From Breakfast at Tiffany’s to Ghost Busters to The Adjustment Bureau, the New York Public Library on 455 5th Avenue in New York has played host to many Hollywood productions over the years. But it wasn’t the allure of tinsel town or the big red dot on every tourist map that lured me in to its massive marble walls (marble from Vermont, might I add), instead it was my waning enthusiasm for $6 lattes and pretentious fools with outside voices boorishly brought inside the coffee shops of New York.
I admit, I still peek my head into the densely populated caffeine joints of the city and even find inspiration there from time to time, but lately, I’ve wanted nothing more than a long communal library table where no purchase is necessary and all the non-firefox research I desire lies only fingertips away. The NYPL is the exception to the rule as far as libraries are concerned.
My wife and I, on a jaunt to find the best library to work in, first walked into the athenaeum directly across the street. It was awful. Like a sad convalescent home or an asylum for those who wished anything but to be among books, it dismembered our illusions of green-glass table lamps and cherry wood bookcases fat with leather-bound greatness. The fading fluorescent rectangles above and the multi-stained carpets below add to the dismal atmosphere where shelves go this way and that with no real rhyme or reason. People mope from corner to corner and drop their heads low and heavy as they wait for the elevator. How do people work here? We didn’t stay long enough to find out. With the last check of our bags, we enter the chill of the autumn night and then… we see it across the street.
We’ve passed it many times. We knew it was there all along and one of the most notable research libraries in the world, but like a statue in the Louvre , it just didn’t seem real or approachable. Surely we couldn’t go in there and take a book out. It had to be for show – for tourists so they could flash their cheap disposable cameras at poorly posed loved ones blocking the beauty of the backdrop. There’s no way the giant marble pillars are actually support collums. They must be faux facades of a concrete collection of cement and r-bars. But they aren’t. This just can’t be for the public to use. But it is.
Of all the great libraries — I mean really great libraries — on this strange planet, the NYPL on 5th Ave is actually the only public library where someone could march on in and ask for a book without having to apply for permission to use the library (as told on Columbia’s online article, Expansion of the Public Realm). It’s true and it’s incredible. Before I stake my claim in a worn wooden seat under a metal table lamp, I grab my new library card (a badge of honor in its own right) – purple and red, with the white lion roar of approval – and gawk at the reality of such a place. For three years straight, I can check out anything I could imagine and sit inside one of the most inspiring places in the city. I do. I sit here until they shut down the lights, which is the only warning for people to leave. The queue forms and we open our bags to prove we’ve stolen nothing, but yet I still feel like I’ve gotten away with something.