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Wednesday, March 5, 2014


     Patience and Fortitude, the New York Public Library’s lovable lions charm all who pass the steps leading to the main entrance. They’ve worn garlands for Christmas, wreaths of posies to welcome spring, top hats and Mets and Yankees caps and are said to howl whenever a virgin passes by. Samuel J. Tilden, a Governor of New York bequeathed the bulk of his fortune to “establish and maintain a free library and reading room in the City of New York.” The site between 40th and 42nd Streets and Fifth Avenue—home to the Croton Reservoir was chosen as its future home. The largest marble structure to be built in the United States, the library welcomes writers doing research to its titanic reading room above seven floors of stacks. The cornerstone was laid in May 1902 and by 1910, 75 miles of shelves were incorporated to accommodate the vast compilation. Dedicated on May23, 1911, the library opened its arms to the public the following day and between 30,000 and 50,000 people entered their building. Today a controversial reconstruction is planned that includes additional private space for researchers and writers, a full service library for general users with hours scheduled until 11:00 pm, and more space for children but plans also include diverting stacks of books to storage in New Jersey. Talks are ongoing.
     The New York Public Library for The Performing Arts holds recordings, video tapes, manuscripts, stage designs, newspaper articles, scripts, posters, programs and photographs and is a treasure trove for writers researching early performers and theatrical history. I was in heaven when I found material on vaudeville for a play I wrote and material on the gold camps where everyone from the Edwin Booth to unknowns played and sometimes were thrown a gold nugget or two for a good performance. One nugget I found mentioned that many miners carried a dog eared copy of Shakespeare with them and woe to the actor that improvised a speech.

     I kneel to examine a public notice—perhaps the first Roman advertisement—drawn on the gleaming Marble Road that begins at the Koressos Gate and extends to the Library of Celsus in Ephesus, Turkey.  I see a woman’s head and a heart (translated as waiting for love) a footprint, (turn here) and two fingers—one finger points to the library, the other to the remains of The Brothel of Ephesus built across from the library. 
     As a writer and booklover, I trail the finger that points to the Library of Celsus and stop in front of a two-story façade, decorated with copies of statues, recessed in Corinthian columns, representing Episteme (knowledge), Sophia (wisdom), Ennoia (intelligence), and Arete, (virtue). The library, one of the most spectacular structures in Ephesus and the third largest in the antique world, held over 12,000 scrolls kept in cupboards on double walls—the gap between the walls protected the rolls of parchment from humidity. Librarians handed the scrolls to readers who gathered in a single sizeable area circled by three balconies of storage space. The library faced the east to take advantage of the morning light. 
     The library is a stately and touching memorial to Celsus Polemeanus—Roman Senator, General Governor of the Province of Asia, and an avid book collector. The Governor’s son, Proconsul Gaius Julius Aquila began the library, designed by the Roman architect, Vitruoya, as a tribute to his father in 110 AD. Aquila left a bequest and instructions to his successors and the library was completed around 135 AD. Celsus Polemeanus rests in a lead container inside a marble sarcophagus, decorated with garlands, rosettes and figures of Eros and Nike, buried beneath the library’s ground level.   
     The interior of the library was destroyed by fire when the Goths invaded in 262 AD; the façade though left intact was abandoned. The 4th century saw the area in front of the façade converted into a pool and fountain. Damaged by an earthquake in the 10th century, the façade collapsed but much of its history was discovered during excavations in 1910 including a statue of Celsus, on display in the Istanbul Archeological Museum.
     What venerable institution has 530 miles of bookshelves, 29 million books and other printed materials, 124,000 telephone directories and more than 45 million maps?  The institution is the Library of Congress in Washington, D.C.—a brisk walk from our nation’s Capitol.
     On April 24, 1800, John Adams, our second President, signed a bill transferring the seat of government from Philadelphia to the new capital city of Washington. The bill included legislation authorizing a reference library for the use of Congress and “for putting up a suitable apartment for containing them within…” Congress authorized the sum of $5,000 for its creation and the Library began with less than 1,000 books and nine maps shipped from England—space would be provided in the Capitol Building and Congress made use of the knowledge within its walls.    
     The War of 1812 led to the young Library’s destruction—American forces burned the Canadian Houses of Parliament and the British retaliated, in August of 1814, by burning the Capitol Building. Former President Thomas Jefferson came to the rescue by offering to sell Congress his personal library; regarded as one of the best in the United States. Jefferson spent 50 years collecting books—books about America, the sciences, philosophy and literature and books written in foreign languages. The offer bitterly divided Congress; a number of members considered certain volumes controversial.
     “I do not know that it contains any branch of science which Congress would wish to exclude from their collection;” Jefferson wrote, “that is, in fact, no subject to which a member of Congress may not have occasion to refer.”
     Today, there are three main buildings and research can be pursued, without charge, by anyone over the age of eighteen, with a reader’s identification card. Researchers from all over the world use over 128 million items, in multiple formats and 460 languages.
     Do you have a favorite library?



Anne Marie Becker said...

Wow, Elise! Thank you for this. Fascinating info.

I love libraries. Our local library has a beautiful building, but isn't very big compared to most cities. I still remember the library on Lackland AFB, though. That would have to be my favorite, since I spent hours there every summer break, devouring their mysteries and ghost stories sections. My favorite part when I was younger was a rotating kiosk that was entirely Nancy Drew. :)

Elise Warner said...

Nancy Drew. Now that brings back memories, Anne Marie. Wonder how many writers were influenced by Nancy Drew?

Rita said...

Oh! Elise this is a most wonderful post. I was overwhelmed by the Libray of Congress. There are no words.
My first library was a teeny tiny place in my home town in a building con structed in the late 1600s. I can still remember the smell. Musty and moldy. If the Librarian didn't approve of the book you wanted to check out ahe wouldn't let you have it. She caught a friend kissing a boy there and called their parents. What memories.

jean harrington said...

A scholarly look at the history of libraries, Elise. Thanks.

Here's an Irish book joke. Danaher said, "Paddy's library burned to the ground and destroyed his books. All two of them, including the one he was coloring."

And here's another: A room without books is a body without soul."

Marcelle Dubé said...

What a lovely post, Elise! My favourite library was the one in Brandon, Manitoba. As a young woman, I discovered many of my favourite writers hiding among the shelves... figuratively speaking, of course.

Elise Warner said...

Rita: I would love to roam around the basement of a library that dates from the 1600s. Who knows what could be down there. Did you get a chance to explore? My aunts were shocked at some of the books my mother let me read. Bravo, mother.

Elise Warner said...

Jean: A room without books...what would we do without them?

Elise Warner said...

Yes, Marcelle, sometimes we look for one and find others we fall in love with.

Maureen A. Miller said...

Fantastic post, Elise. I agree with Rita. The Library of Congress took my breath away. I recently watched a special on it and I realize how much that facility houses that the civilian eye will never see. Such treasures.

Many people go to churches for refuge. Writers...our church is the library. It is a place to quietly worship.

Elise Warner said...

Whenever I'm in D.C., I return to the Library of Congress. Maureen, it is a treasure house.

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