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The Library of the Future

When I leave the city for long periods of time, I return to find that the streetscape and skyline have changed. Stores have closed, new scaffolds have been erected, and different graffiti decorates the lampposts. I left New York during the summer of 2011, and returned to find Borders deserted and for rent. Barnes & Noble appears to be next. And now, a new change is about to occur. It won’t be visible for quite some time, and when it happens, it may be easy to miss.

In March 2008, The New York Public Library (NYPL) revealed a plan they call the Central Library Plan, which includes closing down two of the three libraries closest to Stern College: The Science, Industry, and Business Library (SIBL) and the Mid-Manhattan Library. These two libraries will be consolidated into the Stephen A. Schwarzman research library’s branch, which will become a circulating library. The project’s end date is estimated to be 2017-18. Part of what drew me to Stern College was the metropolitan location as a stimulant for academic growth. But the city is changing. Buildings that contain books are being sold, and the books themselves are disappearing.

I’ll be upset at the loss of two buildings that are part of my daily scenery. The SIBL library stands next to Eden Wok and the Astro Gallery of Gems, while the Mid-Manhattan branch sticks out amidst the Fifth Avenue shopping scene. Combating the materialistic storescape of Midtown are its libraries and bookstores.

Yet the NYPL’s plan doesn’t end with closing down the two branches closest to Stern College. The NYPL plans to then reconstruct the stacks that lurk beneath the Stephen A. Schwarzman building. Most of the books now in the stacks will be moved to a warehouse in New Jersey and will need to be called in. Although books leaving the city might not have a visible effect on the daily lives of New York civilians, the fewer books in the city, the lower the intellectual environment. As books are excommunicated to stuffy warehouses where they will not see the light of day, the very atmosphere of the city is changing.

The library promises books will be delivered in 24 hours and that they wouldn’t project such a plan if it they couldn’t keep to this promise. Yet, I’m skeptical. As I write this, I sit waiting my fifteen minutes for obscure books to be called up from the stacks at the Stephen A. Schwarzman building. And soon, instead of fifteen minutes, I’ll be required to wait an entire day or possibly longer. Perhaps the majority of the time these books will be delivered in the promised 24 hours. Yet I wonder what will happen when the weather makes it harder for drivers to access the roads but allows me to walk to the NYPL. The books I want won’t necessarily be immediately accessible.

As someone who has spent my past two summers mostly in the stacks of libraries, I have a soft spot in my heart for rows and rows of books, some new, some hundreds of years old, some still waiting to be discovered. The thrill of chasing down a book in the stacks is indescribable. There’s nothing like walking into the cold stacks, surrounded from all four directions by words, feeling literally immersed in writing. With books above and below, one feels surrounded by words and knowledge. It’s an aspect of books that technology can’t replace. Due to their physical weight and presence, books can surround you, overtake you, envelope you.

Let’s take this away, says the NYPL. Let’s take away the knowledge that when you enter the Stephen A. Schwarzman building, about 5 million books reside beneath your feet. Ironically, the library just spent 50 million dollars and three years to restore a façade that proclaims, “For the achievement of useful knowledge,” “Dedicated to history, literature, and the fine arts,” and “To serve the interests of science and popular education.” Closing down branches and shipping books out of the city seems to send the opposite message.

Additionally, the NYPL plans to replace the stacks with a computer center and possibly install a café. This area will be a place for people to eat, talk and use computers. Already, a small ’Wichcraft stand has migrated inside from Bryant Park and has been set up in the lobby of the NYPL, creating more of a tourist center than a hub for academic research.

Joan Scott, a historian who spearheaded a petition against the Central Library Plan, told The Commentator, “I'm a historian and depend on libraries and books for my research. The NYPL is the most democratic library in the world—no other library lets just anyone in to work in it. At all others you need credentials to prove you are ‘somebody.’ . . .  It's a false sense of democracy. You don't need cafes and lots of open spaces for people to congregate [in] to have a democratic institution. You need access—which already exists—and skilled librarians to help you do your research. If staff cuts aren't restored, the library will be less democratic than it's been for many years.”

Scott collected 750 signatures on her petition, from the editors of n+1 to Art Spiegelman, author of Maus. She then sent a letter to the president of the NYPL, Anthony Marx, “protesting the planned $350 million restructuring of the 42nd Street branch of the library and calling for a public discussion of the Central Library Plan.” The press release continues, stating that the “critics call upon the library to restore staff positions that have been decimated by budget cuts; to restore the Slavic and Baltic Division, permanently closed in 2008; to attend to deteriorating structural conditions at the Schomburg Library in Harlem, the premier place for research on African-American history; and to restore the Library for the Performing Arts at Lincoln Center. These should be given priority over a misguided and costly plan to add a circulating library to 42nd Street by ripping out the library’s historic stacks and sending a majority of its 5 million books to a storage facility in New Jersey.

Gila Yarmush, a senior at Stern College, also opposes the Central Library Plan. Yarmush commented, “I signed so many—maybe 30—petitions last year when [the New York Public Library] told me their funding was getting cut . . . and then I found out they are doing this whole new multi-million dollar renovation.” When asked if she believes that it’s a good plan to haul books in from New Jersey, Yarmush replied, “They say that they’ll have the book for you within 24 hours. That will most likely turn out to be false. Maybe they’ll do that for the first year or so, but when they need to cut funds again they’ll cut it from that.” Why does Yarmush believe the NYPL would make a promise they can’t keep? “The reason I believe it won’t end up being true is because the NYPL’s Center for the Performing Arts at Lincoln Center at one point did get books stored off site to you in 24 hours, and then they cut funding, and it took longer than 24 hours to receive books. And when you need a book, or books, for research, you can't always wait that long. That could potentially mean a day of no research.” Yarmush has researched at the NYPL and at Yeshiva University’s libraries. Although disappointed and upset with the NYPL’s decisions, Yarmush believes that Yeshiva University’s library staff is excellent. However, Yarmush admitted that many improvements could be made to the Yeshiva University Libraries, such as purchasing more books and extending library hours.

With the NYPL system’s issues, perhaps it’s time for Yeshiva University’s Libraries to step up their game. Yeshiva University, despite all that it provides us academically, is lacking in its libraries. Our librarians are very helpful, and the Interlibrary Loan Service is a huge asset because our libraries are small and have few books compared to large universities. Yet our libraries, especially those in Midtown, have shorter hours than serious students need. In a city that is already so fast paced, where it’s often difficult to take time to stop, think, research and learn, and at an academic university located in that city, one might think that our libraries would be open until the wee hours of the night. While NYU’s Bobst library contains roughly 4.5 million books and Columbia’s houses about 10.4 million, the Hedi Steinberg Library contains only 170,000 volumes, while Mendel Gottesman and Pollack contain a combined 617,000. The last thing Stern College needs is fewer books available in its vicinity. Although the Wilf campus libraries host more books and archival material, the decorum is much less serious and few floors are places for serious study.

With our university and public libraries disappearing or shrinking, where is the academic center of the future? Perhaps soon, even centers for academia will be nonexistent. As such, this isn’t the kind of cause to be silent about. Speaking out or writing about the NYPL’s decisions might not change them, but it will help others, like Yeshiva University’s Libraries, realize that students still care about working in an academic environment that is well stocked with books and worthy of serious study.

The day I found out about this plan, I had eaten a fortune cookie earlier. The fortune read, “Book lovers never go to bed alone.” When I first read the fortune, I smiled. Then, later that day, I found out that that books are dying faster than we think. Soon, in the city that never sleeps, book lovers will be going to bed alone, without books, and without like-minded people who are also against the NYPL’s morphing into a library that “Embraces the Future.” If this is the future of libraries, I question if we should embrace it.