Scholars and Ruffians: Eschewing Elitism in the NYPL Debate

via Library of Congress

[Update: 6/18: I’ve received a few emails in response to this post, including messages from some of the folks to whom I link below. When some guy on Twitter called me a “PC nitwit” (that’s a first!), it struck me that he — and perhaps others — assumed that because I was critiquing the nature of some of the criticism, I was against the NYPL’s critics. That’s not at all the case. I simply didn’t lay out my own critiques because others, like Charles Peterson of n+1 and Scott Sherman at The Nation, have put forward very cogent arguments that encompass all the issues I’d raise. Besides, I intended for my (modestly intentioned) post to be more of a meta-critique: a reflection on the nature of the debate itself — including a few arguments that seem unlikely to advance the CLP critics’ cause. I’ve made some minor revisions to the text below (marked in red) and changed a word in my headline, in the hope of better conveying what I hoped to convey.]

I caught up on a few podcasts while walking around today. The Harvard Berkman Center’s “Libraries of the Future” episode consisted of a conversation between the fabulous Matthew Battles, author of Library: An Unquiet History, which I think is still one of the most smart and beautiful recountings of library history; and Berkman’s David Weinberger, author of Too Big To Know, among other well-known books. Weinberger argues that, for much of their history, libraries have been designed to overcome the limitations of place: limitations that include the scarcity of storage space and (echoing the arguments he makes in Everything is Miscellaneous) the fact that a copy of a book has to occupy a fixed place on a shelf rather than being located in multiple places simultaneously. Yet, he says, things have changed:

Now we have a new world which is…spaceless… [The] limitations [of space] are gone, and we are left with increasingly emptied, and quite magnificent…, public places where the things it was designed to overcome — the limitations of space — just aren’t limitations anymore.

The current debate over the proposed renovations of the New York Public Library’s 42nd Street building — debates focusing on the need to negotiate between various competing programmatic uses of space, and the maintenance of a particular spatial character, one befitting a world-class research library — belies Weinberger’s claim. Space is still a limitation. But it’s a limitation we don’t always want to “overcome”; instead, it’s a resource, a public good, that we value — something we want to preserve, to have more of.

H.M. Pettit, The New York Times, May 14, 1911

I’m not about to describe all the details of the renovation process — which involves the sale of the mid-Manhattan branch across the street and the Science, Industry, and Business Library a few blocks away on Madison (this was one of the libraries I wrote about in my book); the destruction of some of the stacks; and the incorporation of a circulating library and more computers — or exhaustively recount the many critiques of the proposal and of the NYPL itself. You can read all about it in the Times, The Nation, WNYC, the Village Voice, n+1, Inside Higher Ed, writer Caleb Crain’s blog, and a host of other locations.

As the Nation and n+1 articles in particular relay, there are reasons to wonder about the library’s motives. Over the past few years, critics have posed questions about the institution’s budget, the influx of McKinsey-types, the deterioration of various celebrated collections, and staff cuts. The Central Library Plan, as the whole enterprise is called, has been less than transparent, and the library’s attempts at public engagement rather half-hearted. Once the controversy broke, the library shifted its PR machine into overdrive. President Anthony Marx was out touting the plan in various venues — print, blog, broadcast, live appearance — and the library launched a forum for “conversation” on its website. Sadly, this discussion isn’t very public, since the means of communication are one-way, and others’ contributions aren’t made visible.

Managing a public design process — particularly for an institution like a public library, in which everyone (rightfully) regards him or herself as having a stake — is notoriously difficult. When I researched 15 such library design processes for my book, I found numerous cases of well-meaning institutions making honest mistakes in engaging the public; consequently spreading ill-will; and in some cases fatally damaging their design projects (there are also, of course, a few infamous cases of institutions misleading or willfully deceiving their publics). I’ve seen architects simply use the wrong material in their architectural models — say, an opaque material that doesn’t clearly communicate the difference between solid walls and glazing — and end up so confounding the public that an entire design process is put on hold for years. I’ve seen librarians appeal to the suburban branch library patrons and thereby alienate the downtown folks, and vice versa. I’ve seen a poor choice of words in a public meeting spell disaster.

The library’s certainly botched this process — in so many ways. They’ve failed to produce a drawing or model that can make the whole process tangible to a public (of course the use of drawings and models creates its own problems; they could be merely speculative, yet people latch on to them and solidify their opinions prematurely). They’ve made the spurious claim that the renovation will render the 42nd Street library more “democratic.” Oh, boy. A claim of that sort, which implies that the library was less (than) democratic before — actually, any claim centered on a term as charged as “democratic” — is bound to stir up a storm. [Note that I am not claiming that the recent controversy is simply the result of a mismanaged public process; the renovation plan at the heart of that process is problematic, too, as many other critics have explained.]

Yet one of the most surprising things for me in this whole affair is the spurious, reactionary — and often cringe-worthily elitist — claims made by some of the critics regarding what and who the CLP — and perhaps by implication, the NYPL as a whole — is and isn’t for. I don’t disagree with their arguments or requests (a selection of which have been spelled out rather even-handedly in a petition), but I’m slightly embarrassed by the way they’re making them:

  • Illustrious historian Anthony Grafton wrote in the Daily Princetonian: “My stomach hurts when I think about NYPL, the first great library I ever worked in, turned into a vast internet cafe where people can read the same Google Books, body parts and all, that they could access at home or Starbucks.” As if the library is suitable only for auratic experiences, and that an “internet cafe” (are we still using this term?) will somehow “contaminate” the entire building?
  • Biographer and essayist Edmund Morris wrote to the Times in late April:”Mr. Marx explains that the renovation will create up to 20,000 square feet more public space than is now available in the three Midtown buildings combined. I wonder, though, if by public he doesn’t really mean popular….[S]cholars are people, too, and we are beginning to feel, well, if not threatened, increasingly crowded out” — forced to “brace for the curious scrutiny of tour groups.” He seems to be threatened by the impending influx (he later uses the term “visitation,” implying that these folks couldn’t possibly be at the library to study) of commoners. With the plebians come odd smells: “Ominously, the aroma of the coffee bean already infuses the lovely vestibule.” Later on, he writes: “It’s not reassuring to hear that up to half of the main building’s holdings of noncirculating volumes are destined to be transferred to — excuse me? — New Jersey.” Oh, poor Jersey: never to escape its reputation as the land of storage facilities and spray-tanned, coffee-drinking plebes.

In the Berkman Radio podcast I mentioned earlier, Matthew Battles acknowledges that “[]
here’s been a lot of controversy that’s come from quarters that wouldn’t surprise you at all: people from the academic world and scholars and journalists in particular.” Then he offers a bold observation:

I always find the interaction of journalists and prose writers who are not academics…, in these recurrent controversies about the repurposing of libraries, to be a very interesting one. Because they always seem to be the people who are most tightly bound to what might be called traditional, and I think reductive, models of what libraries have been, should be, and can be… [It’s] another cycle of this refrain…of fear about the transformation of libraries.

Chloë Schama, writing in The New Republic, echoes many of my own frustrations with the debate:

My main complaint with [some critics’] concerns is the presumptuous distinction that they draw: the scholars and the others. Libraries — the NYPL in particular — are where people go to become scholars. Isn’t a studious thirteen-year-old a scholar? A journalist, who visits the library to immerse herself in some arcane matter? How about a lawyer, chef, or dancer investigating a kink in history that forever altered her profession?… Among the riffraff might be the next great novelist or cultural critic, someone without a stamp of approval from an institution, but who knows enough to know that he doesn’t know enough — which just might be the most valid intellectual credential of all.

Yes, the concerns raised by the “Committee to Save the New York Public Library” (which, from the perspective of the CLP’s proponents, must seem a rather alarmist title) are valid and should be addressed. But all the academics and scholars and writers who’ve signed the petition need to make sure to monitor the rhetoric of the debate, which will continue next Tuesday at The New School (I am tremendously disappointed I’ll be out of town for this) — and to keep ourselves from either looking like — or, worse, becoming — self-absorbed, reactionary elitists. We need to remember that yes, the 42nd Street Library is a research library, but it’s a public research library. We need to make sure to acknowledge that the public library has always been a multifarious institution with a diverse program — including even recreational and commercial elements — appealing to multiple publics. We need to recognize that among those multiple publics are groups of people much more needy than we are, and whom the library, with its limited resources, must support, too. [This is not to condone the poor decisions of the NYPL’s leadership or to deny the tremendous privilege they enjoy — but, rather, to recognize that among the diverse populations any public library system must serve, we scholars and writers are, for the most part, among the “haves,” and should not set our own interests apart from those of the “have nots.]
We may have to make some compromises — for the sake of ensuring the long-term longevity of the public library as an institution, and for the greater good of the public at large. And yes, that public at large might include some ruffians.

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