“I don’t believe in colleges and universities. I believe in libraries because most students don’t have any money. When I graduated from high school, it was during the Depression and we had no money. I couldn’t go to college, so I went to the library three days a week for 10 years.” Ray Bradbury
I’m not the type to lust for diamonds. It’s always been books I’ve sold my soul for. I don’t know how many opportunities I’ve passed up, jobs I’ve called in sick to or invitations I’ve turned down, so I could stay home and read a book. And not necessarily “good” books at that. I faked a fever once to skip school and polish off a Grisham novel.
I’m a lifelong sucker for stories.
In “Breakfast at Tiffany’s” it was always the library scene rather than the early morning scene outside Tiffany’s that fired my imagination about the glamorous living to be had in New York City. When Audrey Hepburn’s character wants to learn how to be the perfect South American politician’s wife, it is off to the New York Public Library she hies, dressed to kill in her iconic lbd, a Givenchy couture coat and those ambivalent movie star look at me/ don’t look at me shades.
The reality, as I learned the first summer I moved to New York, is the famous NYPL’s glamor is in the air and under your feet rather than in its patrons wearing the same t-shirts and button-downs you see on the streets. Furthermore, to my disappointment I discovered you can’t browse the stacks yourself and the long line of people waiting for books to be brought up from the bowels of the library is roughly shaped like some monstrous python, as if it were tickets to a rock show or a chance to score the latest iPhone rather than a book on the topography of southern China or the history of potted plants you must patiently wait for.
Perhaps if I hadn’t grown so intimately acquainted with the stacks at UVA or NYU that I could find whatever book I wanted in them without even having to consult their virtual card catalogue, I might have been impressed with statistics: the New York Public Library is the third largest library in the world. But what does size matter when it’s an all day affair just to briefly borrow a book you can’t even take out of the library. The NYPL is a research library, not a lending library. However, with university libraries in New York City only accessible to current students, it’s still a wonderful resource and perhaps if it had funds for more librarians, it would be a more accessible one.
Nevertheless, I couldn’t imagine waiting an hour for a book that day– a book that might not even prove to be the right book. Flash forward a few years for a moment: if Anthony Marx and the planners behind the CPL, bureaucratese for the Central Library Plan, have their way, scholars might have to wait 1-3 days in future for the wrong or right book to be funneled all the way from a warehouse in Jersey for chrissakes. Back then in 2006, Carrere and Hastings’ genius design, a seven-story stacks holding up the Rose reading room, meant the books were still literally underfoot. I said good-bye to my two friends who were studying for the bar at a long table, sunlight from huge and recently cleaned windows filtering down, making their endeavors appear holy, and made my way down the marble stairs, deciding at the last moment to pop my head in to the first floor’s exhibit on French book art, thereby experiencing the world’s most perfect mingling of words and art, inspiring me briefly to explore obtaining a master’s in illustration before I came to my senses and realized I’d more likely end up in debt without anyway of digging myself out except to sell my soul–what promises to be the fate of the library itself unless someone intervenes, and the last person who truly cared died recently, so who knows if anyone will step up?
Still, that remains the moment I discovered that libraries, at least libraries in New York City, are still magical places and serve other functions besides being repositories for books. They inspire, they teach, they serve the community. My friends spent the summer studying in that library, both handily passing the New York and New Jersey state bar exams on their first try. Years later, while pregnant and bored, feeling abandoned by friends who continually invited me to drink with them at bars and clubs no matter my growing girth, it was the main branch of the Brooklyn Public Library where I found some sense of community, taking free Spanish and Portuguese classes, helping to tutor French and finding inspiration in another exhibit on art in the fashion world.
If it weren’t for the Brooklyn Public library, I don’t know if I would have learned Spanish or rediscovered my love for sketching with or without obtaining a degree in it. While the book selection is paltry compared to the out-of-print treasures at UVA, the foreign language section offers everything from romance novels to children’s books to random great titles in literature like Stefan Zweig’s “Marie Antoinette” traduit de l’allemand or Antonin Artaud’s “messages revolucionnaires.” It’s an impressive selection for a public library, much better than the English selection I’ve found in French libraries, and I’m sure provides comfort to many lonely immigrants as the few books in English did for me the summers I spent near Allencon in France.
Maybe that is why, ever since I was a little girl, I have loved libraries. We were not rich, and had it not been for libraries, my brain would have figuratively starved. I have always devoured books. Sadly, they were my only friends, and without libraries no one else would have hung out with me, and, as quickly as I read, nothing less than a whole, entire free library could have satiated me. Whenever I have the bad taste to discuss my passion for libraries at dinner parties, there’s an awkward silence, followed more or less by the same caveat: “Nobody uses libraries anymore.” But they do: pregnant, lonely, eccentric ladies aside, the library is filled with the most diverse population you’ll experience outside a subway car: retirees rub elbows with the unemployed, language enthusiasts whom I met taking free classes range from sophisticated journalists recently returned from Mozambique to a transgender woman who weekly and impressively matched her nail art to her outfits and spoke not a word of Spanish, although this never deterred her from attending and enthusiastically participating in Spanglish week from week.
Many, but not all, of the patrons I met were very poor. For many the library is clearly their only resource, and the library is dying.
Or rather: it is being vivisected.
As part of the CPL, the city is seeking to consolidate and sell the Midtown Manhattan library for $100 million. I don’t think anything anyone could do or write could stop that sale, and I have to agree with Marx’s assessment of the MML: it’s a shithole. Still, selling it rather than renovating it seems a little extreme and more than a little suspect, considering the city has already sold the Donnell library branch near MOMA for $59 million to a real estate developer, who in turn has sold the penthouse unit for a cool $60 million. Worse, the city plans to squander $350 million “updating” the New York Public Library’s already glorious main branch in a nebulous plan with many critics who foresee a money pit situation, and in spite of the desperate need for basic renovations to the city’s 87 other branches in Manhattan, the Bronx and Staten Island.
Not only will $150,000,000 of taxpayer dollars be diverted into this project, a horrible, modernistic “re-imagining” of the city’s most beloved masterpiece of architecture, but, as per one persistent rumor floating around the blogosphere, will result “in the cheapening of the majestic building, as the stacks area is transformed into a mega-Starbucks with plenty of couches and coffee-tables and bookshelves tucked unobtrusively into the background.” Since the plans lack all transparency, it’s hard to put this rumor to rest, and Tony Marx, the new president of the NYPL, probably more eager to hold on to his job after being charged with a DUI than to challenge the CPL’s overlords has consequently shown little interest in assuaging fears.
That’s all the city needs: a giant lounge where city-dwellers can update their Facebook statuses with greater ease. In truth, there are very few Audrey Hepburns to be found at public libraries nowadays. Audrey Hepburns of today do their research on Kindles over a glass of rose at Cafe Gitano in Soho. What libraries now exist as are mostly places to educate and serve the “lower classes,” highly expendable in the city’s real-estate scion family view of New York City’s future. The dying library system is just one symptom of a greater ill. New York City was once a cradle and grave for some of the world’s most wonderful wordsmiths– Whitman and Dylan the singer and the other Dylan who died here and oh so many others. What will it be without affordable apartments, without libraries, without hospitals? Just a backdrop for wealthy men and women to endlessly gorge themselves on outfit photos, displaying how nullifyingly “glamorous” their dull but doughy lives are?
Glamor’s root word means “magic” in Old English. That invisible, trickster element that has made New York so richly unique and enviable a spot, the capital city of the world, so much so that the very land a library is on becomes worth tens of millions of dollars, will vanish with the vanishing libraries. Who wants to live in a soul-sucking, fungible Starbucks? Where the musicians, the poets, the writers and thinkers go, where the books go, that is where magic will follow.
As Bradbury put it, “You don’t have to burn books to destroy a culture. Just get people to stop reading them.”
People who don’t know their history, or have to wait 1-3 days to read about it, are doomed to repeat it: the British Council library in Paris used to be well-stocked with beautiful reading rooms, overlooking the Invalides and a special resources centre for teachers. They shut it down, gave away the books and turned it into a multimedia centre a.k.a. a Starbucks. One of its fans describes the result as “an absolute disaster. I realize that it’s small fry alongside the NY Public library, but it was still painful.”
If the CPL planners have their way, all they will leave behind is a giant mall typified by nothing more than very expensive boxes that once were libraries.
This post originally appeared at Brooklyn, Books and Babies: http://www.brooklynbooksandbabies.com/1/post/2013/06/once-were-libraries.html