The National Catholic Review

Public libraries dot the landscape of Manhattan, and hardly a week goes by that I don’t pay a lunchtime or after-work visit to the one near America House to take out or return books. Although it is the closest, it is not the only one I visit. Walking home, I pass the city’s research library (“research” means you can’t take books out). This is the famous one on Fifth Avenue, with the massive stone lions in front. Its long sweep of stairs offers respite for wayfarers who can gaze down upon Manhattan’s best known thoroughfare.

 

The research library also sponsors exhibits, so while I do sometimes go there for research purposes, the exhibits are my usual reason. Last year I saw an impressive display of prints by James McNeill Whistler. It included a diary kept by his mother when the family spent a winter in Russia in the 1840’s. Even then, at 11, young James had already begun art lessons. But my favorite exhibit last year was New York Eats Out. “EATS” is spelled out in bold letters on the descriptive brochure—a reminder that many humble restaurants have used just this one word, EATS, as their outside sign.

The display cases held photographs of restaurants dating back to the 19th century—from famous places like Delmonico’s down to the humblest food carts that continue to thrive on Manhattan streets today. You could also see pictures of the Horn & Hardart automats, with their rows of glass-fronted cubicles; behind each lay a sandwich or piece of pie or some other dish. An accompanying cartoon from the cover of a 1938 issue of The New Yorker shows two well-dressed children reaching up to insert their coins. Behind them stands the family chauffeur in full uniform, rigidly at attention as he holds their coats: a humorous reminder that the automat drew its clientele from all levels of society.

The EATS exhibit included menus. Thousands were collected by a certain Miss Buttolph between 1900 and 1924. This might seem an odd hobby; but when she offered them to the library, the director, recognizing that menus form part of a locality’s history too, accepted the gift. Other menus have since been added, including a 1904 menu from a vegetarian restaurant that offered “broiled nut steak with vermicelli” for 15 cents. Another case displayed a menu from Windows on the World. Until Sept. 11, 2001, this restaurant was a favorite with visitors to the World Trade Center because of its spectacular views of the city.

Continuing my homeward walk to the Lower East Side, I pass yet another library—the Ottendorfer on Second Avenue. An architectural red brick gem of modest proportions, it has the same balconied interior it had when it opened in the 1880’s. Nineteenth-century libraries were often rental affairs—you paid to take out a book for a set time. That area of the Lower East Side was largely populated by German immigrants, and carved into the brick over the main doorway are the words: Freie Bibliothek Lesehalle (free library reading room). A German couple, Anna and Oswald Ottendorfer, provided the funds in their will for its construction and maintenance as a library that really was free for everyone. It was in libraries like these that many poor immigrants built upon their scanty formal educations.

A more poignant aspect of libraries, especially in densely populated cities like New York, is related to their unintended but important secondary role. They serve as places of refuge for people who are lonely or marginalized. With their quiet atmosphere amid rows of shelves, and the tables and chairs with nearby magazines to read, they offer an opportunity to be among others without having to interact in a personal way. Homeless people too, a growing population in New York, find a haven in libraries, a secure environment out of winter’s cold and the heat of summer—secure, that is, until closing time forces them back to the dangerous insecurities of the street or the sometimes violent shelters that many, with reason, eschew.

George M. Anderson, S.J., an associate editor of America, is author of With Christ in Prison.

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