March 4, 2014

NYPL 2014

Filed under: Blog — Gary Panter @ 9:54 pm

Going into the New York Public Library at 42nd and Fifth Avenue, you are entering into an architectural jewel — marble stairs, marble benches, marble balustrades, marble everything, winding marble flights of stairs to dazzle a robber baron, stately murals portraying heroes and categories of inquiry flanked by velvet drapes and flags, vast halls with mysteriously named collections lettered on solid brown doors, soaring public reading rooms with thousands of seated and milling people at computer stations or books in hand squinting, wooden grandfather-clock-style wood-worked vestibules and passageways to further and further collections, private study groups and scholarly enclaves, beautifully painted oil portraits of library presidents and potentates,  twinkling glistening ballrooms where public lectures and conversations take place, exquisitely designed and executed cast brass decorative fixtures and gates.

And books. Books that are hot off the press and books that are very delicate. Common books and obscure. Books that smell like books — on paper not made anymore, with bindings of psychedelic complexity, manuscripts hand painted with one-hair brushes with a concentration that was extinguished by television and pixels. Staggering.

Also an unbelievably interesting un-public backstage of offices, lockers, mechanical lifts raising and lowering books from storage to scholar, files, chairs, backstairs, cafeterias, deep, deep, seven floors deep book storage and book repair and photography areas. Cast-iron stacks that look to be designed to hold the building up.

There is a great humanity in the museum, of the guards and staff and librarians — scores — and there are great grazing flocks of wandering tourists, flapping their wings, great herds of them going in and out, murmuring, echoing, giggling, in shorts and backpacks, baggies and flip flops, one extended limb taking selflies and themmys, so many people with open mouths staring straight up at the heavenly,  jewel-encrusted, sky-muraled ceilings, lost or stunned, looking for restrooms and sandwiches. And the tourists, who don’t use the books but admire the fixtures and changing exhibits, the tourists wandering lost and stunned are part of the life and humanity of library.

But much more exciting to me is knowing that really deep scholarship is going on there, the real thing, human computers desiring to know, souls burning with curiosity in a place that they can’t exhaust, that there is a deep life of the pursuit of knowledge happening on and on in that hive. That, in a time of near universal access to the shallowest characterization of topic, there are people intensely wearing their eyes out seeking the answers to questions that concern them passionately, which is a thing culture is at the core — a deeper look. The proximity of books to scholars is essential. Moving the books away or digitizing and pitching them and building a coffee shop, hang out, park viewing area on the backside of this gem seems a little strange to me. Keeping this institution humming and in repair will be a better goal than a postmodern uglification of  it.

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