Annamaria on Monday
It's nearly Christmas. I urge you to give a gift to everyone in your community. One they can use freely, enjoy, find extraordinarily useful. That will inform the ignorant, entertain the bored, help the unemployed find a job, and distract those in pain. No shopping is involved here. All you have to do is make a donation to your local library.
|One of the lions--Patience and Fortitude--that grace the Main Branch of the New York Public Library|
The libraries of the world line up like this. One: The Library of Congress in Washington. Two: The British Library in London. Three: The New York Public Library, where I have the enormous privilege of calling myself a writer in residence. Mine is the MOST user friendly. And open and welcoming. Not so much, numbers one and two.
At the Library of Congress, you have to apply if you want to read, show ID, make a case for yourself. It is not onerous, but not totally open either.
Here is the drill if you want to research at The British Library. First, you have to go on their website, which is dense with long paragraphs of information spread over many pages. The information is arranged in the most arcane way: like books stored by the Dewey Decimal system--according to rules understood only by licensed librarians. If you are really determined, you will be able to find and fill out the application form. Once you have submitted a properly completed form, you will be directed to a list of acceptable forms of identification. You will need to present two of them when you arrive at the library. You will also be given your personal applicant ID number.
|The British Library|
If you survive the above, you go to the cloak room in the basement, where you give up all your worldly possessions except for your computer, pencils (NO PENS), and your notebook. You put those three things, and nothing else in a clear plastic bag. You then can take the elevator to the reading room you have designated. There a guard will check your ID and your clear plastic bag. Then and only then you can read a book.
I don't resent this. It is a privilege to be able to read British Library's books, and they have a right to require whatever they want of the people they allow in.
But nothing like this happens in the NYPL or in public libraries all over the the USA. If you want to read a book, all you have to do is ask for it. If you want to borrow a book to take home from one of the branch libraries, you have to have a card like this. No photo, no approved forms of ID, no expiration date.
I consider free public libraries sacred. They are my temples of free knowledge. My places of worship.
I fell in love with the library as a very young child, when my brother and I called it "The Liberry."
|My Brother and Me|
|Paterson Public Library|
During the summer, between grades seven and eight, I took to going with my friend Dolores to the main branch, a bus ride away. It was much grander than our local storefront. Here is a picture of it—a building designed by Henry Bacon, who subsequently designed the Lincoln Memorial. It’s now on the National Register of Historic Places.
Now I am privileged to do my research at the Main Branch—the Stephen Schwarzman Building—of the New York Public Library, a marble temple of knowledge that can tell you anything you want to know and will tell it to you no matter who you are.
An Italian friend who was living here in New York was amazed when she found out how egalitarian our library is. We went together to do research one day. She is from Florence, home to one of great libraries of the world: The Biblioteca Nazionale Centrale di Firenze. It is massive and beautiful. And like libraries everywhere has on staff some of the most devoted employees anywhere. When the floodwaters were rising in 1966, one of them, a woman, stayed until the last possible moment, moving priceless treasures from the lower floors to the upper ones. When it was too late to continue, she escaped over the rooftops, carrying Galileo’s telescope. That library is fabulous, but unlike ours, you can’t just walk in. You have to have top-notch credentials just to get through the door.
|Biblioteca Nazionale Centrale di Firenze|
My friend and I walked into the Main Branch one day along with scores of others seeking all kinds of information. She wanted to know the New York City and New York State laws governing the manufacture of foods containing dairy products. I wanted a map of Paraguay in 1868. We both found what we wanted: she in the main reading room, and I in the Map Division. Where else in the world can you do that? And get the help of kind and knowledgeable people to do it efficiently. It’s amazing.
And it is gorgeous, is it not?
|Main Reading Room|
Your library needs you. You may not even go there yourself, but the library deserves your support. PLEASE, give a donation to your local public library. You can probably give online in a couple of minutes. There are kids in your town who need the library, for whom it will open vistas that will change their lives.