Anthony Grafton: My Stomach Hurts When I Think About Upcoming Changes at the New York Public Library





Anthony Grafton is the Henry Putnam University Professor of History. He can be reached at grafton@princeton.edu.

This is a tale of two libraries and how they’re being transformed. One of them is [Princeton's] own Firestone: the Gothic hull with its distinctive interior decorative scheme, half “Mad Men,” half World War II submarine; its carrels where seniors used to confine themselves like the hermits of the ancient Syrian desert; and its lower floors, the caverns measureless to man, where a German friend, looking a little desperate, said to me,“Tony, this library is not user-friendly,” and disappeared down dark rows of books, never to be seen again (I think he may still be down there).

The other is the New York Public Library — or, more precisely, its Stephen A. Schwarzman Building, the great stone Beaux-Arts structure at Fifth Avenue and 42nd Street that houses the library’s main reference collections, behind the two friendly lions, Patience and Fortitude, and many handsome sets of stone staircases....

...NYPL is a palace for the people, open to anyone who cares to come in and order a book. But it has closed stacks accessible only to the staff who page the materials that readers order....

[Under planned reforms] NYPL ... will change not only its appearance but its functions....

...Instead of offering books, in the first instance, NYPL will offer banks of computers, fast Wi-Fi and lots of places designed for individuals and groups to work together: a big, and probably beautiful, digital commons, with a cafe and circulating collection....

My stomach hurts when I think about NYPL, the first great library I ever worked in, turned into a vast internet cafe where people can read the same Google Books, body parts and all, that they could access at home or Starbucks. And my head tells me that I can’t predict a thing because we’re living through a great revolution, and we don’t yet know what lies on the other side.



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