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NYC Reads: Books on the Subway


"I hope you are not here because you like to read." It was the opening salvo for my interview with the admissions director at the University of Maryland's Graduate School of Library & Information Services. I don't remember what, or if, I countered. It was 1967.

Answer or no answer I was admitted, matriculated, and graduated. After a long library career, I am now retired and a recent volunteer at NYPL. The admissions director is long gone, but I would like to reply. "I love to read. Did then, still do. And I love to know what people are reading."

Other people and their reading are what prompted the accompanying photo. That serious reader and I were the only two passengers in a car on a stalled # 1 train. When I looked up, I saw him with one of my favorite books. He was my first iPhone photo subject. I asked politely. He assented politely. We had only a few moments to discuss Joan Didion's The Year of Magical Thinking. "Complicated," I said. He agreed.

When I had my interview for volunteering at NYPL, the reading question never came up. Maura Muller, head of volunteer services, was enthusiastic and said, "We are so glad to have you."

Back to that other interview, there's something else I didn't tell the admissions director. To paraphrase songwriter, Stephen Stills, I tend to love the one I'm with. That makes me sound like a real "sixties" girl, but I mean I fall in love with the most recently asked reference question. Bubonic plague in medieval Europe, the opening lineups for the 1968 World Series, or rooftop gardening... I want to run off with each one. I love the search, the puzzle of finding the perfect resource, learning a little along the way, and watching the patron go off do the serious research.

In library parlance, I am a generalist. That makes me especially suited for my volunteer placement at Milstein Division of United States History, Local History and Genealogy. My specific assignment is to work on the Clippings' Files. It's a generalist's dream.

Every library I have ever worked in has kept a clippings' file. It's a collection of local interest, information not easily found in book form or now not necessarily found on the Internet. Included are pamphlets, leaflets, exhibition catalogs, publicity material, post cards, manuscripts, and yes, newspaper clippings.

Milstein's files are no different, except they are specific to the city of New York. Collected, organized, and maintained by professional staff for over 100 years, the project has landed on the back burner.

My newly minted ID gives me access to Stack 3, the home of the bulk of the local history and genealogy collection. Seemingly endless rows of bookshelves march down the middle of the floor with file cabinets on the perimeter. Seven to eight large multi-drawer file cabinets hold the Clippings' Files. Over 700 file folders contain information about the Rockettes, the 1964 World's Fair, street furniture, graffiti and the subways.

I know you are thinking, "Can't I get all this in a Google search? And newspaper clippings... nobody reads newspapers anymore." Let's start with Google. Entering "New York subways" in the Google search box returns 38 million plus hits.

The number of subway clippings don't come close to that Google number, but there are six teeming folders. Over the years librarians have been selecting maps, flyers, and newspaper clippings going back to the opening of the subway in 1904 with an entire folder devoted to the subway strike of 2005 and its leader Roger Toussaint. The subway offers all the great New York drama. There's love, mayhem, labor strife, heroism, and politicians posturing. Rob Scott, the last professional working on the files compiled a list of movies with great NYC subway scenes, and not just The French Connection.

Newspapers and news have always been at the heart of New York's vibrancy. I have begun to keep a list of the newspapers found in the clippings' file. Of special pride are those great daily papers that have disappeared and not found a complete home in the digital world. New York Herald Tribune, the small neighborhood papers, Frank Leslie's Illustrated News, the more recent AM New York, and Village Voice all have something to say about the subways and much more.

On the days that I am not working on the Clippings' Files, I continue my own research project of capturing my fellow New Yorkers reading while riding the subway. There's no perfect book, but Clifton Hood's 722 Miles: The Building of the Subways and How they Transformed New York is especially well suited for the subway rider. No polite asking now, I just take out my iPhone and look like I’m busy reading my e-mails. The photo ops are limitless. With thanks to my unsuspecting subjects, here aresome recently spotted titles:


Patron-generated content represents the views and interpretations of the patron, not necessarily those of The New York Public Library. For more information see NYPL's Website Terms and Conditions.

Phyllis, it sounds like you

Phyllis, it sounds like you might enjoy peeking at this blog:

Great post - thanks Ms.

Great post - thanks Ms. Trager! Love reading stories where literacy and the library are woven into the daily lives of New Yorkers!

Thanks Phyllis. Loved this.

Thanks Phyllis. Loved this. Whenever I get busted sneaking peeks at my seatmate's read on Metro North, I just smile and say, "I can't help myself - I work in a library." The irritated commuter always smiles and my snooping is forgiven.

NYC Reads

Phyllis, I loved your post! Milstein is lucky to have a curious generalist such as yourself.

I have long train commutes

I have long train commutes now, and I am reading more than ever. I agree, it is fun to see what other people are reading. Recently, someone sitting next to me, caught the cover of what I was reading, and politely asked me to properly turn the cover of the book in her direction so that she could jot the title and author down. I think I was reading,Pathology of the elites : how the arrogant classes plan to run your life / Michael Knox Beran. To capture history of this great city in clippings, etc., must also be great fun. Thank you for sharing.

Fellow Volunteer

I, too, am a NYPL Volunteer (Astor Hall Desk, Volunteer Newsletter) and enjoyed your comments. I'm also a train rider (NJ Transit) but my "reading" is on an IPOD (currently, "Cleopatra"). My early train on Fridays has a quiet car, and it's a delight to enjoy the ride, with or without a reading. Hope to see you around the halls sometime!

Subway Readers

Great piece! Keep up the great work!

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