At the 42nd Street library the other day, I noticed for the first time the beautiful brass plates of the revolving doors on my way inside. “Van Kannel Revolving Door Co., New York,” the plates said. “Patented.” Once inside, a guard saw me looking at them and said, “You can bet that company’s long gone by now.”

I went up to the catalog room where I could see the retired Zip Tube, quiet behind the librarian’s desk, and felt a pang. I can’t count the times I handed my call letters on a slip of paper to a librarian behind that desk, where it was folded, put into a beat-up little canister and sucked into the Zip Tube to come out somewhere in the depths of the mysterious stacks below. I usually requested three or four books and I loved to wait in the reading room for them to arrive, sometimes two at once but more often one at a time—even if they were by the same author—with a long wait in between. A librarian once explained to me that this was because the books were arranged by size in the stacks, rather than alphabetically, so as to fit more in. I asked him if he had ever seen the stacks. He smiled very slowly, like the Mona Lisa, and said, “No, but I’d like to.”

I’ve always had a terrible desire to see them for myself, but the only glimpse I’ve had is in the movie Francis Ford Coppola made a long time ago called You’re a Big Boy Now, about a boy who had a job fetching books down in the stacks, on roller skates. When the library stopped using the Zip Tube in 2011, it didn’t occur to me that the stacks might be at risk. Perhaps it should have. For a very long time there were many things I thought would last forever simply because they’d already been there so long. Sometimes that belief persists. I became aware of the library’s plan to do away with the stacks in the summer of 2012, and then in December Ada Louise Huxtable wrote what would be her very last article in the Wall Street Journal, before she died in January at the age of 91. Regarding that plan and what the CEO of the NYPL called “replacing books with people,” she wrote:

‘The library's own releases, while short on details, consistently offer a rosy picture of a lively and popular "People's Palace." But a research library is a timeless repository of treasures, not a popularity contest measured by head counts, the current arbiter of success. This is already the most democratic of institutions, free and open to all. Democracy and populism seem to have become hopelessly confused.’

Because it is a research library, none of the books at 42nd Street can be checked out of course, and many of the very rare editions are in collections requiring a special appointment. But lots of the books I’ve held and looked at in the library were rare for me. Once, when I was writing about magicians, I sat in the lamplight of the reading room and looked at a beautiful old edition of The History of Magic by Eliphas Levi. The way it felt and smelled made it into what I was writing along with what I learned from its pages. And the way the books seemed to just materialize, their arrival signaled with a lighted number, had a bit of magic to it, too.

Lately I’ve been worried about neighborhood libraries after reading about some of them being for sale. Last Sunday I went to a meeting about what’s in store for the Brooklyn Heights branch. My own favorite lending library, the Donnell on 53rd Street, closed in 2008 to be demolished by a developer who promised to include a library in the new high-rise — a promise as yet unfulfilled. The meeting was crowded with mostly older people hearing the same kind of talk about their library and smelling a rat. “The 42nd Street library isn’t the only library in trouble,” a man said. “It’s the whole library system.” A lady in her seventies told of standing up to Robert Moses and winning. “We’re not gonna watch our libraries be demolished!” she said. “We want the library we have, nothing less! The minute you give in to their conditions you’re finished! You get bupkis!” I sat and listened, and some of what I heard was this:

The city is deliberately underfunding the libraries despite library use being way up. Perfectly good libraries are being labeled ‘Dilapidated’ to justify their destruction. Librarians have been warned to sound enthusiastic if asked about any such plans. The money from the sale of libraries will not go back into the library system, despite what library brass may say. The NYPL has a plan to create a “paperless library” within a few years. The library is public. The developers are private. The public library has always been the most trusted institution in the city, and it must be kept public. “You don't ‘update’ a masterpiece,” Ada Louise Huxtable wrote of the folly about to befall the 42nd Street Library. “’Modernization’ may be the most dangerously misused word in the English language.”

As I left the big library the other day and passed between the two lions, I thought I saw Patience switching her tail in annoyance. At home I looked up the Van Kannel Revolving Door Company and I discovered Theophilus Van Kannel, the inventor of both the revolving door and the most popular amusement park ride at Luna Park in Coney Island in 1907. I had never given much thought to the advantages of a revolving door, but there are many. It serves as an airlock, keeps cold air from rushing in, blocks fumes and noise. It prevents zephyrs from slamming all the doors inside. Like everything about our big beautiful library, I think Mr. Van Kannel’s revolving doors are perfect.

22 February 2013

For information on what’s happening to our libraries, please read this  blog:

Copyright Romy Ashby 2013
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