Tuesday, April 17, 2012

Bibliophiles, Please Pack Your Knives and Go

Having only relatively recently discovered the full extent of wonder of the world that is the New York Public Library, I was dismayed to learn of a major restructuring that is afoot that would lead to loss of jobs among staff and would take some books offsite and allow others to circulate (and be dropped in puddles and lost in the backs of closets). It would fundamentally change the character of the institution.

A letter in opposition to the plan is being circulated for signatures; and while I generally make a point of not signing petitions (in fact, I never have), I have added my name to this one. The most compelling part of the letter, to my mind, makes a distinction between a democratic cultural institution and one that has been dumbed down:
One of the claims made about the CLP [Central Library Plan] is that it will “democratize” the NYPL, but that seems to be a misunderstanding of what that word means. 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 café, 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.
In other words, NYPL is already democratic, elite without being elitist. The possibility of such a distinction is almost totally lost already amidst all the bashing of expertise in the public sphere. It is a question of preserving knowledge and access and also of remembering that the English language allows for shades of gray, for elitists and for elites. Seems like a library would be a great place for all of that.


  1. From another non-petition-signer:
    Is there an e-version of the petition? Or an address to which a paper letter might be sent? Even those of us who are at a great physical remove from 42nd St. and 5th Ave. believe in its mission and the value, in this case, of maintaining the status quo.

  2. I wrote to the woman in charge and asked her if it would be okay to circulate the whole letter and her details further, and if she says yes, I shall post it all here.