The New York Public Library's plan for renovating the Main Branch has been approved by Landmarks. This means it will be transformed from a research library to a research and lending library. The magnificent and mysterious stacks beneath the Reading Room will be demolished, and most of the books will be exiled to storage in New Jersey.
This renovation was the topic of what might well have been Ada Louise Huxtable's final critique before her recent death. In the Wall Street Journal she wrote, "a research library is a timeless repository of treasures, not a popularity contest measured by head counts, the current arbiter of success." And, in short, "You don't 'update' a masterpiece. 'Modernization' may be the most dangerously misused word in the English language."
I love the way books are retrieved today in the reading room. You get a number and wait for them to emerge, via dumbwaiter and a complicated Rube Goldbergy conveyor system of lifts and chutes, from the vast and hidden stacks below. You can get pretty much any obscure book you want within minutes.
It used to be, not long ago, you also sent your request on a slip of paper via the "zip tube," a remnant of what was once a complex system of urban pneumatics. For over a century, the librarian would secure your pencil-scratched call slip in a windowed capsule, then plunk it into the tube for it to be sucked away with a satisfying "thoomp," and zipped down into the bowels of the library, down into those 7 floors of stacks, where elves (it always seemed) set out in search of the requested item.
Artifacts, like the one above, remain, but the zip tube system was shut down in 2011. "The passing of a steampunk relic might occasion a fit of nostalgia and no more," wrote Metropolis, but "One could hardly contrive a more blatant metaphor for the uneasy shift, in the world of letters, from the physical to the digital."
I don't know what will happen to the dumbwaiters once the stacks are gone.
Cover of Scientific American, 1911, NYPL
"We are going to create a glorious new center that is full of life," said the library president, as if books are dead. Are the stacks, as they are, not full of life? Books themselves are vessels of life, more life than can be currently lived, because they contain the vastness of the past.
But not everyone sees it this way. For many, "full of life" means having people lounging around all over the place, chattering away in the sunlight, not being very curious at all about much of anything, really.
And for this we are losing a true wonder.