new library

by newschoolphilosophy

The New School is finally getting a library! In 2009, then-president Bob Kerrey moved the library and graduate faculty to make way for a gargantuan and extremely expensive building project on Fifth Avenue between 14th and 13th Streets. That building project, which is now the “university center,” will officially open early next year. Unfortunately, now-president David Van Zandt has made it clear that the graduate faculty will not be allowed to return to offices that were once on the grounds now occupied by the grandiose new building but will remain (in exile!) on 16th St. Obviously it is unpleasant to be marginalized but at least Van Zandt is not openly hostile to students and faculty in the way that his predecessor was. (Kerry left the New School after he received a vote of no confidence from the faculty. An article in counterpunch gives some details about the related occupation movement. An illustrative quote: “Kerrey, who at one time termed his students as ‘customers’, later called the students who occupied ‘terrorists'”)

But it was not just graduate students, faculty, and staff who were displaced by the university center. The library was also eviscerated, most of the books were put into storage, and the few remaining ones were dispersed throughout various buildings held by the New School. It was not exactly the burning of the library of Alexandria, but the motives were not dissimilar and the action was justified in pretty much the same way. Philosophy students now generally use the NYU library, although there is a pitifully small selection of books available in the Raymond Fogelman “Library” in Arnhold Hall.

According to an official blog post, all of this is about to change. Early next year, the school plans house the collection on the sixth and seventh floors of the university center. This is potentially wonderful news for philosophy students at the New School. The only thing that worries me is the plan to keep a significant part of the collection offsite. The blog post quotes university librarian Ed Scarcelle:

First, much of the university’s impressive library collection has been digitized. “Historically, students looked to a library as a place to find reference materials, but now a vast amount of information can be accessed from virtually anywhere in the world through MyNewSchool,” explains Scarcelle. That doesn’t mean The New School libraries will be devoid of books: Frequently requested works will be housed onsite, and other texts will be kept at a facility upstate, easily shipped to any New School location within two business days.

Putting digitized texts offsite seems to me to encourage students to print out whole books rather than just taking them out of the library. This is environmentally dubious, as is the constant shipping of books that could already be on library shelves (though calculating just how many sheets of paper and watt hours would be used under different scenarios would require something like a randomized controlled trial).

In addition to environmental issues with a big E, what about the internal environment of the library? I have made some of my best “discoveries” while looking for one book, only to find another (sometimes unrelated) book in the process. The notion that digitization and fast shipping can replace a room full of books assumes that people always know what information they need in advance. Preposterous! Good scholarship often has roots in simple curiosity, and sometimes in unexpected encounters with other thinkers. When so many thinkers are not (spatially and temporally) close by, it is extremely beneficial to have their works on shelves, where we can unintentionally bump into, mistakenly reach for, and curiously leaf through them. The fact that this is not obvious to everyone who works in or studies at a university never ceases to amaze and shock me.

I’ve been on a bit of a diatribe about the way the old library was disappeared and the way in which the new library has been announced with the typical “brave new age of steam and steel” rhetoric. But I should stress that two stories of books and study space is basically great news. The New School has a lot of great things about it and a lot of problems. Building a solid library is taking a big step in the right direction.