June 23, 2014

The New York Public Library board could use a few good librarians


NYPL exteriorIn the wake of the about-face the New York Public Library made on their renovation plans this year, questions have arisen about the role of the trustees in the decision-making process. The course of events suggested that the trustees might not have been sensitive to the concerns of library users. For example, there was never any substantial public support for the Central Library Plan outside of the immediate NYPL administrative community; even librarians opposed it, as Charles Petersen‘s 2012 article for n + 1, “Lions In Winter,” revealed.

But for anyone who has wondered over the past few years exactly who’s on the board, and how its make-up might have lead to the CLP and other issues, Suzanne Travers over at City Limits just written an invaluable article, examining the boards not only of the NYPL but also the Brooklyn and Queens public library systems.

In it, Travers lists all thirty-nine NYPL trustees and their professions. As you might expect, the board, which is responsible for raising $90 million a year, consists of many people who would be good at that kind of thing: lawyers, real estate developers, CEOs, investment bankers, the occasional princess and other professional philanthropists. In a useful bit of spadework, Travers tracks down the various personal and professional connections between them, as well as pointing out what the board lacks: trustees with connections to Staten Island and the Bronx, for instance. There are, in addition to the rainmakers, a few scholars: Robert Darnton, Kwame Anthony Appiah, Henry Louis Gates, Jr., David Remnick.

But there’s one category of professional that the NYPL’s board is noticeably lacking: librarians. Darnton counts—he’s the head of the Harvard University Library and an eminent historian of the book, focusing on 18th-century France. But he is one of thirty-nine. And this just doesn’t make sense; I’ve been a part-time library school student over the past few years, and I’ve begun to understand in the course of my classes how comprehensively librarians examine (and, in MLS grad programs, are trained to examine) library usage, past and present, from many different angles. Not only do they have day-to-day experience with the systems that the trustees were so willing to upend, but they expend a great deal of time and effort considering the role of libraries from a broader standpoint.

It is no surprise therefore, that, in Petersen’s piece, the librarians who were willing to talk to him (mostly retired staff members) don’t come across as nostalgic or conservative—they are informed, focused, and critical of the direction the trustees were taking based on a long-developed understanding of library mission. From the article:

The other thing that stuck out in my conversations with former staff members was how skeptical they were of the administration’s reliance on statistics and consultants to justify their plans. Statistics have long been kept at the New York Public Library, but they were rarely given much attention, precisely because there’s no simple way to measure the creation of knowledge. A collection, moreover, has to be built with not just the present but the future in mind. In the last ten years, everyone told me, all of that has changed…

No one I spoke with questioned the need for the library to change, but practically everyone questioned the direction in which it was heading. 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.”

As the library turns to its revised plans, they should consider electing more librarians able to bring this kind of perspective to the board. As Travers details, trustees are nominated by a committee and elected by the current board, so it may be unlikely to expect much change in such a closed shop. But not impossible. For one thing, NYPL President Anthony Marx seems open to it. From Travers’ article:

Marx, who championed the cause of socioeconomic diversity in his previous gig as president of Amherst College and was hired by the NYPL trustees in 2011, says looking at the board’s composition is “absolutely fair game.”


Sal Robinson is an editor at Melville House. She's also the co-founder of the Bridge Series, a reading series focused on translation.