Books · Culture · Library and libraries

The Good Old Days

The Rose Main Reading Room, New York Public Library
The Rose Main Reading Room, New York Public Library
By Diliff – Own work, CC BY 2.5,

Did you ever wonder how we managed to do research before scroll and point? Well, here’s how: This is something I wrote in 1992, describing what went on in the NY Public Library. 

On the third floor there is a rotunda with murals on floor and ceilings. From there you go into a big room where the librarians are behind a large counter. These people are amazing. They seem to know EVERYTHING about how to find information. Whatever you want to know they can tell you where to look for it.

Of course, sometimes you can find what you want by yourself. Along three walls of this room are black books which contain photocopies of all the index cards of books published before 1971. Across the room are computers where you can look up anything published after 1971.

After you find the call number you fill out a slip and give it to a clerk at this little desk who gives you a tag with a number on it and puts the call slip in a pneumatic tube which sends it to the basement where all the books are. Then you move onto the huge reading room and wait for your number to light up on a board. When it does you go to the counter give them your number and get your book.

They don’t let you check anything out of this library so you have to take your book to one of the reading tables and read it (and take notes) there.

In other words, we moved our butts. First of all we had to get to the library, probably by subway, we talked to other people asking for information, we used our imaginations as we searched for the book holding the right card; we moved across the room, we held books in our hands; we opened them and closed them, we paid attention. We could take a break to get something to eat from the vendors in Bryant Park, the backyard of the library, but that involved its own complicated routine which I can’t remember. 

And we enjoyed it! It felt good to be engaged with life. I remember feeling a sense of accomplishment after a successful afternoon at the library that I don’t seem to feel after sitting and scrolling. Is the new way better? There’s an easy way to answer that question. Are the books being written today as a result of our research better than the books being published then? The answer is clearly no. We tend to think that we are constantly moving forward in a positive direction and that whatever is new is better. Sometimes new ways are better, but not always. 


Friendly Letter

Herbert Knapp, “The Importance of Touch”

Everywhere I look nowadays, I see something that makes me think it should be put in archival storage; things are changing so rapidly. The latest example is the friendly letter. I can’t tell you how many mid-19th century diaries I’ve read (before the age of the telephone) where women kept track on the flyleaf of when and to whom they received letters, and the mail was delivered twice a day.

Much to my amazement, this week I actually received two friendly letters in my mail! The friendly letter does not tell anything newsworthy that has happened; rather it talks about what is happening. It is not a thank you, not an expression of sympathy, not an announcement of a surprise. I suspect most people would feel foolish writing one and puzzled receiving one. I can’t say what prompted my correspondents to write one other than a desire to “keep in touch.” And touching is what it is all about. It’s why we shake hands; why we hug, why we pat on the back, why newborn babies latch on to their mama’s breast.

Today I’m afraid many of us are more accustomed to touching our phones than each other. I understand that those in the know are predicting that AI will someday make it possible to read the activity of each other’s brains on our computer. God help us. 

If you’re too far away to reach out and physically touch someone, the friendly letter is the next best thing.

Architecture · Conservation · Monuments and Memorials · Restoration

Through George Washington’s Eyes

Old souvenir postcard of Christ Church's interior
Old souvenir postcard of Christ Church’s interior

When we were in Philadelphia several years ago, we visited Christ Church, an historic building where George Washington worshipped. We were able to sit in Washington’s pew, and as I sat there my gaze was directed to the clerestory windows near the roof line. As I looked through one of the windows, it occurred to me that I was seeing what George Washington saw! No doubt the windows had been painted over the years, but they hadn’t changed, and the view outside the window certainly hadn’t changed. 

This realization was a mind-blowing experience for me. I tried to think of other places where this kind of experience would be available. One I immediately thought of was Jasper Cropsey’s front porch. Cropsey was one of the landscape artists of the Hudson River school.  Ever Rest, his home, has been preserved in Hastings-on-Hudson, New York, where many of his paintings of the Hudson River are on display, and you can sit on his front porch and observe what he saw that inspired the pictures of the Hudson River that are on display inside.

There are, of course, many restored historic buildings where an attempt has been made to recreate the original, but the restorers’ hand inevitably introduces a false note. For instance, great pains are taken to preserve the additions they have made (plastic runners over the carpet, no sitting on the chairs) so one misses the normal wear and tear that is common in a home.

So keep your eyes open, be alert for any opportunity that presents itself, and take advantage of it. You will be glad you did! And let me know about it!

Culture · Education · Poetry

My Most Memorable Teaching Moment

A field of grass

We were studying the stanza from Wordsworth’s poem The Tables Turned which sums up his philosophy. It is so significant a passage that in my opinion every young person should be familiar with it.

One Impulse from a vernal wood
Can Teach you more of man
Of moral evil and of good
Than all the sages can.

However, in the middle of my disquisition, the fire bell rang. We all knew that drill. Students immediately arose from their seats and started leaving the room (“walk, do not run”) to the nearest stairwell, followed by me, the teacher, who shut my door. Upon exiting the stairwell, we proceeded to our predesignated spot in the backyard of the school where we waited for the all-clear bell to ring. 

It was a large school—two buildings—so we had to wait there quite awhile. We returned the same way, and when I, bringing up the rear, arrived, all the students were seated. And on my desk was a collection of twigs, leaves, clumps of grass, weeds—whatever my students could manage to find in the backyard to represent Wordsworth’s vernal wood.  

It nearly brought me to tears because it showed me that first of all they had been listening, maybe even starting to understand, and also that they knew me so well that they realized I would relish the joke. 

Today those seventeen-year-olds are grandparents (don’t ask me how that happened!) and I often wonder if any of them, while walking through the grass, are reminded of that time so long ago when they made their teacher’s day. 

Family memoir

One Family’s Journey with Another Deadly Virus

Every summer, during my childhood, usually in July and August, there were polio outbreaks throughout the country. The first reported cases always unleashed a wave of fear because nobody knew what caused it or how it spread. We knew however that it could be fatal and leave a person unable to walk or even breathe outside an iron lung. Large gatherings were cancelled; many people stopped going to the movies, and municipal swimming pools were closed. Between 13,000 and 20,000 paralytic cases were reported each year. The disease usually affected children, but it could strike down anyone. 

On the last day of August of 1946, it struck the strongest member of our family.

After school was over, my father, Sam, decided he would take our family on a vacation—a road trip—something we had never done before. My sisters, G.G. and Neta, were five and two. I assume we planned to enjoy the outdoor beauties of Colorado since not much inside activity was available.

But before we could leave, we all got very sick, and I was hospitalized with pneumonia. The doctor advised my parents to just go ahead and he would send me on the train. Of course my family didn’t go, but I didn’t see much of them; hospital visiting hours were strictly imposed then, and they didn’t include visits in the afternoon.  I remember entertaining myself by watching the traffic light outside change from red to green to yellow and back to red. I was told that I was one of the first civilians to receive injections of penicillin—a new wonder drug.

In August, we were all well and finally ready to go. We drove for what seemed to me an eternity—across the plains of Kansas—mile after mile after mile of waving tall grass without a tree in sight, until the mountains finally came into view. We had a brief visit with the relatives in Denver, then back on the road towards home. 

But things do not always go according to plan. The day after visiting Pike’s Peak, Sam could not get out of bed. His legs just collapsed under him. Rather than seek medical help in Manitou Springs, he decided that we should return to Denver where Uncle Floyd could help us. 

Somehow my mother, Grace, and the motel manager got him into the passenger seat and Grace, who had never driven a car before, had her first driving lesson—on the highway, in a car with a manual transmission—under extraordinarily stressful conditions.

Terrified, she managed to follow Sam’s directions, but shortly after we got out of town, we came upon a soldier who was hitchhiking. Sam ordered Grace to pull over and convinced the young man to drive us to Denver. Grace crowded into the back seat with her three children, and from that point on, I have absolutely no memory of what happened. I assume the soldier drove us to Colorado General Hospital where Sam was diagnosed with polio.

Those were the days when nurses wore white dress length uniforms, starched so stiffly they rattled when they walked, white lace up oxfords, white stockings, and a variety of caps depending on which nursing school they had graduated from. Scrubs, I assume, were what they wore in the operating room.

I remember the night that my mother was granted a special dispensation to visit the men’s ward because Sam was not expected to survive until morning. Years later I would receive that same phone call informing me that Herb might not make it through the night. Sadly, Herb did not, but Sam did. His doctor was not encouraging. He advised Sam that he would never walk again, at which point a physical therapist did the unthinkable and spoke up, contradicting the doctor. “And what do you know, smart ass that I don’t? demanded the doctor. The therapist’s reply has endeared me to physical therapists forever. “I know how bad he wants to walk.”

And walk he did. He wore a leg brace and carried two canes, but he walked, learned to navigate stairs, and drove to work for the rest of his life.

Since he could no longer play golf, he sold his expensive clubs and took up photography. He had a dark room built in the basement and spent hours there developing prints. Sam was strong and courageous, but he was also very, very lucky.