I have been watching the developments at the New York Genealogical and Biographical Society (NYG&B) for more than a year now, as have hundreds or perhaps thousands of other interested genealogists. It is a sad spectacle to watch a major, mainstream society dissolve into almost nothing. A number of thoughts pop to mind, and I decided to share some of them here.
First of all, I'll ignore the legalities as I am no lawyer. There are claims being made about the method in which the NYG&B's downsizing and sale of assets has been handled. That's not my area of expertise and I will ignore all such discussion. I hope someone else with legal expertise does write about that.
Next, while I am saddened to see a major genealogy library go out of existence, I don't think any of us should be too surprised. In fact, this is not the first or second or third time that a genealogy library has folded. It is a sign of the times. Many such libraries face economic realities and find that they can no longer continue in the same manner of operation they have used for years.
Up to this year, perhaps the best-known library closing was the 2001 decision by the National Genealogical Society to transfer its library in Arlington, Virginia, to the St. Louis County Public Library in Missouri and to continue all lending privileges from there. (Some reference works, rare books, and the manuscript collection remained at NGS headquarters.)
Next, in 2005 and 2006, the New England Historic Genealogical Society's closed its lending library. This was only the "lend books by mail" operation housed in Framingham, Massachusetts. The main library that we all know and love on Newbury Street in Boston remains open and appears to be financially sound.
NOTE I was very familiar with the decision to close the NEHGS lending library; I was an employee of the Society at that time and participated in many of the planning meetings. A tiny fraction of the society's members used the lending library. Nobody liked the idea of closing the lending library but the financial losses were obvious and were also growing yearly. Inaction at that time would have had dire financial consequences in later years. The decision was made to cut the losses and redirect the money to other projects that produced greater benefit to the entire membership.
Other genealogy libraries across the nation are facing similar problems: rising costs, lower patronage, and much more "competition." That competition might be direct competition from the Internet, or it may be in the form of indirect competition from the demands on the time of would-be genealogy researchers. In our society's focus on leisure time, we find many demands for our non-working hours. A day at the library may or may not be at the top of the list for many Americans.
Finally, ever escalating gasoline prices and even parking fees make it expensive to use many genealogy libraries. Commuting to New York City is expensive, whether by private automobile or by public transportation. Have you ever paid for parking at any location near the former NYG&B headquarters? For those who wish to use a library in almost any major city, these fees are included in the cost of spending a day at the library. Some libraries charge an admission fee for access to their holdings; these fees are typically minor compared to the expenses of travel and parking.
The recent problems faced by the Board of Directors of the New York Genealogical and Biographical Society are quite similar to the problems faced earlier by NGS and NEHGS: costs continued to escalate, and library usage (and revenue) was not keeping pace. This is a situation that cannot exist forever; action is necessary. The wiser managers of such libraries will take action BEFORE the financial consequences force them into bankruptcy.
We can all second-guess the NYG&B Board of Directors: maybe they should have done this or perhaps they should have done that. Monday-morning quarterbacking is easy, but the Board didn't have that luxury. They had to find a solution first, and then act on whatever plan they created. They elected to close the library, sell the building, and transfer the library's holdings to an institution that will probably last longer and will offer greater and easier public access than what the society could ever envision by itself.
Was this the best possible decision? I don't know. But I have received many e-mail messages in the past year or so concerning the NYG&B, and I must say that I have not yet read a better plan. Many people are quick to criticize, but few are willing to step in, and and say, "I'll help."
Right or wrong, the Board of Directors made a plan and acted on it. The library's holdings will be available to the public, apparently in a manner that guarantees better access than ever before. The NYPL (the New York Public Library) is open more hours per week than was NYG&B. Those holdings will also be available free of charge although travel and parking fees will remain roughly the same as before.
What will be missing in the future is the ambiance. The feeling of belonging to an "exclusive club" will no longer be available. Patrons will not be able to walk into a quiet, oak-paneled reading room and be surrounded by oil paintings of long-dead club founders. Indeed, patrons will have to sit in public reading rooms at a major public library, perhaps surrounded by non-genealogists and the various derelicts sometimes found in public library reading rooms.
The decision has been made, and the action plan is underway. There will be second guessing by many former members and others. The online moaning and groaning on newsgroup message boards and perhaps in this newsletter's Comments Sections will be loud. However, I'm betting that no one will be able to create a better (financially sound) plan.
The recent problems and plans at the New York Genealogical and Biographical Society are similar to the year 2001 problems and plans at the National Genealogical Society. There are also some similarities to the 2005/2006 problems and plans at the New England Historic Genealogical Society. I suspect we will read of similar problems and perhaps similar plans at other privately-endowed genealogy libraries in the future.
Let's pause for a moment and think about a nearby genealogy library that you use. I'll ignore public libraries that are funded by taxpayers' dollars. They have their own financial issues that are quite different. I'll also ignore the libraries that are funded by religious organizations, such as the Family History Library in Salt Lake City or the BYU library in Provo, Utah.
Let's focus for a bit on privately-endowed libraries that serve genealogists: the Godfrey Memorial Library in Middletown, Connecticut; the New England Historic Genealogical Society's library in Boston, Massachusetts, the Peabody Essex Museum's library in Salem, Massachusetts, the D.A.R. Library in Washington, DC, or any of several dozen other libraries owned by genealogy societies or historical societies or museums. Will they survive in the future? SHOULD they survive?
The reality is that the cost of accessing physical books is rapidly increasing while the cost of accessing the same books online is quickly decreasing. Tens of thousands of genealogy books have already been scanned and are available online today at no charge on Google or at the Lee Library at BYU (see my earlier article at http://blog.eogn.com/eastmans_online_genealogy/2005/11/byu_family_hist.html) or for free or modest charges at HeritageQuest Online. Manuscripts, books, and much more are available for free on FamilySearch.org and at reasonable fees from Footnote.com, Ancestry.com, and hundreds of other, smaller web sites. The Mormon Church is already hard at work on a huge project to convert all their microfilms to digital images.
Question: Do we (the genealogists) really want to spend $4.00+ per gallon of gas plus more for parking to look at genealogy books and manuscripts in person? Can we afford to do that if we live hundreds or thousands of miles away from the one library that holds the information we seek? Doesn't it make financial sense to take the money formerly earmarked to keep private genealogy libraries in operation and instead divert that money to scanning project that will place the same information online at no cost or low cost to everyone? That's "everyone," including those who live 3,000 miles away from the particular library in question. That access does not need to be limited to library hours; online patrons can access those books and manuscripts 24 hours a day.
Oh sure, we will have to do this from home. We cannot sit in high-ceiling reading rooms, surrounded by oil paintings of men dressed in ancient fashions looking down at us. The ambiance certainly will be different. I certainly will miss the genealogy libraries where I have spent so many delightful hours. But I think I will be a better genealogist for the experience and I will better understand my family's heritage.
This will not happen overnight. It will not happen in a year or two. It happened at the National Genealogical Society in 2001. It is happening at NYG&B in 2008. I suspect more privately endowed genealogy libraries will close in the next decade or two. Don't be surprised.
Probably the last such library to close its doors will be the New England Historic Genealogical Society. Sitting on a $20 million+ endowment that is growing, that library's future seems assured for some years to come. Yet, I suspect that even that library will someday have to face the issue that revenue isn't beginning to cover expenses. The books in that library, and all other genealogy books in other libraries that do not have copyright restrictions, should be scanned now and made available to all genealogists at reasonable fees. The same is true for manuscript collections: let's scan them. Once placed online and access requires a modest fee, I bet those libraries will see increasing revenues, not decreasing. Of course, one alternative is to sit back, do nothing, and wait for Google to give the same information away to everyone free of charge!
The Board of Directors at the New York Genealogical and Biographical Society did what they had to do. So did the Board of Directors at the National Genealogical Society. Now I will offer my "Monday morning quarterback" assessment: It strikes me that perhaps the NGS, the NYG&B, and others should have digitized those books before giving them away.
I believe that libraries of the future will remain in business for many years on the web, if not in a "bricks and mortar" environment. I also believe that these future genealogy libraries will derive more revenue from distant online patrons than they ever could obtain from those able to walk in the front door.
I'll gladly pay a dollar or two to read a book online instead of paying $4.00 a gallon or more for gas plus parking fees to drive to a distant library. Will you?