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From the September 2013 issue of Perspectives on History

New Challenges for Library Reading Rooms

Jennifer Reut, September 2013

In this era of rapidly increasing digital access to books and articles, how should libraries use their venerated reading rooms? Recent changes at two of the largest libraries in the US highlight challenges in the increasing pressure for libraries to modernize and rethink the way they use space in response to the digital age.

In October 2012, Roberta I. Shaffer, associate librarian for Library Services at the Library of Congress, published an article in Minding Matters, the Library Services newsletter, discussing Initiative: 900 days or I:900, which was intended to "consider how to make the Main Reading Room the hub of services that reflect the transdisciplinary nature of research, better meet researchers' expectations of conducting their inquiries across all formats of knowledge, and have resources available to them wherever they are." The plan called for the consolidation of reading rooms and attendant services including Humanities and Social Sciences; Local History and Genealogy; Serial and Government Publications; Science, Technology, and Business; Digital Reference; Computer Catalog Center; and Microforms. The consolidation plan, at that time not yet publically released and still in development, did not meet with uniform acceptance among the library staff, and in June the Library of Congress Professional Guild, AFSCME 2910, released a statement on its website voicing "strong opposition" to the main aspects of the plan.

The statement was widely circulated on Twitter and reposted on the blogs of librarians across the country and their supporters, and the Chronicle of Higher Education reported on the story as well. In it, Saul Schniderman, the guild's president, said that librarians feared a "degradation in service," a claim that was contested by Shaffer, who reiterated that creating a central hub of information in the Main Reading Room would improve services. She added that I:900 was part of a broader plan to bring the Library of Congress up to date with the needs of modern researchers and increasingly digital research methods. Shaffer also stated that the consolidation was driven by the desire for "a lot more opportunity for horizontal exchange of information," rather than budget considerations. Researchers, on the other hand, expressed concern on a variety of social media platforms about the planned closures and fears that their own work would be affected by a reduction in hours or access to trained area-specific reference staff.

Rethinking the use of the space was also part of the controversy over plans for the main branch of New York Public Library (NYPL). The 42nd Street Branch, designed by Carrère and Hastings, is the flagship of the library's 87 branches and four research centers, and a 300 million dollar overhaul by Norman Foster Partners has been in the works for four years. The plan, revealed in January 2013, called for the closing and sale of two branches and a complete demolition of the research stack space under the vaunted Rose Reading Room in order to create a circulating library. In this version of the plan, the sale of the NYPL's Mid-Manhattan and Science, Industry, and Business libraries would help finance the consolidation and redesign of 42nd Street. Observers quickly responded to the Foster plan with a number of criticisms, from claiming that the treatment of the historic architectural fabric was insensitive, to issues with the complex engineering design, to the potentially explosive budget. Michael Kimmelman, architecture critic for the New York Times, chimed in with a widely circulated essay arguing that the NYPL should be investing in branches and community and information hubs, not consolidating them.

Opponents of the plan, two of whom filed lawsuits, recently obtained a reprieve when the library announced it would not begin the renovations or send the library's three million books to offsite storage until an environmental review had been completed or the court heard the case in October. But the problems need immediate action, and Neil Rudenstine, chairman of the board of trustees, released a statement reported in the Wall Street Journal and the New York Timesdefending the plan, which he claims "will generate funding to provide more books, librarians and programs." Rudenstine, a scholar of Renaissance literature and former president of Harvard, also claimed that the books and the stacks that held them were at risk: "Embracing the status quo-while books deteriorate, while patrons of our busiest branch work in sub-standard space, and while financial problems steadily worsen-seriously risks the quality and effectiveness of the entire NYPL system.

"Many of the comments and articles online and in print observed that the controversies raised the issue of the changing definition of libraries as public space and the different visions of the democratization of information that had once been the libraries' exclusive purview. If, in our communal workspaces, coffee shops, and classrooms, we can now access digitized content that was once only available in the celebrated reading rooms of free libraries, library users will have to decide how much of that culture and access they want to preserve while continuing on the inexorable, democratizing path of digitization.

-Jennifer Reut is the associate editor of Perspectives on History.

Further Reading

Library of Congress

Roberta I. Shaffer, "On My Mind," Minding Matters: Newsletter of Library Services 1, no. 15 (October 12, 2012).

"Closure of Reading Rooms at the Library of Congress," Library of Congress Professional Guild AFSCME Local 2910, last modified June 12, 2013.

Jennifer Howard, "Reading-Room Plan at Library of Congress Will Hurt Service, Critics Say," Chronicle of Higher Education, June 17, 2013.

New York Public Library

Robert Darnton, "In Defense of the New York Public Library,"New York Review of Books, June 7, 2012.

Joan W. Scott, Caleb Crain, and Charles Petersen, with reply by Robert Darnton, "In Defense of the New York Public Library: An Exchange," New York Review of Books, July 12, 2012.

Michael Kimmelman, "In Renderings for a Library Landmark, Stacks of Questions," New York Times, January 29, 2013.

Zach Schonfeld, "Why the New York Public Library is Getting Sued," Atlantic Wire, July 5, 2013.

Jennifer Maloney, "Library Puts Renovation Plan on Pause," Metropolis (blog), Wall Street Journal, July 12, 2013.