A Library Sans Livres

Vintage library poster from the New York Public Library Archives

I suspect that the human species—the unique human species—is on the road to extinction, while the Library will last on forever.” —Borges, “Library of Babel

If you had visited the New York Public Library’s website during the two months between the announcement of Mayor Michael Bloomberg’s proposed budget cuts and the final New York City Council budget vote on June 29, you might have feared that the institution would flake apart in the city’s hands like the page of a rare book. As you entered the site, the screen went black, and a white message emerged from the darkness, imploring you to “Find the Future / Fund the Future.” No funding, no future. Unless you donated or wrote your New York City Council representative, the message warned, the library could face $40 million in budget cuts. It would be open only four days a week, children’s programs would be slashed, one-third fewer books and DVDs would remain on shelves, job help and computer time would be reduced, and many branches would close. Make the wrong choice, and the library could disappear.

But now the library is safe—or so it seems. The final budget granted the library $36.7 million of the $40 million it had threatened to take away, and Public Relations Director Angela Montefinise was eager to reassure any frantic website visitors: “The people of New York will still have access to the critically important free services we offer that are being used now more than ever—computers and Internet, books, programs, classes, job search resources, and more.” Yet into her reassurance sneaks another danger. The Merriam-Webster’s definition of a library is “a place in which literary, musical, artistic, or reference materials (as books, manuscripts, recordings, or films) are kept for use but not for sale.” Books form the root of the library’s very name, but when Montefinise jubilantly listed the services the library could still provide thanks to the restored budget, they come in third after computers and the internet. Saved from the Council’s knife, is the library itself cutting away at its own definition?

The introductory placard to an exhibit at the library’s iconic Stephen A. Schwarzman Building—“Celebrating 100 Years” (open through December 31), which marks the famous main branch’s centennial by displaying some 250 treasures from its research collection—seems to think so. It reads:

As the Internet makes information increasingly easy to obtain and more experiences become virtual, direct encounters with the Library’s books, manuscripts, prints, photographs, and objects reveal the collections as an indispensable public resource.

While Montefinise celebrates the social utility of free computer access, the exhibit purports to defend the physical objects in its keep against the virtualization of everyday life.

Whether the exhibition succeeds is another question. In his review of the exhibit for the New York Times, Edward Rothstein criticizes its decontextualized juxtapositions. Turning his attention on the two central display cases “used to emphasize the collection’s variety with playful comparisons,” he wonders at the placement of a Picasso etching of a turkey next to a textile of orange flowers designed by Wesley Simpson Custom Fabrics under the heading, “From art that changes how we see the world…to art we see every day.” The problem, he argues, “is that these comparisons put all objects on the same level. How important is that Picasso etching? What was special about that fabric company?”

He doesn’t say it, but his criticism suggests that the curatorial mission of the exhibit seems to mimic rather than critique the internet. Where would the internet be if not for “playful comparisons?” The exhibit is loosely organized into four categories: Society (which displays the Declaration of Independence along with a KKK robe, a letter from a slave named James Tate to his recently sold wife, anti-Nazi pamphlets written by Thomas Mann, and artifacts from movements for women’s, civil, and LGBT rights), Creativity (where the literary artifacts, such as Dickens’s letter opener, reside), Contemplation (where the photocopied journals of Malcolm X are mounted on a wall between an illuminated copy of City of God and an illustrated copy of the Divine Comedy) and Observation (which features one of Columbus’s letters describing the “New World,” and the first photograph taken of our whole world from space). Each category is remarkably broad, and only a paragraph of text, at most, explains the importance of each object. All the books displayed are behind glass and open to one page, so that they function more as images than as texts. It almost feels as if the library were trying to create a physical manifestation of a Tumblr page: “Fuck Yeah Old Library Stuff.”

The quandary is that while the introductory statement suggests that new media are a danger to the printed word, the exhibit’s curatorial style indicates that the library is trying to fight back by beating the internet at its own game. While the side-by-side comparisons Rothstein mentions might not get as many page views as Tumblr accounts, others would do quite well. What about a Tumblr of famous authors’ writing tools next to the finished product? The Creativity section displays the typewriters of e.e. cummings, S.J. Perelman, and Terry Southern below their typed manuscripts, as well as Charlotte Bronte’s traveling writing desk next to a miniature manuscript of Tales of the Islanders. What about famous literature and its pop-culture derivatives? In the same section, the first edition of Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein appears next to a 1945 comic in the Classics Illustrated series. The exhibit claims to display the “depth and breadth” of the library’s collection, but the truth is that in the exhibit, as on the internet, breadth takes precedence over depth.

Perhaps the best way to assess what the library really wants to say about new technology is to focus on the six objects at the center of the exhibit that trace “the way information has been recorded and shared over time.” This visual timeline begins with cuneiform wedges from circa 2300 BCE, then proceeds to a Gutenberg Biblia Latina, a cyanotype photograph of British algae by Anna Atkins (a botanist credited with producing the first book illustrated with photographs), phonographs (including one designed by Edison), and the first Xerox (invented by patent attorney Chester F. Carson, who was tired of recopying legal documents). The time line culminates with a large projector that displays slides from the library’s 740,000-item digital library, suggesting that this is just another step in the evolution of how we share information. We accept that cuneiforms are no longer used as writing tools; their giving way to pens and then the printing press seems natural and beneficial. Is the library suggesting that books may one day be as dusty and indecipherable as these rough clay squares? And is that a threat?

An argument for the value of the physical is partially provided by the contrast between the projected slideshow of the digital collection and the objects on display. The slides alternate between images (New York scenes, vintage book covers, old play posters) and facts about the library (the dimensions of the famous, near football-field-size Rose Main Reading Room, for example). These juxtapositions are far more jarring than any between the physical objects. What is a “Death = Silence” AIDS awareness poster doing in the same spool as a vintage cover of Ladies Home Journal? Why does a set including Christmas cards end with a black-and-white photograph of a protest? The images flash by too quickly for analysis.

The slower pace of walking through the rest of the exhibit, the chance to read even the short explanatory statements, and the objects’ physicality give them an inherent context that the projected images lacked. Looking at the KKK robe, I could see by staring at where its wearer’s eyes would have been that this was likely a man who needed that triangular hood to feel tall. The anti-Nazi pamphlets were small, smuggled into Germany in packets of tea and tomato seeds, and I could imagine the terror and thrill of reaching for a tea bag only to hold illegal words in hand. Had these objects been photographed and uploaded onto the digital collection, they would have appeared exactly the same size. The process of digitization converts diverse media into the same: whatever they represent — photographs, books, illustrations, maps — they all become pixels on a screen.

Still, if this contrast was intentional on the curator’s part, it was remarkably subtle. The exhibit could have better argued for the value of the library’s physical collection by including a side room where visitors could sign up to read from some of the less fragile books on display and perhaps write responses in a group notebook that would then be added to the library’s collection. As it is, the exhibit raises two questions it never fully answers: Does the library’s expanding definition threaten its original purpose, and if so, is this a threat worth fighting?

But perhaps that is all right. Maryanne Woolf, John DiBiaggio Professor in the Eliot-Pearson Department of Child Development at Tufts University, argues that while we don’t yet know the effect that digital media have on the brain, we do know how the brain processes printed text and how important that process is to our status as res cogitans:

When reading even a single word, the first milliseconds of the [brain’s] reading circuit are largely devoted to decoding the word’s visual information and connecting it to all that we know about the word from its sounds to meanings to syntactic functions. The virtual automaticity of this first set of stages allows us in the next milliseconds to go beyond the decoded text. It is within the next precious milliseconds that we enter a cognitive space where we can connect the decoded information to all that we know and feel. In this latter part of the process of reading, we are given the ability to think new thoughts of our own.

The library is at its best when it offers itself as a public space for this contemplative process, providing equal access not only to information, but also to reflection; not only to rote learning, but also to the autodidact’s tools. The exhibit allows us to wander its artifacts as we wander the library’s stacks—to seek out our own answers with help from its catalog of questions.

Field Notes

When a 1952 flight scheduled for New York crashed in the Amazon Rainforest, it kicked off a race to find survivors between a PanAm exec, a Brazilian governor, and a Florida psychic