"A New York Treasure" --Village Voice

Hip to be Square: You Could Look it Up

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.

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1 lroibal   ~  Feb 23, 2010 12:12 pm

At one time the New York Public Library Picture Collection was housed in the 42nd street Library pictured above. On any given afternoon the room was filled with fashion designers, Broadway set designers, costume designers and of coarse illustrators. It has since moved across the street to the third floor of the Mid-town Manhattan Library. It's an invaluable resource for researching all things visual. If your job depends on you knowing what a young lady might have worn to a Napoleonic era ball, the detail of medieval armor or what the facade of Yankee Stadium or Ebbets Field looked like, you can find the pictures here. I spent many an afternoon poring over that collection researching assignments. Invariably I would run into someone I knew find out who was busy. The librarians who worked there were treasure troves of information and history. The pictures were stored in files according to categories like Costume/Dresses 1500's or Architecture/ Egypt BC. Often it's apparent where to find an image, but as you can imagine many can fall into more than one category frustrating even the most experience researcher. But, in all the years I did research there, I never could stump the librarians. They always knew just the right obscure piece of knowledge that would steer me back on coarse, BRAVO to the New York Picture Collection and it's remarkable staff of librarians.

2 Alex Belth   ~  Feb 23, 2010 12:30 pm

I've always appreciated librarians but after reading Johnson's book I admire them more than ever. Man, I would LOVE to have a tour underground in the NY public. That would be dope. Have you ever been uptown to Schomburg? That's a great place too.

3 Jon DeRosa   ~  Feb 23, 2010 1:00 pm

My wife's a librarian in an alternate reality - she's going to love this book. I missed out on that Yankee Stadium display at the NY Public in 2008, and I work around the corner. Anybody see that?

4 Alex Belth   ~  Feb 23, 2010 1:09 pm

I missed that unfortunately. Hey, what was the library in the beginning of Ghostbusters? Was that the Columbia library? I forget.

5 Jon DeRosa   ~  Feb 23, 2010 1:14 pm

Check it out:


The answer is yes and no.

6 Ben   ~  Feb 23, 2010 1:18 pm

I think it was supposed to be the 42nd street one. But they may have used something else as the location.

I actually just read the script and it had the Main Library as the Location.

My cousin is a librarian. She went to Oxford. Studied Philosophy. Probably the brainiest person I know. When she told me she was going to be a Librarian, I was floored. Isn't that what women do who are really smart but aren't allowed to get a real job? She tried to explain how sophisticated it was but I was having too much trouble removing my foot from my mouth to hear her.

7 Diane Firstman   ~  Feb 23, 2010 1:27 pm

Former Baseball Toaster-man Bob Timmermann is a librarian ...

8 Alex Belth   ~  Feb 23, 2010 1:29 pm

Funny, but the book talks about traditionally how librarians were history or literature majors and now they are made up of tech-savy computer folks who really understand the digital landscape and how to use it efficiently and brilliantly. But even the new breed seems to have retained the concept of wanting to help people.

9 Jon DeRosa   ~  Feb 23, 2010 1:29 pm

Ben check out that link I posted in [5]. They list 3 different libraries as being used in the movie - including NY Pub and Columbia. Pretty cool resource.

10 btimmermann   ~  Feb 23, 2010 1:49 pm

Hey, somebody rang.

The "haunted stacks" section of the Los Angeles Central Library don't exist anymore. The building was extensively remodeled after a huge arson fire closed the facility from 1986 through 1993.

"CSI: New York" shoots almost 90% of its exterior scenes in and around the Central Library of L.A. I've seen "CSI: Miami" at times. I think the New York scenes for "Heroes" were shot around the library too. I think it helps that the building doesn't have a stereotypical L.A. look about it (i.e., it doesn't have palm trees.)

The new breed of librarian is indeed tech-savvy. Of course, out where I am in L.A., they want to lay off 20 librarians, all of whom would be the younger tech-savvy ones.

11 ms october   ~  Feb 23, 2010 2:23 pm

my dad is sort of a gruff, pretty abrupt person and this was magnified in alabama where this "northern" behavior was pretty out of place.
anyway my dad is an avid reader and book lover and he used to take my brother and me to the library every week when we are younger. my brother eventually got out of this. my dad was always asking the librarian what seemed to me like crazy ass questions in a tone most people would interpret as rude but was just my dad. i sort of felt sorry for the librarian because i knew she thought my dad was rude and i think she felt bad for me because she was always super nice to me and showed me all these back rooms of the library and how the dewey decimal system worked and how the electronic stacks moved and a bunch of other library stuff.

12 Yankster   ~  Feb 23, 2010 3:47 pm

I've been a Librarian since a couple months before 9/11. First at the New York Public and now six years at the Library of Congress. Very happy to see all the love for librarians here.

I've never worked more than a week or two in a row at any of the NYPL research libraries but the tour of the stacks is out of this world. The stacks extend underground far far outside the footprint of the building itself, which is almost as visually stunning as some of our stacks here at LOC. As you would imagine, it looks like you are in the middle of a terry gilliam movie, like Brazil. There are vacuum pipes that shoot book requests and conveyor belts and trolleys and desks piled too high with old equipment.

My plan is to run a musty special collection in NYC when my career here ends twenty five years from now. The NY Yacht Club has an extraordinary library and collection that I'd enjoy...

13 Yankee Mama   ~  Feb 23, 2010 3:59 pm

My mother-in-law was a librarian in the main library in Lima, Peru. She raised four kids as a single parent, all the while immersed in books. One can't say enough about the connection between reading and development as her kids reached high levels of education. I always found it ironic that her oldest son, while obtaining his PhD, ended up paying thousands of dollars in fees for overdue and unreturned library books. It's like a dentist's son not filling a cavity.

My kids enjoy the Lincoln Center Library on Amterdam Avenue. I love the modern system where you can extend the period you keep a book online. That feature would have saved my brother-in-law.

My own favorite memory was going to the NY Public Library where I did research on a paper comparing the first chapter of Genesis to the creation story in the Koran. It was to include interpretation and commentary. I was sent to a room in the library that was filled with only Chasidim and Muslims, peacefully coexisting in deep reflection. There I was, a high school senior in jeans and a mexican peasant shirt feeling as though I was being transported to a different consciousness, a place that was otherworldly where I was the foreigner. I felt scholarly just being there. Was it the grandeur of the room? The people in it? I know one thing; there was no war, no strife, no ignorance of other people's belief systems. Only books and of course, extremely knowledgeable librarians.

I guess I ought to appreciate my mother-in-law more.....hmmm.

14 alt   ~  Feb 23, 2010 9:30 pm

I've been lurking here for years and never commmented, but I couldn't pass up the opportunity for this post. I am an elementary school 'Techbrarian' - a cross between a librarian and tech person. I guess I'm part of that new breed that Bob mentioned. As we live in an increasingly digital world, I teach students how to access and evaluate all the information that is out there. And, I get to talk books with them, which I love!

I've been trying to think of a good library story all evening, and working with 4 to 11 years I have plenty, but I keep coming back to what the kids call me when they forget my crazy last name...Ms. LiBEARrian. Every time it cracks me up - for some reason it conjures up an image of a big strawberry running around the library. Perhaps that say more about me than them...

Thanks for heads up on the book, it sounds wonderful.

15 Nick-YF   ~  Feb 23, 2010 11:47 pm

I haven't posted here in the longest, but I've been reading everything. I had to comment here, if only to thank you, Alex, for this. My mom's a librarian (actually, at the branch in your neighborhood), and this description is perfect: "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." I'm living very far away from the great city, but this site is one of the few things that brings me back to it. It's instantly familiar in your descriptions and choices of topics. This one brought me all the way back home. Thanks! I sent this link along to my mom, who is of the old-school variety, and might have difficulty opening it:)

16 edoubletrouble   ~  Feb 24, 2010 11:41 am

I worked in my college library
restocking while listening to audio books and radio plays
lots of blissful hours wandering amongst books

17 edoubletrouble   ~  Feb 24, 2010 11:41 am

on my portable cassette player, for the record

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