A New York City Sanctuary: the Public Library

I promised this week to start a series of posts in an ongoing effort to comprehend the pull that New York City has for so many millions of people. Once or twice a month I’m going to be visiting the city (weather permitting, which, trust me, it isn’t right now — freezing rain in this part of the world) or talking to a New Yorker or transplant about their love for the city and what it means to them. Part of this endeavor is to follow the vast misunderstood differences between the US’s East and West.

So I thought I’d start with the one place I usually run to when pulled into New York City. It’s my favorite destination, hands down: the New York Public Library’s Humanities and Social Sciences research library at 5th Avenue and 42nd Street.

The building is unmistakable, one of the grand, squat old stone structures with vast steps leading up from the street, and two marble lions guarding it from the ear-bursting traffic of 5th Avenue. These days, with those sprawling steps, comparatively low height, and tree-filled Bryant Park out the back, the library seems to take up more than its fair share of space in hyperventilating Manhatten.

By 11 in the morning, most days, a line has formed outside the revolving door: lone tourists, tour groups, locals heading for their morning paper in the periodicals room, students intent on one of the long oak tables in the Rose Reading Room, bona fide researchers with coveted access to ancient Japanese manuscripts or Columbus’s 1493 letter to Luis de Santángel. And, of course, there’s sometimes me, thinking of those oak tables with the brass lamps or of the library shop where I can browse for books, Christmas cards, and truly quirky gifts, like NYC subway token cuff links or sculptured notepads. (And every time I stand there wondering how the city dwellers don’t get annoyed about waiting until nearly lunchtime to get their days started. But they don’t. Which reminds me of the several times I’ve called a friend at 9 on a Saturday morning and suggested breakfast. First, New Yorkers are often asleep at that time, and second, nobody serves breakfast that early.)

The Rose Reading Room is one of those high-ceilinged halls that makes writers and book lovers drool. If you need to check a book out, you can apply for an access card while you wait. Then go through the entertaining process of finding a book’s call number, handing it to a librarian behind the counter, and waiting for it to appear via dumbwaiter. Then slip back to your seat, where massive oak tables with matching oak chairs wait in ranks for students, researchers, writers, readers, and nappers, a dictionary standing open at one end and brass lamps putting all the wood and books in a cozy glow. All you need is a good fire and some hot chocolate and you’d never need to leave. Except to trot across the hall to view some of the rare collection items on display — like an original Gutenberg Bible, one of less than 50 in existence.

The library plays the role of museum in a city full of museums. Aside from the ongoing rare collection displays, one current exhibit of interest to travelers is Beatific Soul: Jack Kerouac on the Road, which includes original typescript drafts and edits.

Every time I get a visitor staying with me who wants to see New York, I insist on taking them to the public library. Tourists are so intent on the Statue of Liberty and the Guggenheim that going through a library rarely occurs to them. But, invariably, they always tell me that, above the Empire State Building and Central Park, the public library is the one place that sticks with them. The library feels like a refuge, held back from New York’s hectic lifestyle, but a cornerstone of its history and its permanence.

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