METRO is grateful to New York State Department of Education and the New York State Library for showing their strong commitment to library infrastructure as a means of efficiently creating informed and equitable communities. METRO is working with Brooklyn Public Library, Queens Library, New York Public Library, Westchester Library System and their member libraries as well as a broad constellation of community partners to develop shared goals and regional plans for these digitial equity funds.
Reflecting on the history of the Reference and Research Library Councils and Library Systems in general, it is clear that New York has always believed in its libraries and library systems. This ARPA funding, coupled with the state aid that councils already receive, creates a path for this infrastructure to evolve at a time when equitable access to connectivity, devices, and training can mean the difference between a child participating or not participating in school, a college student’s access or lack of access to research, an adult’s ability or inability to apply for a job. Looking at METRO’s origin story helps to contextualize our role as a regional entity, and it shows that this work is a continuation of the intentions behind our original charter from 1964.
In March 1960, Dr. James E. Allen, Jr., Commissioner of Education, appointed the Commissioner's Committee on Reference and Research Library Resources. The problem that is described in the Commissioner's report has a contemporary ring to it, as the report speaks of “a crisis caused by two things - the accelerated growth of knowledge during the past decade and the tremendous growth in the number of people who are searching for knowledge.” If only they knew what was to come! It is common to think of the proliferation of information as a problem of the internet age, but indeed the challenge pre-dated the web and even goes back thousands of years. The report goes on to say:
“Our studies have shown that there are private and public library collections in the State which contain rich collections of the world's knowledge. None of them is financially able to keep abreast of current output of information…. At the present time there are few if any cooperative plans in operation which might tend to remedy the situation. It is also apparent that for physical and financial reasons it will not be possible to develop total collections of knowledge in many parts of the State. The resources must be eventually tied together electronically, administratively, and fiscally, so that efficient and rapid transmission of recorded knowledge is possible.”
Thus came the recommendation that the state form and fund the nine regional Reference and Research Library Councils, all of which serve their respective regions but have also collaborated as the Empire State Library Network (ESLN) since 2003. At this point in the 1960s, the report’s emphasis was clearly on efficient access to content; it was about creating efficiencies and deduplication through coordination and cooperation. Only in the last sentence is there a hint toward the future of our network based library service conundrum of today: “The resources must be eventually tied together electronically.”
The Metropolitan New York Library Council, aka METRO, was ultimately chartered by the NYS Board of Regents in 1964. In those early years, there was a flurry of thought and excitement about the potential of METRO. In January of 1969, when METRO was only five years old, the soon-to-be Director of the New York Public Library, John Mackenzie Cory, wrote an article in Library Quarterly that praised forward thinking consortial efforts like METRO. Cory’s article anticipated that building communications networks would become a critical component of cooperative library service. The article went on to make three noteworthy points.
First, Cory described contemporary library organizations as a stack of three different “generations of service,” each building upon one another. In his description, Cory was “drawing on the generation concept applied to computer development (first, vacuum tubes; second, transistors; third, integrated circuits; and fourth, lasers).” The “stack” metaphor here is ahead of its time, and it brings to mind contemporary analysis like that in Last in, First Out by Rory Solomon.
Second, Cory proposed a possible fourth generation, “still largely to be developed… a combination of libraries and non-library agencies concerned with related activities (e.g., information retrieval and transfer, culture and recreation, or conservation and exhibition).”
Finally, Cory referenced another white paper that METRO commissioned from Charles Morchand called the “Preliminary Study for an Improved Information Transfer System for METRO Libraries.” In this document, which you can read in its entirety, Morchand provides an outline for an initial information transfer network and communications system for approximately fifty METRO affiliates within a fifty mile radius of Times Square.
“Briefly, the Morchand System is designed for retrieval of texts from microphotographic or digital storage and for transmission of retrieved texts to a requesting agency for display of soft copy or the making of hard copy from a TV display terminal. In the System, pages of text or graphic matter can be accessed from storage and can be transmitted over any TV channel(via broadcast, co-axial cable, microwave relay, or satellite) - at a rate of several pages per second. Any page chosen can be displayed at the requester's TV screen upto fifteen minutes or less if desired.The number of pages transmitted per second can be increased four times by one of the Morchand techniques.”
What’s old is new again!
When I read stories from the 1960s lamenting that too much information is available, and that cooperation is required to make that information efficiently available to EVERYONE who needs it, I recognize METRO’s role in facilitating that cooperation.
When I read of Cory’s possible “fourth generation” that incorporates more than just libraries into networks that focus on community-based access to knowledge, and when I hear technical principles and language applied to organizational structures and inter-organizational collaborations, it seems that Cory was anticipating the formation of digital equity ecosystems, and organizing principles like collective impact or mutual aid. This is the 21st century work for organizations like METRO to focus on.
When I read of the ambitious plans Morchand put forth to actually build a telecommunications network to connect METRO’s member libraries, I know that this is an organization that can and should think big and tackle our community’s largest problems alongside all of our member organizations. As a non-profit organization chartered by the New York State Board of Regents, METRO was intentionally structured so that it can be versatile, entrepreneurial, and member driven all at once. METRO’s membership model also makes it an organization that can service all kinds of entities, not just libraries: METRO can serve as this “fourth generation” organization.
Please check back in the coming months to learn more about the progress we are making with our partners, Brooklyn Public Library, Queens Library, New York Public Library, Westchester Library System and their member libraries.