Belle of Liberty

Letting Freedom Ring

Thursday, February 02, 2012

Erasing the Writing on the Wall

If you think buying a new book is prohibitively expensive, just try to buy a book that’s out of print.  A friend recently bought an obscure book on music, last published in 1977.  He found one online from a used bookseller and had to pay the princely sum of $80 in order to acquire it. 

The New York Public Library recently announced that it is moving 3 million books out of its main branch on Fifth Avenue – across the street from where the NYPL used to be located but is now an art museum – to a warehouse in Princeton, N.J.   We warned you of this months ago.

According to Ivan Kenneally in a column in the New York Post, “NYPL President Anthony explained that the purpose of the Central Library Plan is to ‘replace books with people.’”    It’s the latest trend in libraries – getting rid of the books and making more space for people – and computers.

“The NYPL will spend at least $250 million on this project — at a time when it has slashed its workforce by 27 percent since 2008 and its acquisition budget by nearly as much. The resources lavished on the renovation of the Schwarzman building come at the expense of the 91 other branches, many starving for funds. But these are minor issues compared to the rewriting of the NYPL’s core mission.

“The twin pillars of the project, we’re told, are 1) modernization, meaning the digitization of books, and 2) democratization, understood as the increasing accessibility of the library as a physical space. Both require a seismic reconsideration of the central function of the library within society.”

Kenneally rightly deplores our busy, working class society’s disdain for reading, particularly literature.  He worries that libraries will become a thing of the past.  The NYPL’s plan for its Main Branch is to get rid of all the books and turn the building into a democratic “open space” where people can gather.   If people want open space, they can rent out Madison Square Garden or the Jakob Javits Convention Center.  There’s more than enough room over there on the West Side for Occupy Wall Street.

We mustn’t miss the real danger in creating an electronic open space for people who already don’t savor reading or knowledge (and it’s taken a couple of generations of some really awful modern literature and socialistic teaching to discourage them from the practice).  Carnegie Mellon University discarded The Tuba Family.  Judging by its excellent condition, not many students read it.  But many other books from the early and mid-Twentieth Century are out of print as well, such as Madame Chiang Kai Shek’s   (who died in 2003 at the age of 106!) China Shall Rise Again.  Wikipedia doesn’t even list Madame Chiang’s books.

Ostensibly, it would make sense to digitize The Tuba Family and China Shall Rise Again.   The esoteric readers of The Tuba Family would be satisfied that the 1978 book would exist in some form for the next generation of tuba officianados to access it without the excessive cost of printing it.  When its new owner produced the book at rehearsal, a group of brass players crowded around eagerly to see it and peruse it briefly.   However, entrusting all literary works to digitization presents some problems for the preservation of knowledge.  One difficulty is that the rapid pace of technology can quickly make whole libraries completely inaccessible.  Libraries would have to completely overhaul their computer systems, re-cataloging all the extant works and buying new hardware and software.  Not exactly the cost savings it seems.

Then there are the problems of censorship and piracy.  Online piracy is so prevalent that Congress is considering legislation such as SOPA to deal with the legitimate problem of piracy, yet fostering an entirely new problem by crossing into the territory of censorship.  With the click of a mouse, a hacker or a politicized government bureaucrat could make a book like China Shall Rise Again completely disappear.

Public libraries, and even book stores, aren’t of much use in a democratic society if the guardians of knowledge practice censorship, impatient customers believe reading is a waste of time, or legislators, jealous of the funds that go towards maintaining a library, threaten a library’s funding to punish an electorate for demanding financial accountability.  The Great Library at Alexandria was the victim of a different sort of war.  The knowledge and historical records were irreplaceable.

The Vikings burned the Library at Lindisfarne, on England’s East Coast, although the monks were able to save some of the most treasured books.  We are at war again, yet another cultural war in which one side wants to wipe out all the ideas of the other side (interestingly, it’s reported that the books Hitler burned were books about a communism and socialism).  Imprisoned authors were known to have written books on toilet paper and smuggled them out of the country.

This censorship is of a more insidious, sneaky sort.  “We’re just going to digitize all the books, to make it easier and less expensive for the readers,” claim these new censors, “and ‘repurpose’ the old library building on 5th Avenue.  Don’t worry the original books will be quite safe in the warehouse in Princeton.”

Safe, and inaccessible to all but the elite.  This will be good news for the booksellers, who will make a fortune selling rare books like The Tuba Family.  An inured public will accept their plight with a sigh, turn to their e-readers, and hope the book they want to read is available.


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