Blog Post

Para-Library Science at the NYPL

Image via Flickr.

[...] But this book
Is a cloud in which a voice mumbles.

It is a ghost that inhabits a cloud.
-Wallace Stevens

In Roland Emmerich’s schlocky disaster film The Day After Tomorrow (2004), a tsunami swamps the New York Public Library and enables some ham-handed scenarios about the fate of books after an environmental apocalypse. In the film’s abrupt post-tsunami ice age, a small tribe of survivors burns up the print record for warmth while marooned inside the library. They are led by the young Sam and Laura (Jake Gyllenhal and Emmy Rossum), who happen to be in town for a scholastic decathlon, and who probably accrued their impressive trivia-level knowledge of history from digital sources, to judge by their indifference toward books. The book burners spare Nietzsche, but only for as long as there are reams of tax law to incinerate. A homeless man teaches a privileged prep-schooler how to rip paper from its bindings to use as long underwear, while complaining that codices have nothing on newspaper when it comes to personal insulation. Finally, as the gag lights up to Farenheit 451, print’s final custodian (in a newsboy cap) guards a Gutenberg Bible from the flames--but also from the mockery of a fellow survivor: “You can laugh,” he remarks, “but if Western Civilization is finished, I’m gonna save one little piece of it.” Viewers of The Day After Tomorrow are therefore asked to imagine some alternative futures for books. Fuel, insulation, or souvenirs, they are meant to be anything other than read.

The New York Public Library maintains an informative webpage devoted to the building’s storied appearances in popular cinema, from Breakfast at Tiffany’s (1961) to Sex and the City: The Movie (2008). There, we are reminded that no books were harmed in the filming of The Day After Tomorrow. But ever since November, 2011, when an outcry first emerged among journalists, scholars, architects, and intellectuals over the New York Public Library’s “Central Library Plan,” The Day After Tomorrow feels less like popcorn humor and increasingly more like a flimsy allegory for the NYPL leadership’s directives: sell two midtown branches, gut the stacks below the iconic Rose Reading Room at 42nd street, ship at least 1.5 of 4.5 million on-site volumes to a New Jersey storage facility, and transform the edifice’s newly hollow core into architect Norman Foster’s Gattaca-esque vision of a circulating library for the future.

Champions of the plan, such as president Anthony Marx and trustee Robert Darnton, contend that the renovation will democratize the physical plan of the library, resolve 21st-century storage dilemmas, adapt to changing patron profiles, and anticipate the next wave of funding crises. A few years ago, Darnton went so far as to bait liberal recession sentiment, suggesting that such a facility could double as a job resource center or hiring hall. In historian Anthony Grafton’s less sanguine view, it would instead transform one of the world’s premier research institutions into “a vast internet cafe where people can read the same Google Books, body parts and all, that they could access at home or Starbucks." Preeminent architectural critics from the late Ada Louise Huxtable to the New York Times’s Michael Kimmelman have suggested that the renovations of the building, including the engineering triumph of the stacks themselves, are akin to the defacement of an architectural masterpiece. Finally, under pressure from The Committee to Save the New York Public Library, President Marx capitulated to an independent review of the estimated $300,000,000 price tag for renovations, and last summer, public interest law firm Advocates for Justice, representing a small coalition of scholarly and preservationist plaintiffs led by celebrated historian David Levering Lewis, filed a suit in New York state court claiming that the library has neglected its fiduciary responsibilities toward research. But the off-siting of books from the stacks continues apace. Translator Susan Bernofsky has recently toured the empty stacks on behalf of a PEN America delegation, and she concludes that the still “evolving” plan continues to be bullishly pursued without proper public input:

In fact, there’s so much secrecy surrounding the plan and its progress that Kennedy and Weine forbade me to take any photographs of the stacks during the tour. Why not? I asked, this is a public institution, what the stacks look like shouldn’t be a secret. Weine referred me to the NYPL’s “policy” prohibiting photography in the library’s “non-public spaces.” When I asked where I could find a record of that policy, it quickly became clear there wasn’t one. I guess NYPL leadership is afraid that if enough people see actual images of the stacks in their current state—they give an impression simultaneously of vastness and solidity—they might have too many questions about why in the world the library is proposing to tear them down.

The Committee to Save the New York Public Library will gather on the steps of the NYPL on Wednesday, March 12 to request that Bill de Blasio keep a campaign promise to halt the CLP and to request another independent audit.  Clearly, though many major research libraries have debated, enacted or tabled similar storage solutions in the past several years, the NYPL’s uniquely public mission has proven uniquely capable of raising hackles. I dutifully sign all petitions coming my way, but sometimes it feels as though the tide of activism rallying to the defense of a print-based research library seems to be crashing against an endless wall of unbelievers, who rebuff the growing chorus of protesters as a bibliophilic, sentimental rearguard. It is as if only a small group feels obliged to ask why the book, in its distinguished career, has never been deeded the building that was built for it. Defending the library’s status quo requires a conviction in something that many others regard as increasingly immaterial. For too many, if the book is not still a nuisance, it is already a ghost; if the library was never a monument, it is already a ruin.

We Are All Spenglers

I don’t evoke ghosts in passing. We live with powerful cultural fantasies about the ghostliness of books, fantasies that have been reanimated in recent weeks with the passing of the beloved comedian Harold Ramis. In the blockbuster comedy Ghostbusters (1984), penned by Ramis and directed by Ivan Reitman, the first signs of paranormal activity famously occur in the basement stacks of the NYPL. Looking back on these opening sequences, we stand to be reminded that we have been coping with unheimlichkeit in the house of books far longer than the Google Books Project or the Central Library Plan, and that we do not often enough date ourselves amid the slow revolutions of the information age and the neoliberal economic agenda, as they variously converge across recent decades to dematerialize knowledge archives and sell off public cultural infrastructure.

Ghostbusters opens with an elderly librarian pushing a re-shelving cart past a bank of card catalog cabinetry. Suddenly drawers begin to slide mysteriously open behind her, unleashing a storm of index cards destined never to be re-filed.

Most librarians viewing Ghostbusters in the theater in the summer of 1984 would have knowingly smiled at these images. Machine Readable Cataloging (MARC), developed by the Library of Congress in the late 1960s, cleared the way for the “retrospective conversions” of the cumbersome analog catalogs as early as the late 1970s. In “Discards” (1994), Nicholson Baker’s bitter dispatch on the demise of the catalogs, he points out that the NYPL itself had already microfilmed and gleefully jettisoned its catalog by 1980, several years before Ghostbusters (in part because it was subject to frequent vandalism). In 1985, the University of Maryland Baltimore Health Sciences Library published a pamphlet entitled 101 Uses for a Dead Catalog Card and threw a party in which they released hundreds of cards into the sky tied to helium balloons. Across the 1980s, many librarians rejoiced over the death of a system they had meticulously constructed over the course of nearly a century.

Despite nagging critiques of the conversion errors and multiple metadata protocols that prevent the “inter-operability” of our digital catalogs, Darnton reminds us that these electronic advances laid the groundwork for off-site storage procedures far more reliable than the physical catalogs. But in Ghostbusters, this card catalog hailstorm does not simply speak to the growing unruliness of print, nor the necessity of remediating, dematerializing, and digitally containing it. Rather, it speaks of the electronic information age’s unruly disdain for print cataloguing procedures. In fact, it is the card catalog that hosts the film’s first sighting of “ectoplasm,” the supernatural toxic residue that comes to mean many things as Ghostbusters unfolds (especially the increasing visibility of environmental pollution and the racialized crime waves of the 1980s). Whatever and whomever will soon be slimed, analog data storage is granted indelible priority in the allegorical order of “the uncontainable.”

Soon books are misfiling themselves across the stacks into oblivion. Perhaps Ghostbusters’ most apt information age prolepsis is the curious phenomenon that Ray Stantz (Dan Akroyd) describes as “symmetrical book stacking ... just like the Philadelphia mass turbulence of 1947.” Egon Spengler (Harold Ramis) displays an obsession with electronic documentation of this cairn-like, sepulchral book sculpture, suggesting a coming order in which books are photo-scanned, OCR-ed, and then “up-cycled” as interior design objects:

 
 

All this leads inexorably toward the first verified ghost sighting: “a free-floating, full-torso, vaporous apparition,” in the pseudo-scientific jargon Dan Akroyd contributed to the script (Akroyd is a third-generation spiritualist and avid parapsychology hobbyist, and the Ghostbusters franchise has been his lifelong passion project). The Ghostbusters first observe this marmish “library ghost” in a scene of reading, her image as irresolute as a daguerrotype. She assigns a historical instability to the activity of reading. This library patron is also the library's destroyer. She decorously shushes Dr. Venkman for “disturbing” her (as the film often puns), but she has just finished trashing the stacks she now peruses so piously. 

 

Perhaps we could call the “library ghost” the film’s allegory of para-library science -- the library’s new wholesale faith in the digital necromancy of the print era. Even Robert Darnton has figured himself as this kind of re-animator, first in The Case for Books, but also with the Digital Public Library of America, which like most new basic search functions, does not distinguish between print and other forms of “text.” The effect in Ghostbusters is to dis-authenticate all relations to print. Only electronic devices and mass-mediated gazes can be trusted. And only ghosts display relations to print as reliable repositories of knowledge, relations the film constantly reminds us to regard as fickle and dubious.

In Ghostbusters, humans who read (rather than “take readings”) are floozies and misfits. This distinction is dramatized by no-nonsense receptionist Janine (Annie Potts) ripping through a paperback romance novel at her desk like a character out of a Janice Radway reception history, while Spengler wires a telephone provocatively beneath her desk (the film often eroticizes his typecast technophilia). Janine coos over him “You’re very handy, I can tell. I bet you like to read a lot too,” but Spengler’s affectless, three-word reply is only “print is dead.”

Spengler, who places his entire faith in his gadgetry, is not spooked by ghosts, which he regards with inquisitive enthusiasm. Spengler is only spooked by books. When we first see him in the library, he is perched beneath yet another desk to listen by jerry-rigged stethoscope for paranormal resonances. When Venkman slaps a book on the tabletop to startle him, we understand that for Spengler, only the physicality of print is terrifying.

What are ghosts in Ghostbusters? As cinematic technologies, they signal a spiraling 1980s propensity for animatronic invasions of diegetic realism (think Who Framed Roger Rabbit?) As symbols, it seems easy enough to define them as unmanageable, toxic materialities: first print, but later pollution, excess, crime, and finally consumer products (the Stay-Puft marshmallow man). Slimer, the tuberous memento mori we first see pillaging a room service tray like a reincarnation of the recently deceased John Belushi combines many of these elements. Here we probably need to pause for a separate reflection on ghosts and obesity. In all, few cultural artifacts of the 1980s flaunt what Lawrence Buell calls “toxic discourse” as directly as Ghostbusters. And yet, the portals to the paranormal are not the polluted East River, the post-industrial port or the ghetto. Rather, they are the grand edifices of Gilded Age capital: the library, the hotel, and the gothic co-op on Central Park West. These remnant architectures connote Spiritualism’s heyday, relegating ghosts to history. But in such spaces, ghosts are the recrudescence of Progressive Era philanthropy. Having entrusted civic institutions to local government (as Andrew Carnegie did with his libraries), Slimer reemerges, the ravenous ghost of a 19th century super-capitalist, only to withdraw from the view that public stewardship is any longer desirable or sustainable. The ritual exorcism to be performed by the Ghostbusters is to rid the city of civic residues and pre-neoliberal models of public culture. If the Ghostbusters are heroes, they heroize an era defined by the corporate mismanagement of civic institutions--libraries preeminent among them.

The Ghostbusters themselves are products of philanthropic civil society. They first pursue their quackery as parapsychologists in academia, where, as Akroyd opines, “they give us money and facilities and we don’t have to produce anything.” Such admissions slyly wink at parapsychology’s tiny academic surge in the 1970s and 1980s, emboldened by figures like Thelma Moss of UCLA, whose research into Kirlian electrophotography visually influences the film. But Ghostbusters quickly ousts occultism from its University shelter, as an elitist dean critiques Venkman (who runs experiments designed to pick up co-eds) for viewing “science as a kind of dodge or hustle.” Parapsychology is thus rebranded as “the indispensible defense science of the next decade.” “Destined to get thrown out of this dump,” the Ghostbusters  “go into business” as custodial defense contractors, shilling “professional paranormal investigations and eliminations.”

In all, the Ghostbusters are consummate neoliberals, fated to privatize the fruits of subsidized scientific research and to break the state’s monopoly on the exercise of violence. They rapidly manufacture generic biohazard equipment; they purchase a decaying city-owned firehouse; they hang a branded public safety symbol as their shingle. In effect, as Thomas Frank has recently reminded us, they become a perfect Reaganite goon squad, swooping into the cheap real estate left behind by deregulation and divestments from urban infrastructure (which, as in the case of the firehouse, is portrayed as terminally broken). The only alternative the film advances to private defense contracts as the means to rid the U.S. metropole of its ill-defined toxicity is an insufferable, emasculated federal regulatory agency (the EPA) whose villainous representative does not fathom ghosts, but only frets over chemicals.

According to Tad Friend, the screenplays of Harold Ramis pioneered a comedic voice defined by a “defanged sixties rebelliousness that doesn’t so much seek to oust the powerful as to embolden the powerless.” But in Ghostbusters, the undeniably affable Bill Murray does little ideological work other than multi-pronged, neoliberal cheerleading for the ongoing installation of the electronic-age information economy, the demonization of environmental regulatory frameworks in the face of unmistakeable environmental crisis, the privatization of civic infrastructure, the vindication of defense contracting, the flight from academia as a safeguard of knowledge, and the succumbing to the monstrous power of branding.

For the current trustees of the New York Public Library, a specter once again haunts the stacks of the NYPL: the specter of books. And so these frightened custodians have deputized all of us as Ghostbusters who will line the library with fiber optic cables and flush our books into remote containment systems not unlike those that Spengler builds for the ghosts of New York. Ghostbusters was part of a cutting edge that asked us to stop viewing books as a commons to be monumentalized at the center of the city, and asked us to regard them instead as hosts for vaporous apparitions, an unruly quantity of toxic refuse for which to build remote storage facilities. We have become an army of gadgetry-bedecked Spenglers who (to judge by the Cult of Bill Murray) delusively fancy ourselves as a breezy company of Venkmans. At this point, we have been sliming the stacks for longer than we all care to remember.

Works Cited

Nicholson Baker, The Size of Thoughts (New York: Random House, 1996)

Roger Darnton, The Case for Books (New York: Public Affairs, 2009)

Tad Friend, “Comedy First: How Harold Ramis’s Movies Have Stayed Funny for Twenty-Five Years,” New Yorker 80.9 (Apr 19-26, 2004): 164-73.

Ursula Heise, “Toxins, Drugs and Global Systems: Risk and Narrative in the Contemporary Novel,” American Literature 74.4 (Dec 2002): 747-778

Don Shay (ed.), Making Ghostbusters (New York: Zoetrope, 1985).

Harris Feinsod is Assistant Professor of English and Comparative Literary Studies at Northwestern University. His scholarship and teaching focuses on 20th and 21st century literature and culture of the hemispheric Americas, and modern poetry and poetics. He is currently writing a literary history of U.S.-Latin American poetry relations in the Cold War.