ASK the president of the New York Public Library if the fast-moving technology of computers, videos, and compact discs could ever make the book obsolete, and you're in for a vigorous defense of the printed page. ``The book is NOT finished,'' insists Timothy C. Healy. In his eye, the book has every advantage going for it. ``It's portable, there's an aesthetic satisfaction in handling it, and it lasts,'' he says.
Yet Dr. Healy, a Jesuit priest who left the presidency of Georgetown University to become chief administrator and fund-raiser of this city's huge library system in the summer of 1989, concedes that some books last longer than others. Take the books he used for his doctoral thesis at Oxford University: John Donne's works on the Anglican-Roman controversy. Those 17th-century rag-paper pages are in as good shape today, he says, as the day they were printed.
One special challenge now facing all research libraries, he says, is finding the means and the dollars to preserve the most precious of the millions of books and documents printed on cheap, acidic paper between the mid-19th century and 1980. Still, Healy says, other ways of preserving thought and speech than the book are either even more perishable or their shelf life is unknown.
It would be hard to find a more enthusiastic advocate of public libraries than Healy. He defines their mission in terms of the defense of citizen freedom. In his view, a great research library is a teaching institution in the same sense that a great university is. His current job marks the first time in 40 years that he has not been actively teaching on a college or high school campus.
His wood-paneled office, trimmed with green brocade, is in the New York Central Research Library in the very heart of Manhattan. A pair of stone lions, known as Patience and Fortitude, guard the Fifth Avenue entrance to the two-block-long, white-marble National Historic Landmark.
Considered one of the world's five great research libraries, its one-of-a-kind treasures include rare maps and paintings, the first copy of a Gutenberg Bible brought to the United States, many first editions of Charles Dickens's works (on display until April 13 in a major Dickens exhibit), T.S. Eliot's original manuscript of ``The Waste Land,'' and Thomas Jefferson's handwritten copy of the Declaration of Independence.
Shortly after taking the new job, Healy says he tried to ``trip up'' library officials by asking for a rare takeoff on Horace's Odes by two Latinists. He knew there were only 500 copies in two printings. ``I thought they wouldn't have it,'' he says. Soon he got back a note asking ``Which printing do you want?''
This library's other three research divisions have similar treasures. The Performing Arts Research Center, for instance, has what is widely considered the world's outstanding collection of dance materials - from costuming to choreography - and is the only organization allowed to film Broadway plays.
THE structure and financing of the New York Public Library, which will celebrate its centennial in five years, are unique. The system is essentially a private corporation with a public mission. It began with the merger of two book collections - those of John Jacob Astor and James Lenox - in 1895. When Andrew Carnegie later gave the city $5 million to construct new branch libraries, he stipulated that their direction, from hiring to purchase policies, be vested in that same independent and self-perpetuating library board of trustees. The collection and staff of the research libraries are largely privately financed. The 82 branches in Manhattan, the Bronx, and Staten Island, are supported for the most part by public funds. Brooklyn and Queens have independent library systems.
Unlike most research libraries, New York's is open to anyone over 18. ``It is `public' in the rich old Latin sense in which we have the word republic,'' says Healy, who says he would like to see more libraries in such well-traveled areas as shopping malls. ``This library boldly proclaims that learning is part of the public world, not the private world.''
In Healy's view the most important clients of the NYPL branches are school-age youngsters. A prime goal is closer cooperation between branches and schools. Many city schools have no libraries. Those which do often lack sufficient stock and staff. All close in mid-afternoon. Many youngsters head with their homework for the nearest branch library.
``Usually our small children's room is packed by 3 or 3:30,'' says Nadia Nofal, a senior clerk at the Harlem branch on West 124th Street. ``And before the students leave, they always want to know the maximum number of books [usually 10] they can take out.''
In the black and Hispanic neighborhood of the Hunts Point branch in the South Bronx, the story is much the same. ``Some students are voracious readers, and they go home loaded down with books,'' says children's librarian Jackie Granek.
For children from crowded and noisy homes, the library is often the only place to do homework. Many parents also view it as a safe place. ``Libraries tend to be in very beautiful buildings even in the poorest neighborhoods - they're really like an oasis,'' says Ms. Granek.
These are key reasons why the prospect of further budget cuts, beyond the $2.4 million slice taken by the library system last July, grates hard. If demands from the city hold, the system may be in for another four percent cut on its $132 million annual budget this year and six percent next year, says Anthony Jiga, the system's vice president for finance.
Healy, who stresses that the NYPL stayed open seven days a week during the Depression, says in the worst-case scenario most branches would be open four days a week. Some libraries would have three-day weeks.
``Every time we close a library or lose an afternoon,'' he says, ``we're turning 40 to 50 thousand kids loose - little kids, 8 to 11 - on the streets.''
No one wants the situation to come to that. In the meantime, schools and libraries are trying to forge closer ties. In addition to offering English-as-a-Second-Language, literacy, and citizenship classes, the branches encourage teachers to bring their students in for orientation sessions.
``We need to tailor what we do with kids more closely to what the teachers are doing,'' insists Healy.
Most librarians will go to great lengths to protect book purchases, which they see as the heart of their mission, from the budget ax. They would rather take cuts in cataloging books and hours of service. ``A library that has its doors open to the public but no books is not very useful,'' explains Mr. Jiga.
To better serve changing immigrant neighborhoods, many New York branches have strengthened their foreign language collections. The Hunts Point branch recently got a $50,000 grant from the Carnegie Foundation to buy books in Spanish. Some libraries have begun to add more books in Vietnamese, Korean, Thai, and Cambodian.
Such deference is no shortcoming in Healy's view. He is bothered by the frequent portrayal of the bilingual education controversy as an either-or proposition.
``The two extremes - you learn in English or you learn in Spanish - are both ridiculous,'' he says. ``If you're 14 years old and you've just arrived from Puerto Rico, you're not going to learn anything in English. You don't speak English. Would you like to go into a Norwegian classroom and try to figure out what they're saying?''
The ideal solution, he says, is to know another language such as Spanish - its literature and its background - and to become fluent in English. ``By the way, if you leave it to the folk, that's exactly what they do,'' says Healy. He cites as an example a library page from the Caribbean who works in his outer office: ``He speaks English like you do, but 'machine-gun Spanish' is underneath. That's what we should aim for... The more bilingual citizens we have, the better for the whole Republic.''
MOST of the nation's 115,000 public libraries now know readily through electronic cataloging what books the others have. Interlibrary loans are becoming more common. Most libraries have also dramatically expanded their holdings in videos, computer software, and compact discs. Officials claim that library use is up accordingly. Yet the dispute among librarians continues as to which videos to stock, says Healy. Most welcome documentaries and classic films but are divided on the wisdom of acquiring newer films and music videos.
Branch librarians in New York buy from lists developed by the NYPL acquisitions staff. Healy notes that about half of the nation's children's libraries buy from the NYPL published annual list of children's books, analyzed by age and content.
Healy takes much the same view on censorship as he does on bilingual education. Both extremes - giving the young only what librarians think they should read or what the young want - are ``silly.''
``Every once in awhile, somebody ought to say to you, `Have you ever thought of reading so and so?' and move you up a notch,'' he says. ``That suggestion is honorable and fair.''
Research libraries in the US currently face a special acquisitions challenge, says Healy. A growing percentage of scholarly materials is now published abroad. The cost is high. Accordingly, research libraries in the US now buy only about 15 percent of what is published. Healy says Washington must become involved. If $2 million or more could be made available to each of the major research libraries in this country, he says, scholars would be greatly helped and existing specialties could be further deepened to avoid any duplication.
Also straining research library budgets is the need to preserve rare material from the last century and a half that is printed on acidic paper, usually wood pulp. Nationally, as much as 40 percent of the research collections are too fragile to handle. The options - from microfilming books to encasing each page in plastic - are all expensive. Curators have been forced to set priorities. By the NYPL's estimate, as much as one-third of its research collections are threatened by this ``acidic time bomb.'' The library is actively courting private donations.
Still, New York City's research libraries were in far deeper financial trouble a decade ago. Much of the turnaround is attributed to the energetic fund-raising efforts of former NYPL president Vartan Gregorian, who is now president of Brown University but remains a library trustee. He is credited with enhancing the image of the library and greatly improving its endowment by making it one of the city's trendiest charities.
Some 88 miles of new stack space under the Central Research Library, or double the current total, have been added. Half of the new space will be filled and operating by next summer. Many of the more than 200 rooms in the elegant Beaux Arts building, which resembles a European palace, now have been restored. Library volunteers make the rounds with tourists twice a day. Noting that philosopher and poet George Santayana once said that a building without ornamentation is like a heaven without stars, tour guide Judith Follman accurately forewarns her group: ``Wherever you go here today, you'll see a heaven with stars.''
The visitor leaves the Central Library with the clear impression that in addition to the fine polish on details of decor, this landmark building is well used and its treasures appreciated. This, after all, is the place where Edward Land researched the Polaroid camera and where Chester Carlson did the bookwork that led to the Xerox machine. DeWitt Wallace and his wife spent hours condensing books in a room on the first floor here, an activity that led to their founding of ``The Reader's Digest.'' This is also the place where Betty Frieden wrote ``The Feminine Mystique.'' Author Norman Mailer ``haunts this place,'' says Healy. ``The librarians say he shows up in places you'd never expect - like the patent section.''
HEALY'S appointment to his current position of public influence was not without controversy. He says he was preparing to leave Georgetown after 13 years at the helm when the job offer came. Some New Yorkers, including writers Jimmy Breslin and Gay Talese, argued that his church vows might interfere with his ability to run a secular institution that includes many books with themes contrary to church teaching. Healy says he sought clearance from church authorities before taking the post but that their involvement goes no further.
In most respects, Healy finds the job a comfortable fit. Though returning here at a difficult moment in the city's history, he grew up in New York and insists it still has a future. As for all those good books that now surround him: ``I've been in scholarship all my life - I grew up in libraries. I care for them. I understand how they work.''