On NYPL Today, or a Slightly Depressing Trip Down Memory Lane

I was never the little girl who wanted to twirl around a dance floor with Prince Charming at a grand ball, like in Cinderella or Sleeping Beauty. I wanted to wear couture and twirl around the corridors of the main New York Public Library (NYPL) building. To hell with princes and happily-ever-afters! Give me a ball skirt and after-hours access to NYPL so I could swish and swirl and read as I pleased!

All photos by the author except where noted.

As an undergraduate and graduate student, I spent many hours (weeks, cumulatively, just in my senior year of college alone) in the Stephen A. Schwarzman Building of the New York Public Library. It’s the flagship, one of the world’s greats, a must-see on the tourist trail, and the place where Peter, Egon, and Ray saw the ghost in the stacks — and, no. That piddly little room of shelves is not what the stacks  actually looked like.

It’s been five years since I’ve been in Schwarzman and the place has changed greatly. Those hallowed halls, viaducts of a massive “machine for reading and thinking” have been hollowed out for the development of an “integrated central library” and a bunch of other things along the line of “Books are dying. Viva le E-Book!!”

The original plans for the library’s reinvention got canned, but in the process one of the world’s best research libraries was gutted, the vast bulk of the collection shipped off-site, and the library was transformed into a museum dedicated to showing tourists what research libraries used to look like.

The Rose Reading Room now hosts the world’s largest Kinex set.

Yes, some gutting was necessary — plaster flakes, asbestos needs to be remediated, water damage happens, and wiring needs updating. But sending the books offsite to make room for a dignified cupcakery is bullshit.

As made my way through the library on a recent visit, I got a little sad.

The Rose Reading Room, was closed for renovation and we — the students and scholars; researchers and rogue lovers (I saw you two high schoolers with the feet in the naughty places down at the end of the table…); the writers and the rest — had no where to go but to smaller rooms that had been defrocked of their biblio-finery. It was depressing to see such emptiness.

Room 216.
Room 216. I always wanted to go up to these little mezzanines just to say that I’ve been there.

Room 217, pictured below, used to house the Slavic and Baltic Division. It’s where I once spent over five hours hunched over a single text, Russian-to-English dictionary in hand, to find information on the influence of Neapolitans in Odessa, Ukraine, for a grad school project on maps (taught by the woman who used to head? still heads? the NYPL Map Division).

This used to be full of books. They say white paint opens up a room, but here the blank walls make it shrink.
This used to be full of books. It was very beautiful.

Now it’s a bland, general research space for the public and the home of a few computer terminals that access the library’s catalog and databases.

Room 219, across the hall, used to be the Asian and Middle Eastern Division. I spent nearly all of January 2004 here, writing up my undergraduate research on cylinder seal impressions. I planted myself at the foot of the long wood table, back to window so I wouldn’t be distracted by the snow that seemed to fall an awful lot that winter. To this day, eleven years after the fact, I still remember where the four volumes of Jack Sasson’s Civilizations of the Ancient Near East were shelved  (lower east wall, near the corner by the door), as well as the child-like glee I felt when I saw a librarian retrieve a book from the mezzanine.

Anyone used to be able to sit at the table behind this door.
Anyone used to be able to sit at the table behind this door.

Now it’s available for researchers by application.

The Rose Reading Room, that massively gorgeous study hall with the painted ceiling and rows upon rows of long wooden tables, is where I mastered the stealthy art of eating lunch in the library and transcribing at the same time. I could down a sandwich and take a few swigs of water without ever getting caught. To save time, of course.

The Rose’s antechamber, the Bill Blass Catalog Room (where patrons submitted call slips to library clerks who rocketed requests down to the stacks using pneumatic tubes), is where I poured through numerous types of thesauruses, dictionaries, and other reference works for various library school homework assignments.

Just like the real thing!!!

Now both are closed for renovation.

Seeing the empty shelves in 217 and the locked door to 219 made me nostalgic for when it seemed like everything I could ever want to know was literally in reach. Nowadays, if you want to access information at NYPL you need to ask in advance and wait a day (or two) to get your book because it has to be shipped in from off-site storage. It’s slightly depressing.

However …

These hallways and staircases…

They did not bring me back to the halcyon days of geeking out over research, but just walking through them reawakened my childhood fantasy of swishing and swirling across those beautiful old marble floors.



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