Scholars Up in Arms

The May 16 WSJ article “New Vision for Library” caught my attention for several reasons. It tells about the plan to remove 3 million books to the ReCAP storage facility on Forrestal Road. When the Research Collections and Preservation Consortium first opened, U.S. 1 Newspaper’s photographer Craig Terry took a cover photo of the in-charge librarian in charge on top of a fork lift. I marveled at how the books were stored by bar code according to size, and how they could be retrieved and shipped quickly. Currently it houses more than 9 million items, one-third from the New York Public Library and the rest from Princeton University, and Columbia. It’s supposed to take just 24 hours to retrieve a book and ship it to New York. A librarian’s marvel.

Just last November, U.S. 1 quoted Curt Emmich of Picus (the firm that manages the Forrestal Center) as saying ReCAP would expand soon add 5 million volumes. It also reported that ReCAP could build out its facility for up to 35 million items.

So — more books, more jobs, more square feet — that’s a good thing for Princeton.

Not so fast. A tornado has erupted over this plan and folks from another Princeton-based institution, the Institute for Advanced Study, are in the eye of the storm.  Joan Wallach Scott, Harold F. Linder Professor of the School of Social Science at the Institute for Advanced Study, wrote a protest letter that has acquired 750 signatures so far. (In the original print story, Joan’s name was spelled John, the unkindest cut of all, especially when you know that Scott’s portfolio focuses at least partly on “the vexed relationship of the particularity of gender to the universalizing force of democratic politics” — but I’m no one to talk, I mis-identified someone at IAS just six months ago.)

Scott’s point was that, No Virginia, scholars can’t do all their research on the Internet. And waiting a day for a book or item is not acceptable. Objectors say the promised one day delivery often expands to three days because — even though ReCAP staffers get all the books on the trucks in one day — there are delays, partly due to traffic, partly due to distribution problems in New York.

Anthony Grafton, Princeton University historian, weighed in with an essay in the Daily Princetonian, applauding Firestone Library for keeping books on its shelves and lamenting how he believes the iconic building at Fifth Avenue and 42nd Street will be turned into the equivalent of an internet cafe.

The opposition has called an open meeting for next Tuesday night. 

Meanwhile a former Princeton University president (and former Harvard president, now an advisor to a mega digital book trove) Neal Rudenstine, took up a position on the defense. As chairman of the New York Public Library’s board of trustees, he told the WSJ that there must have been “a very very considerable misunderstanding. It’s up to us to try to correct it.” Citing a crumbling building without the proper climate controls, NYPL officials are, according to the WSJ, “fanning out” to do damage control.

With IAS and Princeton University protesters on one side, Neil Rudenstine and NYPL officials on the other, that’s sufficiently interesting controversy, but it gets better. Near the end of the WSJ story we learn that “library officials said an unfortunate misunderstanding helped turn scholars against the renovation.” And here we go with citizen journalism. A prominent blogger and critic of the new plan, Caleb Crain, was invited to weigh in as a member of the advisory committee. Crain’s blog is called Steamthing, as in “Steamboats are ruining everything.”

And here I began to get steamed. Crain wrongly assumed that it was OK to write about the confidential meetings. He admits he committed a journalistic error by going to the meeting without disclosing his desire to write about it, and asking permission afterwards. Then — barred from future meetings — he retaliated by mounting a campaign.

I can certainly understand his frustration. When the Einstein Alley Entrepreneurs Group first started in 2004, founders John Romanowich and Steven Georges invited me to attend with the caveat that I couldn’t write about what was said. Okay, I agreed, but it was and is hard not to report the juicy revelations at these meetings. When I joined the Princeton Regional Chamber Board (I’m off, now), I was on my honor not to tell my boss, editor and publisher of U.S. 1 Newspaper, about the inner secrets of the chamber (honestly, there weren’t that many, but it was still hard because I’m a secret teller, not a secret keeper.) Last year I was importuned by a group of angels to attend their meetings on the proviso that it would be ‘just background’ for a nice big story. I cooperated (though I never did get around to writing that story). Then when I was invited, as a member of Duke alumni group, to meet and listen to the CEO of Johnson & Johnson, and I politely asked the J&J; handlers if I could report on the occasion for my blog, I got a horrified NO. So I didn’t.

So Caleb Crain — I think you knew in your heart that your opinions were being solicited by the library on a confidential basis. I know it was frustrating to be asked not to report the committee’s deliberations on your blog, which has 994 official readers and exponentially more supporters. Whether you are right or wrong about the library’s plans, is your use of your blog a scary demonstration of citizen journalism?

No, says Charles Petersen, who calls Crain a “respected essayist” not a journalist, and said that Crain wrote about the advisory board “quite circumspectly.” In a well-reasoned (and lengthy) explanation of the controversy for n plus 1  (a print magazine of politics, literature, and culture) — he takes the long view — he criticizes the “managed democracy” of library officials influenced by business wonks. If the reconstruction goes through,  says Peterson, scholarly research “will be more concentrated in the handful of inordinately wealthy and exclusive colleges and universities.” 

I have no idea who is right, but this controversy has attracted almost as much attention as the plan to move the Dinky Station, and the emotional level of discourse approaches that of talk radio. 

Full disclosure: No original reporting was done for this blog post.

3 thoughts on “Scholars Up in Arms

  1. Chip Jerry writes: "Part of me empathizes with the nay-sayers – but – and it’s a really big but – I don’t think they have any sense of the practical aspects of storing millions and millions of books – when – as is the case – scholars only want to see a minuscule portion of them at any one time – and all too often the same minuscule portion – over and over again. "I think I remember that at one time a major chunk of Princeton’s on-the-shelf-in-Firestone books consisted of collections 19th century sermons – none of which were ever – ever – ever – checked out."

  2. You're right. I remember paying dues to Firestone Library when the scholarly books I needed for an editing job were available only in New York or Princeton. That was back in the day when everything was hard copy. Presumably the irate Institute for Advance Study and Princeton University scholars have sufficient access to whatever online materials they need. They are upset about the hard copy items. So — when the desired item exists only in hard copy, and the hard copy will arrive in two or three days rather than one day — the individual may have to make an additional trip to the NYPL to pick up the delivered materials. (Maybe ReCAP delivers directly to Princeton and Columbia?)

  3. Barbara, If you've ever tried to do research online that requires access to scholarly articles, you realize that indeed knowledge is in the hands of colleges and universities, because they are the only ones who can afford access. Using a public library, you only can get to a limited subset of available articles.

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