When I first came to New York, in 1978, the place was a shambles. My favorite graffito from the period read, ‘Will the last person to leave New York please turn off the lights.’ This louche silver-age postdiluvian feel suited me fine.
I spent a lot of time, in those days, in the building that everybody thinks of when they think of the New York Public Library: the grand Beaux-Arts Astor/Tilden/Lenox palazzo at Fifth Avenue and 42d Street, a cross between the Baths of Caracalla and the Palais de Versailles.
It was shabby, behind the grandeur. All the librarians had been there since the Pleistocene, and the only way to get a civil response from them was to ask a question they hadn’t heard before. They were almost indecently grateful for something new.
There was no air-conditioning. None. The frescoed ceilings were rotting away, and little flakes of paint — no doubt highly toxic — would land on your head as you bent over volume 103 of Migne, trying to decipher Chrysostom’s Greek under the mildew on the pages.
Books were brought up from the souterrain on a clanking conveyor-belt system, dating, I would guess, from the 1920s, and your call slips went to the hellions below in a pneumatic tube.
Neverthless, volume 103 of Migne, foxed and moldy as it was, always showed up, after half an hour or so. And above the entrance to the main reading room were carved, in faded gilding, old Johnnie Milton’s wonderful words:
Many a man lives a burden to the earth, but a good booke is the pretious life-bloode of a master spirit, embalm’d and treasur’d up on purpose to a life beyond life.
How it lifted my own spirit — not a master-spirit, but a susceptible one — to see that. Every time.
The words are still there, and they’ve even been brightly, glaringly re-gilded, but they’re a mockery now. The books, like Elvis, have left the building.
Oh, there might be a few thousand left. If you request a book that everybody else wants to read, you’ll only have to wait until a couple of other people are finished with it. But if you want volume 103 of Migne — or anything equally recherche — you will be told that the book is ‘offsite’. You’ll be told to put in a request for it, and come back in a week or so — if they can find it in New Jersey, or wherever it’s been sent. And as often as not, they can’t.
In any case, after a week, you don’t need it any more.
It’s going to get even worse, or so I’m told by the Chronicle Of Higher Edumacation:
As of today, New York’s great public research library stands virtually empty of books, its seven levels of recently refurbished steel stacks supporting the magisterial Rose Reading Room but just days away from removal, at a price publicly unrevealed and perhaps not yet precisely known even to Marx and the trustees. Indeed, The Wall Street Journal recently quoted one of the engineers hired to remove the stacks as likening his task to “cutting the legs off the table while a banquet is taking place.”
I’m not quite sure how a room can be ‘magisterial’, but what do I know? Anyway, the writer of this piece is on the side of the angels.
There were lots of un-lovable things about the old decadent degenerate New York, but the glossy new shell, with nothing inside, is not an improvement.