Late this summer, while I was enjoying my staycation, I paid a visit to the Rose Reading Room at the New York Public Library. During the years I worked as an IT director down the street at a high-paced, frantic nonprofit, I had cast a yearning eye on the building’s stately façade while walking by on my lunch hour. I wish I could just go there and do some writing in the Rose Room, I thought. But no, I have to get back to work.
Now that I’m a writer, of course, the equation has changed. After departing that job and entering a life of self-employment, it took me some time to realize that I did indeed have the time and space to experience such pleasures. First, I began checking out more books from my local library here in Queens and reading voraciously once again, as was the case when I was growing up and pursuing my education. It’s not surprising the natural next step would be to pay the Rose Room a visit for some contemplative journal writing.
It was high tourist season when I went to the New York Public Library, late August, and so I feared I would not be able to get a seat. But, as it turned out, there were plenty available. So I settled in, soaked up the warm atmosphere and gorgeous surroundings, and began to write. I spent perhaps two to three hours there recording my thoughts in perfect silence, and when I emerged from the library in the late afternoon I was happier than I’d been in a very long time. It was like coming home.
Reading and writing have always been an integral, central part of my life. This is no accident; the Pioneer Valley of Massachusetts, where I was born and raised, is one of the most book-obsessed places in the country. My mother, a serious bookworm herself, dragged me along to the many local bookstores she frequented. I also spent many hours curled up in the Mount Holyoke College library while my father taught classical guitar to his students at Pratt Music Hall. Although I’m sure I looked a bit out of place in the college library given the fact that I was so young, it really did feel like an extension of my living room. All the knowledge I sought could usually be found there—and at that time, it could only be located via the card catalog system.
Upon arriving at Oberlin College as a college student, I again holed up in the library quite often—sometimes to study for a particular course, but frequently also to absorb as much knowledge as I could about subjects I wasn’t officially pursuing, like Franco-American and Huguenot history. While I did refine my critical thinking skills and learn neat tricks like how to perform semiotic analysis on a text, what I remember most fondly twenty years later is how my library adventures helped me discover and better understand where I come from and who I am.
That is the beauty of the library: it provides everyone the ability to obtain the knowledge and the education that is most meaningful to them, that helps them grow as human beings. This philosophy comes through very clearly in the new documentary Ex Libris, which centers on how the New York Public Library is adapting to the digital age while redoubling its efforts to engage New Yorkers of all backgrounds and circumstances in their quest to learn.
I realize now what a rare gift it was to have such abundant access to books as a child, and how that abundance is still very much available in both hard copy and digital form thanks to our amazing public library systems here in New York. The piece that was missing—enjoying the quiet calm of gorgeous public spaces that are exclusively devoted to the spirit of intellectual inquiry—has now fallen into place.