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The Historical Perspective


I recently wrote about an old favorite of mine, the fantasy novel Time and Again, by Jack Finney. It is the story of a man who travels back in time to New York in the 1800s. Once there, the story is compelling, precise in its details, and completely believable, the only far-fetched element being his actual methodology for returning to the past--he looks at old pictures and sort of thinks himself back through time. At least I thought this was far-fetched, until I got a look at the photographs I’ve reproduced here.

 We can pretend that our work lives are a linear progression, day after day, neatly punctuated by weekends, with a summer vacation splitting each year down the middle. The truth, as usual, is far messier. If you work long enough at the same job, your experiences become layered like geological sediment. As of this past April I’ve worked in the General Research Division of the New York Public Library for thirty-two years. When it occurred to me that the library itself will be celebrating its centennial in 2011, I realized how much of its history I’ve actually participated in. Now, there are people--I’m sure you know a few--who seem to dwell principally in the past, always reminiscing about the old days and the peculiar characters who used to inhabit them…while their stories might hold your interest for awhile, it doesn’t take long before the tedium sets in. For the most part, I try to stay on the surface of the present moment, like a skater on a frozen lake; but with these photographs I’ve cracked through the skin of ice and gone plunging down and down. . .

 These photographs from the library's archives are undated, but I place them somewhere in the mid-seventies. At the time, New York was in a financial crisis that makes the current one look like a temporary embarrassment. I had received the final extension on my unemployment insurance, badly needed a job of any sort, and finally wound up at the library. As a page, my primary duties were to return books to the reading room shelves and card catalog trays to the slots which honeycombed the Public Catalog room walls. Nowadays a lot of people tend to romanticize the old card catalog, but I suspect that’s a case of gilding their own pasts; as you can see from this scene, it was often quite a cumbersome arrangement. Imagine scouring tables for the necessary tray. Imagine trying to negotiate the tray at the bottom of a precarious pile. Imagine how our hearts sank when a tray dropped to the floor, the metal rod holding the index cards in place came loose, and cards went flying like a nightmare scene out of Alice in Wonderland

It’s a good thing the magic of the institution got its hook into me early on, because many of my fledgling responsibilities were not exactly inspiring. Another (although unofficial) duty was to open and close the huge windows on demand. Librarians, I soon discovered, tended to suffer greatly from atmospheric conditions, and they were not always the same conditions. When one librarian became oppressed by the summer heat, I would have to mount the circular staircase to the gallery, clamber up the ladder (careful not to look back into the miniature tidal pool of activity below), and push the window open. By the time I had returned to the central information desk, another librarian would be huddled in her shawl because of the drafts from the newly-opened window and back up I would have to go. I don’t deny that the room did grow hot. There was no air-conditioning back then, only a few clunky fans to circulate the thick air. After a few consecutive days of mounting temperature, the marble walls tended to collect and intensify the heat, till it felt like being inside a big pizza oven. But it is the primal elements like hot and cold, light and dark, which most especially mark the passage of time here at the library. Gradations of light in particular can change the library’s atmosphere according to the time of day or season of the year: brilliant on a summer afternoon, burnished with the heavy golden winter glow, or lending the lamplight a warm, insular glow on a cloudy or rainy afternoon. 

Of all the physical details and impressions which come back to me now, the one which stands out most vividly is the southern view from the Public Catalog windows. The Republic National bank on the corner of 40th Street and Fifth Avenue hadn’t as yet been built, and there was an unimpeded downtown view which included the Empire State building. We used to work till nine o’clock in those days, by which time the glittering lights of the Empire State building would be on, making that tall silhouette look like the prow of an ocean liner set against the inky sky. Looking at these pictures, I’m surprised by the prodigious number of both readers and librarians, and by the almost tangible sense of activity. It is the oddest sensation to recognize many of the faces at the reference desk, colleagues from what seems like the dawn of time, frozen in mid-librarian bustle. It is only purest chance that I wasn’t captured behind the desk at that particular moment. It might have been too unnerving now to catch a glimpse of myself in my page incarnation some thirty-odd years ago. But I didn’t remain a page for long. I soon became the clerk who sat at the corner of the information desk and accepted request slips, rolled them tightly into small brass canisters, and shot them down the pneumatic tube system--which I always imagined as a sort of Rube Goldberg tangle of pipes and gizmos that somehow managed to spit out the canister on the exact stack level where the desired book happened to be. When I opened the flap at the mouth of that tube system, there was always a satisfying suck of air, and I liked listening to the deep-throated gurgle as the canisters were swallowed up. 

By the time I became a technical assistant and began to do reference work with the public, there was no turning back. The atmosphere I breathed was ripe with the aura of so many books, which for me was the headiest of pleasures, and my daily interactions with people provided (as they still do) my greatest satisfaction. In this particular shot of the main reading room, it’s easier to describe what’s not included in the scene than what actually is. Not there are the computers. Although, as nature measures time, the seventies weren’t that long ago, it’s hard to believe most people then didn’t know or much care about computers. Computers were great behemoth things that filled entire rooms, spit out punch cards, and frequently shut down due to overheating. Everyone at this reading room table, however, while thoroughly absorbed in his or her special study, project, or obsession, has nothing to assist them but a notebook or yellow legal pad and a pile of reference books. With only subtle differences in clothes and haircuts, these could be the same people who were sitting in the reading room on May 24, 1911, the day the library opened its doors. Add a few laptops and the library’s own bank of computers, and it could be this afternoon.

Surfing along on this wave of nostalgia, I’ve managed to evoke for myself many of the sights and sounds, smells and sensations of my early years in the General Research Division. But I wonder how easy it would be to locate the human consciousness in all this. What was I thinking? What was I feeling? Is it even possible for my mid-fifties self to understand what was going on inside my mid-twenties head? The closest I ever come to an answer is on the few occasions when readers have come up to me, flashed a sudden little smile of recognition, and told me that they remember how very helpful I was to them in the past and would I please work with them now on their latest research venture. Rather than make me feel like the Ancient Mariner, as you might expect, these interactions offer a sense of continuity and renewal, and help me to remember exactly what I’m here for. [These photographs are variously credited to Anne Day and Bob Serating]


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Thank you for this absorbing

Thank you for this absorbing and evocative post about NYPL's history!

very compelling

very compelling account. thank you for taking the time to share it.

That was lovely. I have to

That was lovely. I have to say, though, I seem to see a few beehive style hairdos. That and some of the clothing makes me wonder if the photos weren't taken in the 6o's.

I third the comments above.

I third the comments above. Thank you very much.

The combination of insight

The combination of insight and eloquence, plus outstanding images, equals a great post. What a pleasure to read.

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