The case of Paul Brodeur vs the NYPL

By Felix Salmon
April 5, 2011

I’m intrigued by the back-and-forth between former New Yorker writer Paul Brodeur, on the one hand, and the New York Public Library, on the other.

Brodeur’s original article for the Authors Guild bulletin can be found here. He’s upset at the NYPL, because 18 years after he donated his papers to the library, the library has now decided it wants to return about 80% of the material to him — or otherwise dispose of it. Brodeur would rather see the collection remain intact, but that’s not an option: the NYPL refuses to return the 20% of his material that it wants to keep.

The NYPL’s official response is here:

The collection includes the primary source material that, in the estimation of our curatorial and archival staff, will be of greatest interest to researchers and scholars studying Brodeur’s career and his work. This includes most of Mr. Brodeur’s manuscripts, notes, and correspondence. The rest of the material consists largely of secondary source items, including copies of and from magazines and newspapers, that are available elsewhere; these are the items the Library decided could be returned to Mr. Brodeur. In doing so it was following the standards regarded by librarians and archivists as the best professional practices.

Brodeur feels misled, and has replied to the NYPL quoting emails from the curator who originally accepted his papers, saying that she “considered them fully processed.” And Angela Montefinise, the PR head at the NYPL, also sent me this statement:

“The picture Mr. Brodeur paints of The New York Public Library in his article is inaccurate. Numerous important details were left out, including several unreturned attempts by our President Paul LeClerc to meet with Mr. Brodeur. We processed this collection in accordance with the best professional standards and made necessary and proper decisions in the best interest of the Library and its users. Our deed of gift, which Mr. Brodeur signed, was clear.”

Clearly this spat isn’t going to get resolved any time soon. Brodeur, by his own admission, can be hard to deal with:

That same day, I sent an e-mail to LeClerc thanking him for his invitation and telling him I would be pleased to meet with him either on Cape Cod if he was planning to visit during the summer or when I next came down to New York City. He replied that he was not planning to visit the Cape but would make a spe­cial trip if I so desired. During the next few days, I considered LeClerc’s offer in two lights. On the one hand, I had no doubt of its sincerity. On the other hand, it seemed strange to me that high officials-in this case, LeClerc and Steele-of an institution es­teemed throughout the world as a repository for the written word should be so loathe to use it, and would seek to resolve the issue at hand through talk and con­versation instead. For this reason, I decided to pursue the matter the way it had begun-in the epistolary form.

And the fact is that although Brodeur’s full papers have indeed been sitting in the library for the past 18 years or so, they were never fully catalogued and were therefore to all intents and purposes useless. There’s no point in a library storing a writer’s papers if no one knows that they’re there, or can find any of their contents. Much better to have the best 20% of a collection fully indexed than to have 100% of it collecting dust in 300 boxes.

But equally I have a lot of sympathy with Brodeur, here — he thought he had donated all of his papers to the NYPL, only to find most of them being rejected. Decades of work were in those 300 boxes — work which everybody at the NYPL claims to hold in the highest regard — and now the collection will be torn apart forever.

A huge part of the difference in opinion between Brodeur and the NYPL comes down, I think, to the distinction I like to make between reading and writing in journalism. Brodeur’s an old-school investigative reporter, who spent 20 years (!) investigating the asbestos health hazard and its cover-up by the asbestos industry. Most of those years weren’t spent in a garrett writing: they were spent out in the field, reading and researching and reporting. Brodeur’s 300-box archive was a record of that work, and could have been an extremely valuable resource for anybody wanting an in-depth look at asbestos.

From Brodeur’s perspective, he’s a reader as much as a writer, and his work aggregating and curating a huge amount of material on asbestos and the like is a central part of what one might pompously call his praxis. From the NYPL’s perspective, on the other hand, the value in his archive lies in his “manuscripts, notes, and correspondence” — the stuff that he wrote. The huge amount of work that went in to putting together an archive of asbestos-related material from other sources is simply not particularly important: if Brodeur photocopied an obscure newspaper article, for instance, then that doesn’t have value for the NYPL so long as that newspaper article is available somewhere else in the library, or even in some other library.

But finding that article is really hard. Brodeur put a lot of work into doing so, and if the article is removed from Brodeur’s asbestos collection, there’s a good chance that never again will anybody interested in asbestos ever find or read it. In indexing Brodeur’s files, the NYPL did not catalogue all the secondary sources that Brodeur photocopied: it didn’t replace that newspaper clipping with a detailed reference to the newspaper article in question. Instead, it simply decided to discard it altogether.

The NYPL is treating Brodeur as it would an imaginative novelist, which seems to me to be something of a category error. All writers are not the same, and if you’re going to go to the trouble of archiving a journalist’s work, you should take the subject matter of the journalism seriously and also preserve the record of how that writer wrote, on top of what that writer wrote.

If the NYPL is right that junking journalistic research constitutes “best professional practice” in the world of libraries, then maybe it’s time to revisit those standards. I do appreciate that there are always space constraints. But Brodeur believes — with good reason — that some other library would have found the space to house his archive in full. If the NYPL didn’t intend to do that in 1992, it should have told him so explicitly. And if it’s changed its mind on such matters, as “best professional practices” have evolved over the years, it should be a bit more up-front and apologetic about that fact.

Update: Brodeur emails to say that “you are correct in surmising that the value of my collection of papers resides in that part of it–no doubt the part NYPL culled–which shows my methods as an investigative reporter. This is why I wish now that I had donated the collection to a School of Journalism.”

Update 2, 2/12/2014: A happy ending! The NYPL has now transferred the entire Brodeur collection to the Howard Gotlieb Archival Research Center at Boston University.

4 comments

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Can’t they just scan and then destroy or return the unwanted 80%? Why is storage space an issue?

Posted by RobSterling | Report as abusive

Talk with Google to place the entire collection (assuming he didn’t pass copyrights on to the NYPL) into a copy-free or copyright-free assets. Then give the remaining 80% to Google Books to scan; Google can formally request to have access to the remaining 20% held by the NYPL, and scan it, too. Combined once and for all, accessible to billions of people all around the world, not just in NY.

Or not.

Posted by GRRR | Report as abusive

NYPL maintain that “Our deed of gift, which Mr. Brodeur signed, was clear.” Is a copy available? If Mr Brodeur agreed to this behaviour by the NYPL, to my mind he does not have a case.

Posted by RogerS | Report as abusive

This article fails to mention the declarations of Mimi Bowling, former curator of manuscripts at NYPL, that the collection was fully processed years earlier. NYPL executives have disputed her claims and according to Mr. Brodeur have even attempted to defame her.

I find it hard to believe that a curator of such stature would “lie” about a collection. If it was indeed processed, then what right does the library have to edit the content years later?

So many concerns are raised here. There must be a declaration of why the content was thrown out and by whom. Remaining faithful to the provenance of a collection is the reason archives are invaluable resources.

Democratic information retrieval requires those who combat against document tampering whether its for space or for some sinister reason.

Posted by NJLib99 | Report as abusive