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Libraries have many uses.  Some are public spaces, where even the homeless are welcome.  Some are centers for literacy and technology education.  Some have public lecture programs and concerts.  

Great research libraries have a unique use:  supporting what might be called exploratory research.  Let us say that one is interested in the Marshall Plan, the post-WWII or early Cold War economic initiative of the United States.  One might begin by browsing the catalogue of the New York Public Library on-line from home or at the Library itself, locating books of obvious interest.  But as these cannot (yet) all be read on-line, one goes to the Library and orders up a few and after a short time--in my experience, not more than 20 minutes--one sits down at one of the tables in the wonderful Rose Reading Room and begins to read.  Sooner or later one finds a reference to a book (or newspaper article, say) that one had not noted in the catalogue.  That ordered, one returns to the first book and finds another new reference.  By the time that is ordered, the other has appeared.  Leafing through that book, one might find other references and order them.  Within a few hours there are stacks of books on the table, some one has found to be absolutely essential, others not so pertinent to the research.

Now think about doing this when 2 million books have been removed from the Library and are somewhere in New Jersey.  The first part of the task goes smoothly, except that a few books are not available at the Library and will, one is told, appear the next day.  So it is with the references one comes across as one reads:  some are there, some are not.  Crucially, the references that one might have found in those books that are in New Jersey, one does not find that day.  Of course if one lives in or near Manhattan, one can return the next day and order up those books that have arrived from New Jersey.  If not, one will have to wait for one's next opportunity for a research expedition.  But in either place the chain of research is broken.  Clues lie hidden in New Jersey.  New thoughts and theories they might have suggested do not appear.

It should be easy to see from this story that exploratory research, finding something one had not known about from a book that might have lain untouched in the stacks for fifty years, will be very difficult for people living near the Library and nearly impossible for the not inconsiderable number of people who live far away and journey to New York specifically to use the Library.

Does that matter?  Perhaps not.  But using this method I have found that much of what I had "known" about the Marshall Plan was not true at all and much about it, for example its influence on Greek politics, is much more relevant today than one might think.  That matters to me.  Similar results matter to many others.  Thus scholarship advances.

That's an interesting thought:  Does scholarship advance?  Perhaps there are some books on that subject at the NYPL.  Some new, some old, some useful, some leading to others about which one has not heard.

Originally posted to Michael Holzman on Wed Jun 20, 2012 at 09:10 AM PDT.

Also republished by Progressive Friends of the Library Newsletter.

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Comment Preferences

  •  how one town fought to save their library (1+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:

  •  Two things (2+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:
    boophus, Nespolo

    1) This isn't new.  They were fetching things from an annex on 11th Avenue even 30 years ago...I remember going there once to read newspapers on microfilm.  NJ is the logical next step for off-site storage given that 11th Avenue is prime real estate now.

    2) The building on 5th Avenue is the size that it is.  It's an irreduceable physical constraint.  Complaining that the NYPL is moving things off-site is like complaining about the weather.  It's not like they're converting stack space into banquet halls.

    Romney '12: Bully for America!

    by Rich in PA on Wed Jun 20, 2012 at 09:19:59 AM PDT

    •  they ARE converting stack space into dining halls! (1+ / 0-)
      Recommended by:
      Rich in PA

      Are you not aware that they are currently employing architect Norman Foster to design a renovation which will "hollow out" the central axis of the stacks just below the reading room?
      THAT is why the books are moving!
      They want a central entrance hall with a Starbucks-like cafe/mall atmosphere to cater to tourists!!!
      I am an architect here in NYC and I am very much in touch with this issue.

      •  I halfway suspected that if I blithely said that.. (2+ / 0-)
        Recommended by:
        NYFM, MsLibrarian

        ...someone would tell me I was mistaken!  I'm still OK with it--storing arcane books is not a good employment of 5th Avenue and 42nd Street, if you ask me.  My only suggestion would be for the annexes to be available for people to visit directly (as the 11th Avenue one was a long time ago), so researchers can still work relatively efficiently.  Most university libraries nowadays have annexes, by the way.

        Romney '12: Bully for America!

        by Rich in PA on Wed Jun 20, 2012 at 10:00:43 AM PDT

        [ Parent ]

    •  i haven't researched it, but I would be inclined (0+ / 0-)

      to believe that what they are doing is in line with the cost-saving, stripped down, E-version of everything that we see at other libraries, school systems, etc. etc. etc.

      Books have always been in storage, sure--but there is an effort to fully downsize many libraries.  I think it's tragic.  It's just another way in which over-reliance on cost-cutting and technology is stripping away the sense of community.

    •  And the Performing Arts library (0+ / 0-)

      at Lincoln Center has been storing stuff in New Jersey for more than ten years.

      "We *can* go back to the Dark Ages! The crust of learning and good manners and tolerance is so thin!" -- Sinclair Lewis

      by Nespolo on Wed Jun 20, 2012 at 07:53:47 PM PDT

      [ Parent ]

      •  I'm well aware of that. (0+ / 0-)

        That's why I'm presently in Vienna, Austria, where the same book that's virtually inaccessible at the Performing Arts library is easily accessible, where the online system is superb, and where, best of all, I'm not treated like a second-class citizen for using my brain and my research skills.

        WOID: a journal of visual language

        by WOIDgang on Thu Jun 21, 2012 at 05:43:28 AM PDT

        [ Parent ]

  •  Can you explain to me exactly what this diary.. (3+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:
    NYFM, musicsleuth, Nespolo

    is about?  Are you worried about the weeding of the collection? Off site storage? what?

    •  It's about (0+ / 0-)

      the fact that the big financial players in New York City (the developers and their friends in Albany, in the unions and at the New York Times) are busy taking apart the NYPL to make a buck. Just as they've been taking  apart CUNY (City University of New York) and will shortly take apart the Metropolitan Museum of Art. It's the reason New York is  fast becoming a world cultural backwater. Capisc'?

      WOID: a journal of visual language

      by WOIDgang on Wed Jun 20, 2012 at 11:06:26 AM PDT

      [ Parent ]

    •  probably the commoditization of library space.nt (0+ / 0-)
  •  New York Public Library (1+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:

    One issue with the plans for the New York Public Library is for real estate experts.  

    It appears to be the case that the NYPL will sell the lending branch near the research library.  If this is the case, it might happen that the buyer will wish to build an office building on that site.  A quick look around seems to indicate that in NYC a 20-story office building costs about $200 per square foot.  

    Figuring (I don't know) 20,000 square feet per floor?, that's 400,000 square feet for a building that would cost $80 million to build.

    Rent in that area for first class office space seems to be running around $100 per square foot per year.  Which would give us (someone) a gross income of $40 million dollars per year.

    That looks like the construction cost can be paid off in two years, say three, with the cost of doing business.  

    After that, gravy.

    Now, who has $80 million (plus the cost of purchase of the site)?  Well, in the NYC construction world, who doesn't?  Especially as it can be borrowed now at, say, 3%.  2%?

    These are all just back of the envelope calculations, but it does look like the NYPL could borrow the money itself (or get the City to guarantee bonds, etc.) and have a very nice income stream.

    Or someone else will do it, as, obviously, no one would be talking about selling the property if they didn't think there were buyers.

    And then, as they say in the Bronx, cui bono?

    •  Unfortunately, (0+ / 0-)

      the not-for-profits are not allowed by law to make a profit from this kind of deal - it's called leveraging. Fortunately, the not-for-profits are allowed to issue tax-free bonds that can eventually sweeten a deal for developers to make a killing. So by law the not-for-profits lose money while the developers rake it in. And since  the bonds are floating the not-for-profits end up with huge deficits because they have to repay them at ever-higher rates. To give you an example, the Metropolitan Museum of Art may have lost as much as 800 million dollars in the 2008 crash.  Cooper Union has pushed itself over the financial cliff with its investments in East Village real estate: now it can't even maintain the buildings, or rent them (no market), or repay the bonds. Same is about to happen at NYU.

      Welcome to Athens-on-the-Hudson!

      WOID: a journal of visual language

      by WOIDgang on Thu Jun 21, 2012 at 09:56:20 AM PDT

      [ Parent ]

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