Lions and Marble and Books, Oh My
As you may have heard, I am part of a rather lovely blog tour of sorts. Not an authorial blog tour. No no, a tour going under the name of Share a Story – Shape a Future. Today’s Topic: A Visit to the Library as hosted by Eva Mitnick at Eva’s Book Addiction blog. Eva systematically has found a bunch of people to speak to this topic who are of a librarian bent.
Myself? I happen to work in quite a joint. And it seems to me that if the topic of today is A Visit to the Library, what better way to celebrate it than to take you on the same tour I conduct for the schoolchildren of New York City?
Generally, if we receive a call from a teacher wishing to bring their class to the library they will often request (if it’s a first time) a tour as well. This is no skin off my teeth. I like giving the tours, particularly now that I have some knowledge of the building to impart.
First the kids come to my library by going to 42nd Street and Fifth Avenue to the Humanities and Social Sciences Library. And if you wish to come to my children’s room, DO NOT walk in the front door. You best find us by going through the entrance on 42nd Street (there’s only one). Walk in that door and immediately look to your right.
Voila. A beautiful children’s room. Small and quiet. The kids file in and usually sit in the back room while I do my library schtick. I inform them of some very basic facts. First of all, this children’s room is very new. Indeed it only just opened to the public last November (2008). Now the library building itself, when we think about it, is not very old either. It was completed in 1911 which means it isn’t even 100 years yet. At this point the kids will give me a stare that clearly indicates that they still think that 98 years is pretty old. I do not concede the point. Our current location is now literally down the hall from where the first children’s room in the Humanities Library was when it opened in 1911. That room now contains a lot of cubicles and offices. But the old window seats, I assure you, remain intact.
We leave the children’s room and head for the elevators. Depending on the size of the class we either take one or two. On the third floor I will either urge them to be quiet. When people think of this library they think of two things: big stone lions and The Rose Reading Room. It’s iconic. You would have seen it faithfully replicated in the movie The Day After Tomorrow. But to get to it, you must first encounter the McGraw Rotunda.
Sounds impressive, doesn’t it? The McGraw Rotunda. This room is designed in such a way that the kids get hit over the head with the awe stick. Sometimes they’ll start talking about how much they wish they could live here. I understand the feeling. This room in particular casts your eyes upward. There you will see Prometheus stealing fire from the gods. You will find Gutenberg making the first press. Or this fellow writing some stuff while panic breaks out in the background (fine fine . . . I don’t actually know the story behind all of these). It’s where you used to be able to see Pooh. Before he went into storage, while they built him a new case.
Next stop, the room containing all the catalog computers.
Here patrons can request items to be sent up to them from the stacks. I like to describe it this way. Think of the library as an enormous donut. The donut itself consists of the parts of the library you can visit without incident. But in the center, where the hole would be, are seven floors of books. Miles and miles of them. And since this library was entirely a Reference branch before the children’s room moved back in, it’s primary purpose for years has been to fetch old and rare books for the use of anyone with the right library card. And how do the people downstairs in the stacks know to fetch one book or another?
Would you believe pneumatic tubes? No? Well start trying, because that is still the fastest method of conveying this information at this time. Yes, incredibly awesome pneumatic tubes shoot the message downstairs where it is received, the books are fetched, and the happy patrons are rewarded for their patience. The ceiling in this room, as you can see, is a little old.
But that’s all right. Because when you enter the Rose Reading Room proper, all is restored to its former glory.
Beautiful, yes? Now this portion of the library is free for anyone who wants to come in. There are ports to plug in your laptops. There’s free WiFi if you want to go online. At the end of the hall you can see the rare books room. Good luck trying to get in without the correct access card, though. And here, of course is the other side of the room.
At this point I’ll tell the kids that if you measure this space from one side to another, it’s the size of a football field. This helpful desk here is where you can have books and passages copied for a fee.
Now any adult who wants to go online can reserve a computer. You don’t have to be a library member either. There are also benches for sitting purposes. Very handy dandy if you’re waiting for a book from the stacks.
Sometimes the kids will notice the old fire hose on the wall and will ask if it still works. I have to assume that it does, though I am grateful for the fact that I’ve never had to test it capabilities firsthand. I hope no one else does either.
Now for reasons that escape me, at this point in the tour everything stops dead. That is because the men’s bathroom is only located on the third floor. And no matter what their age, when you ask a group of kids if they need to use the bathroom, they say yes. Even if they don’t have to, they say yes. So the girls and I will hang out and wait for a while, and when all is clear we walk WE DON’T RUN (my emphasis) down the stairs to Floor #2.
Floor #2 doesn’t have much that’s interesting to the kiddies, except perhaps this area.
It’s meant to show information on all the different libraries in the system. A cool notion, though the info could stand an update or two. I like bringing the kids here because I get to show them pictures of the library in the early days. Before there were lions:
Now before it was a library this land was where the city reservoir was housed. I ask the kids if they know what a reservoir is. Sometimes they do, and I am duly impressed. Well there is still a place where you can see the reservoir, but that comes later on the tour. For now, I show them the containers that travel through the pneumatic tubes. I also show them a cutaway from a 1911 edition of Scientific America that shows our interior stacks.
Now come the scary stairs down to the first floor. The run don’t walk/hold onto the handrail/ don’t get in front of me rules are brushed off, polished, and attempted with varied results.
Here we discuss marble. Vermont marble. Enough Vermont marble to cover an entire building. We talk about how much the library cost when it was built and how much it would cost to make today. We discuss donors (with their names written on the walls) and where the library gets its money from (they are shocked to find it isn’t entirely through library fines). And we look at the backside of the lions if we get a chance.
Then we take a little walk. The library, after all, is a destination. When people come here from other towns, states, and countries they want a little bang for their buck (so to speak as we are free). So we have art exhibits. Two to three at a time. One is a photo exhibit on the third floor. One an exhibit behind these bee-eautiful doors.
And here is a magnificent Art Deco exhibit as well. But what’s this to the right?
It’s an odd area indeed. Far more modern and shiny than the other parts of the library. Behold the library’s clever answer to how to meet the needs of the 21st century patron. The library wanted more space, but what could it do? It’s a historical building. To add onto the structure would be illegal. Well, oddly enough the library was original built with a little courtyard, just like this. People would come into this enclosed yet outdoorsy space and enjoy nature. That’s why all the windows look like they are built to look outside.
They once did. So when the library needed more space, they merely created a roof and building inside the courtyard. The result is that we now have a little theater that shows a movie about the library every half hour.
We have a classroom where I will sometimes take these classes of kids, and where I will teach them about databases and how to use the library’s online resources. Here I am waving hello as I snap a pic.
And look way way down there. That’s where our auditorium is, but see that gray, scratchy rock? See how it doesn’t really match the marble? That is what remains of the reservoir, my friend. We built on top of it, but kept the original stone.
I am fond of this little stone that shows just how new this portion is. I love it because it sits next to the old stone, quite clearly.
Bypassing the stands that hold dollar bills donated to the library by nice patrons (the kids adore those stands) we walk past the Gift Shop and I am exceedingly mean, not allowing the kids the chance to go in. Even if it does look enticing.
Instead I show them the water fountain that doesn’t work.
Be sure to look up while here. The kids are often disappointed when I tell them it’s just plaster, but really. How could anyone tell?
I mention how magnificent the Map Room is, and how you should really visit it when it’s open (at 1:00, usually). Then we find another set of stairs. We slip down them…
…go past the old phone booths that pepper the halls, and which I’m always hoping will contain the remains of Clark Kent’s clothing…
And we’re back. In the children’s room, with the women’s bathroom just outside the door. The girls go in, the boys look at books, and everything is right with the world.
That’s just a whirlwind tour, mind. I didn’t even mention the Cullman Center, the wonderful periodical room, or any of the little special areas that dot the library here and there. But for a basic overview, I think it does its job. And if you ever want to visit, you can get your own tour completely free every weekday at 11:00 a.m. or 2:00 p.m. Then, when you’re done, stop by my children’s room and say howdy. I’ll be pleased to see you.
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About Betsy Bird
Betsy Bird is currently the Collection Development Manager of the Evanston Public Library system and a former Materials Specialist for New York Public Library. She has served on Newbery, written for Horn Book, and has done other lovely little things that she'd love to tell you about but that she's sure you'd find more interesting to hear of in person. Her opinions are her own and do not reflect those of EPL, SLJ, or any of the other acronyms you might be able to name. Follow her on Twitter: @fuseeight.
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