Observation of The NYPL Stephen A. Schwarzman Research Library

The Stephen A. Schwarzman Building, located on Fifth Avenue between Forty-Second and Fortieth Street, stands as a centerpiece for the New York Public Library. It is a grand marble building that has remained a spectacle since 1911. Few things have been changed in the library, beyond modern updates and fixes, and most people want it to stay that way. But what about what goes on inside the marble? 

Are the librarians the same people that checked out the first books?

Have librarian practices remained the same?  

Is information still circulated through the same stacks that were built in 1911?

Do people still use the research library?

What type of people actually participate in library offerings?

Just how old is this library? 

To catch a glimpse at the answers to these questions, I spent a day observing researchers and patrons at the New York Public Library Stephen A. Schwarzman Building, as well as interviewing library staff.


I decided to spend most of my time in a smaller research room instead of the main Rose Reading Room for multiple reasons. First, tourists flock to the Rose Reading Room, and they are not the focus of my inquiries. Second, the Local History and Genealogy Milstein Division where I took up shop, allowed me to view researchers, librarians, and staff all at the same time. Third, this division of the library was broader than some of the other research rooms and as a result I would be able to observe a wider range of questions, requests, and interactions.


From the start I notice that everyone who enters the research room has one two reactions. They either straighten up and constantly check with the librarian visually to make sure they are not breaking any rules (similar to how people react to seeing a police officer), or they smile and say hello as if they feel welcomed. Both reactions indicate that librarians on title alone have a level of respect from the general public. It is for this reason that they have a certain code of ethics and an obligation to their community to keep the information in the library safe. It is also why diversity among library staff, and inclusion for all is so important in a library. As respected figures, librarians set a standard for others. 

Staff & Diversity

It is not difficult to see that the New York Public Library places value on diversifying their staff. The Local History and Genealogy division (LHG) in particular represents varying races, sexes, languages, genders, ages, and sexual orientations. The library publicly puts valuable information into all types of people’s hands, which I believe is an effort to normalize the idea that information professionals can be anyone.

Interestingly, I also noticed that most of the librarians in LHG were male. In my personal experience it has often been that most librarians are women. Despite this, I noticed, unsurprisingly, that there was no change in how the librarians interacted with patrons or researchers, or how their work got done. Overall, based on the ALA Manual definition of diversity- “race, age, sex, sexual orientation, gender identity, gender expression, creed, color, religious background, national origin, language of origin or disability”, the NYPL has kept up with ethical and responsible hiring standards. 


If the librarians are the brain of the library, and the books are the lungs, the patrons are the heart. Without the people that wander the stacks looking for information, nothing would be read or investigated. The librarians would be out of job, and the books would be useless. It is for this reason that I found it interesting that not everyone has equal access to the library.

The key to everything NYPL has to offer is a library card. It is a simple plastic thing with a barcode number that can reveal a world of opportunity. Want to check out a book? Better grab your library card. What if you want to browse the internet for a bit? Got to use your library card. It seems the only thing you can do without a library card is stare out the window and enjoy the climate controlled building. 

To get a library card you need two things: an address, and an ID with that address on it. For most people that come to the NYPL this isn’t an issue. Even if your ID has a different address on it, you can pull up a bill or a piece of mail with your name and place of residence on it and they’ll welcome you to the club.

For a smaller, but still very relevant group of visitors, however, having an address is not easy. According to the Coalition for the Homeless, there are 62,391 people without permanent homes in New York City. That is 62,391 people who cannot use the library to find jobs on the computer, or check out a book to develop marketable skills. This exclusion of a group of people that would benefit significantly from library services is definitely a flaw in the NYPL system. 


After spending some time observing in LHG, I sat down with one of the librarians so that I could learn about the things I couldn’t see. Contrary to stereotypes, he had a demanding voice and stature and I felt compelled to listen to him.  

Information Overload

One of the more important topics revolving around librarianship, in my opinion, is how these professionals handle data or information overload. Not long ago librarians often had to fight against having too little information available to them. With the internet, digitization of thousands and thousands of records and collections, as well as increased patron contributions, librarians have an overwhelming amount of resources. When asked about this, the LHG librarian explained that he had to learn how to research more effectively. Databases have helped narrow down search results, but he mostly relies on his own ability to filter out the extra stuff. He also mentioned that in the research libraries in particular, patrons use the online catalog and databases to find their own materials before bringing it to him for assistance. This means, however, that his job also now includes teaching patrons how to use the library website, its databases, catalog, and other little overly complicated bits. 

With all of this new digital content and information floating along above our heads in the cloud, an important question is; Who owns it, and why do libraries have it? The librarian had a quick answer to this, which was if the library had to own everything it circulated, no one would know anything of importance. He pointed out a feature of LHG that was pretty popular with researchers; a file system of researcher-created records of families, places, and things. The library doesn’t necessarily own any of the findings in those files, but it keeps them and cares for them because it’s the library’s obligation to to do so. 


Naturally our conversation concerning piles and piles of information lead straight into my next question. Did he ever feel burnout? Was he ever tired of his job and did he ever feel like the work wasn’t worth the punishment? He had been quick to respond before, but was slower this time. Yes, he did sometimes feel the effects of burnout, but not in a way that made him feel like his work wasn’t worth it. Rather, he felt that sometimes the institution thought his contribution was less than what it was in reality, and that was the frustrating part, reasonably. I found this interesting considering I had previous overheard two librarians gossiping about how the people making important organizational decisions knew nothing about the system. The conclusion from this is that the NYPL administration may not fully consider the insight of those who work in the very trenches they are redesigning. 

Politics, Neutrality & Librarianship

I managed to end my inquiry on the most difficult topic; Librarianship and neutrality. The librarian I spoke to had little trouble forming an opinion, ironically. He suggested that librarians can be neutral until there is a political or ideological thought that threatens the overall well-being of the library’s patrons or the collection. Generally, politics can’t play a part in researching a topic for someone, because that could limit what information you can give. Same goes for controversial ideas. He did mention at the end of our talk that he believes that it’s impossible to stifle your own beliefs completely, and that its the responsibility of the person to control how those beliefs come out. 


As I learned about the ins and outs of the library during my observation and conversation, I found the answer to my biggest question. Despite being old on the outside, most of the inside of the library was young and new. The librarians were informed and up to date on the pressing matters of their profession. The staff was diverse and welcoming. The exclusion of some groups in the city needed some work, but I feel as if the library is aware of this issue and is working on solutions. Overall, the NYPL Stephen A. Schwarzman Building is blazing into 2020 as a leader of library practices. 


Birdsall, William F. “A Political Economy of Librarianship?” Progressive Librarian, no. 18.

Cope, Jonathan. “Neoliberalism and Library & Information Science Using Karl Polanyi’s Fictitious Commodity as an Alternative to Neoliberal Conceptions of Information.” pp. 67–80.

Gehner, John. “Libraries, Low-Income People, and Social Exclusion.” Public Library Quarterly, vol. 29, 15 Mar. 2010, pp. 39–47., http://dx.doi.org/10.1080/01616840903562976.

Nauratil, Marcia J. “The Alienated Librarian.” New Directions In Information Management, vol. 20, 1989.

Rosenzweig, Mark. “POLITICS AND ANTI-POLITICS IN LIBRARIANSHIP.” Progressive Librarian, no. 3, 1991.

Rosenzweig, Roy. “Scarcity or Abundance? Preserving the Past in a Digital Era.” The American Historical Review, vol. 108, no. 3, June 2003, pp. 735–762., doi:10.1086/529596.

Vinopal, Jennifer. “THE QUEST FOR DIVERSITY IN LIBRARY STAFFING: FROM AWARENESS TO ACTION.” In The Library With The Lead Pipe, 13 Jan. 2016.

Person, Place, Thing: A Lion, a Witch and a Wardrobe

The public library has played the role of a site of respite for my family, dependably familiar and inviting for us and countless others. This space, the children’s section of the library in particular, has inspired my venture into the study of information science. By entering the library, children and their caregivers are able to enter into a safe and cost-free place to engage and begin to form a relationship with literacy and community. 

My budding interest in information science enticed me to return to this city that I adore, New York, to study libraries and information science. An unfortunate but temporary consequence of this transition is that the vast children’s book collection we have accrued and weeded over the course of my daughter’s young life is currently spread out between three different storage locations for the time being. Even had we been physically close to our beloved books, my daughter and I our simply huge fans of browsing and borrowing to our hearts’ content, a habit we formed early on and continue to nurture. Since our very recent arrival to the city, we have slowly begun to explore a handful of libraries throughout the five boroughs. 

One of the contenders for a favorite children’s section is the marvelous and massive Main Branch in Manhattan, or, as it’s known by my daughter, “the library with the lion flag.” She’s not wrong. A single stone lion is, in fact, the library’s official mascot, and I have become very acquainted with this lion. What follows is a brief chronicling of my relationship to the NYPL children’s section: a lion, a witch, and a wardrobe.

A Lion

Patience, the lion, care of the NYPL website on the library lions

One lion accompanied by another, a pair of huge, imposing lions carved out of stone, oversee the masses below on New York’s Fifth Avenue, seemingly standing guard at the building’s scenic East-side entrance. A mirror image of the two felines is also replicated inside the children’s section, composed entirely of slate gray Legos. 

In my eyes, even their Lego incantations seem to emit an aura of nobility. Interestingly enough, they were given virtuous names, Patience and Fortitude, by Mayor Fiorello La Guardia amidst the Great Depression. The mayor’s reasoning was that these symbolic statues might inspire these qualities in the struggling citizenry during this challenging era. Today, visitors travel from far and wide to catch a glimpse or even a photo alongside this notable duo.

A Witch

The witch in this case uses her powers for good. Her role is more akin to that of Glenda of Wizard of Oz fame than that of the Wicked Witch or icy villain of Narnia. She is a public librarian. Like Glenda, the public librarian gently guides library patrons by listening to and interpreting their needs and providing a nudge in the right direction. Patience and fortitude are just as necessary for the librarian to embody as much as the next person. 

Librarians do not stand guard at the doors of the library as the large and lofty lions do, but they are also like guardians in many ways, for civic service is no easy feat. Often librarians today find themselves playing the roles of counselors, social workers, advisors, and are assumed to be experts on any number of bodies of knowledge. Though they are not human computers, they are rather exceptional figures in their own way. 

On a given day, the children’s librarian at any branch in the NYPL system could be leading a preschool story time for kids aged 3-5, which includes reading books, leading the group in song, engaging the crowd in some sort of hands-on crafting exercise, and otherwise expertly facilitating a bustling room full of toddlers and their caregivers, all within the span of an hour or so. Librarians plan programs, provide services, teach, listen, and so much more. How they manage to fit this all into one person’s job is as close to magic as something could get! 

The same, of course, could be said for librarians all over the country, from branches big and small. Their communities, however, are unique and individualized, and each library branch has their own special charms. I just happen to especially adore the NYPL Main Branch and its magical and benevolent witches, as have countless others before me. 

A Wardrobe

In a tiny corner of the children’s library in the central NYPL branch is a miniature puppet show station. With free play, the children can choose to alternate between the roles of puppet master and audience member as they please. The liminal spaces of the library provide a gateway to magical experiences, indeed, for people of all ages. In the first C.S. Lewis tale with its introduction to Narnia, the wardrobe functioned as a portal into a different world. It could also be said that books, in their many forms, can open up a gateway into new dimensions for anyone who takes the time to engage with them. 

Books can certainly be enjoyed from the comfort of one’s home, but there is something magnificent in the ordinary children’s room of a public library. From a child’s perspective, one can only imagine the magic and wonder that are evoked from hearing an entrancing story told by someone other than their guardian. The librarian themself might be just the point of entry needed to transport a child into the world of literacy. Their children’s room, when all works as planned, serves to act as a kind of magic wardrobe, transfixing and transporting young minds to new and thrilling environments.

Or so I would like to believe! As I have only begun my studies, I have much to learn, but if there’s one thing I am sure of, it is that we could all stand to use a little magic, patience, and fortitude in our lives. And thus concludes the short chronicles of NYPL kid’s services: a lion, a witch, and a wardrobe, as told by a mother and aspiring public librarian. 

Event: “Apollo” at NYPL Performing Arts Branch

On Thursday, October 10th, I attended an event at the Performing Arts Branch of the New York Public Library called “Apollo.” The event was part lecture part film, and it was led by two leading scholars on dance, Alastair Macaulay and Robert Greskovic.

A little bit of background first. The ballet “Apollo” is a lesser-

known ballet. It’s an obscure work that is known for having very famous collaborators, Igor Stravinsky and George Balanchine. Both of these names are very recognizable in the classical music and ballet world, respectively. However, “Apollo” as a work is not. I personally had never heard of this particular ballet, and I consider myself to be pretty well versed in the world of dance. It premiered on April 1928 with original choreography by Adolph Bolm but was later reworked by Balanchine. Bolm’s choreography is pretty much usurped by Balanchine’s, and no one uses choreography that wasn’t originally created by Balanchine.

The story of the ballet is centered on, no surprise here, the god Apollo. Apollo comes to life and is greeted by three Muses, Calliope, Polyhymnia, and Terpsichore. Each of the Muses gives Apollo a different gift. They give him the gift of poetry, rhetoric, and dance respectively. They dance with him both as a group and individually.  At the end of the ballet, Apollo ascends back to Mount Olympus in the heavens with the Muses being left behind.

According to one of the presenters, Macaulay, this ballet is simultaneously about making art and the creation of art. It’s about the “growing up” of art. He talked in-depth about how in later iterations of the ballet, Balanchine would say that he wanted to get rid of the narrative entirely. Thus, in the production of the ballet with Mikael Barisnikov dancing the role of Apollo, he eliminated the Prologue section of the ballet and also changed the ending. According to MacCaulay’s lecture, Balanchine was apparently known for saying that in his mind, Apollo was always meant to be a work in progress.

So how does this fascinating obscure piece of dance fit into what we are dealing with as information professionals? For me, I found this event and piece of ballet history fascinating because of the way that the information about it was being cataloged and collected and later on, archived. Prior to this event, there was a three-day seminar with NYPL employees, the two men leading the event, and also some of the dancers who danced in the various productions that the show has been through throughout the years. Their information was collected via the archival video that was taken. The people who couldn’t be there at the seminar i.e. other dancers such as Mikael Barishnokov who contributed their information via one on one interviews with MacCaulay and Greskovic.

So the ultimate question is, how is all of this information being cataloged and then archived? I noticed before the lecture started, a video camera was set up in the back of the auditorium where the lecture was taking place. The employees running the lecture must have planned in advance for this archival footage to be taken. They must have wanted to save the presentation as a whole. However, how are the lecture itself and the interview material from the various collaborators being saved? For example, some people might not think it’s important to have the lecture notes that MacCauley wrote saved, cataloged and archived but some may. I personally would be interested in seeing those notes, but I know that many people wouldn’t. It relates back to some of

our earlier readings that dealt with archiving, such as Schwartz’s article, “Archives, Records, and Power.” The article deals with whoever is archiving the material at hand is the one with the power. If I was the one taking in this collection of information (video, lecture notes, PowerPoint slides), then I would ultimately have to create a narrative about the materials at hand. I would be able to organize the information in a certain way and make a certain narrative around the materials. Schwartz says,

“Whether over ideas or feelings, actions or transactions, the choice of what to record and the decision over what to preserve, and thereby privilege, occur within socially constructed, but now naturalized frameworks that determine the significance of what becomes archives.” (3)

In looking at this particular ballet and how these two scholars were recording what was important, I thought it was interesting that they chose certain images and certain video clips over others. I know that I clearly missed a bunch of material in the three-day symposium that took place weeks prior because we only saw short clips from it, but I do think it’s interesting on what was preserved and what was not. Obviously, this is a lesser-known ballet, but it has big important names in the dance and classical music world. If this was a lesser-known ballet with no big names attached, would it still be archived in as much detail? Would anyone care to have a three-day symposium on this material? I’m not really sure. Schwartz also says that “control of the archive – variously defined – means control of society and

thus control of determining history’s winners and losers.” (4) Would we ultimately classify this ballet into the winner category because these two dance scholars ultimately deemed it important to one, host a three-day symposium on and two, host a public lecture on it?

In conclusion, I feel that going to this lecture prompted me to think about a variety of issues in terms of being an information professional. It makes me think about how we’re archiving material and how we’re using it to move forward in our profession. I stand by my question of who wins here and who loses? Do we have an answer to what is getting saved, cataloged and archived or is it ultimately just random? I still feel that this ballet is one of the more obscure ones, and I know that I’m glad that I know about

it and its’ history but I’m not one hundred percent sure that I would choose to save the information about this ballet over another one that is also obscure but with less famous collaborators.


NYPL Performing Arts Lecture series. Attended on October 10th, 2019.

Sponsored by the NYPL Performing Arts Branch.

Cook, Terry & Schwartz J.M (2002). Archives, Records, and Power: The Making of Modern Memory. Archival Science. 1-19.

Apollo (ballet). In Wikipedia. Retrieved October 15th, 2019 from https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Apollo_(ballet)

Libraries and Information Access in New York State Prisons (Working Title)

by Jay Rosen

For this paper, I will examine the current state of prison libraries and offsite library services across New York State, with an eye towards recommending best practices and identifying critical issues in the provision of prison library services. I will begin with an overview of New York State’s prison libraries as they exist today, reviewing their structures, services offered, and apparent limitations. I will also examine outreach services offered by library systems including New York Public Library’s Correctional Services Department, as well as efforts by grassroots organizations such as Books Through Bars NYC to deliver books and other materials to incarcerated people. I hope to speak with library staff who help coordinate these services, including NYPL Correctional Services staff Emily Jacobson and Sarah Ball, and will also reach out to fellow students in Pratt’s Prison Library Support Network to learn more about their volunteer efforts and their thoughts on these issues.

In examining library services in New York State’s prisons, I will look at the funding structures and bureaucratic and legal hurdles that enable or limit them, and suggest ways that these services might be strengthened going forward. In seeking a theoretical grounding for this paper, I will explore whether Critical Librarianship might usefully inform work being done in prison libraries. I will also seek out research on the relationship between prison library services and recidivism rates, the role of public libraries for individuals re-entering society, and any publicly accessible feedback from incarcerated people on existing prison library services in New York State.

Throughout the course of this paper, I plan to rely on literature review, government information, and actual conversations with local library staff and volunteers working in relevant areas. I anticipate a couple possible challenges. The first is scope. Focusing on prison library services across New York State might prove to be too broad; if this is the case, I will limit my inquiry to prisons libraries in and around New York City. The second is the potential dearth of research on the impact of library services on incarcerated people. If I am unable to find much information on this, I might consider how such research could be successfully designed and carried out in the context of New York State. I will also emphasize research that outlines relationships between higher education programs in prisons (such as the Bard Prison Initiative) and recidivism rates, as well as research concerning the impact of Pell Grants in prisons. In recommending best practices, I will look to the efforts of Scandinavian prison libraries.  

Observation of the 58th Street Public Library

The 58th Street branch of the NYPL is one of their smaller locations. My observation took place midday on a weekday. Some patrons did appear to be stopping by during a lunch break, quickly picking up hold materials before leaving. However most patrons did linger in the library, many for the entirety of my observation.

Physical Library Space

When you walk into the library it is all one room. To your immediate left are a handful comfy chairs and behind that a small children’s area. This has two small tables with three or four chairs around them, and a very small open area. Then on the left are the stacks. To your immediate right is the reference desk. This library does not have self-checkout, so it is the only location to check out materials. (There is a book drop in the vestibule of the library so you can return books without entering the main space.) Beyond that, on your right are a dozen or so computers, which can be checked out for 45 minute intervals, and the DVD collection. Straight ahead of you there are some more comfy chairs, two long communal tables to work at with outlets built in and hold/reserve shelves which line the back wall.

One of the first things you notice about the space is that it is designed primarily for adult patrons. There are mostly places to sit and read/work individually. Some parents/caregivers have modified the space to suit their needs. An empty space in front of the reference desk, where the line forms when the demand is higher, is taken over by unofficial stroller parking. There isn’t enough space in the children’s section to store any belongings and have space to move around.

Use of the Space

Patrons at the time of the observation seem to be coming to the space to either work independently or pick up holds from the hold shelves. Only a handful of patrons even visited the stacks during their time in the library. Those working either at the computers or communal tables didn’t visibly have physical library materials with them. Over the course of the observation there were two older patrons who read periodicals that the library had on display. But only two patrons visibly had library books at their spaces. And only one of them spent time reading their book. Patrons primarily took advantage of the computer/Wi-Fi/digital resources that the library offers, as opposed to books or periodicals.

This library fulfills a very important role as a ‘third space,’ somewhere that is not home or work/school where people can congregate and just be. For example, there were many retirees, who came here to spend time outside of their homes. While not apparent from the layout, according to their website there is also a second floor, which houses a space that can be reserved for community events/needs as well as their tech classes.

Library Staff

During my observation I saw four different members of staff working the reference desk. Only one of them was a women. Considering the stereotype of the middle age white female librarian this felt noteworthy. Additionally two of the men were people of color. This felt important because as you look around the library, they have a diverse range of patrons. Having a body of staff that reflects your patron-base allows them to best serve their patrons, and be aware of any special needs or considerations their patrons might have.


This is not a high-tech library that is going to have a maker space or a lot of automated systems. However there are small areas where they could probably integrate more digital services. The addition of a self-checkout station would allow patrons who are just picking up materials, and not asking questions, to quickly get their business done.

There also felt like a need for a more designated child friendly space. Some patrons verbally complained about the strollers left in front of the reference desks. Many also made faces when navigating around them. While space is at a premium in a library of this size, the reading area next to the children’s area could probably be rearranged to have space for the strollers. Then those seats could be moved to another area of the library.

Another option would be to take advantage of the second floor space. Maybe when there aren’t events up there have the space open for children to use. That way there would be space for them to run around or read aloud without disturbing the people working downstairs. However I have not seen that space so I don’t know how difficult that would be or if there is a computer set up that would make that difficult.

NYPL: Constraints Outside Bars by Amber Pasiak

NYPL: Constraints Outside Bars

Nestled in an unassuming building on 39thstreet in Manhattan, lies the backbone to many of the programs offered through New York Public Library. One of these outreach programs is the Correctional Services. This program is a small staffed group of librarians and volunteers who help provide reference information, circulating book service, video visitation and recorded readings for children to people in jail. These are primarily New York state jails; however, the reach and depth of this program is rapidly expanding. It is here that I got a firsthand look at what it entails to run a program of this kind. I had the pleasure of meeting and spending the morning with Emily Jacobson, aCorrectional Services Librarian.

Before I went to do this observation, I read The International Federation of Library Associations and Institutions guideline for library services to prisoners which details practices that “reflect an acceptable level of library service, which could be achieved in most countries where national and local government policies support the existence of prison libraries.” This guideline stresses the shift from punishment to education and rehabilitation, wherein the role of the library is paramount. These guidelines offer hopeful, democratic and, which I was soon to discover, slightly unrealistic in practice, suggestions. This is not to say that the staff at NYPL has disregarded the suggestions, quite the opposite actually. I felt that they were doing their best to emulate them with what they were allotted. I also want to stress that I do recognize that a large general guidebook is going to have different uses across different institutions, whether it is a federal vs state jail or prison or a different type of correctional facility.

The Day:

Emily and I started the morning with a general overrun of all the services that are provided and how. The first task of the day was to sort through the many reference letters that have been mailed in. A great many of these letters requested a copy of NYPL’s “Connections” guide. This is a reentry guide that is free to people who are in jail or prison and offers information on housing and finding a job. Most of the other letters addressed issues about self-help resources, general reference questions and legal information.

The second part of the day was the selection and shelving of books that have been donated to the program. The correctional services is a donation based service. This means that a lot of the books that are donated cannot be used for certain reasons. Although there is a very limited “banned” book list, a great many others were in too poor condition, repeats or, to my surprise, very out of date magazines.

I was also surprised to learn that the program is all analog. Emily explained that there were several reasons for this. The first was that many of the jails do not have internet access, hence why this program’s reference letters were so popular, and there are many safety procedures in place that would make carrying out a regular library check out difficult. Another reason is that there are very few library locations inside jails, and thus the library will either be a popup that happens roughly twice a month or a book cart service. Some of the jails do offer some storage space, but when everything is in constant transit it makes hard to keep track of most of the books, as checking out a book is a hand-written paper process, with just a title and a patron name.

Keeping track of the books while working in a jail is the sort of dilemma that a regular library doesn’t normally see. As Emily explained to me, a jail is where someone is either awaiting trial, or has been sentenced for less than a year. This means that the patrons to a library jail are very often in flux and books tend to go missing or get lost, making it nearly impossible to have a traditional check out system.

The Days Reflections:

Although I spent most of the morning doing physical aspects of the job, it wasn’t hard to see how the theoretical frameworks that have been discussed in class were in play. The first that struck out to me was the curating choices of the librarians. As this is donation based, the variety of books coming in was already limited, and then the books about bomb making, etc. (if any) had to be removed, any damaged or watermarked books could not be used, and any hard cover books were deemed physically dangerous. So, what does this leave you with? Well, it looked to me that it was a million copies of the same Jo Nesbo and Nikki Turner books.

How does a librarian deal with trying to offer a balanced selection with limited resources and restrictions? How does a librarian take hold of their accountability, responsibility and recognize their “power” in a much stricter and limiting politized institution? Reference letters and book requests do show how a librarian might try to build a certain collection, however, this is not always possible to do, due to funding, donations and general stigmatization of the rights owed to a person in jail. When do these critical questions about a library space overlap or go against the critical questions about the roles jails and prisons play in society? William Birdsall articulates in his article “A political economy of librarianship” that: “librarians need to devote more effort researching the political and economic dynamics that define the past and current environment of libraries. Libraries are the creation and instrument of public policy derived from political processes.” Could this also not be said about jails and prisons?

In the article, “Information needs in prisons and jails: A discourse analytic approach”, the authors Debbie Rabina, Emily Drabinski and Laurin Paradise state that the information needs of people in prison and jail are actually constructed and created by those institutions. This article was written using data from the actual reference letters that NYPL correctional services have received. The article goes on to talk about the term digital divide. This term, otherwise referred to as information poverty, has been contested due to the binaries that it creates and simplification and stigmatization that it reinforces. They state that creating binaries related to the digital divide can be dangerous by placing librarians in a higher viewed position of power. They argue that the problem of information access is not solely the result of a lack of internet.

I found this point interesting due to the already existing idea that people in jail or prison are coming from a place of poverty and that by placing them in a binary of digital divide, scholars are reinforcing that separation, while also adding another level of authoritative power above them.


Although I do not have an answer to many of the questions I have raised here, I did find it enlightening to have seen how some of the critical questions and theoretical frameworks we have been introduced to as students fit into real world situations. My day spent at the NYPL correctional services has made me think about these questions in a different manner. There has already been much discussion on how some of these issues of power play out differently between public and academic libraries, however when dealing with a public library situated in a very specific authoritative politized institution they take on another new role.


“Future research should address the information that incarcerated users have, not what those of us on the outside imagine they do not.”(Rabina, 2016.)



American Library Association. (2017) “Prison Libraries”. Retrieved from http://libguides.ala.org/PrisonLibraries/Home

Birdsall, W. (2001) “A political economy of librarianship?” Progressive Librarian, 18, Summer 2001. Retrieved from https://lms.pratt.edu/pluginfile.php/828932/mod_resource/content/0/02_Birdsall_2001.pdf

Lehmann, V., Locke, J., & International Federation of Library Associations and Institutions, T. H. (Netherlands). (2005). Guidelines for Library Services to Prisoners. 3rd Edition. IFLA Professional Reports, No. 92. International Federation of Library Associations and Institutions. Retrieved fromhttps://files.eric.ed.gov/fulltext/ED497652.pdf

Rabina, D., Drabinski, E., & Paradise, L. (2016) “Information needs in prisons and jails: A discourse analytic approach.” De Gruyter. Retrieved from https://lms.pratt.edu/pluginfile.php/829457/mod_resource/content/0/2016_Libri.pdf

Engaging Shared Heritage @ NYPL

Wednesday Sept 26 I attended the talk at NYPL on ‘Engaging Shared Heritage.’ Academics from around the world shared with each other the projects they are working on and the challenges they face. The panel on “Preserving Cultural Heritage” shared the different types of preservation work they were engaged in. The following panel, “Engaging through Research and Dissemination,” discussed how they connect their work to other cultural heritage institutions and to the larger public. Instead of briefly touching on each person who spoke, I am going to focus on the panelists whose research most aligned with my interests and what we are studying in Foundations of Information.


Challenges to Preservation

Dr. Annie Sartre-Fauriat explained the destruction of historic sites such as the Temple of Bel and Palmyra and the loss of artifacts because of the civil war in Syria is irrecoverable. The proposition Sartre-Fauriat made was to reconstruct the damaged heritage sites from a variety of different periods. She warned against what she called “a Disney style approach” but contested that since Syria has had such a diverse history that the reconstruction shouldn’t look like any one particular era. She explained they do have enough archival resources to create a deep reading of these sites’ histories, but she admits that they while they have unlimited ideas and potential, everything else they need is non-existent. Currently Russian mercenaries are in control of the area and people are quiet freely looting the world heritage sites. She said that at the moment there is virtually no control and no ability to organize any sort of enforcement.

Father Samer Yohanna, a priest from Salahaddin University-Erbil in Iraq, explained the lack of trust that exists at all levels of society in Iraq. He said that between fellow countrymen, neighboring countries, and Westerners there are few areas where large swaths of society can work together. They have had to move their collections 5 times and at the moment they are not disclosing their location to anyone outside of the organization. He stressed the need in Iraq for places of community that give people incentive to see their history as shared, and work to preserve it.  

Father Yohanna also stressed the danger of working with artifacts in the modern Iraqi political climate. This is something that I partly dealt with in my undergraduate thesis, so I was eager to hear his perspective. There is intense pressure for different societal groups to prove their place in Iraq’s history, and against influences that have come in from the West. Yohanna explains ownership of artifacts and control of the narratives that surround them is a volatile issue that makes doing archival work very dangerous in Iraq.

The perspectives represented at this event were a reminder that free unfettered access to information in the context of a civil society might provide healthy debate, but could serve as fodder for violence in an area with few formal avenues to scholarly interpretation. This reflects what we read in the Dabello article, albeit in a different context, about traditional expertise not being able to play the role as gatekeeper as it once did in the face of an active public (Dabello, 2009). Our ability to create a publicly shaped identity I think directly relates to the amount of trust society has in each other and our institutions. When asked about opening up the their online platforms to community input Yohanna and Stewart (mentioned below) said they both have a moderated comment section that often provides insight, but with an undereducated public and a turbulent political climate, maintained that primary interpretation should remain in control of those with library and archive expertise. Respect for expertise and the potential power of crowdsourced information is a tension that continues to come up in this course.


Digitizing Responsibly  

The next panelist, Columbus Stewart, was a Benedictine monk from a monastery I am very familiar with back in Minnesota. He works with Hill Museum Manuscript and Library (HMML). Their mission starting out was to protect Benedictine manuscripts in Eastern Europe directly after WWII. Since then they have expanded to preserving Muslim and Christian manuscripts across the Middle East. HMML began preserving manuscripts in Syria before the civil war broke out. One of his primary points was that we must do preservation work preemptively, especially for things as fragile as manuscripts, because it is often impossible to predict where conflict will break out. He cites their work in Mosul just before the civil war as evidence. Thus far they have digitized 40,000 manuscripts. From their website (https://www.vhmml.org) people can then export their own data sets. The only barrier to access they put up is the creation of a free account to access the images and the export function; people can access the index information without an account.

The key to their success has been working with local communities. He explained the general consensus that Americans find a way to monetize everything they touch. Distrust is something they always face, but their position as monks he said actually helps convince people they are not there to turn a profit. By working with locals they are able to gain a richer understanding of the texts. As a result the metadata that locals generate is far more accurate than what they would produce on their own. Drabinski illustrated this same point with the anecdote about the term “Kafir” in Zambian context (Drabinski, 2013). When digitizing any material we would be repeating past colonial mistakes if we continue to attest that description can be done neutrally. Father Stewart’s team takes this role very seriously. They train and pay locals to take photographs of manuscripts, teach them how to work with the data sets. This results in the spreading of expertise as well as the creation of rich digital databases.  


Archives and Peace

In the next panel, Vincent Lemire introduced us to Open Jerusalem which is trying to index as many archives as possible in Jerusalem and across the Middle East. Some of his points reflected what we have been discussing in class. For example he explained that with archives, unlike books, the producer is not the author and the contents of the archive is always composed of diverse material. They must find a way to describe the archive deeply while also applying a standardization that can be searchable in a database. Also because of the location and history of Israel, they are working with materials written in many different languages and described in different languages still during their various stages of provenance. For this reason they only focus on making the indexes digital, not the actual material.

Lemire explained that it is very difficult to have any mutual basis when inferences from the records lead opposing sides to drastically different conclusions. How they have overcome this, to an extent, is to start at the most basic irrefutable positions such as “this material is a book, it is written in Arabic, it is on such and such type of paper,” and build from there. He sees this as a practical, project-based form of peacemaking. While uninspired by the effects that formal peace talks have had on the region, Lemire argues that having to get through an insurmountable amount of archives forces people to develop a working relationship even if they still deeply disagree. McChesney stressed in “Digital Disconnect,” the importance of having public spaces in order for democratic civil society to flourish (McChesney, 2013). Panelists Yohanna and Lemire both echoed McChesney’s sentiment with the calls for spaces, such as a reading rooms, for people to be able to benefit from materials and develop a local concept of community.


Works Cited

Caswell, M. L. (2016). ‘The Archive’ is Not An Archives. Reconstruction 16(1).

Dalbello, M. (2009). Digital Cultural Heritage: Concepts, Projects, and Emerging Constructions of Heritage. Proceedings of the Libraries in the Digital Age (LIDA) conference, 25-30.

Drabinski, E, (2013). Queering the Catalog: Queer Theory and the Politics of Correction. The Library Quarterly: Information, Community, Policy, 83(2). pp 94-111.

McChesney, R. (2013) Digital Disconnect. New York, NY: The New Press.


Event information and feature image credit can be found at:  https://www.nypl.org/events/programs/2018/09/26/engaging-shared-heritage

In Situ: How to Reasonably Believe in God


The New York Public Library and Creative Time, a “public arts organization that works with artists to contribute to the dialogues, debates and dreams of our times,[i]” are working together on a current site-specific series of conversations “paring leading artists and public intellectuals to address critical topics of our time[ii]” called In Situ.  I attended one of these events on March 16th, 2017 in Manhattan at the Cathedral of Saint John the Divine, the topic being: ‘How to Reasonably Believe in God.’

The conversation paired prominent//provocative “intellectual”, Slavoj Zizek and visual artist, Janine Antoni, with Sister Helen Prejean as moderator.  An unlikely pair, Zizek and Antoni did not seem to be on the same page at all during the one hour conversation—making it feel a lot more like three hours.  Sister Helen tried her best to moderate the discourse into some sort of dialogue of back and forth, but it seemed that confusion from Antoni—in regards to Zizek’s thick Slovenian accent, and a general lack of understanding of his key points and counter arguments—was the downfall of the conversation.

Janine Antoni was not the original scheduled participant for the event; Shirin Neshat, an Iran-born New York City visual artist, was originally scheduled to be in conversation with Slavoj Zizek but had to cancel at last minute.  Because of Janine’s unfulfilling participation in the event, I wondered constantly if it would have been a better time, had Neshat not had to cancel.  I spent a great deal of time frustrated by Antoni’s lack of participation and seeming disinterest of what Sister Helen or Zizek had to say throughout the night.  I do not think this is something to blame the New York Public Library or Creative Time for, as an email was sent out promptly before the event, explaining the sudden change-of-participant—though, I do wish their understudy was someone who ‘fit the bill’ more properly.

‘How to Reasonably Believe in God’ began with a short introduction from Reverend Patrick Malloy, PhD; Paul Holdengraber, Director of Public Programming at NYPL; and Nato Thompson, Artistic Director of Creative Time.  The remarks given by Reverend Malloy were thoughtful, substantial, and relevant; he spoke of inclusiveness in a time of division, giving your neighbor the benefit of the doubt, and learning to listen to those that do not believe/worship in the way that you do.  He held the audience in the palm of his hand upon every word, though delivered just a short enough speech that I’m sure he was overshadowed by the events of the night, for some listeners.  For me: the power of his concise and beautiful words ruminated with me throughout the night and onto many days later.

Paul Holdengraber and Nato Thompson were not as elegant in their speaking as Reverend Malloy.  The couple tripped upon their words and did not speak very elegantly, as if they had forgotten they were in a church and not a college auditorium.  The two repeated the same things, apologized for their under-preparedness, and left me hoping that it was not to be a reflection of the night to come.

Between the opening remarks and the conversation was a performance from Reverend Billy and The Stop Shopping Choir.  This was a marvelous act that left me yearning to applaud and participate—which was offered in the call-and-response form of ‘Amen’ and ‘Hallelujah.’  Reverend Billy and his band left a lasting impression on the audience as they finished their final song, slowly walking down the aisle, chanting in whisper “black lives matter” and “standing rock”—in response to the current Black Lives Matter movement that is so prominently erupting throughout the world, and the Standing Rock Native American Reservation where people have been protesting the installation of the Dakota Access Oil Pipeline since the Summer of 2016.

Reverend Billy and The Stop Shopping Choir are a well-known musical group that have been protesting and addressing key issues through their music and their presence for over 13 years.  The band describes themselves as a “radical performance community” of “wild anti-consumerist gospel shouters and Earth loving urban activists,[iii]” advocating against Militarization and Consumerism in the modern world.  Their performance at In Situ was heartbreakingly short; with only three songs, they most certainly left the audience longing for an encore.  The Stop Shopping Choir and Reverend Billy spoke and sang of: environmental justice, President Trump’s travel ban, Corporate Greed, and the First Amendment of the United States Constitution.  It was a performance unlike any other, topped with expressiveness, inclusiveness, and many choir members dressed in drag.  This performance was perhaps my favorite part of the event.

The moderator, Sister Helen Prejean, is an inspiration to many.  Through her moderating of the night she made it known that she had a lot more she could’ve said on the subject, but continuously, and graciously, fell victim to the statement, “it’s not my time to talk.”  Sister Helen is most known for her “instrumental sparking [of] a national dialogue on the death penalty, [and for] helping to shape the Catholic Church’s newly vigorous opposition to state executions.ii” She is the author of Dead Man Walking: An Eyewitness Account of the Death Penalty in the United States and The Death of Innocents: An Eyewitness Account of Wrongful Executions.  Sister Helen is a one-of-a-kind human; she spends most of her time counseling death row prisoners and educating citizens about the death penalty and is currently writing her third book.


And so it began, after the opening remarks, the musical performance, and a short introduction from Sister Helen: Janine Antoni, a self-proclaimed Buddhist, and Slavoj Zizek, a self-proclaimed Agnostic, started a discussion on How to Reasonably Believe in God…but not really.  Slavoj Zizek is a very eccentric man, with what seems to be hundreds of ideas flowing from his mouth a mile a minute. Janine, on the other hand, conducts herself in a more slow-talking, thoughtful kind of way.  The two did not mesh well—which was, admittedly, some of the point of the conversation to begin with.

We do not get to a conversation about believing in God, without the anticipation of some ‘stirring of the pot’, yet at times it seemed Antoni was completely ignoring Zizek’s counter-points, and perhaps not understanding what he was speaking about (verbally—because of his thick accent, but also conceptually, as it was clear he was much more intelligent than her).  It is not always important, when in conversation with someone, to have the same brain capacity, or to necessarily share the same beliefs—in fact, this night it was specifically chosen that the two participants came from a different backgrounds of thinking—yet Antoni’s sheer impudence during the conversation began to undermine her credibility as an opposing voice for how Zizek could/should reasonably believe in God.

Throughout the night, Antoni responded to many of Zizek’s accusations and key points by meditating and dancing.  Even Sister Helen seemed to be a bit confused about her actions, as Janine strutted across the stage, banged on the floor with her feet, and swirled her long black hair in the air.  She referenced much of her art throughout the talk, but did not give examples as to how these pieces fit into the discussion.  At times it felt almost as if the NYPL was in a complete bind when Shirin Neshat cancelled and ended up choosing the only artist that would participate on such short notice.  There was definitely an air throughout the audience when she would counter-act Zizek’s thought-out, serious accusations and topics with completely one-sided conversations about how she believes in her God—not trying at the least bit to debate the topic with him.

Though Janine Antoni’s participation was at times strenuous to sit through, her hubris did not overshadow the pure intellect of Slavoj Zizek.  Some of the key points he made, which were chiefly ignored by Antoni—though some were addressed by Sister Helen—had great resonance with me.

He spoke of “faking it till you make it”—in terms of people pretending to believe in God, or believing in God/worshiping only when they need something or it is convenient for them.  He gave the assertion that “When we want something, we also want the obstacle of gaining it”—in regards to devout religious persons dedicating their lives to the possibility of an afterlife and forgetting and/or undermining the importance of a life on earth.  Quoting an international proverb, “an enemy is [someone] whose story you weren’t ready to listen,” Zizek intentionally set up Antoni at this point of the conversation only to have her, once again, ignore the allegation.

I attended this event for a few reasons: 1.) to support the New York Public Library, 2.) out of a deep respect for Slavoj Zizek and Sister Helen Prejean’s work in their respective fields, and 3.) to perhaps gain insight on How to Reasonably Believe in God.  Unfortunately, I did not gain much understanding into the latter.  Though there was not much discussion on the topic, I did not leave the event feeling my attention could’ve been better utilized somewhere else that night.  I made a friend in Reverend Billy and The Stop Shopping Choir, was graced with the amazing presence of two people I deeply admire, and—when all else failed—was captivated by the architecture of Saint John the Divine, a structure throughout the night referred to as “this hollowed mountain.”



[i] Creative Time. Creative Time, n.d. Web. 27 Mar. 2017. <http://creativetime.org/>.

[ii] New York Public Library. 16 Mar. 2017. How to Reasonably Believe in God [Brochure]. Creative Time.

[iii] Mar 16  •  By Reverend Billy Talen  •  Share, and Mar 15  •  By Reverend Billy Talen  •  Share. “Reverend Billy & the Stop Shopping Choir.” Reverend Billy & the Stop Shopping Choir. N.p., n.d. Web. 27 Mar. 2017. http://www.revbilly.com/.


Sister Helen Prejean. Ministry Against the Death Penalty, n.d. Web. 27 Mar. 2017. <http://www.sisterhelen.org/>.

“In Situ at the Cathedral of St. John the Divine: How to Reasonably Believe in God.” The New York Public Library. The New York Public Library, 16 Mar. 2017. Web. 27 Mar. 2017. <https://www.nypl.org/audiovideo/situ-cathedral-st-john-divine-how-reasonably-believe-god>.

Bending the Future of Preservation Review

In celebration of the 50th anniversary of the National Historic Preservation Act, the New York Public Library hosted a discussion between 5 notable scholars working in the field of preservation. The event was called Bending the Future of Preservation and was held on October 19 at 5:30 PM at the Stephen A. Schwarzman Building. Panelists included Michael Sorkin, Robert Hammond, Thompson Mayes, Liz Sevcenko, and Richard Rabinowitz. The event was moderated by Max Page and Marla Miller.

Discussion lead with a look into the next 50 years of preservation, particularly in architecture. Questions posed to the group were intended to make the panelists/audience consider equity and representation in preservation. The first hour featured the voices of Hammon, Mayes, and Sorkin. Each panelist presented recent projects around NYC, their involvement, and the positives and negatives of city development. Hammond, as part of the High Line project, highlighted two main issues with the development of the park.The High Line is a linear park built on a disused New York railroad. The first issue addressed by Hammond is a distinct lack of city funding, 98% of the parks budget is supported by Friends of the High Line through private donations [1].

The second issue relates to access and use of the park. Hammond discussed two low-income housing units located beside the High Line. Residents in both buildings were surveyed before and after construction, and the discovery was made that most had never been to the High Line. Survey responders indicated that the space did not feel like it was built for them and felt uncomfortable walking the park. A visit reveals to the keen observer that the majority of park traversers primarily include tourists and residents from other, more affluent, living complexes. Hammond believes that creating public spaces and the preservation of NYC structures should benefit all residents of the city. New residents, parks, and business can greatly influence the residents of a neighborhood. As an area is redeveloped, the cost of rent often rises and forces people who cannot afford new costs from their homes. Mayes criticized decisions to preserve based on only historical and architectural values. He believes that the residents memory and identity adds to the value of a place. This is supported by all the panelist as they discuss the history of place in preservation.

The second hour echoed the thoughts of the first as Richard Rabinowitz and Liz Sevcenko addressed the preservation of historical sites. Rabinowitz, in particular, addressed the importance of telling all histories rather than those of the important or wealthy influencers. He called for marking historical sites that affected larger populations, such as bread lines from the Great Depression or putting the rules to old street games on plaques in neighborhoods. He referred to this action as social archaeology, an idea that the history of all parts of a population should be equally represented.

The discussion effectively shed light on many problems and solutions seen in preservation in city planning. New development often leads to the gentrification of an area. Residents are forced from their homes, either by rising costs or legally removed by landlords, and many local business owners are pushed out for new, more expensive stores and restaurants. The act of preservation should support social and public history, whether it’s a building or images from history. The information professional can support these actions in the retention, preservation, and archiving of historical items. Archiving and librarianship can begin including more representation in their catalogs, materials, and hiring processes [2, 3]. Academic discussions, such as Bending the Future of Preservation, can lead the conversation about diversity and equity in preservation. However, very little action has been seen in the world of informational professionals to commit to these ideas [4]. We must abandon the sense of neutrality in the public sphere that only perpetuates existing problems [5]. I believe each of the panelists echoed these concepts in their discussion and presented viable solutions to known problems in the preservation of history.


  1. The High Line | Friends of the High Line. (2016). Retrieved October 25, 2016, from


  1. Drabinski, E. (2013). Queering the Catalog: Queer Theory and the Politics of Correction.

The Library Quarterly, 83(2), 94-111. Retrieved October 25, 2016, from https://lms.pratt.edu/pluginfile.php/623243/mod_resource/content/1/drabinski-queering%20the%20catalog.pdf

  1. J. V. (2016, January 13). The Quest for Diversity in Library Staffing: From … Retrieved

October 25, 2016, from http://www.inthelibrarywiththeleadpipe.org/2016/quest-for-diversity/

  1. Rosenzweig, R. (1991). “Politics and anti-politics in librarianship” in ibid., 5–8. Retrieved

October 25, 2016, from http://www.progressivelibrariansguild.org/PL_Jnl/pdf/PL3_summer1991.pdf

  1. Jensen, R. (2006). “The myth of the neutral professional” in Questioning Library Neutrality,
  1. A. Lewis. Library Juice, 89–96. Retrieved October 24, 2016, from http://jonah.eastern.edu/emme/2006fall/jensen.pdf.