The Guardian: “What Lies Behind the Battle Over the New York Public Library”
The library insists that cafes and wireless are what people want – or so say the consulting firms called in to speak for us. It also argues that the collection is just eating up space, since a large fraction of the books is “never” or “rarely” called up, and so no one will miss them when they’re gone. For a start, that’s misleading – I myself regularly fail to call up books because it would take days to fetch them. They remain in their bunker, neglected and unread.
More than that, though, it’s not germane. A research library has a different mission from a lending library; it’s there to put everything, not just the most popular volumes, at our disposal. If you hit an intriguing footnote that references another publication, or if you find an irregularity in a text and want to check it against another source, all you have to do now is grab one of the library’s stubby golf pencils, write down the title, and it’s yours. That will soon be gone, and its effect on research will be brutal if not mortal.
Of course, there are a few grumblers with a Luddite attachment to musty print, but books themselves are not really the issue. The library bulges with maps and manuscripts, photographs and ephemera. Books are just one kind of resource. But, as of today, there is no substitute for the collection of print books – not yet and not foreseeably. Digitization of books remains in its teething stage, and as any archivist will tell you, if you’re building a long-term collection, analogue wins over digital every time. (The Gutenberg Bible is holding up a lot better than your VHS collection.) Talk about the promise of digitization or the belatedness of print is a smokescreen to obscure a larger abdication: the library exists to maintain a collection, in perpetuity, for everyone.
About Gary Price
Gary Price (email@example.com) is a librarian, writer, consultant, and frequent conference speaker based in the Washington D.C. metro area. He earned his MLIS degree from Wayne State University in Detroit. Price has won several awards including the SLA Innovations in Technology Award and Alumnus of the Year from the Wayne St. University Library and Information Science Program. From 2006-2009 he was Director of Online Information Services at Ask.com.