Blog Post

No More Physical Books at the New York Public Library?

Kyle McAuley's recent posts about the New York Public Library's controversial plans to renovate inspired me to write the following, which has been reposted from my blog.

The New York Public Library’s plan for the future:

“The new super-library will also be designed for a time when the idea of physically circulating books becomes a thing of the past and practically all library ‘materials’ will be available exclusively through digital devices.” --Charles Petersen, n+1: "Lions in Winter, Part One"

I read that sentence and think with a gulp, no more physical books? The NYPL’s decision to plan for a future where all reading is done on digital devices seems to me shortsighted, at least when it comes to conducting efficient, thorough research and producing knowledge.

The quoted passage above also leads me to the following questions:

  • If you avoid books and hard copies of other research materials as much as possible, what are your methods for researching and writing a paper, a dissertation, or a book?
  • How many computers, screens, eReaders, tablets, or other device does one ideally need to avoid going the physical library and / or printing something out?
  • How do we prepare for a future of researching and writing really good papers, dissertations, and books, without using actual books and other non-digital materials?

As a researcher, I could not go entirely paperless and do thorough research and write well for many reasons.

A single screen or eReader is not enough to accommodate a project that requires a lot primary and secondary source material. Clicking from document to document on a single screen (or screens), waiting for a page to load or “turn,” and being wholly dependent on electricity for powering information are among the reasons that an entirely digitized approach strikes me as an inefficient if not risky way to work. Efficiency might increase with a screen large enough to display two or more documents, along with an extra screen,  a lap top, an iPad, and a couple of eReaders. But doesn’t that herd of electronic devices strike you as a bit excessive?

When I’m writing, the key books for my research surround me, usually with Post-Its stuck on important pages. There also is the stack of articles I’ve printed out, with notes scrawled over them. Beyond this inner circle of paper and ink, there are more books and hand-written or typed notes and manila folders filled with printouts of scholarly articles, newspaper articles, and drafts of chapters. It’s not a pretty sight to see all these papers on my floor and available desk space (and on extra chair(s), an end table, and in cardboard boxes), but the material is easy to get to, and I have a good visual sense of the scope and scale of my research material. Rather than mousing around for a specific page in an eBook or PDF, it is much quicker for me to open the physical book with the Post-It and re-read the necessary passage or chapter, and type excerpts into my computer.

Moreover, studies show that readers absorb less information when reading material on a screen. That is true for me. I take in much more when I read a hard copy on my couch. When reading something on a screen I tend to scan it quickly and end up searching for key words on pages that require lots of scrolling. If my blog posts require too much scrolling, I shorten them. No doubt you're scanning this rather long post, right now.

I’m not a Luddite, however. Having access to library databases inside and outside of the library is incredibly valuable. So is GoogleBooks, a resource that is a godsend for previewing a book before deciding if it's necessary to get the actual one, for double checking quotations, and it is much easier to find source material on GoogleBooks than the library catalog because it searches inside the texts. It’s also a wonderful archive of magazines. Of course, GoogleBooks is not complete. It is depressing to encounter “snippet view,” “this page not available” and “no preview.” You need the physical book, after all.

Researchers need to be able to choose when to use a hard copy of research material and when to use digitized versions. In fact, we enjoy that balance, for the most part, right now. The problem is that libraries are striving to take away that choice before we have the physical resources and skills to do research and writing using an entirely digital approach. I have no doubt that one day researchers will think it utterly challenging to thumb through a physical book and scan its pages for a key word or passage using only their eyeballs. They will consider books to be quaint artifacts and from an aesthetic point of view. But for now, researchers still need this important balance between paper and digital.

Any thoughts on this subject?



Elizabeth, thanks for the thought-provoking response to my post. My inclination is to say that the NYPL is moving away from their longstanding support of researchers and is moving more toward the library as a place that provides services to the public. This is tough to argue against -- one great argument in favor of what they're doing is that lower-income job seekers need greater free internet and computer access -- but the real damning thing, in my view, is that the NYPL refuses to come out and say that their research division will suffer as a result of this change. They continue to insist that the renovation is an "investment" in research, when it clearly isn't. The reason they're selling Mid-Manhattan and SIBL is to make money in the short term, which is a terrible investment decision. In this age of diminished funding for universities and public institutions (especially public universities, but that's another discussion), you just can't have your cake and eat it too.

Since you're at Fordham, I'd encourage you to come to the event on Tuesday! It's obviously far from the Bronx, but worth traveling for.


Kyle, Thanks for your thoughtful response. Providing library resources to the public is extremely important, and you are right to say it is tough to argue against. At least one response to that plan asks why so much money is being spent on the main library at 42nd St., when many branch libraries are in need of basic repairs, supplies, and longer hours. If that's true, it makes me think that the library is trying to establish a flagship store [of knowledge] at 42nd St., just like a regular retail chain. Even if the 42nd St. location can offer a bonanza of free services to a needy public, including computers for searching the internet and eReaders that can be "checked out," what about the people who live far away and can't afford the subway fare? For people who work and commute long hours, getting to that library cannot be particularly convenient.

As for researchers, it really does feel like we're being pushed out. One thing I love about the uncirculating books in that library is that they are always so clean. Branch library books (and college library books, for that matter) are often grungy and marked up. Or checked out.

I am definitely going to the forum and I appreciate that you've drawn the event to everyone's attention.