March 25, 2023
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Interview: William Kelly on Collection, Chaos, & Order

Originally published June 5, 2018

William P. Kelly is The New York Public Library’s Andrew W. Mellon Director of the Research Libraries, responsible for NYPL’s four research centers and their 460 staff members.

His responsibilities include collection strategy, acquisition, and accessibility; researcher engagement; preservation; long-term and short-term fellowships; and taking a lead role in important research initiatives such as the recruitment of new curators, renovations, and preserving and expanding the use of the most democratically accessible of research collections. The Mellon Director is also a national voice on the direction of humanities research in general.

Kelly began his tenure at NYPL in January 2016. Previously, he was interim chancellor of the City University of New York, chairman of the Research Foundation of the City University of New York, and spent eight successful years as the president of the CUNY Graduate Center. Kelly is the current chairman of the John Simon Guggenheim Memorial Foundation. His scholarship includes Plotting America’s Past: Fenimore Cooper and the Leatherstocking Tales and (under contract) Astoria: John Jacob Astor, the West, and the World. He has written numerous articles for a variety of journals, newspapers, and magazines.

We spoke with Bill Kelly about the challenges libraries face in the digital age, the ways the NYPL is responding to culture, and what his job will look like 10 years down the road.


The New York Public Library is one of the greatest research archives in the world. What do you think gives it that distinction?

I would say three things. One is its scale and massive size. We estimate that we have 45 million items, but we know for a fact that we have 11 million volumes. We've just added an additional seven million through a collaboration with Columbia and Princeton. There are four branches of the research libraries — The Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture in Harlem, the Library for Performing Arts at Lincoln Center, the Science, Industry and Business Library at 34th Street, and the main library at 42nd. And in those places, there is just a dizzying array of material, so scale, I would say, would be the first thing that sets NYPL apart.

The second is its public status. Research libraries are generally associated with universities or other private entities which require membership to enter into them. Others are largely kept at arms-length. NYPL is more public. We had, just at 42nd Street, 2.7 million visitors last year, so it's everyone from tourists who come to walk around and see the architecture, to students and high-end researchers, writers, and artists, to people who are simply coming in to find a place to sit or open their laptops. So that sense of public status is radically different from most research libraries.

And the third, I would say, is the range of NYPL's research collections. From its beginnings, the library has collected in both depth and breadth. Many libraries have particular strengths in particular areas, but this one collects deeply and broadly across most knowledge sectors. The five great research libraries in the world — Bibliothèque Nationale in Paris, the British Library, the Library of Congress, Harvard and NYPL — have a common commitment to collecting broadly and deeply.

What's an item or two that one might be surprised to find in the NYPL archives?

I could tell you about 100, but [we have] things such as the original Winnie the Pooh & Friends, Christopher Robin's stuffed animals that were the basis of Winnie the Pooh. They are all here, with one exception (Roo). The story is that he was snagged by a dog at a picnic.

We also have the Honus Wagner baseball card, the most valuable baseball card ever produced. We have a large sports collection, and that is something that I think people are surprised to know.

And we have Charles Dickens' writing desk. We have his letter opener made from the paw of his cat. More significantly, I think, people might be surprised to know that we have Thomas Jefferson's handwritten copy of the Declaration of Independence, which was Jefferson's (unedited) version.

But we're also moving into areas that I think people don't know libraries collect. We have the Lou Reed archive, which we're currently processing. And that's lots of tapes and sound material that Reed produced and the vast archive of his work, both in print form — in journal form — and in musical form. And we've acquired the Sonny Rollins collection, all of the great jazz saxophonist's material, assembled over time.

How much of a priority is digitization?

It's a critical priority. The internet gives us the capacity to share material with people all over the world, rather than some people who can find their way to New York City.

So trying to do that is an imperative, but it's expensive. You have to digitize material, store it, store the digital files, and you have to figure out how to deliver it both locally and globally. Each step has particular cost considerations and also legal rights issues. There are things in copyright. You just can't digitize things that you don't own the rights to, so it's a major issue.

The second piece of the digitization priority is even more complicated. That's what's called "born-digital" material that never had print form — emails, tweets, Instagram, etc. I mean, one need only think about the current White House to realize that what a presidential library has looked like will be very different in the future, given the need to capture and preserve born-digital material.

What do you look for in a curator?

It's about passion for collecting. You really need to have a deep commitment to the material that you are charged with gathering and preserving and delivering. And without the passion, it becomes a fairly dry job and people don't have the energy, I would say, to fully realize the capacity of what they're asked to do.

The second piece is knowledge. You need to know that field backwards and forwards. You need to know all of the inside baseball lore about where things are and who collects what. It requires a certain imagination, as well, in thinking through what your area of responsibility might look like, how it can be extended, how barriers can be pushed, what we should be collecting that we haven't collected, how to maintain the strength of those areas in which we have a substantial holding, how to fill gaps in our assets, but also at the same time, to push the boundary of what the NYPL collects.

You have a focus on making the collection open to researchers and writers. How do you encourage them to use it, and do you need to?

People who do research seriously know about libraries, and this one in particular, and know how to comb the collections.

The issue about attracting other users is split. On one hand, it's a generational issue, where research means a Google search. How do you attract that generation, and even younger? We're in preparation to open a new exhibition in which we bring up some of our most interesting archival areas to try to make the case for the excitement of research and its importance. But it's also, I think, doing a better job of creating a digital presence so that people who are committed to digital are made aware of the resources that the place has.

Have recent cultural trends affected the way the New York Public Library curates archives? Again, the prevailing presence of all things digital has changed the ways in which cultural legacies are established. Also, cultural trends that have sort of blurred the boundary between high and low culture have expanded horizons. Again, we collect not just Dickens and Shakespeare, but Lou Reed and Sonny Rollins. It's an effort to try to be responsive. And I think our prime driver is that we are a cultural legacy institution and it's our job to serve as a kind of memory bank for the culture. And you can do that by selectively assuming you will imagine what the future wants and needs and looks like. That's like betting on the horses. I think that's a very hard task. Or alternatively, you cast as broad a net as you can. And as culture expands in so many directions via digital, how you manage to collect all of that is part of the challenge. We see ourselves as stewards for the generation of scholars that will come after us. And how do we anticipate their needs and collect and preserve material that will enable them to understand the histories of the shoulders on which they stand?

What does your job look like 10 years from now?

I subscribe to the notion that anyone who tells you what the future will look like is either a charlatan or a fool. But what I can say is that in some ways it will be very different. There'll be far greater degrees of collaboration among research libraries, simply because you won't be able to sustain the costs of this kind of collecting unilaterally. And we're already moving in that direction with a number of partnerships and shared purchasing understandings. I think 10 years from now, someone sitting in my desk will understand that access is far more important than ownership, so that rather than worrying about the ownership of the collection, the question is more about, how can we collaborate with others to create greater access to knowledge?

I'm not a digital utopian, and I sort of cast a skeptical eye on all of these claims, but what I do think is true is that someone working 10 years from now will be really working more from a desire to have in one place, in this case, a virtual place, a great majority of material that has been produced. And that this will level playing fields for people who want to see it.

The other thing I would say is it will look exactly the same in the sense that collecting and running libraries and curation is always about two things, in my mind, and that's always a kind of paradox of sorts. On one hand, the goal is to create order out of chaos. There's a shelf, there are numbers on the shelf, books sit there. The curator decides, "All right, I need two more things to fill out my collection," and there's a sense of this order.

And at the same time, there is this wildly subversive streak that is always looking to say that order is a fiction and an illusion and that the more you collect, the more you realize that you never can create that kind of order.

And I think that's the paradox of collecting. On one hand, you're driven by a desire to order and to create a sense of a design. And on the other hand, you're recognizing that that design is simply a construct that you're trying to impose on chaos. And the excitement of doing both of those things or being engaged in that tension is what librarians have always done in one way or another, and I think someone 10 years from now will still be trying to balance the competing pulls of order and chaos.


William Kelly has retired since publication of this interview.

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