Folks, there are libraries and then there are Libraries. The New York Public Library on 5th Avenue between 40th and 42nd street is definitely a Library. Its austere façade casts a daunting shadow over the entire east side of Bryant Park and the life-sized statues of lions on either side of the imposing Fifth avenue staircase look down their snouts at streams of strolling pedestrians. I decided to venture up the huge staircase and into the library on a Wednesday between shows; something I would only endeavor to do, ladies and gentlemen, in honor of research for this blog. So, for you readers, I made my way down 40th street to the westernmost entrance and took a deep breath, Maria in front of the Von Trapp mansion, and faced my fear of the unknown.
Upon entering the massive building, I was told to have my bag searched by a disinterested-looking older gentleman, and was then given no further instructions. I walked to the security desk, “Excuse me. Do you have a map of the library? Or something? I’ve never been here before”. He handed me a grey pamphlet with a floor plan and scooted me through the security area to a long and stark marble hallway. Okay, now that I had a floor plan, I needed to get a plan of my own. I started meandering. I had no real purpose in the library other than to explore (as most of the books and materials in this library could not be checked out), so I just walked until I came to a door. “The Milstein Division of U.S. History, Local History, and Genealogy” was etched over the door in marble and gold. Sure. That’ll work. I pushed through the heavy gilded double doors and into a room stifled by a silent reverence that befits only churches and Libraries. My heart started to pound. Where should I start? What should I do? Just walk around until I found a book that looked interesting? There were shelves and shelves of embossed hard-backed books with titles like “New York Genealogy 1780-1790”, a large desk with two very serious looking old men, and about five large oak tables that seated a smattering of studious people who seemed to be intently studying their genealogy. Browsing would definitely not be productive. I spied a line of computers along one wall. Now, that’s more like it. I walked up and typed “history of names” in a search bar. A list of books popped up. Okay. Now, what do I do? There were small slips of paper next to the computer prompting the Library-goer to enter the name, call number, title, etc of the desired book. I did so. “A History of Surnames” Call Number: AG-7011. Where the heck are the AG books? Ugh. Maybe somewhere down the marble hallway for all I knew. Then, I did the only thing I could think of next. I swallowed hard and asked for help. Well, lo and behold, it was these guys’ job to help me. (I guess I knew that, but they actually really seemed excited to have something to do when I handed them my slip). The younger man told me to have a seat at one of the large tables and he would bring my book to me.
I silently slid into a thick wooden chair and surveyed the situation. I really don’t know who I expected to see in the public library. Nobel peace prize winners working on their speeches? Former presidents? Of course not. I spied a greasy guy across from me reading a paperback copy of Kerouac’s “On the Road”. Obviously not something one might find in Mr. Milstein’s ornate room of Genealogy. I realized that while this library was formal, it still was a reading room. Like, a public reading room. I suddenly saw potential for future moments of peace in my crazy days in the city. Rather than buying a five dollar coffee when I had time to kill, I would mosey to the library and have a little peace and quiet. The librarian showed up with my book and I happily looked up the origin of my last name. No luck. Of course. But, I did look up the origin of my mom’s maiden name. "Crouch: A person who lives by a roadside or market cross or by a crossroads - from the Middle English name Cross". Not only had I learned how to use this scary library, I had learned a little something else.
Feeling a little less intimidated, I returned my book and strolled down the marble corridor to the next room. The Map Division. Apparently, this branch of the New York Public Library had over 400,000 sheet maps and 20,000 books and atlases that were published between the 15th and 21st century. I didn’t know that at the time, but I would soon find out. I followed the procedure that I had used in the last room. Computer, search, slip, information desk. This time, I had decided to search for early maps of the North American coastline. I chose the first option the computer spat out, presented it to the librarian, and took a seat while she found my book. I didn’t know, but it wasn’t really a book. She came out of the back of the room with an oversized package that was probably 24” by 36” and laid it on the table in front of me. “Enjoy”, she said reverently. I stared. What had I gotten myself into? I gingerly untied the bows at the right side of the package and unfolded the gift with all of the care I could muster while trying not to make a sound. Inside was a collection of 16th century maps of the coast of North America separated by tissue paper and painstakingly reproduced. I don’t know much about maps, but I was in awe. How gorgeous! The maps depicted America when it was Virginia, Florida, and Nova Franca. And an ocean. That’s it. America when the area later known as South Carolina was owned by one family. I turned through the maps. These weren’t maps at all, they were works of art. And why were they letting Joe Schmo me handle these things? I felt honored. This was available to me. Free. I studied the lines drawn across the ocean and the calligraphied words. How many other treasures did this building hold? And why had I let my fear keep me from this goldmine for so long? Silly me. Maria had stepped into the Von Trapp mansion and her life was all the better for it. I was as well. And I would be back for a visit very soon.
Give it a try, folks. Take a half hour, go to the library, and look up something random. It’s definitely worth your time.