A tale of two libraries and a revolution
The other is the New York Public Library — or, more precisely, its Stephen A. Schwarzman Building, the great stone Beaux-Arts structure at Fifth Avenue and 42nd Street that houses the library’s main reference collections, behind the two friendly lions, Patience and Fortitude, and many handsome sets of stone staircases.
They’re both great libraries, stuffed with books old and new, American and foreign, but they’re also very different from one another. Firestone looks — as an acute observer noted — like a biscuit factory; NYPL looks like — well, like a great library. Firestone has one plain but comfortable reading room on the first floor; NYPL has several: above all, the Rose Main Reading Room, a symphony in golden varnished oak tables and gleaming bronze lamps, lit by majestic windows.
Firestone is closed to outsiders but open to all Princetonians, from freshmen to emeriti; its shelves a glorious please touch museum for those of us who become intoxicated when we sniff crumbling buckram and library paste. NYPL is a palace for the people, open to anyone who cares to come in and order a book. But it has closed stacks accessible only to the staff who page the materials that readers order. Both of them are places where you can fall in love with books — not texts, those immaterial things that theorists bombinate about, but beautiful, worn objects made of paper and leather and cloth.
Both libraries need a lot of work, both to fix ailing systems and to make them more efficient places to use books and digital resources. But the restoration plans couldn’t be more different. When debate flared about what should happen in Firestone. Provost Eisgruber and Karin Trainer, University librarian, convened a committee of stakeholders. Its members looked at other libraries, heard presentations and helped the authorities reach a decision. For the next generation and perhaps longer, books will play a vital role in the kinds of research that Princeton scholars do. Though the building will be changed in many ways, it won’t be turned into a massive study and social space, as many other libraries have been. Rather, we will keep as many books as we can under the roof — where active scholars want them — even as the physical systems are renewed, the stacks made brighter and less labyrinthine and working spaces opened up for readers.
NYPL, by contrast, will change not only its appearance but its functions. Millions of books will move from its stacks to the Recap facility it shares with Princeton and Columbia, out here in suburban New Jersey. Readers who want to consult a book will often have to order it in advance — and may find, as readers sometimes do here, that real delivery times are slower than advertised ones. More recent books, in some cases at least, will circulate.
Instead of offering books, in the first instance, NYPL will offer banks of computers, fast Wi-Fi and lots of places designed for individuals and groups to work together: a big, and probably beautiful, digital commons, with a cafe and circulating collection. The starchitect Norman Foster will design the new spaces. If he does his job well — and he usually does — the new space will attract students and writers and ordinary citizens from all over the city and become a hub of literary,intellectual and social life for a new generation.
Will the new Firestone, with its massive ranks of dead-tree media, attract student readers who have always read on screens? Will the new NYPL keep up its world-class collections of books in dozens of languages — Slavic, Semitic, and African — and the staff of specialists needed to keep finding and cataloguing them — books, most of them, that won’t be available in digital form in the foreseeable future? Will the new Firestone work as social space? Will the new NYPL still support scholars — especially the independent scholars who need it most — and give students a chance to know and love real books as well as their digital shadows? Can public library budgets support the constant upgrading needed to keep a digital workspace usable?
The world’s full of confident experts who have answers to these questions. I’ve got nothing. My heart’s with what we’re doing in Firestone. My stomach hurts when I think about NYPL, the first great library I ever worked in, turned into a vast internet cafe where people can read the same Google Books, body parts and all, that they could access at home or Starbucks. And my head tells me that I can’t predict a thing because we’re living through a great revolution, and we don’t yet know what lies on the other side.
Anthony Grafton is the Henry Putnam University Professor of History. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.