I brought my camera to the New York Public Library to take pictures of tourists taking pictures of me. They seemed annoyed about it. Maybe I distracted them from shooting door jambs, windows, and people who were actually using books – books that arrive as many as five days after we request them. Welcome to the Rose Main Reading Room of the Stephen A. Schwarzman Building, once better known as The New York Public Library at Fifth Avenue and 42nd Street.
Library trustees and administrators have proposed a controversial $300 million-and-counting renovation involving starchitect Norman Foster, and the proposed sale of two major branches at prices attractive to developers, in part to “democratize” the library. One can infer that they want to rescue the library from overuse by those elitists known as Researchers who have hogged the place for years for their own narrow purposes. The library board and trustees might disdain academic scholarship, but they should know that Researchers using the New York Public Library include DeWitt Wallace who co-founded The Reader’s Digest; Robert Caro whose magisterial biographies of Robert Moses and Lyndon Johnson have corralled multiple prizes and illuminated significant aspects of our history; and Betty Friedan, author of the world-rocking Feminine Mystique.
Although there are rooms dedicated for researchers who qualify for them, through its century of history, scholars and the public have used the library side by side, not as a carnival boardwalk but as a place to learn and grow. Alfred Kazin wrote in New York Jew of tracing the development of American literature as he delighted in the Americans he found there: “Street philosophers, fanatics, advertising agents, the homeless – passing faces in the crowd. I liked reading and working out my ideas in the minds of that endless crowd walking in an out of [Room] 315 looking for something – that Depression crowd so pent up, searching for puzzle contests, beauty contests, clues to buried treasure off Sandy Hook…” Kazin felt himself “entangled” in their hunger and was glad of it.
As I read Kazin’s words in the North Hall, that half of the Reading Room that is designated a “quiet zone,” two howling children surged past crowded tables of readers. Their mother caught up to them at the door of the Rare Book and Manuscript and Archives Division at the far end of the room and hauled them back past us all the while continuing to drown us in a river of noise. The harried guard who finally caught up to her was clear: “You brought them into the wrong room.” So she carried them into the South Hall of the Reading Room that is not a Quiet Zone where their sounds proceeded to build.
Is the success or value of a hospital measure by how many patients have visitors and how many screaming children fill their cafeterias? Would it help the trustees and administrators, who clearly don’t use the library, to know that the library is sufficiently democratized so that it is hard to find a seat in the Reading Room if one arrives after noon Monday through Saturday or after the Library opens Sunday at 1 p.m.?
Meanwhile, tables and chairs are virtually unused in The Edna Barnes Solomon Room on the third floor, formerly for special exhibitions. It has been repurposed for wi-fi, with no book deliveries allowed. What a pity that this near empty cavern, which the library rents it out for parties, could not have been used for the Asian, Middle Eastern and/or Slavic divisions that have been closed. Many other less specialized research collection books have been moved off-site to New Jersey and the Bronx, which is why it takes several days to get a book. One might not complain if archaic texts on obscure topics (the kind undemocratic Researchers would want) had been exiled, but books in demand are out of ready reach as well. “Childhood and Society,” Erik H. Ericson’s classic study that won the Pulitzer Prize and the National Book Award, and has been seminal to Researchers (those creeps!) seeking to foster human development and to thousands of college students through the years, is kept off-site. After I requested it from my home computer, it took three days to arrive at the Reading Room. I read my long-awaited book as far as page 219 when I discovered that the next 18 pages had been cut out. The librarian I brought it to advised me to buy a copy at The Strand Bookstore “for very little money,” because he solemnly said, “This library is not about books anymore.”
Another librarian checked the computer to learn that two other off-site copies of “Childhood and Society” were also in use, one at the Science Industry Business Library, which library trustees seek to sell off at an attractive price to a developer, and the other at the Schomburg Center in Harlem. I had waited longer than I intended and I needed to finish that book by nightfall, so I used more of the day travelling. “Childhood and Society” was sold out at the Strand, where I hoped to find a discounted used copy, so I went to Barnes & Noble where for $18.95 plus tax I bought a copy of the book that my tax dollars had purchased for the public library patrons. Even as an author myself with my own books to sell, I want New York library patrons to be able to use the books that their tax dollars pay for. However, Mr. Schwarzman, chairman and CEO of the Blackstone Group, a private equity and financial advisory firm, a man whose name is on the building, might approve that I had been forced to spend my Researcher finances instead of using up his library. Could it be that someone could consider a member of the public who uses public resources a deadbeat? Maybe that is the whole mindset behind “democratization” of a library that was once maintained as a resource to be used by the people and not just photographed by them as it turns from a temple of democracy into event space.