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
All Rights Reserved 


  1. This is a perfect, beautiful column on a hugely important topic. My own favorite memory of the library on 42nd Street is of sitting with archive boxes of Truman Capote's original notebooks and manuscripts, a few years after his death, and poring over his handwriting, especially the unpublished fragments. Such a wonderful thing to be granted access to.

  2. Beautifully said, Romy. It breaks my heart to see the dismantlement of such a glorious collection of libraries & books. I didn't live anywhere near a real library until I was nine, but my mother helped run a little mobile library that came to our village. When I was an older child & teen, libraries helped save me from the confinement of small town life. You're right about librarians having been warned not to say anything negative, though I can tell the ones I've spoken to would love to speak their mind. I love the whole system, & gave writing workshops for the BPL all over Brooklyn years back. So much fun! My go-to branch these days, Pacific, is one of the ones set to be sold. It is used regularly by the community, and is a vital resource. It serves many low income readers. I look in the children's room, full of art, and book displays - a little down-at-heel, but a real comforting, unforbidding place for a child to grow up into reading. Why would anyone take that apart?

  3. Very well said, a great piece. Libraries, especially reference libraries are crucial repositories of cultural history, they aren't meant to be theme parks for holidaymakers. Without them, civilisation becomes a very shallow beast.

  4. Bloomberg and the people he has appointed in every city position are crass, stupid, have no sense of tradition or understanding of what New York City has always--at its core--been about, and respect nothing but the almighty dollar and blind, heedless economic 'progress'.

    These people waste money on beautification projects to make tourists feel more at home while alienating the actual long-time residents of the city. Who, and it's made very obvious, don't matter anymore and are implicitly invited to move to the outer boroughs and stay out of Manhattan, which is being reserved only for a single monolithic mode of thought and incomes above a certain high level.

    This is what death smells like, and at some point in the future, all of this will not only come undone, the vacuum it leaves behind will create worse conditions than the lowest pit of the 70s.

    I'm getting over New York more and more with every idiotic decision made by our 'leaders'. My city is gone, and I'm afraid I'll have to live out my old age in someplace strange but less misguided. Maybe I'll be lucky and it will be more like the New York I once loved, and not be so unfamiliar in some ways, after all.

    P.S. Romy, that was a great issue of Housedeer, thank you so much. I wish I could make your opening and finally meet you and Edgar (or at least see you in person), but I'll be in Europe that week. Sigh. But I will visit the gallery when I come back!

  5. The great library of Alexandria, repository of the knowledge of Greece and Egypt, was ordered to be destroyed by Archbishop Theophilous in around 390 AD, because it was a 'pagan site.' Half a millenium of learning was lost and until the deciphering of the Rosetta Stone in the 19 century, the understanding of Egyptian writing (hiroglyphs)was also lost. I've blogged about this -
    So, Beware those who want to destroy libraries! Their motives are never valuable.