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, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=533750

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.