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Biblio File

Swan Song


So here it is at last, the distinguished thing.
Last words of Henry James

What keeps a person in the same job for thirty-seven years? Necessity? Loyalty? Love? Madness? Maybe all of these.

A few years ago, when I still lived in Manhattan and could walk to work, I never dreamed I would end up a commuter. Who wanted to be a suburban character in a John Cheever story, grabbing my attache case and clutching my fedora as I rushed for morning trains? But my timing is pretty good, and I rarely have to rush. Since I seem to be one of the handful of people in Westchester without a car, I walk to the Metro-North station. On a good day, with the wind at my back, I can make it to the platform in about twenty minutes. On those bleak mornings when I'm slogging through the snow or stepping gingerly across sheets of ice, there is no saying how long it will take.

What would it be like, I wonder, if I no longer had to do this?

The trip to Manhattan takes about forty minutes. Add five for the walk from Grand Central to Fifth Avenue. The New York Public Library has been my daily destination from April 1977 to the present, and if I choose to be a bit nostalgic or sentimental (or even cranky) about this fact, who has more right? Whenever I step inside, the grandeur of the architecture never fails to touch me. I am endlessly grateful for my surroundings and wonder how people manage their work days—day after relentless day—confined to offices or cubicles. By now, the interior of the library has deeply penetrated my subconscious and become part of my own interior being. Some nights I dream about the library, where it is even vaster than in actuality, great marble spaces opening endlessly into new spaces, stairways I have never seen before, doorways leading into who knows what--and yet, even asleep, this is the place where I belong.

What would it be like if I no longer had this landscape in which to spend my days?

When you walk through the streets of London, or any of the great European capitals, the sense of history is palpable. You find yourself deliciously drowning in the past. New York is different. Our history is relatively young, and the architecture you become familiar with one month seems by the next to have changed completely, usually for the worse. The New York Public Library on Fifth Avenue at Forty-Second Street, in the very heart of Manhattan, is a reminder that there was a time when powerful men with lofty civic goals could somehow, through a combination of money, willfulness, and pride, actually achieve them. Dating from the moment the library first opened its doors on May 23, 1911, we are now one hundred and three years old, really only a blip in the grand historical record. Yet there is something about working in this building which feels timeless. I certainly remember my earliest experiences of the main reading room. From the crowds and hustle and hype of midtown Manhattan, I entered a place of both grandeur and serenity--as large an indoor space as I had ever seen, yet one that was also strangely intimate, a place carved out of time that was also very much of the present moment.

It is interesting to have a historical perspective. Not long ago, a younger colleague asked me what the card catalogue had been like. This immediately made me feel about a hundred years old. He was writing an essay on why the online catalog we have now is so much better than the old system. Better? Something in this equation struck me as not quite right. There was a time when the walls of the Public Catalog room were lined with trays full of well-thumbed shelf-list cards. They were used by generations of people, people who had never heard of social media, whose purposes were every bit as varied and serious as ours. Nowadays, tactile experiences (other than tapping keyboards and thumbing Smartphones) are increasingly rare; but I distinctly recall what it was like to work with those cards, touching them, thinking about the generations which had used them before me, and wondering which ones had been in place on the day the library first opened to the public. Maybe the card catalog had its drawbacks; still, I am happy to have been around to experience this aspect of librarianship in its earliest manifestation, before the digital universe consumed everything.

I also remember my first experience of the stacks, those seven levels of steel shelving interspersed between the three floors of the building which housed the bulk of the library's book collection. I would stand in the center of one of the stacks, which stretched off towards 40th Street on one side and 42nd Street on the other, and even if I was only down there on business, the proximity of so many books, press after press of books, was intoxicating. Whatever else I was doing, I never failed to glance along a few of the shelves, to take down a few books and page through them, to make mental notes of what I would read in the future.

Back in the mid-seventies, the library was a shabbier place than it is now. Bryant Park was a dubious spot you might have reservations about entering. New York itself seemed to be in a state of financial crisis. But I never noticed any of it. I was having too good a time. To quote Wordsworth: "Bliss was it in that dawn to be alive. But to be young was very Heaven!" He might have been writing about the French Revolution, but the sentiment is very much the same.

What would it be like, I wonder now, to be only a part of the library's past and not at all of its future?

I started to work in the General Research Division of the New York Public Library on April 25, 1977. (Jimmy Carter was president. Abraham Beame was mayor. "Star Wars" and "Annie Hall" had just premiered at the movies. Oliver's Story, the sequel to Love Story, and How to Save Your Own Life, the sequel to Fear of Flying, were both on the New York Times bestseller list.) I will retire from the General Research Division of the New York Public Library on August 29, 2014.

My job has offered many satisfactions. It is my way of engaging with the world. Although it would be impossible to guess how many people I've encountered in my librarian capacity, I can only hope that I've managed to clear up even a bit of bewilderment and confusion. For many years, I was also involved in collection development and spent a lot of time scouring publishers' catalogs and the internet's strange byways, looking for unique or obscure items to add to the library's collection. (I might be leaving, but the books I unearthed and ordered are here for the ages.) Of course, my great labor of love for the past nine years has been the series of talks on literature I've been delivering in the auditorium. As my last bit of self-promotion, I would like to mention the final four: The Passionate Brontes on June 27; Changing Styles in Children's Book Illustration on July 18; Subversive Shaw on August 15; and Edith Wharton on August 22.

People have asked me again and again what I'll be doing with myself, what my plan for the future is, and how I'm going to cope with such an influx of free time. I knew they were being kind, but I couldn't think what to tell them.  And then, as frequently happens, I found the appropriate response in a book--not one of the masterpieces of literature, but an exceptional mystery novel featuring Commissario Guido Brunnetti of the Venetian police force:

"Brunetti considered the phenomenon of retirement. People in other countries, he had been told, dreamed of retirement as a chance to move to a warmer climate and start a whole new chapter: learn a language, buy a scuba outfit, take up taxidermy. How utterly alien that desire was to his own culture The people he knew and those he had been observing all his life wanted nothing more, upon retirement, than to settle more deeply into their homes and the routines they had constructed over the decades, making no change to their lives other than to excise from them the necessity of going to work each morning and perhaps to add the possibility of travelling a bit, but not often, and not too far."

Donna Leon, Drawing Conclusions


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.

Goodnight and Good Luck!

Dear Robert, While I'm happy that you've decided to have a post-NYPL life, I am deeply saddened that we lovers-of-literature will for not, for much longer, be the happy recipients of your wealth of knowledge on all things "Great Author"-wise. I have long enjoyed your presentations and have learned much more than I ever learned in that fancy university (aka, Harvard). I only wished your literary "reach" extended there when I attended. I wish you all good things and much happiness in your post-NYPL life -- ENJOY! With warm regards, -Karen Livecchia Publishing Consultant

Your retirement

I've really loved your lectures and what a really lovely note you sent us all today announcing your retirement. I will certainly be there on Aug. 22 for your farewell. The Library will be a poorer place without you. Thank you, Dorry Swope

thanks for all your wonderful lectures.

I have attended several of your lectures and have benefited greatly from them. I especially liked your very friendly and approachable attitude to your audience. I also have fond memories of researching Spanish literature from the Golden age many years ago. Lila Vogel Buena suerte.


I also spent the late 70s and early 80s in the 3rd floor main reading room of NYPL working on my M.A. from Queens College. LOVED THAT CARD CATALOG, I never felt such power in a building, such magnificence, elegance... all those books, all that knowledge reduce to a card, those seemingly endless drawers of cards....LOVED those call slips, always ran into a Prof. of mine while waiting for the books to come up...the nicest librarians, all so helpful as NYPL can be quite daunting, so I am finally thanking all those hard working librarians some 36 years later! Will see you at the Bronte lecture, congratulations on a job well done and a deserved retirement!

Robert Armitage

I am sad to learn you're retiring. I only had the good fortune to learn of you and your charming and erudite lectures this past year. So sorry that I didn't know of you in all those years. Will you be back from time to time or speaking in other places?

Swan Song of Robert Armitage

Thank you for your essay. And, thank you for your years of work. I have seen most of your lectures for the last two or three years. I both enjoyed and learned from all of them. I started work in 1959 when Dwight Eisenhower was president, and retired in 2011. I too loved my job, and I now love not having to go to work each morning. Enjoy your retirement and thanks for all you have given me and other New Yorkers.

Robert Armitage retirement

Mr. Armitage, Thank you for your service to the community. We enjoyed several of your presentations. In retirement, I predict, you will wonder how you managed to have time for a full-time job! All the best to you, Jim and Maria Fitzsimmons

Thank you, Robert Armitage

I want to send you my best wishes, but even more than that I'd like to thank you for the extraordinary series of literary talks you gave and let you know how they made a significant impact on my life. Two years ago, I retired. The first week or so felt very strange and disorienting. Then I saw an ad for 'Subversive Shaw' at the library. I remember clearly it was a Friday afternoon, the auditorium was packed and your lecture was riveting. It occurred to me that until that day my Friday afternoons had been spent buried in an office, yet here I was in my favorite building on earth nourishing my mind. That was when everything fell into place and I knew that I had much to look forward to. I love your quote from Donna Leone, I may also add that people still ask me how I'm enjoying retirement, and I give some trite response, but to me, I'm simply enjoying life. Thanks again, and if you decide to keep up your blog, please keep me posted.

A Thank you for Robert Armitage.

Dear Mr. Armitage. What a pleasure it has been to attend your lectures. I somehow always felt better when one was on offer and coming up soon. It brightened my day. I felt better. I knew I would discover something new about Edith Wharton or the Brontes or Shaw. I recognized how much thought and effort you put into your lectures. I'm sure others felt the same way as there was certainly a large attendance, always. If you will be keeping your blog. Please keep me posted. It's been such a pleasure to have your lectures in my life. I shall miss their continuance, but I will remember and savor those I have heard. PS I always take notes so your language and incites will never be lost. Thank you again.

Thank you for bringing books

Thank you for bringing books and authors to life. You will be greatly missed!

Mr. Armitage

Sadly, it seems we are losing more from the library each and every day that makes it special. I will miss his erudite and insightful lectures. Thank you sir.

Goodby, Good luck Mr Armitage

Thank you for pouring your heart into literature and sharing it with so many.. Have loved your author lectures--my favorite is Jane Austin. In retirement you'll be surrounded with your favorite authors and books--for sure. Good luck-you will be missed.

Thank you Mr. Armitage

I just wanted you to know how much I have enjoyed your lectures. I will miss you very much. Your analysis and comments on various authors and their books and personal lives has enriched my life. You are better than any professor I ever had. Good luck in your retirement. This library is losing one of its best assets.... lecture somewhere else or if you keep your blog. I am retired and going to your lectures was always such a delight. Your mixing the video and audio was a delight for me. I love the Research Library and I call it a museum with books. They will still have lectures but none of them will ever top yours. Sincerely, Karen Burns

Robert Armitage's Retirement

I am very sad that you will no longer be giving your wonderful lectures at the library. I have attended many of them over the years and have introduced many friends to them. We have enjoyed and learned so much from your intelligent and insightful comments on many of my favorite authors. You will be greatly missed and I wish you a fulfilling and happy retirement.

Swan Song Essay

Robert, thank you for including a copy of your essay with your Christmas card. I was moved by it. It rekindled my own vivid memories of many hours spent in the library's main reading room during my college years. I still remember the special feeling of holding a book published 100 years before I was born. It was and I am sure still is a very special place. Your part in making it a special place is evident. I hope you enjoy your retirement. Richard Armitage Austin, TX

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