Tuesday, December 8, 2009

Among the Bookish

The New York Public Library is a year-round treasure keeper that holds the answers to questions most of us will never even think to ask. The icon of the system is the main branch at 42nd Street and Fifth Avenue, where the great marble lions Patience and Fortitude guard the steps. (That's Patience at his south side station, above.)

On the first Sunday in December the lions relax and the library holds its annual open house for donors. And when I say donors, I do not mean wealthy benefactors, I mean average, library-loving people who have given as little as $40.00. Guests pass through the doors into a library transformed with garlands, lights and a huge Christmas tree. A brass band playing Christmas tunes alternates with a carol-singing choir (this year it was the Brooklyn Youth Chorus).

What struck me most about my fellow library donors is what an unusual group they are, from oddly dressed eccentrics with terrible hair to serene, tweedy women who looked as if they would fit right into an Agatha Christie mystery. Scalpels or Botox are not part of this crowd's reality. Grandchildren are, and many were in attendance.

This year my friends and I arrived just past 2 p.m., intentionally too late for the receiving line of dignitaries and politicians who shake the hands of everyone who arrives earlier. As usual, people dressed as literary characters appropriate to the season were everywhere — giant tin soldiers on stilts, a frightful green Grinch, a snowman, a reindeer, a gingerbread man and a Mother Goose with an amazingly lifelike animatronic goose.

Celebrations happen on every level. Downstairs, before a crowd of onlookers, a band played salsa music while thirty or forty people, including one and one-half couples who were quite good, danced. On the second floor elves painted children's faces and the Galapagos Puppet Company acted out a Mrs. Piggle-Wiggle story. On the third floor, we stopped by the cabaret, where weary walkers rested and tapped their feet, and then we signed up for the tour of the stacks — a peek at the library's innards, the home of five million three-dimensional books.

Journey to the Center of the Library. A guide led us through a magic mirror (okay, it was a door) and down two flights of stairs to a long, wide room filled with row upon row of shelves, all groaning with books. He explained that books are organized according to the NYPL's unique Billings system, which sorts titles by both height and subject before breaking things down farther. It's an adaptation designed to maximize use of cramped space — how quintessentially New York.

Big news! The old pneumatic tubes that once sucked up book requests and whooshed them to their destinations have largely been replaced by something less likely to clog. It's not a digital system — cards are still hand-written. The new system is more like a conveyor belt. Conveyors and dumbwaiter-like contraptions also move the books up, down, around and across the library to those awaiting them in reading rooms. The tour guide explained that while the library is gradually digitizing almost everything in its collection, it will keep every three-dimensional book permanently. Newspapers, alas, will be scanned but not be saved, since their high-acid paper crumbles to dust over time.

As we prepared to leave, we stopped on the lobby staircase to watch the crowd and listen to the brass band play. And here, too, people were dancing — not well, but with great spirit.

Just then Ebenezer Scrooge strode by waving his hand and snarling. Was he  staying in "Bah humbug!" character or was he truly angry about the people who were walking up and down the "wrong" side of the staircase? We'll never know.

See you next year, Ebenezer.


  1. Another wonderful and evocative post, O Divinipotent One! A minor correction, however: Patience gets a little grouchy when people refer to him as a 'her', as his large mane and leonine countenance clearly show him to be a lion, not lioness. Cursed as he is with a female-sounding name, he growls not at virginal females who walk by (as an old legend has it), but at those who don't see beyond the name to the lion within. Somewhat like Johnny Cash's Boy Named Sue.

  2. Well d'oh! Of course Patience is a boy. Poor fella. Thank you for pointing that out and I shall correct the blog forthwith.