Friday, April 11, 2014

New York Public Library—A Museum or a Hive of Erudition

The New York Public Library is one of the world’s great institutions. The Map Room is grand space with an impressive collection. The Reading Room is outsized and majestic. The comprehensive Art & Architecture Collection is housed in yet another gracious room.

I have written previously that libraries may eventually become museums for printed books.Are books becoming obsolete? Is a library the only place we’ll be able to see these odd antiquities? Will librarians admonish us to “don’t touch,” instead of shushing chatterboxes? Are we entering a binary world where everything is decomposed into a series of ones and zeros and then instantly reassembled on a hand-held device?”

Nothing epitomizes this eventuality more than the New York Public Library. There seem to be miles of marble hallways that can accommodate twelve abreast, super-high ceilings, broad staircases galore, and very few books. The stacks are forbidden to all except the high priesthood and nowhere in sight. In fact, it’s rare to see a printed book even in the Reading Room. Everybody seems engrossed in computer or iPad screens umbilicaled to handy electrical outlets that run down the center of the tables. Only two rows of tables in the far back restrict computers and e-readers. On the day we were there, these were the only available seats in the expansive room.

I don’t lament the rarity of printed books, but I fear we might lose the expertise of librarians. I saw few people get up from their prized seats to make an inquiry to one of the staff. I suspect if they wanted an answer, they Googled it at their table. What a shame. My experience with librarians is that they are not only highly knowledgeable, but eager to share their knowledge. Unique nuggets of information cannot be discovered on Google, but a librarian can point you toward a source that can elicit a eureka moment. Print is a medium and a book can be presented in other formats without losing all of its worth. On the other hand, the demise of librarians would be a tragedy.  

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