Wednesday, June 6, 2012

The Empire Strikes Back. (Er, an update on the NYPL situation.)

While I was away, there was some movement on the NYPL Central Library Plan issue. Not progress, so much, but movement.

First, there was an email to all signatories of the petition against the plan sent out by the president of the library. You can read the text here. No word yet on what came out of the meeting mentioned at the end of the letter. But if Mr. Marx things that the philosophical, principled reasons for opposing the plan are overblown rhetoric, then how about this, plain and simple?: Hands off!

Then there was the curious apologetic work explaining how the new plan is really the only way to save the library. My hackles were raised especially by the suggestion that . It's not that our sensitive, book-fetishising, ivory-tower souls can't bear contact with the hoi polloi, it's that, frankly —and I know this will be an unpopular and unpopulist position — the hoi polloi destroy books and destroy the environment. I don't want to not see them; I don't want them there. I grew up in San Francisco, a city where you cannot go sit in the main branch of the public library all day because there are homeless people sleeping in the stacks and you can't use the bathrooms because they are a well-known and well-used shooting gallery. New York City has dealt much more effectively with drugs and homelessness, but the possibility of populism in a library still makes me cringe at the sense memory of the smell of old books mingled with devastating and devastated human odors. Why risk it?

Zadie Smith wrote a lovely meditation on public libraries that could be used by either side in this particular case. I don't think I have as much faith in humanity as she does; or perhaps social ills in Britain manifest themselves differently. It's also not a perfect analog: The issue with the NYPL isn't a case though of a library being destroyed to redirect the funds to other kinds of projects; it's a case of a unique library being destroyed for the sake of making it common.

And finally there was an insidious, newspeakish attempt to marshal rank-and-file, non-research library patrons in support of the plan on the basis of what was written in the "defenses" of the library. I really hate it when overeducated people in positions of power try to exploit people who don't have the resources (through no fault of their own!) to understand the full dimensions of the issue.

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