Wednesday, December 25, 2013

Support Your Local Library

This is going up on Christmas Day, but frequent readers of this blog know that for my last blog of the year, every year, I rerun this post with an appeal for support of the most benign and democratic institutions in the United States: Free Public Libraries.

This year I have a new story to add.  Since I wrote the post below two years ago, I have had the opportunity to research at the British Library.  I want to tell you what that took.

The libraries of the world line up like this. One: The Library of Congress in Washington.  Two: The British Library in London.  Three: The New York Public Library, where I get to go four five times a week.

Here is the drill if you want to research at The British Library.  First, you have to go on their website, which is dense with long paragraphs of information spread over many pages.  The information is arranged in the most arcane way: like books stored by the Dewey Decimal system--according to rules understood only by licensed librarians.  If you are really determined, you will be able to find and fill out the application form.  Once you have submitted a properly completed form, you see the list of acceptable forms of identification and are told you will need to present two of them when you arrive at the library.  Also displayed for you is your personal applicant ID number.

The British Library
On the day you arrive for the first time, you are directed to a special room, where you enter your ID number in the computer system and then wait.  Eventually you are called by that ID number to be interviewed.  A very friendly, in my case, person will ask you to explain what of their collection you want to see and why.  I have no idea of the criteria they use to judge your worthiness.  All I know is that I passed muster to read in their Africa and Asia Room.  They give me a special British Library photo ID.

If you survive the above, you go to the cloak room in the basement, where you give up all your wordily possessions except for your computer, pencils (NO PENS), and your notebook.  You put those three things, and nothing else in a clear plastic bag.  You then can take the elevator to the reading room you have designated.  There a guard will check your ID and your clear plastic bag.  Then and only then you can read a book.

I don't resent this.  It is a privilege to be able to read their books, and they have a right to require whatever they want of the people they allow in.

But in the NYPL, in public libraries all over the the USA, if you want to read a book, all you have to do is ask for it.

Trotsky said the New York Public Library was the most democratic place on earth.  Just saying'.

Here is my annual appeal for your support.  And your admiration.  For places I consider sacred.

The "Liberry"

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 had ever seen. 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. Your account here is just amazing! I grew up moving each year, and in each town in each state I always found the public library as soon as possible to get my books , as I was a child who had to have her books as daily food! But I have never been to libraries abroad - and find this information of vast interest here. Nor did I ever know that we are so lucky as Americans to have the freedom we have re our precious books and archives. I always thought it was universal. Thanks to you, Annamaria Alfieri, now my mind has expanded, a lovely Christmas gift to your readers here. T.J. Straw

  2. Thelma, it is interesting that most people do not realize how fortunate we are to have our libraries. Once I learned how difficult it is to get into libraries in other countries, it seemed strange. Their libraries are funded with public monies and they are exclusionary. Though ours are funded mostly with private donations, they are open to all. The more of us us who make even a small donation the stronger they will be.

  3. Thanks so much for this, Annamaria! This reminds me of a time in my childhood when I lived in Memphis, Tennessee. We only stayed for 6 months but I was miserable. All the kids in my 11th grade class had known each other in utero it seemed and my invitation to join the (very expensive) Rainbow Girls was withdrawn when I made it known that I didn't go to church. But every week my mother took me to the public library where I could get as many books as I wanted. Though I didn't realize it at the time my family was having great financial struggles so buying books wasn't an option. That library and those books kept me from serious despair. Thanks for reminding us how lucky we are.

  4. So many children grow up with stories like ours, Steph. I hope there are more every year helped in life by the library.

  5. One of the first things I remember my mom saying was that her mom worked hard to get a public library in a small town in Kansas (Seneca), and that she and her sister checked out the first books. This would be late 1920s! If you have a library you can never be poor of spirit.

    1. Elaine, Well said! Hoooray! for your grandmother. She helped all the children and adults in that community. I hope they remember her name.