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Guardian of Equality - New York Public Library

by Lesley Whyte

On Fifth Avenue at 42nd Street stands the Stephen A. Schwarzman Building, one of the world’s most iconic libraries. Watched over by its lions, Patience and Fortitude, The New York Public Library (NYPL) has been a guardian of social equality for over one hundred years in a city where some eight hundred languages are spoken. The library means as much to New Yorkers as that icon of freedom a few miles further south, the Statue of Liberty.

Since working as a visiting professor in the United States in my twenties, I have come to recognise something special about libraries and Americans. In Europe we may see libraries as the bedrock of civilisation, embodying in word and principle our beliefs, hopes, wisdom and learning; in the US this is combined with the very spirit of American democracy, a spirit that made its country great. Although the word “library” does not appear in the more than four thousand words that make up the Constitution for the United States of America, it is very difficult to imagine the Constitution existing at all without the resources of a library behind it.

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I meet Michelle Misner in the library’s busy but airy lobby.

“NYPL is a big operation,” says Michelle, beginning my journey. “The Stephen A. Schwarzman Building is one of four major research libraries and eighty-eight branch libraries.”

New York City has five boroughs, NYPL serves patrons in the Bronx, Manhattan and Staten Island, while Queens Library serves the borough of Queens and Brooklyn Public Library manages branches in Brooklyn.

“NYPL branches receive over seventeen million visits per year and we serve millions of people online and hold more than fifty-one million items. This building alone has fourteen reading rooms and one public meeting room which are regularly in use. New Yorkers are a vocal and demanding community very much engaged in city life and the library.”

Michelle’s facts and observations lead me to an obvious question about funding.

“The branch libraries are largely funded by the New York City budget but the research libraries rely more on private funding. Benefactors often specify a purpose for their donation such a maintaining a collection, improving a building or room, or even a staff placement. If you’ll follow me I can introduce you to one of my favourites.”
Michelle leads me over to a plaque set in the stone floor near the library’s entrance. It reads “Martin Radtke / Gardener (1883 – 1973).”

“Martin was an immigrant from Lithuania who worked in wealthy people’s gardens in New York. When he died he left 386,000 dollars ‘so that others can have the same opportunity’ as the library had given him. In today’s money that represents a gift of over two million dollars.”

Even though New York is famed for being a place where fortunes are made, I have to ask how a gardener became so wealthy.

“The library helped him make his fortune. He spent his spare time here and studied stocks – not the floral variety but as in stocks and shares” came Michelle’s reply.
NYPL has its origins in the middle of the nineteenth century. Former governor Samuel J. Tilden (1814-1886), bequeathed 2.4 million dollars to “establish and maintain a free library and reading room in the city of New York.” However, it was not until the end of that century that Tilden’s dream could be realised with the amalgamation of two existing libraries and the choice of a site for the envisioned New York Public Library.

John Shaw Billings, one of the most brilliant librarians of his day, was named director. Billings knew what he wanted. His concept, sketched on a scrap of paper, became the blueprint for the Stephen A. Schwarzman Building. It called for a reading room with seven floors of stacks and the most rapid delivery system in the world. Carrère and Hastings was selected to complete the design and construct the new library which is regarded as a masterpiece of Beaux-Arts architecture.
More than one million books were in place for the official dedication of the Library on May 23, 1911. The response was a huge public thumbs-up with between 30,000 and 50,000 visitors on day one. In keeping with New York’s legendary diversity the first requested item was N. I. Grot’s Nravstvennye idealy nashego vremeni which translates as Ethical Ideas of Our Time, a study of Friedrich Nietzsche and Leo Tolstoy. The reader filed his slip at eight minutes past nine in the morning and received his book six minutes later. Billings’ vision was realised.

Michelle leads me to the South Court Education Center. I am confronted by a queue of people entering and leaving a room set inside walls of opaque glass.
“This is the public computer room,” explains Michelle. “It is the most popular place in the building. Unfortunately, when the architects designed the Stephen A. Schwarzman Building Wi-Fi didn’t exist. We are inside one of the nation’s largest marble edifices so internet connections need to be wired.”

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When, on May 29, 2014 at about 2 a.m., a piece of plaster measuring less than sixteen inches wide fell from the ceiling of New York Public Library’s majestic Rose Main Reading Room, it caused the closure of a room measuring 52 feet high, 78 feet wide and 297 feet long. Since the closure, space and internet access points have become prime commodities. The library is adding them all the time but for now the South Court Education Center is the best place to head if you need the internet.

“The closure of the Rose Main Reading Room posed a huge challenge but then the news got worse,” says Michelle Misner. “We were told that the Bill Blass Public Catalog Room, next to the reading room, had to close as well.”

Michelle and her staff had the job of fulfilling a simple phrase at the end of a New York Times article published at the time: “additional spaces are being made available”.

“We decided to move down to the second floor, spreading the Reading Room’s function across numerous rooms, and that meant changing the function of spaces, shifting all the books, ensuring access to the catalogue, keeping track of all the changes, putting up signage, providing laptop charging points and making sure staff knew what had moved where. It was a huge undertaking but by June 16, only two weeks later, we were moved to the second floor.

Michelle describes very late nights and daily early morning meetings, recording everything in detail – as every librarian knows, a book is useless unless you can find it – and scavenging every inch of space in an urgent need to satisfy the high demand New Yorkers place on their library and to appease what can be a highly vocal community.

“Everybody put in a magnificent effort across the library from our public service, facilities, security, technology, communications, volunteers, and collections departments.”

And the effort paid off. The initial closure lengthened. After a two-week assessment, the library announced six months was needed for “a full-scale inspection” of the ceilings in both the Reading Room and the catalogue room.

A year later and staff are still guiding researchers to rooms on the second floor but over this time more and more books have come out of storage and are readily available for a keen body of researchers that has, in the past, included the likes of Jacqueline Kennedy, Norman Mailer, Princess Grace, Somerset Maugham, Marlene Dietrich, John Updike, Cecil Beaton, Tom Wolfe, Francis Ford Coppola, Diana Rigg, Isaac Bashevis Singer, and Joe Frazier.

Now Michelle turns right and descends a few steps and suddenly it is as if I might meet Superman. What is in front of me wouldn’t look out of place in an early Marvel comic strip.

“They still work, and people still use them all the time.”

It’s easy to forget in this age of smartphones and 4G mobile that some people can’t simply swipe and Skype. Old, traditional wooden telephone booths are an important lifeline to a community built through immigration, often poor and needing to communicate to loved-one’s far afield, to look for work or find out about their rights. New York is a city where the future meets the past at every turn.

As I walk around with Michelle I can’t help noticing the number of librarians we encounter. I ask about the librarian’s role in this huge building.

“Librarians are the dynamo of the building,” says Michelle. “Any customer can request a one on one session with a librarian. Librarians are here to help, guide and advise members of the public around this huge collection. We have authors requesting time to direct their research, PhD students need to source material, journalists need access and guidance using microfilm and then there’s the huge demand for genealogy.”

I am impressed by the library’s commitment to and valuing of professional staff, and once again I am confronted by the interplay of past and future in this enigmatic city. Leading a world-wide culture that asserts economies and efficiencies as a primary goal, an integral part of those objectives is seen as continuing to employ experts in the field of access to knowledge. Librarians are still the best way to open up the incredible resources a library has to offer.

My musings are interrupted when I see a familiar name on a poster outside a large public room. The world-famous film maker, Werner Herzog, was here giving a talk, just two days before my visit.

“We have events all the time. Herzog’s visit was part of the ‘LIVE from the NYPL’ series which has been running now for more than ten years and is incredibly popular. We also run ‘Books at Noon’ which is a conversation with an author followed by a signing, and we hold public debates, interviews with authors, politicians and celebrities. There’s a lot of action. We have two auditoriums, one seating four hundred and the other one hundred and seventy.”

I can only imagine some of the characters that have filled these rooms and corridors. Famous and influential people that, as Michelle says, will often enter incognito but who altered the course of recent history, science, literature and the media.

Finally, Michelle takes me into the children’s library, which I understand to be the only circulating part of the Stephen A. Schwarzman Building.

“Well, not quite,” says Michelle. “In 2011 we started lending research material as part of the Manhattan Research Library Initiative (MaRLI). Patrons apply for access to select research materials from NYPL, Columbia University and NYU. But now, welcome to where it all starts: the children’s library – and I have some controversial surprises.”

At first it looks like a well-stocked children’s library but then I notice a cabinet with an umbrella and also images of a very familiar bear.

“We have the original Pooh Bear, along with Eeyore, Piglet, Kanga and Tigger” announces Michelle. “Pooh was AA Milne’s birthday gift on Christopher Robin Milne’s first birthday in 1921, and AA Milne’s publisher left Pooh and Co. to us.”

Currently the pink-padded cuddly toy is away for restoration. In its place is, apparently, the real Mary Poppins’ “flying” umbrella which belonged to children’s author PL Travers. Its parrot-headed handle is engaging even if its powers of flight look questionable. However, I return to Pooh as I seem to remember controversy raging over the ever so English Bear some years ago.

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“Yes, in 1998 one of the British Members of Parliament decided Pooh and his friends should be returned to England. The US and England agreed that they will remain at NYPL. Pooh’s here to stay.”

“Perhaps when we give the Elgin Marbles back to Athens, New York can return Pooh,” I comment.

Michelle and I say our goodbyes in front of lions Patience and Fortitude – this time built in thousands of Lego bricks but just as noble – guarding the children’s library. Michelle parts with a question:

“Do you know how to tell which one is Patience and which Fortitude?” She asks.

“Fortitude sits on the corner of Forty-Two Street.”

And with that I head out into the city’s noise and bustle, invigorated by a visit to a truly remarkable library that, arguably, stands at the centre of the Western World.