A few years ago I spent a lot of time at main branch of the New York public library on 42nd street and 5th Avenue. You know, the Big One, with the lions out front. I hit the microfilm room, looking for great old sports writing in the archives of the New York Herald Tribune, the New York Post, Sport and Inside Sports. Then I thought about The National Sports Daily, Frank DeFord’s classic, if short-lived newspaper.
My pal John Schulian suggested that I look up Dave Smith, a reference librarian who had been profiled in the New York Times. Schulian was and is a great fan of good writing and he told me that Johnette Howard, Peter Richmond and Charles Pierce, amongst others, became stars writing bonus pieces for The National. One of their editors was Rob Fleder, a man who cares deeply about good writing himself, who later had a great stint at Sports Illustrated.
So I met Dave Smith and he was a mensch. A guy who loves to help writers. He showed me his desk–lined with copies of books that he’d contributed to in some way or another. Dude gave me a copy of a book about people who write obituraries called The Dead Beat, by Marilyn Johnson, who, it just so happens, is married to Rob Fleder.
Small world, right? That’s how it goes, man. Especially in a library.
Johnson’s new book, This Book is Overdue! How Librarians and Cybrarians can Save us All, features Smith, who, unfortunately, officially retired last summer, though he still helps writers. Like her first book, this one is written in a breezy prose style that is compulsively readable. Johnson is a sharp reporter and her enthusiasm is contagious. Oh, and she is also very funny. Johnson adores librarians in all their various attitudes because, they are essential in making society work:
Librarians’ values are as sound as Girl Scouts’: truth, free speech, and universal literacy. And, like Scouts, they posses a quality that I think makes librarians invaluable and indispensable: they want to help. They want to help us. They want to be of service. And they’re not trying to sell us anything.
This book examines a wide-range of librarian culture–from old school dudes like Smith–to the younger generation of librarians who’ve fully embraced the digital world. I had no idea about how much libraries have changed over the past twenty years, but of course they had. Fortunately, Johnson has written a winning account of the scene.
So…I’ve got an extra copy of This Book is Overdue! for the best library story you’ve got (you can leave it in the comments section below or shoot me an e-mail):
In the meantime, dig this excerpt from the book:
There are thousands of buildings lining the canyons of Manhattan, some more ornate than others; but I never saw one with a lobby floor like that at 260 Madison. Smith signed in with the guard and was barreling toward the elevator, but I lingered over the art beneath my feet: the two-dimensional globe in brass and Mediterranean blue, the Greek border. Decorating the hall upstairs, by the library, were eight display cases with little brass sculptures of dogs. Through the big glass double doors, a giant oil painting of a purebred something gazed prayerfully toward a beam of light; there was a guard or butler sitting at an ornate reception desk. Smith shambled past without a glance and we headed left through more doors and into the library of an English hunting lodge—anyway, that was the effect, a sense of gleaming order and privilege.
Behind the greeting desk, on which lay an old-fashioned guest book, glass cases displayed massive loving cups, including an oversized one for Pekingese; behind it, a photo of the cup with a Pekingese nestling inside. Presiding over one of the long tables was a glass case containing the skeleton of a midsized dog, and in the winter light streaming in the window he seemed to be looking down his bony jaw at the sole patron, a gentleman studying an old book of pedigrees. The skeleton was not that of any old dog, but of Belgrave Joe, a celebrity dog that died in 1888. We were in a shrine to The Dog, the dog of literature, journalism, and art; the dog of history; its purebred expression; its idealized state. There was no evidence of any wet, muddy, smelly, or mangy mongrels.
New York is full of these gems, little libraries and archives that capture a slice of the past and, in a disorderly and even chaotic world, organize the knowledge and art of, say, Louis Armstrong, or botanical gardens, or pornography (the Museum of Sex includes an unbelievable collection of pornography painstakingly collected and cataloged over the years by a Library of Congress librarian). The New York Society Library, a subscription library nestled in an Upper East Side townhouse, has a sweeping staircase and a beautiful old room for its old card catalog (“The members would never let me give this away,” its head librarian says). The fabulous Morgan Library and Museum, with its illuminated manuscripts and Rembrandt etchings, is three blocks down Madison. And … not complaining, but … here we were in the American Kennel Club Library.
The dog librarian was in her late fifties, with neatly cut graying hair and rimless glasses, a jeweled pin of a Scotty on her red boiled wool jacket. Barbara Kolb used to work in public relations for Good Housekeeping and Macy’s, but she never felt she fit in. She would go off to find some information she needed, and find all this other stuff, too. “I was always getting sidetracked.”
In thirteen years here, Kolb had organized the library, modernized its online catalog, and linked it to WorldCat, in between serving the information needs of the American Kennel Club and its magazine and stray members of the general public who wander in and ask about labradoodles or the Westminster Dog Show. Her kingdom is comprised of 18,000 volumes, more or less, some of them rare and irreplaceable, in seventeen languages—two thousand years of writing about dogs, including the only complete set of English Kennel Club magazine in the United States. Other libraries can be ruthless when it comes to their space, but “what’s a great policy in one library can be a horrible policy in another. People say, ‘Let’s weed the stacks!’ For the public library, maybe, but not for a research library.” Recently, Kolb had been collecting old children’s literature about dogs. “I’ve found some very good and rare dog books on eBay,” she said. “I keep my mouth shut and very quietly buy books for the library.” She showed me The Dog’s Dinner Party, the old tale of an eighteenth-century eccentric, an earl who habitually dined with his twelve dogs, assigning them each a footman who served them on silver plates. “You can get some bargains on eBay!”
I could live here, I thought. I could study dogs and help this lovely dog librarian …
“Come back anytime,” she said as I tore myself away, “though we’re crazy the week of the dog show!”
If you want to catch Johnson in person–and yeah, she’s worth the trip–she’ll be at the Barnes and Noble on 82nd street and Broadway tomorrow night at 7 pm.
Peep, don’t sleep.