The New York Public Library on Fifth Avenue turns 100

 
 

In high school, I really tried to like boys. I would sit with my friends and wait for The Cute Guy to walk by and pretend to be as excited as they were if he looked our way. I feigned interest when a BFF would whisper secrets about which boy she liked and why she thought he liked her. But I really didn’t care.

I know now that what I really wanted was to sit close enough to touch legs with other girls while they boy-watched and enjoyed the secrets because I got a thrill out of feeling my friend’s breath in my ear. At the time, though, it was frustrating and exhausting. And so I took refuge in the one place that I knew I would feel welcomed and secure: the library.

This was years ago, when the librarian shushed talkers and if you really needed to discuss something, you had to go to one of the little phone-booth-sized conference rooms in the corner. The wooden tables and huge pillars made for an austere atmosphere, but it was blissfully peaceful and quiet. And nobody cared who you were or what you looked like or whether you thought boys were cute.

The books just made it better. Wandering through the stacks or flipping through the card catalog to find what you were looking for was magical.

On May 23, one of the most iconic libraries in America, the New York Public Library on Fifth Avenue, celebrates the 100th Anniversary of the stately marble building that holds it: The Stephen A. Schwarzman Building. (The centennial of the library itself, which was formed when several smaller libraries merged, was in 1995.)

Salon.com’s Laura Miller, in the wonderful article “Why Libraries Still Matter,” writes that the library has a variety of events and exhibits planned to mark the occasion, including one that makes me jealous of anyone close enough to participate. Renowned game designer Dr. Jane McGonigal has developed a “writing project cum scavenger hunt” called “Find the Future: The Game” in which 500 people will spend the night in the library and explore the collection by completing various “quests.” If the CIA did missions like that, I’d totally be a spy.

What makes the NYPL’s celebration so great is that it is about the place. A library isn’t just about information. I’m not sure people who aren’t library hounds really understand that, and that’s why they think the information explosion makes libraries less essential. The truth is, though, that the kind of information we’re blasted with is unfiltered — and sort of random. Miller calls it “an ethereal mass of data residing somewhere in the ‘cloud.” Even if we search for something on the Internet, discerning the value of what we find is often tricky.

Books, by their very nature, are filtered. Going to the library to dig for information means we have a head start on finding data we can trust. And the place with stacks and stacks of that kind of data invites us to hang around until we find what we really need.

Beyond books, libraries collect items that put knowledge in context. The NYPL for example, has a copy of the Declaration of Independence written in Thomas Jefferson’s handwriting. It has a first quarto edition of King Lear and Charlotte Brontë’s writing desk. It also has some of Jack Kerouac’s personal effects: rolling papers, a harmonica and a Valium box.

These kinds of things serve as reminders that real people are behind history and literature — people living in a real word, doing the kinds of things we do every day.

When I was in college, the library was where I learned that women have sex with other women. It was an article in Cosmopolitan, of all things, and it just about made me insane. I didn’t have a word for it — and it was years before I acknowledged that I wanted to have sex with women — but reading that magazine under the library table was my very first encounter with same gender sex. (I’m sure the Baylor librarian would have resigned then and there had he or she known about that article.)

Libraries aren’t the same as they used to be, of course, with people coming just for Internet access or bringing in cell phones they don’t turn off. But I can still count on finding more peace and quiet at the library than most other places in my world. So, I cringe when I hear about cuts in library budgets that mean shorter hours and fewer librarians to glare at the cell phone owners. I really can’t imagine life without the library. I so hope future generations don’t lose the chance to experience it.

Find out more about the NYPL anniversary celebration at the library website. And take a few minutes to tell us what the library means to you.

 
 

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