Released: May 13, 2014

“Stack attack”? The NYPL controversy and the future of public libraries

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Indicator Main Reading Room and New York Public Library Central Building Stacks.
Indicator Main Reading Room and New York Public Library Central Building Stacks. Source: NYPL Digital Collections

The New York Public Library recently announced that it is rethinking its controversial plans to turn parts of its 42nd Street location into a public lending library—replacing the stacks that housed its research collection with a four-story atrium in the process. NYPL announced Thursday that they will scrap those plans due to budget concerns, and instead keep the research library and its stacks intact.

Or, as a New York Daily News headline put it: “The New York Public Library has pulled the plug on its planned stack attack.”

Some critics of the now-canceled plan had worried about the impact on area researchers, but the broader public debate centered around a more visceral reaction to the concept of a library abandoning its books in favor of digital resources, as described by New York residents in a video from The New York Times. Another critic interviewed by the Times worried that the library will become a less “serious” place, like a Starbucks (complete with coffee).

The NYPL’s situation is more complicated than a “books versus digital” debate, and it’s worth noting that the historic stacks of books in question were not open to the public to begin with (researchers would put in requests for books, which would be mechanically retrieved but could not leave the building). But public libraries across the country are grappling with similar issues of how central their collections of books should be as they strive to add digital services, expand learning resources, and serve as all-purpose community spaces.

Services Americans say it is “very important” for public libraries to offer

Borrowing print books and browsing the stacks are still the two most popular activities among recent library visitors, but Americans value libraries as internet access points and general gathering spaces as well: 77% of Americans say that it is very important for public libraries to provide free access to computers and the internet, and 59% say that libraries should “definitely” create more comfortable spaces for reading, working, and relaxing at the library. Meanwhile, focus group participants often described their ideal library as having comfortable spaces where they could focus and get work done, with a collegial “coffeeshop” feel.

Public priorities for libraries

As the accompanying charts show, many Americans support a wide range of library resources, from free literacy programs for children to interactive learning experiences—as well as creating separate spaces in the library to accommodate these different types of services. For their part, libraries across the country are experimenting with new and innovative services in order to meet the particular needs of their communities.

Yet even as many Americans embrace the idea of a library experience that offers a wider variety of services and resources, most are wary of deemphasizing print books’ central place. Our research has found that Americans are less enthusiastic about automating the majority of library services or moving most services online, and even fewer are willing to sacrifice books for other services: Less than 20% of Americans say that libraries should “definitely” move some print books and stacks out of public locations in order to free up more space for things such as technology centers, reading rooms, meetings rooms, and cultural events.

Adults in their 50s and early 60s are most likely to be strongly against moving stacks of books out of public locations (41% say this), as are those with higher levels of education or household income. However, technology users are not necessarily more likely to advocate this than others, and in some cases are more likely to oppose it.