while I certainly don’t begrudge the administration’s decision to devote resources to the users of its branch libraries, it is simply absurd to suggest that providing the best possible resources to anyone who walks through the door is somehow undemocratic because not every member of the public happens to make use of them.
One former staff member summed up the concerns of many librarians like this: “The problem is you’re applying methodologies and analytic tools that were maybe best suited to a Starbucks or a Wal-Mart. For your collection of Dickens, so what, you get four readers a year, is that relevant? You’re supposed to be a research library looking not two months ahead of time but two hundred years ahead of time.”
With few exceptions, the older librarians with whom I spoke were similarly technologically up-to-date. Unlike newspaper and book publishers, who greeted the internet and e-readers with fear, librarians have little attachment to books, since they have long provided patrons with everything from papyri to scrolls to broadsides to prints to photographs to manuscripts to 78 rpm records to CDs to 16mm films to VHSs to DVDs to databases. Librarians pride themselves on knowing more about how to access information than anyone. No matter how old the librarian, and no matter how much I learned about the latest trends, I continued to find that most everyone I spoke with knew far more about how to find things online than I did.
Individually, many of these decisions [at the NYPL] are understandable. Together, they paint a picture of an organization that has stumbled its way into the 21st century. While the administration has had no trouble finding money for new construction and renovations at the research centers, it has struggled to staff the resulting facilities and to buy the materials necessary to maintain them at a world-class level. And now that the administration has concluded that it cannot sustain these operations, it is not retrenching and raising more funds to run them, but instead selling off entire buildings, closing rooms, cutting back on research acquisitions, and directing the proceeds to the creation of a new circulating facility that can only be built by tearing out the heart of the central research collection.