Once, when I was working in the Berg Collection at the 42nd Street branch of the New York Public Library, I came across something really fascinating. I was trying to find correspondence between Irish and African American writers and poets, and the slightly out-of-the-way Berg Collection had been on my list for weeks. The room was dark, and smelled, at different moments, of old glue, pipe tobacco, and oiled hardwoods. There, misfiled under “Loche,” I found what I’d been looking for: a letter from Padraic Colum, a renowned Irish folklorist, and Alain Locke, the so-called dean of the Harlem Renaissance, a letter that referred to earlier meetings and exchanges.
I’d been hoping to find evidence of such connections, and the library made this discovery possible.
I was living in Queens at the time, and commuting into midtown on the 7 train everyday. I’d get into the city early enough to sit on the front steps, waiting with a small crowd for the opening of the front door. If the season was right, I would watch the sunrise while reading Santayana, or William James, or W.E.B. Du Bois. If it was winter, I’d stand in the darkness. And then, once the heavy portal was open, I’d race up the stairs to claim my books, to get the best table, to get to work.
When I was finally settled, a fascinating social world came to life. There were competitors – other writers, working on their own projects, jealously guarding their space. There were the dangerous types – men and women who ritually placed warning signs – “STAY AWAY FBI!” – around their tables, who occasionally barked loudly, and who sometimes stole my books (and those of others). There were tourists, gawking and pointing. There was the super cool staff, oblivious, helpful, and nonchalant. And there were miles – literally, actually, truly, miles – of books and pamphlets and maps and everything, all there for the prayerful summoning, delivered courtesy of vacuum tubes and bell waiters. Like magic. Everyday, in a world as fabulous as OZ, there was some new discovery, some new cache of letters, some new misfiled missive. For me and for thousands of others.
The stacks, it seems, are empty now. Or they soon will be, as the public library, confronting an increasingly digital world, pointing to diminishing circulation, and owning acres of priceless real estate below ground, has decided to ship the books off to some undisclosed location in New Jersey, and transform its remodeled guts into the mall of the America. And to do it, as Scott Sherman says, before the new Mayor gets sworn in. Anthony Marx – whose astonishingly good work on race and nation I read as a graduate student – seems determined to replace the research mission of one of the great modern institutions with a corporate naming opportunity for a “meeting place,” so that we can have yet another big open space with someone else’s big, expensive name stamped on it.
Read the pieces by Scott Sherman and Ada Louise Huxtable. Then read this, and note that while we slept, the books were sent away. And then, ask yourself: how many venues do we need for the next wedding of the century? What sort of backdrop are we creating here? For what sort of work and for whom? Must we hollow out the library to create a blank multi-purpose space for the truly rich? And what gets lost, exactly, when what is real and tactile gets sent off to a storage facility upstate or to a cave in New Jersey. What book or letter? What missed set of connections? What history? What is the purpose of a public library – that is, what good is it? – to an ordinary person, to an immigrant, to a researcher, when there is nothing but emptiness left?
The New York Public Library is dying. And a new mall is about to be born.