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A History of the Library as Seen Through Notable Researchers


The New York Public Library’s Beaux-Arts Stephen A. Schwarzman Building celebrates its 100th anniversary this month on May 23. The Centennial offers a wonderful opportunity to reflect on Library use from the past 100 and uncover stories that can serve as inspiration for another century. One unique way to trace the history of the Library is through call slips. In order to use books in the research collection, patrons request specific titles by filling out a call slip, which includes the following information: author, title, and call number. Not all call slips have been saved over the years, but some have been preserved for posterity. Here are their stories.

Max Eastman and Aristophanes
March 22, 1920.

In March 1920, President Woodrow Wilson and the Democratic Party were losing favor. The wartime economic boom was on the wane, and the next presidential election neared. Possibilities were endless as the Teens gave birth to the Twenties. Any potential presidential candidate would have to announce his position on women’s suffrage (the 19th amendment was then only months away from ratification).

If there was a spirit of change in the air, Max Eastman was all too familiar with it. Eastman had opposed American entry into World War I, and, from 1912 to 1917, had served as editor of The Masses, a Socialist monthly magazine that featured the work of cutting-edge American artists and writers. Eastman had also organized the Men’s Equal Suffrage League, the first men’s group in support of women’s suffrage.

When Eastman visited the Library (traveling uptown from Greenwich Village) on March 22, he sought to draw inspiration from Selections from Aristophanes and Lucian (translated by F. A. Paley). Then published in only 550 copies on French handmade paper, the volume’s text is now available digitally via the HathiTrust. It’s interesting to imagine Eastman reading selections from Aristophanes’ Acharians, a play written in opposition of the Peloponnesian War. Eastman no doubt imagined himself the dramatist with his foes as Cleon, the populist war-mongering tyrant. Perhaps practicing his theory on metaphor as presented in his book The Enjoyment of Poetry, Eastman was looking for historical precedent to aid in his use of literature against war.

Lewis Mumford and Moby-Dick
August 2, 1928.

If one is researching a history of love affairs with libraries, Lewis Mumford’s name should be added to the list. Mumford, a philosopher and critic born in Queens, was at home with a number of subjects, notably architecture and literature. Despite leaving college early, Mumford wrote dozens of books and influenced a generation of urban planners through his architectural criticism in The New Yorker magazine. A student of cities, Mumford started visiting The New York Public Library as early as 1912 when he was 17. In Mumford’s 1982 memoir, Sketches From Life, the Library is a featured character:

“…for I can remember what a blessed relief it was, after an hour of close reading, to lean back in the my chair and pick out some intricate figure on the ceiling on which to rest my eyes: indeed, there was a nude girl, whose beautiful trunk tapered into a leafy scroll design, who became a sort of platonic mistress and sometimes served as the center of my still youthful erotic dreams.”

Imagine his excitement then, when L. Mumford of Amenia, NY, filled out a call slip to view a first edition of Melville’s Moby-Dick on August 2, 1928. Mumford was at work on a biography of Herman Melville, which would usher in a renaissance of American literature and elevate the New York author of metaphysical seafaring stories to canonical status. “Moby Dick is a portrait of the whale and a presentation of the demonic energies in the universe that harass and frustrate and extinguish the power of man.” Energies Mumford would discover as he held Melville’s masterpiece in his hands at the Library that summer.

Dorothy Parker and The Practice of Chymicall and Hermeticall Physicke for Preservation of Health
October 12, 1928.

New York of the Roaring 1920s is an iconic time. The suavity and polish characteristic of its glamour and sophisticated social life aid the perception of the city as a literary capital. Dorothy Parker’s verbal barbs chime out over the chaos of this age of jazz. “Men seldom make passes, at girls who wear glasses” she coined in a poem titled “News Item.” Parker gave a voice to midtown Manhattan and its flappers, who wore knee-length skirts, drank gin, smoked cigarettes from silver cases, and loved taking rides in automobiles.

Quartered in Apartment 315 at the fashionable Whitby apartment building on 45th Street near what’s now the Al Hirschfeld Theatre, Parker was then at the peak of her career. Between 1927 and 1933, her book reviews appeared regularly in The New Yorker. Enough Rope: Poems by Dorothy Parker, her first book of poetry, was an international success. Her second volume, Sunset Gun, had just appeared in 1928. Perhaps on the way to lunch with the Round Table at the Algonquin Hotel and seeking to recharge her irreverent wit for the night ahead, Parker visited the Library on Friday, October 12, 1928, to peak at a classic text of alchemy.

The Practice of Chymicall and Hermeticall Physicke for Preservation of Health is an English translation of a work by Joseph Du Chesne, a follower of the noted alchemist Paracelsus. Parker’s apparent interest in alchemy may prove useful to some future biographer. Or, it may come as no surprise to those who already appreciate her biting societal observations. Alchemical studies in the late Renaissance helped to lower the status of the Bible compared to the “Book of Nature.” Alchemists considered the possibility that individuals could obtain influence over their own fate. In this light, Parker’s verse can be read as kind of conjuring to unite observation with the mystical union of nature and imagination.

John Dos Passos and Cheetham's Life of Thomas Paine
March 4, 1939.

Letters by the American author John Dos Passos are held in the Library’s Manuscripts and Archives Division. Dos Passos’s important U.S.A. trilogy, which includes The 42nd Parallel (1930), 1919 (1932), and The Big Money (1936), is still in print and available at your neighborhood library. Dos Passos's classic dramatization of urban estrangement, Manhattan Transfer, is essential reading to anyone interested in the clatter of New York City of the early twentieth century.

Dos Passos turned into a historian as he matured. Echoing Lord Macaulay’s old adage that history ”begins in novel and ends in essay,” Dos Passos stated the “true function of the novelist,” is that of a “of second-class historian of the age he lives in.” The novelist, he went on, “is able to build reality more clearly out of his factual experience than a plain historian or biographer can.” Dos Passos’s visit to the Library on March 4, 1939, to read James Cheetham’s Life of Thomas Paine marks an important point in his career—and in the literature of American history.

In 1939 Dos Passos was just one year back from Spain, where he risked his life to report on the Spanish Civil War on behalf of the American Committee to Aid Spanish Democracy. In Spain, Dos Passos had a public feud with the Communist-sympathizing Ernest Hemingway. Dos Passos’s departure from Europe led to his gradual disillusionment with, then abandonment of, the Communist Party. Between fascist elements who “blotted out hope” and the “bloody machinery of Kremlin policy,” Dos Passos warned those on the Left in the 1930s as being “on desperately shaky ground.”

Dos Passos wanted to dissociate Europe’s revolutionary tradition from America’s political heroes to find a history on which he could stand. He found this ground at the New York Public Library where he read the writings of the Deist Anglo-American controversialist and pamphleteer Thomas Paine. The Living Thoughts of Tom Paine: Presented by John Dos Passos was published on February 1, 1940, as part of the Longman’s Living Thoughts Library.

R. G. Wasson and De Honesta Voluptate et Valetudine
May 6, 1970.

Who is R. G. Wasson and why was his visit to the Library in 1970 of any interest? Robert Gordon Wasson was a banker and amateur researcher who, along with his wife, Valentina Pavlovna, helped launch a new science described as “ethno-mycology,” or, the study of the role of mushrooms in the past of the human race. Traveling the hills outside of Oaxaca, Mexico, in 1955, Wasson discovered the mushroom known as the “flesh of the gods” that had been used in shamanic rituals for centuries. “The English language lacks a word to designate the higher fungi,” Wasson would later explain. An account of his travels was published in Life magazine in 1957 and helped usher in popular interest in psychedelics, literally, soul-manifesting substances. In fact, Wasson’s researches influenced the psychedelic revolution of the 1960s and 1970s.  So much so, that in 1979 Wasson helped coin a new term, entheogen, appropriate for describing states of shamanic and ecstatic possession induced by ingestion of mind-altering drugs.

De Honesta Voluptate et Valetudine, or “On Honorable Pleasure and Good Health,” attributed to a Vatican dignitary named Platina, is one of the earliest cookbooks to be printed in Rome, in about 1474. No doubt Wasson placed a call slip for the volume to return to its section on mushrooms in search of any mention for their proper digestion and use in the Roman diet. Wasson’s lifelong thesis sought to connect religious transcendence and the ingestion of entheogens such as fungi. The Eleusinian Mysteries of Ancient Greek religion were, according to Wasson, odes upon the ingestion of claviceps purpurea, a parasitic fungus which grows on rye. The Soma of the ancient Sanskrit hymn, Rig Veda, according to Wasson could be traced to amanita muscaria, or the fly-agaric mushroom.

Those interested in the use of psychotropic plants in both the old and new world should consult Wasson’s Persephone’s Quest: Entheogens and the Origins of Religion (1986.)  Wasson’s findings didn’t attract much approval in the scholarly community, but he was clearly welcome at the Library.


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"One unique way to trace the

"One unique way to trace the history of the Library is through call slips." The practice of making a media event of fetishized call slips is also "one unique way" to violate the agreement of trust with researchers who expect the Library to protect their privacy by keeping this kind of information from public scrutiny.

Releasing slip information

I have to agree, and had an equal mind before reading it, with the immediately previous comment. They're deceased and are historically signficant figures, but the library has openly revealed which books they've read. As far as I know, the ALA had championed the prevention of such releases of information to the federal government under portions of the Patriot Act.

It would be much better to

It would be much better to site published sources where NYPL collections were used and NYPL staff help is acknowledged. If the writer of the work mentions individual books or papers used, fine. But that is their choice. Publishing readers' call slips is not ethical for Research Libraries.

This information, though

This information, though fascinating, should not be made public. There are reasons that it is not available, even forensically, without a warrant.

Releasing call slips of the famous and infamous to the public

Releasing call slips of the famous and infamous to the public is completely wrong in my opinion, and is a violation of the inherent trust in a public institution. Whether the names on the slips belong to people who are living or dead, is besides the issue. With all the discussions about privacy issues and rights caused by the government implementing the Patriot Act, I am appalled that the NYPL has taken this step in order to garner publicity. There are so many other ways they could have gained the public eye. No, shame on you NYPL for violation the trust of your patrons!

Obviously these call slips

Obviously these call slips were included because the people who filled them out are dead. Why shouldn’t these records be treated like any collection with potential informational value? Privacy is a protection offered the living. Government records like birth certificates and adoption files are typically sealed long enough to protect the individuals named, and then opened. If no distinction is made between the privacy concerns of the living and the dead, then most archives and manuscripts should probably close up shop right now.

I agree partially with the

I agree partially with the above posters, but access to these items may be quite important for researchers of the above individuals and thus at some time should be made public. I think access restrictions on them of say 100 years might be suitable in most cases. If the library wants to make them public earlier, they should ask for permission from the individual's heirs. Wasson is the most recent. Hypothetically speaking, if I were his heir and neither Wasson nor I gave the library permission to make this public, the library would be hearing from my attorney. Perhaps the NYPL did get permission to make public these call slips, but it isn't mentioned anywhere on this blog. I think NYPL needs to review their policies for these items.

Privacy policy, with link.

Quoted from: II. Library Records A. The Library protects its users’ privacy by keeping information about materials they check out and information they access confidential, as required by law. In New York, the confidentiality of library records is governed by New York CPLR 4509, which reads as follows: Library records, which contain names or other personally identifying details regarding the users of public, free association, school, college and university libraries and library systems of this state, including but not limited to records related to the circulation of library materials, computer database searches, interlibrary loan transactions, reference queries, requests for photocopies of library materials, title reserve requests, or the use of audio-visual materials, films or records, shall be confidential and shall not be disclosed except that such records may be disclosed to the extent necessary for the proper operation of such library and shall be disclosed upon request or consent of the user or pursuant to subpoena, court order or where otherwise required by statute.

However, the policy also

However, the policy also says: 2. Special Collections / Research Materials. When a patron accesses non-circulating materials from one of our research libraries, we generally keep a record of that transaction in our files, even after the item in question has been returned. These records are kept because many of the items in our special collections are fragile or rare or are governed by agreements we have with third parties who have made these materials available to us (such as the videos in our Theatre on Film and Tape Archive.)

Call slips and privacy

This post is lovely. I cannot think of a more fitting way to honor public figures and writers like dos Pasos and Parker than by sharing with the their readers, the books these authors read.

I agree with the entire

I agree with the entire comment above that states (in part): "Privacy is a protection offered the living." But I also want to point out that it is fairly easy to determine what books famous authors have read, even without a library releasing slips of this kind. Often authors' (and other famous persons') entire libraries are owned by a library and one can leaf through the volumes, seeing not only which books the authors read, but what they wrote in the margins. Heavens!

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