Last week, I made my first proper visit ever to the main branch (any branch) of the New York Public Library. Given that I am already more than halfway through my first semester of library school, this milestone came shamefully late. It was an occasion for me to admit that I have admired the mission of public libraries only at a distance, and an opportunity to compare reality with theoretical ideals that I’ve spent the last couple of months cogitating. I was particularly curious about the mission of public accessibility and cultural representation, still feeling very much the outsider despite my academic immersion in the field. I came away with a mixture of positive and negative impressions, colored very much by my temperament, and usefully contrasted by my wife Ni’s more bold and outgoing relationship with the institution.
Our primary destination was the majestic Stephen A. Schwarzman Building, with an eye to visiting the less glamorous Mid Manhattan Library after. The experience of ascending the steps to the Schwarzman Building ought to be familiar to anyone who has visited the similarly-styled Beaux-Arts environs of the Metropolitan Museum, and that similarity is borne out in the overall experience of exploring the building for the first time. Heavy tourist traffic flows in and out through designated in and out doors. A sleepy security guard gives the contents of your bag a cursory glance on a folding table, and elderly volunteers await your questions off to the side of the reverberating stone lobby. We received a straightforward instruction to go up to room 315 for library card registration.
That process was blessedly easy given that I had pre-registered with a little bit of personal information online. All it took was handing over my NYC ID card and allowing the employee at the card desk to designate that as my library card. Had I not registered in advance, a designated card-registration computer terminal stood at the ready nearby. This smooth experience was a marked contrast to a previous aborted attempt to get a card at the Jefferson Market branch in Greenwich Village. An impromptu visit to that elegant branch had ended in frustration with ambiguous instructions and an uncooperative computer. The Jefferson Market branch is an elegant one in an affluent, centrally-located neighborhood, and I am neither cognitively challenged nor unable to speak English. Therefore, despite the ease of my registration in Midtown, I can’t help but imagine that the process can be daunting under less ideal circumstances. Now in possession of a working NYPL card, I remained at a loss as to what to do with it.
The flow of traffic pulled Ni and me straight into the newly reopened Rose Main Reading Room. Tourists clustered near the entrance and circled the perimeter as if walking the aisles of a cathedral, while patrons sat with computers both public and private like supplicants in the nave. For me, that same grand cathedral sense of being on the outside of things pervaded. I was there as a spectator. However, the activities I saw taking place at the main tables were not esoteric, and resembled nothing so much as a Manhattan cafe with a lax policy toward laptop-squatters. I was heartened to see a postal worker comfortably streaming video on his phone. As a beautiful public space, this functions nicely. Reference volumes fill shelves along the walls, and I was surprised at the amount of material in languages other than English. My impression is that the librarians approached the population of this banner space with a progressive eye. The first shelves I perused contained mostly Latin American poetry. I stumbled upon some Telugu dictionaries, shelves full of overviews of social issues, and most impressively of all, an Ainu-English dictionary.
Across the hall, on the east side of the third floor, another reading room stood in stark contrast to the airy beauty and diverse representation of the Rose room, the windowless walls lined with portraits mostly of late 18th century American aristocrats. A feeling of being in a rich stranger’s house pervaded (like visiting the Fricke or Morgan Library), and persisted as I explored further, finding numerous locked doors labeled for specific use by researchers. One door, instead of an RFID-activated lock had a sign reading “Center for Scholars and Writers, please knock”, but my timidity outweighed my curiosity and sense of my own scholarly or writerly credentials. The barriers to entry were for the most part understandable and reasonable given the building’s status as a tourist destination, but I was disappointed to find the Dorot Jewish Division roped off with a sign cordoning the area off for researchers only. I wanted to poke around in search of information on the town in Belarus that my great grandfather came from, but this evidently would require more planning and knowledge of library procedures.
I couldn’t help but feel that our deepest browsing took place in the gift shop. Ni studied several posters at length and settled on a US map so she could get a better handle on the 50 states. Strangely, that which was for sale felt most permissible to touch. I can’t have been alone in this feeling, because the gift shop was more crowded than any other area we had visited. Clearly the Schwarzman Building’s functionality tended to two opposing extremes, those of public attraction and temple of deep research. The quotidian book-lending element of a public library was markedly absent or held at a procedural distance. Clearly I needed to complete the picture by visiting the Mid-Manhattan Library.
The atmosphere there differed vastly, as expected. A patina of (over)use lay over everything, from the worn wall-to-wall carpeting up to the Cold War-era foam ceiling tiles. The smell of bleach hung in the air from a bathroom being cleaned. Clearly nothing here would come to harm from my browsing. The fiction section was amply populated with colorful trade paperbacks from authors I’d never heard of, a welcome reminder that purely entertaining literature exists outside of the English major canon. This catalogue straightforwardly served a broad public that included me, too–I found myself a copy of Demons by Dostoevsky and got out. No fuss, no muss.
The contrast between these two manifestations of the NYPL suggests to me that there is work to be done in making higher-level library functions more intuitive and welcoming to the general public. Schwarzman’s rarified museum atmosphere belies the truth that its resources are for public consumption. I’m convinced that there’s untapped potential both in the library and the public itself, and that socially relevant research may take place at a greater scale outside of the academe if only some perceptual barriers were lifted.
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