by Tyler Cowen
on April 18, 2012 at 1:22 pm
1. The decline of the New York Public Library?
2. Ungated Acemoglu paper on the future of the world and the rights revolution.
3. Elinor Ostrom makes Time’s 100 most influential list.
4. Class notes from a Peter Thiel lecture on business.
5. Arabic words to Bach’s religious music, a video, sung by Fadia el Hage.
The NYPL link is pretty uninformative and I’d say was a waste of my time. Needs context.
Is Acemoglu really as good as economists claim? I skimmed his latest book of neo-Whig History and was unimpressed.
You may want to link to the full series of notes on the lectures by Thiel uploaded by the same guy you linked to.
From what I’ve picked up on Curbed, the New York real estate blog, the New York Public Library is proposing to move the books that it is currently storing in the big beautiful beaux arts building on Fifth Avenue in Manhattan out to New Jersey. Two circulating branches currently located in Midtown will move to the main Fifth Avenue building, along with the usual cafes and shops. For now, scholars won’t be banished to New Jersey as well, they can still order books in the main reference room at the Fifth Avenue location but will probably have to wait longer for them.
In some ways this is a big deal, in several good and bad ways (for example more of the central building will be available to the non-scholarly public) but really it mirrors what other big reference libraries have done in other cities.
Of course, relocating the books is an intermediate stage before scanning and destroying them. Out of sight, out of mind.
In the first part of the Thiel lecture notes, there seems to be a flaw in the explanation of perfect competition. The model states only that “above normal” profits are competed away — due to the inclusion of opportunity cost in the definition of profit. But the notes don’t seem to appreciate this point, insinuating that such rigorous competition would mean zero (conventional) accounting profit. I have my own qualms about the PC model, but anyway the presentation here seems sloppy, at least from the notes.
re #3: so does Salman Khan, a Bollywood star, an okay actor, but influence?
Library administrators, like all bureaucrats, exemplify Jerry Pournelle’s Iron Law of Bureaucracy. In support of their empire building, library administrators want to increase the “popularity” of their institutions and shift spending from output to structure. Since people don’t read books as much as they used to, library administrators see no reason to keep books around if they can attract more patrons with computers (remember, growing the bureacracy is more important than fulfilling its nominal mission). Researchers want books, but bums off the street want a free web cafe, and library administrators want to hire baristas to sell lattes to the bums.
Actually, this is the second or third phase of the abolition of research libraries. First library administrators abolished card catalogs without replicating the data they contained into their computerized replacements (NB: I’m not a Luddite– I favor computerized catalogs, but I have wept off and on for more than 20 years over the amount of knowledge sent to the incinerator by the library admins who thought primitive computerized lists of author, title, and classification number were sufficient and refused to expend any effort to capture the details and cross-references added to catalogs by generations of librarians and researchers, and also refused to make any provision for adding new ones to computerized catalogs).
Next, library administrators started chucking the actual books out of their libraries. At UCSD the library sent most of its books offsite to be shelved by size (for packing efficiency), not call number. Of course the UCSD library administrators lied, just as the NYPL administrator lies, and said that the books would be available upon request (“just wait a day or two, until you’ve forgotten what you were looking for, and be sure to come back, it’s ever so much more fun than gleaning what you need in a single visit, especially if you’re a visiting scholar!) Trust me, after a few years offsite shelves are so disorganized that books cannot be retrieved– since offsite books are ordered by size rather than content, the warehouse workers shove them the first convenient bin, making the original location records useless. No new location records are ever created. Even so, computers are used to track whether books are checked out– and irretrievable offsite books never are, so library administrators feel free to “deaccession” (pulp or burn) them and answer all complaints with platitudes (see the NYPL guy again!) about how all the “popular” books are in the main library (it’s hard for a book to be popular when no one can ever read it).
Besides getting rid of books, library administrators also get rid of serials. First they trade back copies for microform, then they dispense with the microform “since you can get what you need from Lexis/Nexis” or some other commercial database, then they cut off access to the database because library administrators don’t want to pay per-article viewing fees! Of course, the databases are filled with errors since they were casually and incompetently OCR’ed from microform(!), and omit all the photos and graphics in the serials, plus the material outside the “news hole,” such as advertisements which researchers like economic historians are often more interested-in than the articles. (Articles which “jump” from one page to another are likely to be truncated in databases anyway.)
The steps of abolishing rich catalogs, serial collections, and book collections result in the virtual abolition of research: researchers cannot browse the collection (any rump of it which remains is “offsite and off-limits,” not to mention completely disorganized), so researchers can never find material which isn’t mentioned in the truncated catalog, which is most information. For example, a biographer unable to browse war histories will never find a mention of his subject in one of them– his subject may be indexed in the back of one book or another, but will not be indexed in the library catalog. In days of yore the researcher would have run through a shelf of books about, say, the Western Front in the Great War peeking into indices and tables of contents (and fortuitously finding mention of his subject’s friends if not his subject), but now he will simply go home to drink and weep until he passes out.
Let’s assume librarians had still retained the card-catalogs with all this valuable information you mourn. How many people do you think would have used them a month, say? So also for the “advertisements” point. How many of the patrons of a journal want it for the advertisements?
How many dollars and resources can and should we devote to esoteric uses?
Rahul, perhaps you should read what I write before you criticize it. As I wrote above, I think library administrators should have captured the data (subject notes, cross-references, etc.) from the card catalogs into the computer catalogs.* If they had done that, everyone using computer catalogs would have used that data (indeed, nowadays such data would be presented in the form of hyperlinks). Administrators didn’t do that because they didn’t want to pay anyone to go through the old catalogs copying data into the new ones.** Instead, they created the new catalogs by keying in the absolute minimum information for each book at the time they labelled the book itself with its new computer item number (represented by a barcode sticker on the book). Computer catalogs are clearly superior in many ways to (physical) card catalogs, but the transition from the old format to the new was seriously botched (and everyone knew it at the time).
As for “advertisements,” they are just part of what makes up a serial (or a book, or whatever). The real problem is loss of graphical matter and all information “outside” the texts of “recognized” articles (sometimes ads contain important texts). One generation of administrators may arrogantly decide that everything but formal article text is superfluous thereby sabotaging those of ensuing generations who want something their arrogant predecessors chose to discard. If library administrators had preserved good images of serials’ pages that would have muted my criticism considerably. Microforms were meant to do that (though they didn’t do it very well– microforms were nearly all black-and-white as well has low-resolution), but OCR’ed article texts don’t even try. Really, most proposals to substitute computerized images for physical books are unsatisfactory. Leaving aside the “bitrot” problem (books may survive and remain readable for many centuries, but data nearly always fades after a decade or two, whether from actual media failure or the obsolescence of each digital storage format), there are problems with image quality (no one checks– have you noticed how difficult it is to read words in the corners of lazily-collected images?) and the fact that some information is not in the images (such as ink chemistry, and don’t tell me “that doesn’t matter for modern books” because today’s modern book is tomorrow’s antique).
Future historians will curse our generation in the same terms we curse those medieval monks who scoured the classics off their vellum so they could overwrite them with devotional exercises of no lasting value.
*Perhaps, Rahul, you don’t know this: in the old days, librarians creating new cards used to put a lot of information on them plus add info to existing “related” cards. Then librarians and even trusted readers used to actively annotate catalog cards. When someone found an interesting cross-reference, he would write it into the catalog. That is no longer done.
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