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For Virginia Woolf, the British Library simultaneously exists as a romantic symbol of the possible and the nagging reminder of the forbidden. It appears in her novels, short stories, essays and diaries. The scene of Jacob working in the reading room is one of my favorites.
In the United States, the New York Public Library is our slightly less grand, slightly less swollen with the entrails of history equivalent. Our very own romantically realistic and realistically romantic manifestation of the Jacob’s Room scene’s energy.
So despite my carrying on about the romance of knowledge and libraries and all that sweet stuff, the NY Public Library faces the dull realities of budget cuts, the ‘a-changing’ times, and politics. NPR ran a story today on it: Loud Debate Rages Over N.Y. Library’s Quiet Stacks. NWPL is running out of space and money but something must be done as the environment conditions of the stacks poses a threat to the books. To do anything, money must be raised. The current proposal that two buildings be sold and the main library be renovated (a plan that includes eliminating the stacks) has not gone over well. Many of the books would be moved off site and out of the city, which causes scholars, researchers, and academics to narrow their eyes and stomp their feet. Others think that libraries in poorer neighborhoods need attention before a major project like this can be considered. Enticing summary?
I’ve been quite guilty of expanding and fluffing the NY Public Library into a great stronghold, imperious to the onslaught of issues facing every other library, a beacon of hope in the storm, etc. & etc.
Just like the library in my hometown which receives just over $1000 a year funding, just like the university library I work for, the NYPL faces the reality of budget cuts and economic recession. To be quite honest, money bores me so I will simply move on now.
The role of libraries has shifted, that much is undeniable. “A library is not just books,” indeed. While it does not have to be the case, libraries are very often turned into the battlefield of tradition and change. There is a constant flux between resisting change and embracing it, which is understandable. If we all but abandon paper books and reading rooms and rush to e-books and cafes what happens to our inherited knowledge when the physical link with the past is broken? Who do we trust to become our keepers and organizers of knowledge when the space in which they have worked is eliminated? I will draw on Virginia Woolf again, shall I? In Mrs. Dalloway, history, tradition, and modernity thread through the book. There is tension between them at times, one struggling to quail the others, to put at bay an unbreakable force. But on the whole, there exists a dynamic tension between them. Even in the heart of London, as nighttime puts on her slinky dress for a night that is not night, hints of the ancient past, the more recent past, and yesterday remain, like make-up (at the risk of taking the simile too far). The greatest defense to preserving a past is imagination.
Time and time again knowledge is political. I do not mean to launch on to a tirade and write the introduction to a treatise, only to point out that knowledge is very much a valuable resource. Those who control it, can access it, and organize it in have power. As much as I would like to believe that academics and politicians live in two separate worlds, to believe that is to return academics to the ivory tower or drive them down to the gilded dungeon.
None of this rambling leaves the path of the general run-of conversation on the topic, but the article has served as a reminder of very important and real issues to which no library, including the greatest and the mightiest, is invulnerable.