Caleb Crain: The Culture of the New York Public Library's Research Divisions

Roundup: Talking About History

Caleb Crain is the author of "American Sympathy: Men, Friendship, and Literature in the New Nation"

Every institution has its own culture—its distinctive way of doing things. In the best cases, the culture is functional. Over time, people who work in the institution have figured out good ways of solving the problems that recur, and these ways have become a part of their collective memory.

The research division of the New York Public Library has such a culture, and one of my fears about the proposed Central Library Plan is that it will disrupt this culture profoundly. Right now, the NYPL is a destination, a place where scholars and writers can do research with a speed and efficiency that can only be matched at places like the Library of Congress and the British Library. But I fear that the Central Library Plan will turn it into little more than a book-delivery system for professors within commuting distance.

To explain why I fear this, let me start by outlining the culture of a university library, a kind of library that many people who do research are familiar with, and then describe how the NYPL’s culture differs.

A university is not a democratic institution. It’s hierarchical, even if one considers only the intellectual work done there. At the top, intellectually speaking, are tenured professors. In descending order below them are professors without tenure, graduate students, undergraduates, and extension-school students. At the bottom are visiting outsiders, if they can be said to have any place at all.... The mission of a university library is to serve the scholars at its university, and such a library naturally measures out access in accordance with this hierarchy. A professor, for example, may be able to check books out for a semester at a time, but an undergraduate may only be able to borrow them for a few weeks. There are safety valves in the system; an undergraduate can ask even a tenured professor to return a book. And there’s an advantage to the strict boundary between insiders and outsiders: every user of the library has been screened by an admission committee or a hiring committee, and is, as a member of the university community, subject to a number of subtle and not-so-subtle disciplinary controls. When a university library loans a book, there's good reason to believe it'll come back in good condition....

When a person accustomed to a university library first walks into the New York Public Library’s research division, it’s confusing. You can’t check the books out. Does that mean it's like course reserves, or that it's like a rare book room? Am I at the top or the bottom? Neither, really, and if you’re coming from the hierarchical world of a university, that may spark some anxieties. I know that when I first started using the NYPL research division, after having used the libraries at Harvard and then Columbia, I found the system annoying. Harvard and Columbia trusted me to take their books home. Didn’t the NYPL know how special I was?

No, as a matter of fact, it didn’t know. And it didn’t need to. As a public library, its mission is to serve everyone. There are no insiders, and there are no outsiders. Doesn't this let in the riffraff? Maybe, but the absence of screening poses little or no threat to the books, because the books never leave the building with anyone. For the same reason, there's almost no waste of book-hours. If you want to read a book, and the New York Public Library's research division has a copy, you can read it—unless someone else happens to be reading it at that very moment. Books can be put on reserve, and there are shelves in the building where scholars working on long-term project hold books. But if you want a book and it's on one of those shelves, it'll be fetched and brought to you, within minutes, so long as the other user doesn't happen to have the book open on his desk right then. Any number of Milton scholars can share a set of Milton's collected works on that understanding, because even tenured Milton scholars read Milton rarely in an absolute sense.

It's hard to trust that this culture will work if you're coming from a culture where it's necessary to hoard library books. But it does. In fact, it's better, and here's why: Even if you're a very rapacious and competent hoarder of library books, you can only hoard so many. What if, in the midst of research, you discover you need a book it hadn't previously occurred to you to hoard? You face the much-dreaded monster Delay after all. But not at the New York Public Library. Virtually any book is within your reach. This changes the way you work. "There's this thing that happens, where you start paging books just because you're curious about them," a friend told me, a month or two after I had started working at the NYPL on a regular basis. "Have you started doing it yet?" I admitted that I had. The strange thing was that I hadn't done such a thing at Columbia. Even though its stacks were open, looking for books was such a hassle and a crap shoot that I only went looking for them if I already knew more or less what I wanted to look at them for.

Still, a book checked out and waiting for you at home is awfully convenient. Is the New York Public Library's research division so superior that it offsets the inconvenience to a local professor of an hour's subway commute? For years many thought it was, thanks to the depth of its collection and the ready availability of its books. The variables in the equation began to shift, however, in the year 2000, when the library started to move books to an offsite storage facility. Right now, most of the library's books are still onsite, and a reader has access to them within minutes, but a fair number—somewhere between 24 and 33 percent, by my estimate—are now offsite and take at least two days to arrive. If the Central Library Plan goes through, the proportion of books offsite will jump to somewhere between 67 and 86 percent. Never mind the serendipity of following one's curiosity. Mere competence will be threatened. That's reason number one for my opposition to the Central Library Plan. Offsite storage is here to stay, so long as the library doesn't plan to throw books out—and nobody wants that. But I don't see the point of making a bad situation needlessly worse....

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