Tuesday, January 26, 2010

Five Favorite Libraries

On this date in 1802, President Thomas Jefferson signed a law to define the role and function of a Capitol Library, and created the office of Librarian of Congress. Jefferson believed in libraries in general, and in the Library of Congress in particular; he appointed the first two Librarians, and made many suggestions about books to acquire. When the British burned the Library to the ground in 1814, Jefferson sold the nation his personal library, judged the finest in the country.

The Library held 3,000 volumes when the British burned it down; Jefferson's library, transferred to the nation in 1815, totaled 6,487 volumes. It covered a much wider range of subjects than the original collection, because, as he wrote, there was "no subject to which a Member of Congress may not have occasion to refer." This belief in the need for universal knowledge defined the role of the Library of Congress going forward, and today it is not only an American treasure but a human one.

Hanging above my kitchen sink is an ornament I particularly treasure, for sentimental reasons but also for itself; it honors the 200th anniversary of the founding of the Library of Congress, and includes a quotation from Thomas Carlyle: "In books lies the soul of the whole Past Time." I'm hitting the road today for about a week, and in that time I plan to visit at least five great libraries.

1. The New York Public Library. The New York Public Library is actually a citywide network of libraries, but I mean the big one, on Bryant Park. Since 2008, this has been called the Stephen A. Schwarzman Building, in recognition of a $100 million donation from Schwarzman, co-founder of the Blackstone Group and a trustee of the Library. The NYPL, unlike many other public libraries, has always been funded in large part by private donations, and its original collection was a combination of two privately-endowed libraries: the Astor Library and the Lenox Library. Those collections, with a massive bequest from former New York Governor Samuel Tilden, provided the core of the Library built on the former site of the Croton Reservoir, at 42nd Street and 5th Avenue. (A large donation from Andrew Carnegie paid for the construction of most of the NYPL's branches.) Today, it's a breathtaking building that is also a top-notch research library, in many ways easier to use than the Library of Congress. The lions outside the library were originally named Leo Astor and Leo Lenox, but Mayor Fiorello H. LaGuardia renamed them Patience and Fortitude during the Great Depression.

2. The Morgan Library. One of my favorite places to visit in New York City. I've never had a reason to use the research library itself, but it's just barely possible that the project I'm working on might lead me there. Built at the turn of the last century next door to Mr. J. Pierpont Morgan's personal residence at Madison & 36th Street, the Morgan Library is an Italian Renaissance-style palazzo that holds an extraordinary trove of original manuscripts, including original Mozart compositions, Thoreau's Walden journals, and the sole surviving manuscript of Paradise Lost. It's currently offering an exhibition of Jane Austen's manuscripts and letters, which I plan to visit on Thursday.

3. The Folger Shakespeare Library. The Folger is a magical place for Shakespeare lovers to visit, and has great lectures and events; I saw Robertson Davies speak there, not long before he died. I will eventually need to look at some things in the Folger collection for the project I'm working on, and will need to apply for a special-permission reader's card to do so — but that probably won't be until sometime this summer.

4. The Library of Congress. Thieves and terrorists have made it much more difficult to use the Library of Congress than it used to be, but it's still open to the public, and it's still an invaluable and almost endless source of primary materials. More and more of the Library's collection is now available in digital format, which is extremely convenient, and people anywhere can use the "Ask a Librarian" feature of the website to find what they're looking for without a trip to Washington, DC.

5. The Gardiner Public Library. I've said it before, and I'll say it again: my own town has a remarkably good library for its size, and the MINERVA network makes the entire library system of the state of Maine available to me. Time and time again, I've been amazed by what I've been able to find through the MINERVA system, and how quickly books get from one side of the state to the other.


Peggy & Scott said...

While you're here we'll have to go to Mechanicsville's new library.
Great bit of trivia about the lions. Drive safely! Peggy

Pam said...

I worked as a librarian for many years, so I do appreciate how much libraries have to offer. The Skokie Public Library, my local library, won the 2008 National Medal for Library and Museum Service, the nation's highest honor for museums and libraries, and it is most deserving of the award. I can find almost everything I want or need there, and for me, that's a real treasure. But I have to agree with you - the New York Public Library, the Morgan Library, and especially the Library of Congress are magical, wonderful places. I hope to visit them again in the near future.

Thomas at My Porch said...

Awesome topic! I might have to do a variation on My Porch. I need to get myself to the Folger. Never been.

If you ever go to Monhegan Island you must check out the library there. It is deeelightful.

AnswerGirl said...

Thomas, I can't believe you're not a subscriber to the Folger lecture series — it's one of the things I miss most about DC.

Kieran Shea said...

Shhh. I know a place that has EVERYTHING. It's uncanny. I walk in and there's the book I've been wanting to read, no wait list. And the music? My iPod chokes it down. The beauty is the srrounding towns are awash w/ people who care enough to fund the public library w/ their own $$$ and not wait on the mercy of the state. Hint: Not in MD.