Libraries Linking Past to Future

by Chidem Kurdas

A trustee of the New York Public Library, Robert Darnton, defends in the New York Review of Books the controversial plan to revamp the library’s Fifth Avenue building.  The issue goes beyond one building – however iconic – and one institution.

Any book lover will sympathize with the plight of libraries.  Despite the impression that books are obsolete in the digital era, more books are published than ever before—simply put, there isn’t space left to put all the new books. Part of the New York Public plan is to move a larger portion of the collection to a storage facility in New Jersey. Public and  university libraries already warehouse some of their holdings.

In the past year or so that I’ve used New York University’s excellent library, many of the books I want turn out to be in storage. There is no problem getting a book from the warehouse. You can ask for it online and are notified via email when it arrives at the library. The day or two this takes is trivial. “No research library can expand its collections indefinitely without shifting an increasing proportion of them to offsite storage,” Mr. Darnton writes. That is undeniable and offsite-storage-and-retrieval systems are no doubt here to stay.

The real drawback to warehousing books applies only to open-stack libraries. Libraries with stacks open to users offer a wonderful experience of browsing and serendipitous finds. You see titles that a computer search did not reveal, possibilities that you did not foresee—like browsing in markets, both literal and abstract.

But that is not relevant for the New York Public books in question, because those in any case are directly accessible only to librarians. NYU’s Bobst Library has open stacks, which remain a source of unanticipated enlightenment. To enhance the serendipity feature, librarians might periodically make changes in what’s kept on the shelves versus what’s in storage.

How to organize and present books will be a relevant issue for the foreseeable future. Even when we reach the stage – indicated by the current trend – where all readable material comes in digital form, there will still have to be depositories for old print publications.

The Swerve by Stephen Greenblatt tells the story of how a 15th century Florentine searching for manuscripts in a remote monastery discovered a copy of On the Nature of Things by Lucretius, a Roman poet-philosopher of first century BC.  It had survived by sheer luck. Greenblatt himself happened upon it – in cheap paperback –  while rummaging in a store sales bin. Now one can download the contents for free on the Net.  Nevertheless, old editions of On the Nature of Things are fascinating artifacts.

Easy access to texts is great, but the previous versions need to be protected. You can’t trust luck to safeguard cultural artifacts. Just to be clear, I’m not arguing for government intervention; the New York Public Library is a non-profit corporation, though it does take public money.

Libraries, like museums, preserve and make available our cultural heritage. Let us hope that they continue to serve that mission, albeit with new approaches and technologies. They should never follow fads but have to adapt to changing conditions. Does the New York Public plan achieve the necessary balance between preserving the past and surviving in the future? That’s the question.

3 thoughts on “Libraries Linking Past to Future

  1. One of the great joys of life — if you love books and finding out new things — has been the open shelves in many libraries.

    I cannot count the number of books and authors that I discovered over the years while while wondering through the book stacks looking for a particular title, but allowing my eyes to wonder and browse through shelf after shelf of books that I never seen or known about.

    I regret, therefore, the digital age from that perspective. Oh, there are decent search engines at the sites that now exist where you can find a vast number of out-of-copyright books to download.

    But how do you just “browse” in the same way as walking around and through the stacks of “real” libraries?

    Plus, there is something that digital libraries, I doubt, will ever be able to duplicate — the smell of a book. Yes, books do have smells, and they can be delightful.

    I am not a Luddite. But “progress” sometimes brings “losses” as well as desirable “benefits.”

    Richard Ebeling

  2. The great research libraries of the future will be those with the most extensive, all-in-one-building open stacks, as well as excellent digital support. Even before the dawn of the digital age, I had begun finding the NY Public Library an inferior place to do research because numerous holdings — especially journals — had been moved offsite to NJ. It really threw a damp blanket over following up on references and hunches.

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