Wednesday, December 28, 2011

"Liberry" Redux

For my last entry of the year, I am rerunning my post from last January on my lifelong love affair with Free Public Libraries. There are only a few days left of 2011 in which to heed my plea in the last paragraph. You will end your year with a great feeling if you do. Happy New Year! Drink a toast to free knowledge and entertainment for all!

My Brother and Me
The Paterson (NJ) Public Library saved my life. I would have grown up somehow if I could not have read its books as a child, but I would not have grown up to be me. Even before my brother and I learned to pronounce it, we loved to go. We went at least once a week in the summer. Our mother took us to our local branch, about a twenty minute walk from home, a simple storefront filled with hundreds of books and staffed by two of the nicest ladies ever. Mommy got books for herself and my brother and I chose from the children’s section. He had a weird taste for books about snakes, guns, and tanks—a bother since we were allowed only three books at a time. When I finished reading mine, I was stuck with his questionable selections until the next trip. As long as we were still in elementary school, the rules allowed us only children’s books, but since I was voracious, there was soon nothing left for children that I hadn’t read. So as a seventh grader, the librarians allowed me to select biographies (but never fiction) from the adult section.
Paterson Public Library

During the summer, between grades seven and eight, I took to going with my friend Dolores to the main branch, a bus ride away. It was much grander than our local storefront. Here is a picture of it—a building designed by Henry Bacon, who subsequently designed the Lincoln Memorial. It’s now on the National Register of Historic Places.

It was one of the most elegant places we ever saw. Only churches and the Paterson City Hall compared with it. Even in the big library, however, we were not allowed grown-up books, except for biographies. Why the librarians thought that the lives of real people would be more edifying than those of fictional characters is beyond me now, but in those days we just took what we could get. Consequently, I read the lives of Fred Allen, William Randolph Hearst, and Lunt and Fontaine, among many others—lives of people who lived large, an idea one could hardly get a whiff of in our working class neighborhood.

New York Public Library
Now I am privileged to do my research at the Main Branch—the Stephen Schwarzman Building—of the New York Public Library, a marble temple of knowledge that can tell you anything you want to know and will tell it to you no matter who you are. That’s the thing about free public libraries—we have them here in US, but they do not exist everywhere.

Biblioteca Nazionale Centrale
di Firennze

 An Italian friend who was living here in New York was amazed when she found out how egalitarian our library is. We went together to do research one day. She is from Florence, home to one of great libraries of the world: The Biblioteca Nazionale Centrale di Firenze. It is massive and beautiful. And like libraries everywhere has on staff some of the most devoted employees anywhere. When the floodwaters were rising in 1966, one of them, a woman, stayed until the last possible moment, moving priceless treasures from the lower floors to the upper ones. When it was too late to continue, she escaped over the rooftops, carrying Galileo’s telescope. That library is fabulous, but unlike ours, you can’t just walk in. You have to have credentials to get through the door.

Map Division
Not so at the New York Public Library. My friend and I walked into the Main Branch one day along with scores of others seeking all kinds of information. She wanted to know the New York City and New York State laws governing the manufacture of foods containing dairy products. I wanted a map of Paraguay in 1868. We both found what we wanted: she in the main reading room, and I in the Map Division. Where else in the world can you do that? And get the help of kind and knowledgeable people to do it efficiently. It’s amazing.

Main Reading Room

And it is gorgeous, is it not?

Your library needs you. You may not even go there yourself, but the library deserves your support. PLEASE, give a donation to your local public library. You can probably give online in a couple of minutes. There are kids in your town who need the library, for whom it will open vistas that will change their lives.

Annamaria Alfieri

1 comment:

  1. In my part of town the library of use for many years was at the 92 Y, only 1 block away and very comfortable and friendly, esp. to a writer. I lived there for many years - then the admin abruptly closed it down in Sept. a year ago - this was a death to some of us and left us as orphans. The local public library on E. 96th St. is not accessible to some of us. I too recall as a child going to the library - as a 6th grader I got an award for reading the most books - I think it was in Burlington, NC - not sure, as I went to a different school in a new state yearly! tjs