How many books in a library?

November 28th’s New York Times had an article that I’m sure fascinated many readers: A Slippery Number: How Many Books Can Fit in the New York Public Library? I’m even more sure that it was of interest to the various conspiracy theorists who are convinced that the New York Public Library is throwing away millions of books unbeknownst to unsuspecting readers who are counting on the books being immediately present in the main library building on 5th Avenue in New York.

Some years ago the NYPL was forced by public opinion (in conjunction with the conspiracy theorists) to back away from a plan to turn old fashioned bookstack areas in the building into useful public amenities. The stacks, deemed by the library’s professional administration to be unfit for modern library storage, with inadequate environmental controls for valuable collections. The plan was to move the books (several million of them) to a more remote location, providing transfer of needed volumes back to the Manhattan location several times a day, at a space of several hours from when the book was requested. Hundreds of libraries in the United States (and worldwide) do this.

The latest twist in this unending saga at NYPL is several the library’s use of variations on the number of books at the 5th Avenue building, varying as much as several million items. NYPL’s explanation is quite straightforward: until recently they didn’t have a modern inventory or library system in which all the items were entered. Previous numbers were based on various estimates. The conspiracy theorists are now at full throttle saying that the library got rid of millions of volumes.

I’m in sympathy with the NYPL. In very large research libraries (and NYPL is among the largest) down to small libraries and the small-ish research library where I am employed, we all have the same problem. I call it the Magic of Libraries.  Others might call it serendipity. Things turn up that you didn’t know you had, uncataloged. Things that are cataloged disappear under unknown circumstances. Sometimes there are entire collections of items that come your way (or, generally, came your way at some previous era, left for someone later to figure out.) Libraries are aeomeba-like, expanding and contracting with minds of their own. But it is because of these factors that a hitherto unknown manuscript by Bach or Mozart turns up in a completely inappropriate spot in a library or archive, centuries after its composition. And no one can explain how it might have gotten there.

Another issue is that library collection size is often calculated by means of formulas based on the size of shelves (standard 3-feet wide), number of shelves, and the type of materials shelved on those shelves. Needless to say, there are fewer volumes of British Parliamentary Papers on a three-foot shelf than, say, items of 2 page Department of Agriculture pamphlets. Inventories are incredibly expensive, labor intensive and time consuming. In a large library, by the time an inventory is finished, it might be anyone’s guess how many things have gone astray in the meantime.

Of course, no amount of factual explanation will satisfy the conspiracy-minded. They demand numbers. Facts. Immutable facts. Sorry, in libraries, that is a pipe dream, even with the most sophisticated inventory system.


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