Friday, May 11, 2012

An Open Letter to the New York Times Editorial Board

Dear Sirs,

Digital technology is funny in the unexpected ways that it changes writing and the transmission of information. To sit down to write an open letter in a blog is completely different than sitting down to write a more old-fashioned letter to the editor that one would print out and wait, breathless, to see if it would appear in the paper, or even on the web site. The exaggerated tone of horror that would mark the latter genre — "Dear Sirs, I am appalled and dismayed by your recent editorial!" —  somehow seems inappropriate here. And truly, although they are both epistolary, they are quite different genres.

Such nuance does exist even in minute changes in the way in which information is disseminated — because on the face of it, an emailed letter to the editor and a blog post don't seem all that different. That I notice it as a reader makes me think that as journalists and as denizens of the electronic frontier you must notice it, too, and think about it and consider how to take it into account. And so while I was deeply disappointed in your editorial this week in which you advocated for wise spending in the revamp of the NYPL main branch — thereby completely skimming over your implicit endorsement of the plan —and implied that the "library lovers" who "want nothing to change" are mere stuck-in-the-mud book fetishists, it was the attendant insensitivity to the subtle changes wrought to the substance of text by the means of its delivery that truly surprised me. A researcher approaches her subject very differently if she knows with relative certainty that she can walk into a library and have access to the books that she needs than if she is not sure if or when she can have access to them: She can afford, at an almost subconscious level, to be more deeply invested in her subject matter if she knows she won't have to alter the course of her research or argument for lack of references. And so, likewise, while reading a book inside the library and outside of it are two totally different experiences (and I speak as someone who actually prefers to read in non-library spaces) that is not the difference in dissemination that should be privileged or played up. This is hardly the only reason why the Central Library Plan will be disastrous if implemented and why it is not a mere question of fetishism to want to see it stopped.

But it is a different phrase in the editorial that leads me to address myself to  you rather than (or, in addition to, more to the point) to the governors of the NYPL: Yes, I was disappointed by the substance of your collective opinion. But where I really felt shocked was that as journalists you would unquestioningly accept a bureaucrat's assurance that even though he was making information harder to obtain, that it'll still be okay: "Mr. Marx has said getting off-site books should take about a day." My first reaction to that sentence in the editoral was: Really? You actually believe that? Even if it were true, it means that those of us who need the books that we cannot access anywhere else in the city — and in some cases anywhere else in the world — will not be able to walk into the library and just use its resources. It may not seem it, but that's huge. As scholars we of course plan our research trips in advance, but sometimes we also realize we need things at the last minute, and as our scholarship — as the best scholarship does — takes us in unexpected directions, we don't always end up needing the books we thought we might have. Everyone in the profession has a story about making a major discovery in the last hours of a research trip or library visit.

The heart of the matter, though, is that like assurances you often receive from city officials that they'll get you the information you need in all haste or in its completeness, this one rings hollow. It should take about a day, but what about when it doesn't? What about when it does but the wrong book is inadvertently brought in? Does the scholar have to wait another day? What about the axiom that the more time an object spends in transit, the more likely it is to become lost or damaged? What about the mold that can often become a problem in the less-tended off-site storage facilities? What about when there are more budget cuts and they decide they can only afford to shuttle books back and forth once a week? So while your world and mine operate at different paces, access and immediacy are our shared values. You're writing the first draft of history and I'm writing the second: How is it conscionable to throw me under the bus for a flimsy promise of trendiness and reduplication of services?

I would, as the language of an old-fashioned letter to the editor might have it, urge you to reconsider your position.


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