From Library Babel Fish, May 8, 2014

It’s big news: the New York Public Library has decided not to make the controversial renovation that had humans of New York and elsewhere riled up. The part that had me concerned was that the renovation was being sold as a rejuvenation of a research library by turning it into a combined circulating and research library which would be funded largely by selling two other libraries, the Mid-Manhattan library and SIBL (which not too long ago was a cutting-edge science and business library but, as so often happens to cutting edges had gotten a bit dull).

There has been an enormous amount of commentary on the plan, but several things seemed to be flashpoints:

  • The plan was rolled out without public discussion. Input was solicited, but not systematically and only after plans were drawn up.
  • A large percentage of books in the research library would be put into storage to create space for other uses (or “space for people, not books” as flatfooted defenders put it).
  • The plan seemed to favor spending on a grand architectural gesture over spending on branch libraries serving a diverse population.
  • The plan implied that the library would be improved if it was made into a popular destination rather than remaining a stuffy place for stuffy people to do elitist things.

This controversy is familiar to academic libraries everywhere that are considering renovation. So often, when plans go wrong, you hear very similar complaints:

  • Nobody consulted me.
  • Libraries are about books, including old and odd books that may come in handy someday, and browsing large collections of printed books is essential for research.
  • Why are we spending so much on making the library look fancy?
  • When you tell me space is needed for computers and social spaces but not for books, you’re saying research is no longer valued by this institution.

There are a few lessons for academic libraries from the NYPL drama (and the many smaller dramas unfolding in academic libraries everywhere).

  • First, librarians know a lot about libraries and the needs of their communities, but the libraries they work in belong to the community.  Not to the mayor, the university president, or the board of trustees, nor the librarians – the community that uses the library. The future of libraries can’t be decided behind closed doors by top officials and donors. It’s only common sense to build a library that reflects community values and needs. If the community doesn’t buy into what you’re doing, you have a problem. It’s better to uncover and solve that problem before you spend boatloads of money on plans. The delicate and often secret work of courting donors and fitting together competing campus needs can’t come at the expense of open community conversations.
  • Second, we have to talk about books. Books are valuable, but libraries can’t keep everything. Most of us would improve our collections enormously if we got rid of lots of books – the ones that are out of date, that weren’t much good when they were published, are about things that we no longer teach, or are in languages we don’t offer. Most academic libraries, in short, are not research collections, and it’s harder for undergraduates to discover good books if they are surrounded by ones that you wouldn’t want to see cited in a paper. We all rely, to some extent, on research collections to be our collective memory, but we can’t expect them to keep every book forever without putting some in storage and without a plan for sharing the burden. Faculty shouldn’t feel threatened when libraries take responsible steps to keep their collections within a reasonable size. Librarians, in turn, need to respect the fact that books still matter to many people who will bristle if you act as if they’re just in the way.
  • Third, it’s kind of tacky in an era of inequality for a library building to look like a luxury hotel lobby or an airport terminal in one of the emirates. Calling it a “library for the 21st century” doesn’t help. Libraries should not be ashamed of having long memories and slightly battered furnishings.
  • Finally, libraries have a valuable identity and purpose and librarians sometimes forget that. We are great at accommodating needs, finding synergy, and collaborating with anyone on our campuses who wants to help our students. But libraries are also libraries. Sure, students use our spaces to have meetings, take naps, hold a rave, have a stressed-out meltdown, and make things that involve asking if they can borrow tape and staplers and markers and scissors and glue. But if we decide that the collection is standing in the way of valuable things, like providing room for tutors and counselors and faculty developers and information technologists and food services and everything else that might play a role in student success and comfort, then we have forgotten that the library itself is pretty damned vital for students and their learning. It’s not elitism to resist repurposing library space for other purposes if the library doesn’t have space to spare. We don’t have to be everything, but we do have to be a library.

If nothing else, the NYPL drama is a good reminder that libraries are for their communities. We need to talk before we act. We need to listen and we need to broker agreements among parties that may have different ideas about what matters. And while we’re at it, let’s celebrate that libraries matter so much to so many.


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Babel Fish Bouillabaisse Copyright © 2015 by Barbara Fister is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.