Libraries and the Future of 'The Good Word'

For those who are dedicated readers, scholars, researchers—or just plain bibliophiles—welcome news came across the wires May 7th that the New York Public Library has finally decided to shelve (pun definitively intended) the grandiose “Central Library Plan.” It was a plan to re-imagine the physical aspect of the 42nd Street library, in order (supposedly) to make the NYPL ever more relevant in this digital age. Among other things, reference books would have been shipped off-site and the interior turned into a public atrium. Had this vast reorganization been implemented as visualized, it would have greatly changed not just the inward appearance of the New York Public Library in mid-Manhattan, but it would have also affected something even more important—the purpose of libraries everywhere.

Perhaps I should say that this news was welcomed by another interested party, librarians themselves (most of them, anyway). I have a special interest in this development, because I have been one myself. That is to say, I was an adult reference librarian for almost 12 years in Rockland County, New York, in a library not ten minutes away from where I live. My earliest memories revolve around books, reading and learning. Reading has been an important part of my life—from growing up in the Bronx (in St. Nicholas of Tolentine parish on University Avenue) till now—I could twist Descartes’ phrase and say “I read, therefore I am.”

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Given my reverence for the written word (and that is a mild way of saying that), this story evinced a special interest on my part; as I followed reports concerning the 42nd Street Library for the last year or so, I was frankly appalled.  Let me state very clearly that I have no animus toward anything digital (I have an iPad and an iPod, a desktop, an e-reader, a Microsoft phone, etc., etc., etc., like everyone else) and I recognize the value such innovations have in—and for—our lives, especially for its convenience and accessibility.

It was the audacity of the plan that bothered me, to move a valuable reference collection off-site and practically turn that renowned main library into what would be an uber-Barnes & Noble (nothing against that august bookseller, I have a member card with them, after all, and I had worked there too, for a while after college). It was jarring to think that this library—or any library, for that matter—could morph into a combined café-nightclub-performance hall-theatre-computer lab-video emporium cum art museum, and not a book, magazine, or newspaper to be seen in the place. Oh, the “new look” library would have them, of course, it’s just that it would be scaled back to such an extent that you would have to find a reference librarian (if there were any of them left) to ask for assistance in locating such ancient items.

Is it a fanciful imagining of an overly zealous advocate of the printed page to fear that the footnote, the index and the bibliography will be fated to be alt-shift-deleted by the wonders wrought by computer geniuses and dot.com enterprises? Not really, if you pay any attention to what you read in the newspapers and see on television news. Apart from the NYPL “Central Library Plan” there is the story of the county library in Texas that is all-computers, all-digital, all-pristine and antiseptic, not a book to be found and maybe not a friendly human, either. (And I’ve seen this “trend” starting to occur very close to home…) There are even libraries, in an attempt to be “relevant,” that are putting a new twist on the concept on “inter-library loans”—some are offering programs where you can borrow garden tools for that weekend do-it-yourself backyard beautification project. What I want to know is, how much is it going to cost in overdue fines to keep that spade and weed-wacker a few extra weeks? And besides, where are they going to store the equipment when there aren’t enough space for what’s in the building already—and what some are eagerly trying to get rid of?

Progress has its place, and so does preservation. It does not mean that both can’t co-exist, especially in the library. People always flock there in times of trial, economic necessity or just plain need. The library is not an obsolete or abstract idea whose time has come and supposedly gone. (In a sense, you could make that argument about the church too, and that is another discussion altogether, but still a very parallel and apt one). As for me, I’m grateful that the New York Public Library has changed direction and will dedicate the funds that had been allocated for the “Plan” and use it toward refurbishing the main Library as well as the circulating library across the street.

At least for now, Patience and Fortitude—those famous Library Lions—will remain in place at their posts at the 42nd Street entrance, casting a discerning eye over their vast domain. Where will all this lead? The crystal ball is foggy on this one. One thing can be said for certain, and that is that the hardback and the softcover are still alive. We can still turn the pages; the book has not been shut.

Joseph McAuley is an assistant editor at America.

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