By 2021, I will be the first person to . . . do what exactly? The New York Public Library posed such a question to the world earlier this spring. Thousands of people responded, leading to the materialization of a patchwork of creative and compelling responses regarding the future. From this patchwork, the library ultimately chose five hundred individuals whose aspirations might shape the future in a particularly powerful and positive manner. These five hundred people will stay overnight at the New York Public Library on May 20 as a part of the library’s centennial celebration.
Rather than sleeping, however, the five hundred individuals will explore the library’s seventy miles of stacks in search of treasures as varied as Virginia Woolf’s diary and Johannes Gutenberg’s bible. After locating each object, each of the five hundred people will compose short essays inspired by the artifacts. These writings will then be compiled into a book that will ultimately become a part of the library’s collections.
As one of the lucky five hundred, I will be venturing into the city to take part in the weekend-long celebration – and to stay overnight at the library on May 20. The following writings depict some of my adventures in a weekend filled with bibliophilic debauchery. I hope they prove engaging to read. More importantly, though, I hope they illuminate the beauty and significance of a library like New York City’s own.
Part I: Thursday, 5/19
Arriving at the Times Square subway station on Thursday morning around eleven, I exit the 1 train and walk up the stairs to the main concourse. There is the usual scurry of folks in every direction, and, as always, I find myself dodging the speedy businessmen and businesswomen while navigating the twists and turns of the tunnel. But there is one special thing that stands out of context: rows and rows of suitcases filled with books. Sporting shirts that showcase the New York Public Library’s iconic lion, a multitude of young men and women hand out books to those passing by. I slow my pace and saunter over to one young lady with blond hair. She sees me, smiles, and hands me a book. I scan the front cover: it features a photograph of the majestic 42nd Street Building, titled Know the Past, Find the Future: The New York Public Library at 100. Here begins the centennial celebration of one of the world’s grandest libraries.
And what better place to launch the celebration than at one of New York’s grandest spaces, Grand Central Terminal? At six in the evening, I head over to 42nd Street and Lexington Avenue and enter Vanderbilt Hall: a majestic and expansive room with five enormous chandeliers and five floor-to-ceiling windows. Tim Pan, a four-piece ensemble, welcomes visitors with dipping saxophones and jazzy voices. A man dressed as a lion hops into pictures with the Harlem Globetrotters. More copies of the library’s centennial literary work are distributed to everyone in the vicinity, from attendees of the event to commuters passing through the Terminal.
There is still a murmur of subdued excitement amongst the audience, even as Jay Walder, the CEO of the Metropolitan Transit Authority, opens the ceremony. Paul LeClerk, CEO of the New York Public Library, is next in line, followed by Kathryn Court, publisher of Penguin Books. After Court comes the writer Colum McCann, then the actress Martha Plimpton, the musician Wesley Stace, and finally the Harlem Globetrotters. From CEOs and athletes to singers and writers, the group of presenters is clearly diverse. Yet there exists a single, definitive commonality within the group: a vivid connection to New York and its library. Whether it might be Walder’s appreciation for the library’s Honus Wagner baseball card collection, or Plimpton’s childhood memory of Beadle’s dime novels, each individual has some genuine reason to look at his or her library card with understanding and respect.
Most importantly, though, that respect is handed over to every patron and visitor of the library. For the love that each of tonight’s speakers – not to mention the hundreds of other New Yorkers highlighted in the centennial book, from Mayor Bloomberg to Lou Reed – has for their city’s library is a love shared by all people of New York. The library belongs to every one of us, just as each of us belongs to the library. It is a relationship that has always existed, and that, as proven by this weekend’s celebration, will forever exist.