Comments on Ho Fine Arts Library: A Body of Books

[Updated below, Oct. 12, 2015 and Jan. 5, 2016]

Better a splendid and complete faculty in a barn than an insufficient faculty in a palace.

— A.D. White

A public relations piece written by Kent Kleinman, Gale and Ira Drukier Dean, AAP, and Anne R. Kenney, Carl A. Kroch University Librarian,* claims that a project to create a new Fine Arts Library in Rand Hall at Cornell University will address “a host of issues critical to the university, the library system, and faculty and students across campus.”

Many of these issues have nothing to do with the essence of the proposed library design itself, but are meant to address longstanding fire safety and environmental problems: “rehabilitating the dilapidated envelope of Rand Hall, dramatically improving the building’s thermal and environmental performance, implementing a number of code upgrades…” It is only the last claim, “reconfiguring the storied former studio spaces of Rand Hall to become a new state-of-the-art research library,” that is more than a bit contentious.

Kleinman and Kenney ask: “What constitutes a state-of-the-art research library for the fine and design arts?” Their answer is: “public computers, shared and private spaces for collaborative and individual study, comfortable furniture, good light, seminar rooms outfitted with large displays for GIS and other data-visualization instruction, infrastructure for remote learning, workstations compatible with computers, phones, and tablets.” Also, they mention that such a library will have “extraordinary librarians, trained in the most current digital technologies to help our students manage digital images and navigate online resources” (but they fail to note that none of these Fine Arts librarians were asked to serve on the Fine Arts Library Building Committee). Let’s examine these state-of-the-art features.

First, “public computers” have been in libraries for decades and represent neither “state-of-the-art” design, nor even a necessary feature at a university facility where students and faculty already have their own portable internet-connected devices.  Second, “shared and private spaces for collaborative and individual study” is merely jargon that bears no relationship to the actual “spaces” shown in the schematic design plans. In fact, there are no private spaces in the library, but only round tables and chairs placed in the most public of all locations. Being public, all of these spaces are by definition “shared,” but none can facilitate meaningful collaboration. Collaboration requires a degree of visual and acoustic privacy, neither of which exists in the proposed library. There are two seminar rooms shown in the plans (more on that later), but such classrooms should not be confused with private or collaborative spaces. Third, “comfortable furniture” and “good light” may be desirable, but should not be placed on a list of qualities that define “state-of-the-art” research facilities. Fourth, seminar rooms are just classrooms. Of the two shown in the schematic design proposal, one is just a room that already exists in Rand Hall; the other seems to be a glass box at the end of the top stack level, cantilevered over the building’s east facade. Classrooms are great (assuming they are designed properly; i.e., not as glass viewing platforms), but they have nothing to do with the functionality of a university library.

So much for the “state-of-the-art” design. The truth is that a state-of-the-art research library is an elusive concept, and no one can claim to anticipate how collections of books, images, or other resources will be searched and accessed in five, ten, or twenty years. But two points should be emphasized. On the one hand, all of the constituent ingredients for a research library that were listed by Kleinman and Kenney (computers, furniture, etc.) can easily be accommodated in the existing Rand Hall spaces without demolishing and reconfiguring much of the building at great expense, as is proposed. On the other hand, the current “low-value” industrial space of Rand Hall is ideally suited for adaptation to an unknown future, for reasons I have discussed elsewhere (scroll down to fig. 6). The current proposal creates a “high-value” design object that cannot be anything other than what has been designed for in 2015. In other words, it is not only dysfunctional as designed, having no private or semi-private collaborative spaces, but it points to an imagined and caricatured past, not to a rapidly transforming future.

Kleinman and Kenney probably understand that their arguments for a “state-of-the-art” facility are entirely specious, since they quickly try another tack, suggesting that since “the most state-of-the-art component of our new facility… is only newest and latest for the briefest moment,” there must be something else that can justify the destruction and reconstruction of a useful industrial building at great expense. Their new argument? It’s all about the books! “The protagonist of the new facility will be an open stack, circulating collection of books covering urban design and planning, architecture, fine arts, art history, landscape architecture, and interior design. Stable, immune from software glitches, with reliable color rendition and faithful text/image relationships, unchanging aspect ratios, and always fully charged. They never crash, even if 1,000 students each have 20 open at the same time.”

[Updated later on Oct. 12, 2015: Speaking of physical objects being “stable” and “immune from software glitches,” etc., the famous archive (AKA “morgue”) of the New York Times was almost destroyed two days ago: “A broken pipe on Saturday morning sent water cascading into the morgue — the storage area where The Times keeps its immense collection of historical photos, along with newspaper clippings, microfilm records, books and other archival material — causing minor damage and raising significant alarm. And it raised the question of how in the digital age — and in the prohibitive Midtown Manhattan real estate market — can some of the company’s most precious physical assets and intellectual property be safely and reasonably stored?”]

Needless to say, the current Fine Arts Library on the third floor of Rand Hall already has books. If one wanted to put more books in Rand Hall, rather than leave the less active portion of the collection in the library annex as it is now, one could expand the library into the second floor of Rand Hall. The combined second and third floors of Rand Hall, as they currently exist, have about the same floor area as the proposed library would have and could accommodate about the same number of books, chairs, tables, and seminar rooms, preserving the building’s industrial character and flexibly so that it could more easily adapt to future changes. This point must be emphasized: criticism of the proposed library scheme has nothing to do with some hypothetical debate about the value of books vs. digital media. Nothing in the proposed library scheme does anything for “books” that the existing library doesn’t already do. To suggest some sort of struggle between traditional books and digital access is, in this context, entirely disingenuous.

Kleinman and Kenney’s line of reasoning is flawed for other reasons. Having “books” hardly guarantees access to those books. To the extent that the books are withdrawn by students or faculty, they are no longer available in the stacks and must be recalled—a process that can take weeks. The notion that only physical books can preserve the formatting qualities (aspect ratio) intended by the graphic designer is ludicrous: I am the author of a book whose formatting is tricky and which does not lend itself to reflowed text characteristic of EPUB or kindle devices. Even so, I was able to (finally) find a publisher willing to release the book as both a paperback and a PDF (both of which have identical formats and aspect ratios). The idea that physical books are somehow more reliable than digital versions is just silly. Library books constantly go missing, or become worn out, or have pages ripped out, or get marked up with obnoxious highlighters.

Books are also highly flammable, which is why libraries are categorized as class A-3 occupancies in the Building Code. In fact, the notion that Cornell wants to safely preserve this “stable” resource is entirely hypocritical: Dean Kleinman was an enthusiastic proponent of placing the Fine Arts Library on the third floor of Rand Hall after Rand was connected to Sibley Hall by the construction of Milstein Hall. I advised Dean Kleinman when this plan was proposed that such a move was unsafe and illegal because placing books on the third floor of what is now a combined building with type V-B construction is noncompliant and creates a fire hazard. When my formal complaint was upheld by a Regional Code Review Board, Cornell still had no interest in fixing the problem, but instead asked for a Code variance (which was ultimately granted) so that the books could remain in this compromised location.

The schematic design proposal prepared by Wolfgang Tschapeller (M.Arch. ’87) actually contains numerous Building Code violations, so that Kleinman and Kenney’s claim that this scheme would implement “a number of code upgrades” is rather ironic. The four most egregious violations, which I pointed out in blog posts here and here are as follows: (1) a 2-hour fire wall was proposed whereas a 3-hour fire wall is required; (2) the various interconnected stories and mezzanine floors violate fire safety requirements since they are not protected by shaft enclosures; (3) the so-called mezzanine floors are too big; and (4) the bottom book stack floor hovers over the second-floor space as a long “protruding object” that violates both the Building Code and the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA).

Kleinman and Kenney state, implausibly, that physical books are valuable because of their “reliable color rendition.” In fact, authors are constantly running into issues with the quality, or even the possibility, of high-quality reproduction of images in physical books because of the enormous expense that high-quality color print reproduction entails. It is not unheard of, especially with academic presses, for authors to scrounge around for additional funds to give to their publishers if they want a few images reproduced in color. For institutions that are truly interested in creating a useful archive of images, the only rational strategy is to digitize the collection. Even Cornell’s own Johnson Museum has done just that: “Cornell’s art repository includes paintings, prints, sculptures, and published graphical images (woodcuts, etc.). By putting the collection on-line, students, faculty, visitors, and users on the Internet will be able to electronically explore and research the collection from their home, office, or one of the workstations in the museum. Users can learn about artists and their works, and use Insight tools to view high quality images and groups of images.”

As opposed to this useful and progressive dissemination strategy, Kleinman and Kenney quote Tschapeller, the proposal’s architect, who suggests instead that we literally walk up “winding staircases [which] are the keys to enter this volume of knowledge, browse, read, and wonder.” Not content to go back to rows of wooden card catalogs, these architects of the twenty-first-century library want to dispense with logical processes altogether and instead use “winding staircases” to enter some sort of metaphorical “volume of knowledge.”

Since the absurdity of this argument is readily apparent, Kleinman and Kenney again retrace their steps by offering a contradictory rationale, stating that they aren’t actually motivated by “technophobia” or “nostalgia.” What then is the reason for demolishing the third floor and roof structure of Rand Hall, constructing new transfer girders above the current roof level, reinforcing the now-unbraced exterior walls with new columns, underpinning the existing foundations to respond to the new loads, hanging stack levels from the transfer girders, and building a new elevator for these stack levels (since the elevator that was finally placed in Rand Hall as part of the Milstein Hall project is now inaccessible to the proposed hanging stacks)? Kleinman and Kenney’s answer is that students and faculty in the College of Architecture, Art, and Planning use books and love libraries. What they fail to mention is that all of the statistics that they have gathered are based on use of the current facility. None of the “facts” that they have assembled (e.g., that a greater percentage of assistant professors check out books, compared to associate or full professors; or that “88% of AAP students credited the library as contributing to their academic success”) has any bearing on the question of whether or how to renovate or expand the current library facility. In the first instance, the cited statistics only show that assistant professors, under greater pressure than senior faculty to produce scholarship in order to be reappointed or promoted, may well be more inclined to use current library resources. In the second instance, the statistics show that the current facilities seem perfectly adequate to at least 88% of our students. There is nothing in these “facts” that supports the current Fine Arts Library proposal; they do, however, provide some evidence that the existing library facilities are working fairly well as is.

But there are still more irrelevant arguments, again attacking the digital straw man (“…a good portion of our printed materials is not online… Fine arts books are characterized by images, and images—protected by use and copyright laws—are expensive to acquire and require specialized skill to reproduce. …this results in many fine art volumes having their images redacted or watermarked… the veracity of the reproduction is often marred by poorly managed input and output variables affecting key attributes of an image’s content… Images are primary content, the language of our disciplines.” Two separate issues are being conflated here: first, that much of the content of books is intellectual property and therefore subject to the exclusive control of the copyright owner, except for limited “fair use” exceptions. In this respect, there is absolutely no difference between print and digital content. Libraries pay lots of money for all forms of intellectual property, whether physical books or electronic documents. The second issue is whether Cornell should destroy a useful and flexible low-value industrial building to create a new library, when the current library (or a modest renovation to expand it) would accomplish the same goals while preserving the flexibility inherent in the current building design that is certain to prove useful in the future, as the role of libraries changes in unexpected and unknowable ways.

[Updated Jan. 5, 2016: While Dean Kleinman insists on the importance of physical books, his own Fine Arts Library staff are urging faculty to use digital material for their course reserves. Here is an excerpt from an email just received from the Circulation/Reserve/Billing Supervisor for the Fine Arts Library at Cornell: “We have found that the electronic reserves (ie: book chapters, articles, e-books,  and streaming films) showed a much greater level of usage than physical items at the libraries.  If you utilize Blackboard and electronic reserves, we are encouraging faculty and instructors to submit materials which we will gladly scan and upload in order to assist you in providing easier access to the course readings and films” (emphasis in original).]

Kleinman and Kenney feel the need to say more about physical books, even though their hyperbolic sentiments (“… books are like buildings. You enter a book as you would enter an interior space. Your mental movements are choreographed by the geography of the page…” and so on) are not relevant to the question at hand. No one is threatening the books. Nothing in the proposal for a new library does anything to preserve or protect library books that a more modest and rational renovation wouldn’t do equally well, if not better. The reality is that Rand Hall—not its collection of physical books—is being literally threatened by the proposed renovation; all of these scare tactics surrounding the protection of books are nothing but a smokescreen.

Finally, this critique wouldn’t be complete without referencing the recent inaugural address by Cornell’s president Elizabeth Garrett, in which she incorporates the prescient comment by Cornell University co-founder A.D. White that I have placed at the top of this blog post:

When A.D. White began to implement his plan for Cornell University, his highest priority was hiring faculty. “Better a splendid and complete faculty in a barn,” he stated, “than an insufficient faculty in a palace.” The recruitment, development and retention of the best faculty remain our paramount priorities: an exceptional faculty is the bedrock of our teaching, research and creative work, and our public mission. It is the faculty who attract the finest students and inspire them to embark on their own adventures of learning. It is the faculty who seek to discover new knowledge, move us forward in our search for truth, and apply what they have discovered in ways that improve well-being around the globe. It is the faculty whom our alumni remember when they speak of their years at Cornell. It is the faculty, as well as our students, whose work inspires our dedicated staff to ensure that all aspects of our environment are conducive to our educational mission.

* Anne Kenney’s name is listed first in the cited article but this piece is so clearly marked by Dean Kleinman’s intellectual fingerprints that I have reversed the order of their names.

More writings on the Fine Arts Library proposal.

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