Leave the Library Alone

A group of American scholars have signed a petition to prevent the New York Public Library from making changes to open up the institution to the public.

The library recently decided to move part of the collection off-site in order to make room for more space, more computers, and a café, as well as install a lending library. The move was presented as part of an effort to democratize the library, but scholars object.

According to the petition:

The NYPL is already among the most democratic institutions of its kind. Anyone can use it; no credentials are needed to gain entry. More space, more computers, a cafe, and a lending library will not improve an already democratic institution. In fact, the absence of expert staff will diminish the accessibility of the collections to those who aren’t already experienced researchers, narrowing the constituency who can profitably use the library. They will be able to borrow books, to be sure, but they won’t be inducted into the world of archives and collections if staff aren’t there to guide them. Also, in the age of the web, we need, more than ever, skilled, expert librarians who can assist us in navigating the new databases and the back alleys of cyberspace. We understand that it is often easier to raise money by attending to buildings (and naming them), but the real need at the NYPL is for the preservation of a great library and the support of its staff.

It’s an understandable move, to be sure, because it makes the institution appear more user friendly, but the scholars have a point in that the changes don’t actually make it easier for the public to access the primary materials of the library: the books.

The petition is signed by luminaries including Nobel Prize winner Mario Vargas Llosa; Pulitzer Prize winners Frances FitzGerald, Margo Jefferson, David Levering-Lewis, Edmund Morris, Art Spiegelman and Annalyn Swan; and the Salman Rushdie and Jonathan Lethem.

Seriously, New York City needs more cafes like a hole in the head.

Daniel Luzer

Daniel Luzer is the news editor at Governing Magazine and former web editor of the Washington Monthly. Find him on Twitter: @Daniel_Luzer