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Published: February 24, 2009

 
 

The Library Rebooted

And at a time when budgets are tight and new operating models are being explored, libraries will have to introduce new metrics to measure staff performance. There may be some resistance to this, especially if the library’s staff is conditioned to think of what it does as a government service that isn’t in jeopardy, that could never be in jeopardy, and that doesn’t operate in a changing “marketplace.” But in the bigger context of changes, this resistance to measurement should be easy to surmount. Institutions that proactively measure perfor­mance, embrace change, and look for ways to serve users will have an easier time getting financial support in an era of reduced public resources and private donations.

7. Be courageous. It’s no wonder that the best library executives are feeling a sense of urgency these days, along with a little uneasiness. Their world has changed — a lot. The library’s underlying promise hasn’t changed; the library is still a way for us to break beyond the immediate boundaries of our world, to help our children become better educated, to foster literacy and self-improvement, and to make our societies more prosperous. But the environment in which libraries operate has certainly shifted, and the challenge for those running them is to figure out the evolutionary path they should follow. There is no one answer, which may provide an advantage to those with an appetite for intelligent risk taking. After all, nothing nowadays — nothing at all — is written in stone. 

Reinventing the Role of the Research Library
by Paul LeClerc

When I first came to the New York Public Library, in 1993, I got a tour of highlights from the library’s collections, including the successive typescripts of Edward Albee’s Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? You could see the corrections Albee made and the way he continuously revised the text and made it better. You could get this close to the creative process. It was a miracle to see.

To my mind, Albee’s Woolf papers go to the heart of what makes a research library important. And they show why research libraries in general aren’t in danger of being sidelined by Google, which has set out to digitize the world’s books. As long as there are special pieces covered by copyright, like the Woolf papers, and as long as a library withholds some parts of its collections, Google can’t make those directly available to the public. Someone interested in seeing them would have to come to our library, or to the British Library, or to the Bibliothèque Nationale de France, or wherever the collections existed.

I like Google. I was giving a speech the other day, and I wanted to find some clever aphorisms about gratitude. In the old days, I would have gone upstairs to the reading room and spent 45 minutes pulling books of quotations off the shelf, finding them and writing them down. Now, all I did was Google “gratitude quotations,” and I got a lot of great ideas. It was effortless, effective, and efficient.

Of course, online search engines are also creating a problem for libraries. Fewer people are coming, because their information needs can be met online. This is less of an issue for neighborhood libraries because many people who use them do so not for research purposes but because there are things there that they cannot afford to have access to otherwise, like computers, or because they need a place to be with other people. Business at our lending libraries is very strong; the numbers are up substantially.

Foot traffic has been a bigger concern at our research libraries, and we are taking steps to address that. To start with, we had some data showing that a lot of the materials in the stacks of our Fifth Avenue research library simply weren’t being used or were being used infrequently. We realized we could move the collection underground and use the reclaimed space to create a big circulating library — and a gorgeous new facility for the public. We are transforming the library’s physical footprint.

The other part of our strategy for revitalizing our research libraries is to refocus the collections, scaling back our commitment to those that generate less interest and emphasizing unique collections, including archives, photographs, and prints. The idea is to own things that exist in few, if any, other places. To the extent that we can do this, we can make the library a place you need to come to if you want to use those materials — until such time, obviously, as we decide to put them online. And we will be putting things online; our goal is to build a substantial digital library as well, and turn ourselves at least partly into a Web destination.

Is it worthwhile for libraries to start the process of having their books — at least their public-domain books — scanned and digitized? Yes, it is. That is why we pushed to be one of the founding participants in the Google Books Library Project. We were the only public library in that first cohort of five libraries. Google performs a very important function for its library partners, which is that they will store your digital files and spare you the cost. That’s a value.

Still, there are a few things that libraries do uniquely well. Libraries are really good at sorting things in traditional, vertical silos, and letting you move up and down through them. That’s very different from the broad horizontal searching enabled by Google. Indeed, I believe it will be the libraries participating in Google’s project that will eventually aggregate Google’s book database into something more cohesive. The Internet will also make it easier for librarians to play a role in bringing scholarly communities together and shaping the research agenda.

The core library missions of collection and preservation haven’t gone away. We see our preservation role almost as a sacred one — we are the guardians of human expression, if you will. It’s a value system that really isn’t based on the kinds of things one generally takes into consideration in a business environment, where the use of something justifies the expenditure on it. Here, it’s much more of an abstraction; we justify the expenditure because our people have made a decision that a piece of work, a document, is important. And once we make that decision, and the work or document comes in, we’re bound by a certain kind of compact that exists on an intellectual, maybe even ethical level, to make it last.

Now, some people may wonder why physical preservation is so important if Google will end up digitizing everything anyway. If a written piece is available online, does its physical instantiation really matter?

That’s a very logical question to ask. The problem is that it assumes Google will be around forever. That’s true of very few companies. Our public funding is an important advantage in this regard; this isn’t like running a company that could be acquired or go out of business. We don’t even think in those terms. At the same time, we realize that, like any other institution, we occasionally have to transform who we are and what we do.

Our main library branch renovation project, in which we will invest about US$250 million, is a big step in that direction. When it’s completed, the landmark building on Fifth Avenue will be the largest comprehensive library open to the public in human history. We have made extensive organiza­tional changes to support this project, and to make our neighborhood li­braries more responsive to the needs of New Yorkers.

In the future, one challenge for all libraries will be to fulfill their preservation mission at a time when much of the world’s written material is being produced digitally. We know how to preserve a book. We can stabilize the paper; we can deacidify it. We can basically guarantee it’ll last for the next 500 or 1,000 years.

Nobody knows how to do that with digital information. There will have to be some fundamental basic research done in preservation techniques. The research doesn’t necessarily have to go on within a library, but it has got to be done with an eye to the library’s needs.

Paul LeClerc is president and chief executive officer of the New York Public Library.

 
 
 
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Resources

  1. Robert Darnton, “The Library in the New Age,” New York Review of Books, June 12, 2008: Eight reasons libraries are more important than ever. 
  2. Anthony Grafton, “Future Reading,” New Yorker, November 5, 2007: What digitization means for reading and the library.
  3. Miguel Helft and Motoko Rich, “Google Settles Suit over Book-Scanning,” New York Times, October 28, 2008: The impact of Google’s settlement with authors and publishers.
  4. Robin Pogrebin, “A $100 Million Donation to the N.Y. Public Library,” New York Times, March 11, 2008: News story on the charitable gift by financier Stephen Schwarzman.
  5. Jeffrey Toobin, “Google’s Moon Shot,” New Yorker, February 5, 2007: Google’s ambitious plan to digitize all the world’s books.
  6. Google Books Library Project Web site: Provides an explanation of how its digitized book site works.
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