Reflections on the New York Public Library; or An Ode to Public Institutions

Posted on November 22nd, 2012 by Eva

“A library is like an ocean.  You don’t know how deep it is, you don’t know how wide it is, it just goes on forever.”

These were words of Maria Wafula after our tour of the New York Public Library on 42 St.

I should warn you, I’m going to gush.  I’ve been to the NYPL before, mostly to sit and use the wireless for a few hours of work.  Going through with Maria and Esther was different.  Besides being a private tour (the glamour!), the three of us have spent a lot of time thinking about and discussing libraries, their role in a community, their physical design, the whole bit.  Walking through the NYPL with Maria and Esther both gave a rich context to all of the conversations we’ve had in the past, and I think changed the nature of those conversations in the future.

Anyone who has visited the New York Public Library understands the most basic elements of what is amazing about it.  When you walk in, you feel both grand and small.  This is a magnificent edifice dedicated to knowledge, ideas, culture, and creativity, which are all—as Maria notes—limitless.  At this same time, this is a public space, it is there to serve you and it was created in your honor.

This has always inspired me when I walk into the library.  But this time, a few more reflections are in order.

This city honors libraries.

The buildings that make up a city determine the character of a city.  It is significant that one of the most admired buildings in Manhattan is a library.

What does it mean to honor libraries?  I don’t need to reinvent the wheel here, there are quotes carved into the wall all over the library.  To honor libraries is to honor democracy.  It is to honor the equality of citizens—to respect and indeed create a meritocracy.  It is to honor the role of knowledge in society.  It is to honor human potential.

This library is a demonstration that New York City honors these ideals, however imperfect we may be in fully realizing them.

Libraries are both the past and the future

Although its architecture is very classic, when the New York Public Library was built, it was a model of innovation.  The system of book retrieval is an illustrative example.  Being a research library, many of the NYPL’s books are not in continuous demand.  Therefore most books are not stored in the open spaces of the library, but rather between floors and below the basement where they are amassed in shelf after shelf of books.  A patron would find the book she wanted in the catalogue and write it down on a retrieval slip.  The retrieval slip would then be put into a capsule which would be transported to the appropriate floor via what was then a modern vacuum technology.  A porter would receive the capsule, and fetch the book.  This system had the added benefit of giving rise to an urban legend: that the teams retrieving books travel around the stacks on roller skates (not true, I’m sorry to report).

As you might expect, the NYPL is very different now than it was when it opened.  It was one of the first libraries to digitize its catalogue, maintaining a wall of books filled with the old cards, for preservation purposes.  We saw books being moved off-site, as the library relocates much of its collection to a warehouse in New Jersey.  The books will still be available, but they will have to be transported from the warehouse upon request.  While this move was spurred by changes in the ways the New Yorkers access information—and in particular a decreased demand for books, it caused a lot of controversy in New York, as people lamented the end of the book.

Of course, the NYPL has not abandoned the book.  But this story does give rise to an interesting conundrum that libraries face.  Although the library is a public institution, people’s relationship with it is deeply personal.  The library is thus in a tricky place, it has to both continually innovate to be at the cutting edge, but it is also the vanguard of our shared culture, which can spill over into nostalgia.

In Busia, we get to be cutting edge now.  We get to start from scratch and think about all the things that Busia needs, scope out all of the best ideas that are out there, and build based on that.  We’ll have a citizen science center, a co-working space, and an oral history lab.   But, once built, the job of being innovative is not done—it’s a continual process to not be a relic.

Libraries are multi-use spaces

I can’t even list all of the different activities we saw going on at the library.  We visited the map room, the reading rooms, the microfiche room, and the children’s section (Winne the Pooh!).  We stepped over art students making sketches of the building interior, we breezed through one of the two brilliant exhibitions curated by the library’s staff, we tip-toed through the library’s rooms for research fellows.  Each of these places were full of human beings, doing—I don’t know what.  Perhaps one of them was there to look online for a job, and maybe one was researching a story from their family history.  I’m sure one of them was there to read poetry, or look at old maps, and I’m equally sure that someone was there simply because she had no place else to go.  Perhaps someone is on the verge of curing cancer, or writing their first novel.   Each one was in their own universe of thought, of ideas, of creation.

In the international development community, when we talk about participatory or community-based development, I’m not sure why libraries aren’t at the tip of our tongues.  They are the ultimate expression of people defining and meeting their own needs.

Libraries are a civic duty

New York Public Library was built with private money and it is largely maintained with private money, as are many libraries in this country.

Team Maria’s Libraries has had the conversation about private donations many times, including doing a two month research project on it this summer.  We’ve experimented with different models of garnering funds from the community, and nothing has really taken hold quite yet.  Maria had a lot of questions for our noble tour guide about this aspect of things—especially about how the trustees work.  Of course people have their own interests for being on a library board, but overall, supporting libraries is firmly in the sphere of civic duty.

Another way to look at Maria’s “libraries are like an ocean” comment would be to consider the intricate collection of actors required to make a library run and be relevant—although perhaps we should call it an ecosystem.  Private citizens, government, technical experts in library science, architecture, and technology, and of course the library users—all of these groups need to be in balance, to work in separate spheres but in concert with each other.  This is a library.

In Conclusion

The tour of the NYPL is greatly inspiring; it was also both intimidating and affirming.  While Maria has been working for 12 years and Maria’s Libraries has been working for 4 years towards the completion of the library in Busia, we continually realize that we’re only just beginning.  Since ML has been involved, we’ve spent two years working out our relationship with the government, two years settling the property rights issues on the plot of library land, and now we’ve begun our negotiation process with the architects around the building plans.  We have yet to identify our local patron (if anyone reading this is the Brooke Astor of Western Kenya, email me!), and identifying what is needed in the full library collection is not even on the table yet.  This process is slow and sometimes feels like a series of hurdles.  And this it will continue to be, for as long as the library is around.

One Response

  1. Elle says:

    You do not mention that you were in the central research library. There are 90 libaries that comprise The New York Public Library, the great prepoderance of which are neighborhood branch, circulating libraries. True, the foundation of the library system was built with extant private collections of wealthy business and monies donated by Andrew Carnegie, but the system was founded with the proviso that Carnegie would build the libraries, but the City would be responsible for their maintenance. NYC taxpayers, along with local, state and federal funds, pay for collections and building maintenance. You were in a very rarified environment, the 42nd Street research (read: non-circulating)library, that out of fear of its own feared obselescense, arrived at the absurd idea of selling off 3 of their largest and most popular and heavily trafficked library centers. Mine was one of them, the first in fact. It was and remains an outrage. That the research library lost sight that the circulating library system was set up in direct response to the needs to divide the highly scholarly, rare, and for some things rarely accessed research collection items from the more pedestrian, mundane and immediate items being requested is beyond me. Yes, the vaunted “New York Public Library” with the 2 lions, is mostly supported with private donations, because it is a bastion of elitism. You think staff are invited to any of the soirees that are regularly held there? Think again. It is a rarified cultural entity, that has very little to do with the real work that takes place in any of the 89 other libraries (the only other close second to the central library is the Performing Arts Library, at Lincoln Center). So please, take a return trip to NYC and visit the REAL NYPL. I think you’ll find those and what they realize and represent are far closer to what you’ll want to emulate in Busia.

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