computers and possibly even a coffee bar. Just like everywhere else. But to a greater extent than most everywhere else, the NYPL's main branch has a storied place in the history of libraries. Denunciations have been plentiful.
After setting this context, Reiner reports on his own tours of America's major public libraries. A book tour brought him to many major cities, and in every one he stopped at the downtown branch. Without fail he noticed people congregating near the coffee bar and power outlets, and not a single soul in the stacks.
Reiner decides that libraries have sold their souls, and that if they'd only found a way to make print books cool instead of building a computer lounge things would be different. Reiner: "Maybe the new libraries had gotten it all wrong. Maybe people would still touch the books if they didn’t look so pitiful compared to the shiny new objects decorating the atrium. A case of the tail wagging the dog that the NYPL would be wise to recognize. What did the social engineers of modern libraries expect would happen when they provided lounge chairs?"
I decided to be a librarian by wandering the stacks of the Northwestern University library. Per Reiner I touched the books. And through the wonders of "serendipity" facilitated by good cataloging and shelf placement, I learned about books I would never have known about otherwise.
But....ahem. Those stacks were not exactly crawling with young student scholars. I was usually alone, or at most one of the few people on the floor. This was in 1996, when the Web existed but neither Google nor Wikipedia were household names. I had a similar experience in 1986, when as a 9 year old I wandered the stacks of the Ohio State University library. Back then there was no Web at all to compete with the books. But suffice it to say I didn't face much competition for stack access.
To blame Google and Wikipedia for a decline of interest in the printed word assumes that things used to be different. Not true. The 80/2o rule applies to libraries too; 20% of the collection gets 80% of check-outs.
True scholars can dig deeper today just as they always could, and in fact the Web enables this pursuit in ways never before possible. Wonderful collections have been digitized, but those who care the most will still travel to touch the real thing. And those who can't afford to travel to far-flung libraries can at least see the digital versions online. To take one of hundreds of examples, the UCSF Library recently digitized Hahneman's Organon, a Bible for homeopaths. Those who insist on the primacy of physical objects would deny any access to Hahneman's treasure to all but the select few.
So Reiner misses the mark. He hearkens back to an imagined era of stack crawling that never actually occurred, while overlooking the unique benefits of the Web for expanded access to information.
Was it all just a big mistake, this academic library thing? If most books were destined to gather dust unread anyway, what was the point? The point was to provide access to a wide range of content just in case someone might need it, in a framework not dicated by the cruel pressures of the market. Hear hear, now and forever.
The NYPL still wants to do this, actually; their plan merely calls for relocating books off-site, not getting rid of them. But apparently it makes more sense to keep them on-site and un-read, because this is what we are used to and this is all a library can ever be. That's the crux of the outcry--to keep things the same no matter what. It reminds me of the wonderful cartoon that recently appeared in the New Yorker, with which I close.