Wednesday, December 9, 2009

Support Free Public Libraries

I am sitting inside a cathedral to reading and writing, the Rose Main Reading Room of the New York Public Library. It is an astonishingly beautiful place to work as a writer. I could not have found anything better at Harvard or Yale, my alma maters. The difference, of course, is that the NYPL’s reading room is free to the public.
You can walk right in off the street, at 42nd and Fifth Avenue, turn on your laptop, and enjoy peace and quiet while taking advantage of the free Wi-Fi. This reading room and the New York Public Library’s elaborate system of branch libraries are the kind of things that make New York City a great place to live.

The NYPL's main reading room is an inherently democratic place to work. Students from immigrant families study for GMATs or LSATs at long oak tables, expertly refurbished some years ago. Oldsters on their laptops work quietly under brass laps, this morning’s cold rain in Manhattan only a distant memory. Men and women in suits type frantically, glancing at journals or books. Tourists stroll in, mouths agape at the painted clouds on the ornate ceiling.

I wrote my second book in this reading room, and back then no guards checked your laptops or packages when you walked in. Now they do. They check on the way in and on the way out, perhaps a consequence of 9/11. I remember how quiet the reading room was back then, and it is still a serious place to work. No loud disturbances are allowed, and guards make sure you follow the rules.

The outside of the NYPL’s Research Library, as this magnificent Beaux-arts building is known, is also sheathed in white this morning, and perhaps the marble lions and exterior are undergoing yet another renovation. It must be difficult to keep something so precious, yet so old, up-to-date and in fine condition.

In the 1930s, the famed Mayor Fiorello LaGuardia named the lions Patience and Fortitude, for what he felt New Yorkers needed to survive the economic depression. Today, as the reading room is again packed with people, I am certain some in this grand room are struggling to find work and survive in our current economic downturn. But haven’t free public libraries always been places to fortify yourself when the world turned for the worse? Hasn’t the free public library always been a refuge?

For years, I have always contributed a modest $100 to the New York Public Library, because I like libraries, I love books, and any place that gives you the space and time to ponder quietly and deeply should be supported. But today, when I return home, I will add to my donation to the NYPL. It’s an invaluable resource for everybody, and I hope many of you will be inspired to support your own local public library.

Imagine a city where you have no place to go to read, write, or think. Imagine a city without an institution promoting the free exchange of ideas, the dissemination of a plurality of ideas, through books, the Internet, newspapers, and journals. Imagine what a bleak place that would be, not just for you, but for your parents and grandparents, for your children. Sometimes we take for granted what we have, and the unique institutions that promote the essence of our democracy. Today I will do my part to help my library. Let’s do it together.