The Culture of the New York Public Library’s Research Divisions

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 (with one important exception, to be named in a minute). 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.

There are downsides, though. A university-library culture wastes what you might call book-hours. Professors and students are busy multi-taskers; their time is a premium commodity. If a spare hour comes along, they want to know they can make use of it, and so it’s in their interest to have all the books they’re likely to need ready to hand—even if that spare hour doesn’t come by more than a few times a week. In other words, they hoard library books. For example, it might only take two work-days to read a book, but the fourteen hours in those work-days may be spread over months or even years, and so it’s in their interest—it’s a matter of scholarly survival, in fact—to keep possession of that book for many more book-hours than they actually need it.

As a graduate student, I sometimes shifted to my second- or even third-choice paper topic because all the books on my first-choice topic had been checked out. True, I could have recalled the books relating to my first-choice topic, but if I had done that, the first user of the books might then have recalled them from me in turn, after my two weeks of exclusive use were up. Is there anything more excruciating to a scholar than losing access to books that you’re in the middle of writing about? I’d have had to wait two more weeks before I could see the recalled books again. So it was more prudent to alter my plans and use books that no one else had recently laid claim to, even though that was hardly an optimal choice from a merely intellectual point of view.

At the highest level, the book-hours squandered by hoarding aren’t a terribly big problem because the interests of tenured professors are so specialized. There isn’t likely to be more than one Milton scholar in any single English department. The book-borrowing needs of the top dogs therefore rarely overlap. Few undergraduates plan far enough ahead to be able to wait the time it takes for a recalled book to be returned, so they’re not likely to disturb a professor’s long-term use of a book, and graduate students are constrained not only by a habit of deference but also by the sort of fears outlined in the paragraph above. In a university library, the problem of wasted book-hours really only rears its head with undergraduates, and there’s a workaround for it: course reserves. Since the book-borrowing needs of undergraduates overlap whenever they take courses together, books on a syllabus are put on reserve, where they can only be checked out for a few hours at a time.

I don’t think it’s an accident that the course-reserves desk is often in an unprepossessing part of the library. Undergraduates are low on the totem pole, and some of those who rely on course reserves are doing so to save money. There’s a punitive flavor to the need to return the book by a set time. It’s hard to relax, if one knows the clock is ticking. And because time is short, a reader is usually obliged to read the book on the spot—the unprepossessing spot. At the course-reserves desk, one is reminded in a number of ways that one is at the bottom of the academic food chain.

I dwell on these aesthetic drawbacks because almost everyone who went to college has experienced them and because in terms of institutional culture, the course-reserves desk is one of the few parts of a university library that resembles the way things work at the New York Public Library’s research division. Only one other part of the university library resembles it more: the part at the very top. Remember how I said that visiting outsiders have almost no place in a university library? The one place they do have, paradoxically, is the nicest one in the building: the rare book and manuscript room. If a visitor is able to present himself as a serious researcher (credentials like a Ph.D. help, but a book contract will do, and sometimes just a knowledgeable and polite demeanor are sufficient), he may be admitted to a special room, usually furnished with some luxury, where archivists will ask about his research project in detail, make any number of helpful suggestions, and then bring out, as he needs them, handwritten letters by famous authors that have never been published and rare, precious books that are only to be found in a few libraries anywhere. If you don’t really need the resources of this room, its librarians won’t let you in. But if you do really need them, it doesn’t matter who you are or where you come from.

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 projects 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.

But there’s another, less obvious danger. It seems likely that if the CLP goes through, the pilot program known as Marli will be continued and expanded. Marli allows a select group of NYPL’s users to check books out of the research division. That isn’t what it was for, as originally conceived. Its stated purpose was to allow NYPL’s users to have access to the research libraries at Columbia and NYU, in exchange for allowing users of those libraries access to NYPL. The tricky part was that Columbia and NYU professors were already as free as any other citizen to use NYPL. Columbia and NYU were only willing to grant access to NYPL’s users if NYPL was willling to give something more—and in negotiation, that something more turned out to be the right to take books in NYPL’s research collection home. As a matter of fair play, it then only made sense for NYPL to allow its own vetted users to take the same books home.

Ann Thornton assured me last week that feedback from Marli’s users has been overwhelmingly positive and that far more NYPL-based users take advantage of the exchange than do Columbia- or NYU-based users. And she pointed out that NYPL has been sending books out of the building through Interlibrary Loan for years, and that the only books cleared for borrowing through Marli are those in good condition that were published after 1900.

What concerns me is that through Marli, though no one seems quite to have intended it, the culture of the NYPL research division is being assimilated to the culture of the university library. What’s unique about NYPL—its democratic access, and the ready availability of its books—has been compromised. NYPL now has a hierarchy, awarding borrowing privileges to some users but not others. And it now allows book hoarding. Research books can be checked out for 60 days, and the wait for a book to be recalled is bound to be even longer than the wait for a book to come from offsite storage. The program is only a year old, and so far it’s quite small. Ann Thornton told me that only about 1700 NYPL books have been loaned out, and only one of these books has been recalled by another patron. At this size, one would expect the side effects to be minimal—scarcely even noticeable. But if the program continues, I suspect it will grow, as those outside the borrowing group start to notice that books are less often available and ask for the same privileges. Eventually every serious user of the library will want to be in the Marli program. Why wouldn’t you want to be? And once you can take books home, and once books are only erratically and dilatorily available at the library, why bother to work there? I fear that the Marli program, especially in combination with the CLP plans to move the bulk of NYPL’s books offsite, will reduce the library to no more than a book-delivery service.

Can’t the NYPL keep its distinct culture? Must all research libraries be the same?

3 thoughts on “The Culture of the New York Public Library’s Research Divisions”

  1. I am probably not the first to point that out but I believe that what you really want now is a comprehensive digitalization of the NYPL stock.

    Indeed, it is a huge task. Nevertheless, it does solve the problem.

  2. Just to thank you for bringing this plan to attention, and for the vast amount of information you've already supplied, and for your willingness to deepen your involvement by serving on the planning council. I share your love for the uniqueness of NYPL; I dearly value its policy of democratic access. It's been such a deep pleasure to do research down the table from a bespectacled young student, a probably-homeless person, a tourist, a casual reader. That doesn't happen at the Houghton (although, as you note, that also has its distinct pleasures).

  3. Tremendously appreciate these articles–am working my way through them. Apologies if this is a foolish mildly off topic question, but my brain is tired: Why won't the storage facility have a reading room? If scholars come in from around the world for NYPL, wouldn't they take a bus to Jersey?

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