Quiet crisis in the library

In the filtered sunlight streaming through the vaulted windows and bouncing off the massive wooden tables, they look like a daguerrotype: timeless figures frozen in the act of poring over nameless texts.

A red-bearded man in shirt and tie thumbs through stacks of engineering volumes. A young black woman wearing round spectacles reads a history book. A bag lady off the streets, her junk-filled shopping bags beside her, browses through copies of Cosmopolitan magazine.

Guarded by two lions named Patience and Fortitude, the huge bronze double doors of New York's Central Library have admitted seekers as random and anonymous as this homeless woman sitting in the library's Great Reading Room, and as select and famous as Barbara Tuchman, the historian, who says she found a General Stilwell letter here that enabled her to write one of her major books.

To the countless scholars, authors, scientists, business people, historians, and others who have come here, this building is not just another library; it is a central repository of human knowledge.

This library is ranked -- along with the British Museum's library, the Lenin Library in Moscow, Paris's Bibliotheque nationale, and the Library of Congress -- as one of the world's five leading libaries.

As such, it has stimulated and nourished scholarship throughout the world and served as a center for learning in the United States.

The list of books written here is practically endless; and, today, in the paneled silence of the Frederick Lewis Allen room, eight authors are pecking away at typewriters, thumbing over research materials, and scribbling on note pads --long-term guests of the library. The room set aside for their prolonged, solitary endeavors was named after a former Harper's magazine editor to whom the library was almost a second home.

In the 1930s, the president of Pan American World Airways came here and spent days picking over old sea captains' logs in search of a midpoint fueling stop in the pacific. He discovered Wake Island, which subsequently became the geographic center of Pacific Air routes.

Xerography was largely developed in this library. So were Ripley's Believe-It-Or-Not and Reader's Digest.

Sitting in the Great Reading Room, Room 315, with its row upon row of wooden tables under a vast, ornately carved ceiling at least two stories high, one feels the sense of history is as thick as the heavy sunlight suspended above the readers' heads.

It is hard to imagine that, behind these walls, the library's collection is steadily deteriorating.

This flagship library, like others around the country, is facing a hard-edged decision between keeping libraries open and saving the crumbling books on their shelves.

Richard Couper sits in his warmly paneled office on the second floor, in front of a massive library table. His bushy eyebrows are knit into a frown. He rests his cheek on one hand, staring obliquely at the tabletop.

Mr. Couper is outgoing president of the New York Public Library system. For the last 10 years he has presided over what one library official calls "a strange and dramatic period," during which the library went from boom times in the early '70s to absolute bust in the middle of the decade.

He is leaving now, having balanced the library's budget for the first time in half a century, but also having seen weekly hours cut from 87 to 46 in the Central Library. Branch library hours were even more drastically reduced.

He has seen the library's budget sliced to the bone and then some, had to fire legions of staff, had to watch the books crumbling in the stacks because there was no money to preserve them, had to watch staff morale decay as quickly as the pages of the books.

Now he sits here on the eve of his departure talking about "the absolute pain" of terminating 225 people (from a staff of 1,309) in one fell swoop in 1975. He shakes his head sadly, looks up, and complains, "It says something about the state of our civilization."

What is happening here is the New York Public Library does say much about events in the rest of the society. As Mr. couper points out, New York was chronologically first to feel the devastating effect of vanishing public funds. The library here was a sort of pioneer in austerity.

But others have followed in quick succession:

Chicago's public library has lost 522 employees out of more than 1,700 in the past two years. But, by staying a few percentage points behind inflation for the last few years, the Windy City actually made out well compared with library appropriations in other major cities.

St. Louis is closing 5 of its 18 branch libraries, because, as the library's director, Joan Collett, poignantly points out, "We can't do it anymore."

What she and other library administrator can't do anymore is to keep up with effects of inflation in the book business -- inflation that far outpaces that in the rest of the economy; endure staggering cuts in operating budgets and dwindling federal support; and still operate a viable library system.

Most librarians in major cities across the country frankly acknowledge that their libraries are bare-bones structures. Now they fear that further cuts could deal some crowning blows. Detroit's library system has already taken the drastic step of closing some branches. Now selective branches are being closed on certain days, for a total of 30 fewer open days for the system per year, the library system's director, Jane Hale Morgan, says.

In Baltimore they have closed six branches, cut back hours to 35 per week instead of a desired 48 to 50 hours, and cut the staff by nearly a third.

"To remove an institution from a community that may be the only evidence of human caring in that community [is] a tragedy," Baltimore's outgoing library administrator says. "You may be removing the hope in that community for someone to become a reader and a thinker."

The problem faced by librarians across the country is that such effects are invisible. In the view of many librarians, no one notices the gradual, insidious effects of attrition in the mental nourishment flowing into a community through a branch library.

In New York, which is a special case because the research library system is partly funded through private funds the effects are even more difficult to see, due to a charade administrators here had to play with the local communities.

When these administrators tried to close down branch libraries in 1975 and ' 76, the community raised such an outcry that they had to back off and find another way to cut. What they did was to reduce hours in these branches to such an extent that the branches are hardly functioning at all. Some branches are open as little as 12 hours a week.

The result is that New York City's branch libraries, which were used 10 years ago to set the state standard for library performance, are now the worst in the state, falling 43 percent below those same standards.

Fewer people have been able to use these branches as they lost hours; and, although circulation picked up when Comprehensive Employment and Training Act employees were added and hours were slightly expanded, the CETA employees have all but disappeared under the federal budget-cutting knife, taking the new business with them.Total circulation as dropped from 10 million to a little over 8.5 million in the past decade.

Loss of business or no, however, branch librarians here cling fiercely to the little they have, convinced that this little is vital to the communities they serve.

Sitting in a makeshift office in the 125th Street branch library, which is sandwiched between boarded-up storefronts and ramshackle buildings on the east side of Harlem, branch librarian Rose Ward is tenacious about the need to keep her library open.

"We may lose hours, but at least we are open," Mr. Ward observes, sitting with her back to a window that looks out on gutted buildings. "You do what you can. You do the best you can with what you have. And you hope."

This philosophy of holding onto the basic structure, even while the inventory of books deteriorates and falls behind the times, underlies New York City's current holding action against the ravages of the economy.

The idea is that somehow, someday, new funds will come along to build again on the remaining foundation. The question raised by critics of this method, those who would like to see drastic branch closures and replenishment of the main libraries, is: Will there be anything left to build on?

The library's hope in staving off further attrition and deterioration rests in part on its newly appointed president, Vartan Gregorian. Together with the new board chairman, Andrew Heiskell, former head of Time Inc., Dr. Gregorian is expected to infuse new life into the library's fight for survival.

A charismatic, energetic scholar -- formerly of the University of Pennsylvania, where he was greatly respected and affectionately regarded by students, faculty, and local newspaper editorial writers -- Dr. Gregorian came to the job after a several-month search by the library's trustees for a president who would stimulate new growth in the library's income.

Dr. Gregorian in many ways embodies the archetypal characteristics library administrators say will be needed to save these institutions from ruin: scholarly qualifications married with political will and determination to squeeze new funding from corporations, foundations, and private contributors.

He is effusive in his expectations, even while acknowledging the emergency condition of the institution he is to head.

Dr. Gregorian, round-faced, swarthy, intelligent, looking a bit like a Middle Eastern rug merchant with his salt-and-pepper goatee and almond eyes, maintains that the library will survive. The overriding question he observed, is "survival at what cost, and in what form?"

Pointing out that it is estimated that New York City has only one branch library per 100,000 people, he argues that the branches are rightly a city and state responsibility. "They are not a luxury," he argues, "they are a necessity , especially in poor areas, where they are the only intellectual or cultural influence in the community."

He is proposing first that the branches be endowed by local corporations and benefactors, and that the library take a much more active, visible role in assailing politicians, news media, and community groups with the grim realities facing branch libraries and therefore the communities. But he seems to have concentrated his preliminary thinking on the tarnished crown of New York's library system: the four-branch research library, of which the Central Library is the most precious jewel.

The prospects facing this institution, he predicts, are that it will become a museum, at best, and a mausoleum, at worst.

Library administrators here point out that the invisible effects of layoffs, reduced hours, and truncated book budgets show up in the stacks, where books are lost or stolen and not replaced, and where other books crumble into ruin.

Stretching two city blocks into the distance and comprising eight stories of this massive building, the stacks of the Central Library contain the vast majority of the library's 22 million documents. A visitor here is awed by the unbelievable size of it all, but also by the incredible detail of this collection. A walk through here is like a rummage through civilization's attic.

Wandering back through the maze of corridors, one happens upon several dusty old volumes entitled "Acts of Ohio," containing ornately worded, detailed legislation from the turn of the 19th century covering everything from the election of local justices of the peace to setting tolls on rustic bridges.

Young men in sneakers and young women in sweaters bustle through the stacks finding volumes ordered by readers.

The volumes they pick over are as varied and unpredictable as the patrons seeking them:

* "The proceedings of The International Symposium on The Aerodynamics and Ventilation of Vehicular Tunnels."

* "The History of Hindu Mathematics."

* "Metropolitan Museum of Art's Egyptian Expedition in 1910," a large weathered volume that begins, "The pyramids of Lisht are situated on the edge of the western desert. . . ."

* "Ireland Statutes, 1790-1791," which include "An Act for punishing Mutiny and Desertion, and for the better Payment of the Army and their quarter within the United Kingdom."

* The Illustrated London News in many volumes, including the Saturday, Oct. 2 , 1875, number with its cover drawing of sailors with flowing blouses and tails on their caps taking ice into the hold of HMS Serapis.

Pick up one of these books and the spine of the volume next to it is apt to come off. Turn the pages and the edges may crumble in your fingers.

These books are turning to powder as the acid of 19th-century printing and the fallibility of printing methods from other eras eat sentences into words, words into letters, and letters into dust.

Downstairs in the immaculate laboratory-style bindery, Robert DeCandido, acting head of the department, explains that saving these books is an enormous expense, involving treating each page individually, sometimes laminating every leaf in plastic. Some of the books are so far gone that they can only microfilmed; others are too rotten even for that.

Deterioration of this collection is a prime example of what the Chronicle of Higher Education once referred to as "a time bomb ticking in the stacks." And David Stamm, head of the research library here, daily faces the grim prospect of finding "powder on the floor where there used to be a manuscript or a book on the shelf."

Mr. Stamm's assistant, Arthur Curley, sitting with him in a typically grand library office dominated by a giant wooden table, pinpoints the ironic choice left the library in the current funding crisis: "Do we stay open and let the collection deteriorate, or do we close up and save the collection?"

Stamm himself points to "the insidious damage to the collection in the past seven years," and predicts that another seven years would spell the end of the collection as it is now known.

"This library confronts the problems facing every major library in the world, " Dr. Gregorian says. The crises of conservation, the explosion of available information, the transformation of information technologies, and severe financial stresses all threaten the world's great libraries; and New York is certainly no exception.

The key to solving these problems is, of course, more money -- and lots of it. Prospering Sunbelt cities such as Dallas and Memphis have amply supported their library systems and buttressed them against the financial plight of the older, industrial cities. The fiscal blow of Proposition 13, however, has put California on a financial par with cities in the Northeast.

The one outstanding exception among the latter cities is Cleveland, which, with its "dedicated" tax -- money ear-marked specifically for library support -- has a system well protected against that city's fiscal storms.

Dr. Gregorian promises to become an impassioned public advocate of the library's financial needs, pressuring city hall, local and national corporations , foundations, and others to save this institution from decaying inside. To do this, he will have to overcome two major obstacles: (1) the fact that libraries in general do not seem to have an active, cohesive constituency; and (2) the general perception that libraries come behind other hard-pressed city services, like fire and police protection. ("Nobody ever died because they couldn't find a book," one librarian commented in describing this attitude.)

"This is the crucial decade," Dr. Gregorian says. "If Andrew Heiskell and I fail, it will certainly have been worth the effort. You have to try everything, because the cause is so vital. . . . Who decides what part of humanity's heritage will be saved in the next decade?"

And who will decide what segment of society will have access to this heritage? If the branch libraries are sacrificed to a strong, central institution, accessible mostly to scholars and the well-to-do, what will become of scholarship in the ghetto?

Dr. Gregorian remembers growing up as an Armenian expatriate in the Tabriz ghetto of Iran. From the time he was 9 years old till he was 12, he worked as a page in a library there. He used to bring books home every night and read them. The experience, he says, "changed my life."

Now, widespread changes in the way Americans spend their public funds may deprive a new generation of that same unrestricted access to free knowledge.

Sitting precariously on the brink of extinction, the 125th Street Library in Harlem played host during the hour I visited to a dozen school kids searching for the answers to their study questions. On one of the shelves was a slightly damaged copy of Barlett's Familiar Quotations containing an observation from Sir Arthur Conan Doyle:

"A man should keep his little brain attic stocked with all the furniture he is likely to use, and the rest he can put away in the lumber room of his library , where he can get it if he wants it."

One only wonders, when the random seekers of knowledge come to these public "lumber rooms" in a decade, will the materials still be there for them to use?

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