“If the devil himself wrote a book, we’d want it in the Library.” So said Edwin Hatfield Anderson, director of the New York Public Library from 1913-1934. He took the reins when the landmark library building with the lions out in front was still brand new. Though John Jacob Astor left money to establish a public research library in 1848, it was not until 1895 that Astor’s library combined with other trust libraries to create a central public library in New York. And then it took them years to build a structure big enough to hold all the books.
The city offered the site of an old reservoir and also proposed to pay for construction and maintenance of the building if the trustees would let the pubic use the library for free. Free lending libraries are something most of us take for granted but, for most of the history of the printed words, books were the property to the wealthy and some thought the common man did not need access to many books or could not be trusted to care for them properly.
The new library was not ready to open until 1911, so the New York Public Library just celebrated its 100th anniversary with, among other things, a special exhibit highlighting the library’s collections and mission. This exhibit was still on display in early 2012 so I had a chance to walk through on a recent trip to the city. I had fun looking at what they chose to include, but I also wonder about the things they did not.
The exhibit was organized by four carefully-chosen themes: observation, contemplation, society and creativity. I ignored the themes and just wandered around.
The displays included much more than books and that’s not surprising—an exhibit composed entirely of books would be pretty much indistinguishable from the regular library shelves.
Glass cases included an Edison wax cylinder phonograph, Sumerian clay cuneiform tablets, e.e. cummings’ typewriter and Charlotte Bronte’s writing desk. An “adult video” magazine with a brown paper cover sat next to a photograph of soldiers who perished at the Battle of Gettysburg. These items are significant to the history of communication and literature and are the types of things I would expect to see in an exhibit like this. Admittedly, the decision to include the porn magazine was questionable in my opinion and I would have been more inclined to place it next to the copy of Mein Kampf rather than with an artifact from one of the most solemn and poignant chapters in our nation’s history, but then I don’t have a degree in library history so what do I know?
In any case, there were some other things I wasn’t sure belonged at all. Work by an artist said to be known for making paper out of mud and taking pictures of footprints? Sounds like something any number of grade school children would be capable of. And there were cyanotype prints of plants by Anna Atkins—I doubt they would have been included if the photographer had been male. Is a development more significant if it is the work of a historically under-represented minority? I don’t personally think so, but that’s my own very politically un-correct opinion.
And I’m straying from my initial question about what belongs in a library and what should be considered the most significant parts of the collection worthy of inclusion in the 100th Anniversary exhibit. I would have liked to have seen the most popular books of each decade in terms of circulation. And maybe the most expensive reference books. Or maybe some of the more interesting non-book items that the library has lent out over the years. (The library where I grew up used to let patrons check out paintings and sculptures. I annoyed my parents by replacing their traditional artwork with Warhol prints and putting statues in the refrigerator in place of the ketchup bottle.) Those things seem more pertinent to the history of a library than a video display showing women dancing in costumes that reminded me of the Kleenex dresses we used to make for our Barbie dolls. But then, that’s just my opinion.
What do you think belongs in a library? And what should be highlighted when that library celebrates a milestone?