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I had the great good fortune to spend a few days in New York City this past week, and managed to stop in to the NY Public Library for a little while.
My kids told me it felt like a museum, but to me it feels like a cathedral dedicated to books. All that marble, all of that art, all of that lovely architecture, surrounding a collection and a space for accessing that collection.
And not just the collection, but also the internet (and the informative places therein)–so, it’s a cathedral to information, really. A place for you to find what you need, and also to get help if you need it. Heady stuff for academics. And for non-academics who love information. (“Information: it’s not just for books anymore.”)
Photos are only permitted in the Catalog section of the Reading Room. The other half of the Reading Room looks very similar, except there are not desktop/catalog computers in that space. People in that part of the reading room were working on laptops if they were working on computers.
The Catalog Reading Room looks like this:
It is a beautifully appointed room, with brass lamps at strategic places at the long wooden tables, so that when the natural light that streams through the windows is unavailable, people can still work.
The lamps also delineate the tables as workspaces for multiple people.
There were people working singly, but also in pairs:
The walls are lined not just with marble, but also with books. The further back you go into the room from the information desk, the less desktop computers/internet terminals there are. People seemed fairly evenly distributed throughout the space until I got to this point:
The sign says this:
I was particularly struck by the lack of people at these tables. I wondered if it was because this was the catalog room, and people needed to be closer to the catalog computers. But then I went into the other half of the Reading Room, and found the same situation: a sparsely populated laptop free zone.
Further investigation in the building, not far away, revealed this:
This room is not as big as the Reading Room, but it’s pretty nice, for a room that’s not the Heart of the NYC Public Library.
But I really can’t figure out the logic of separating out people who work on laptops from the rest of the people who are working in the Reading Room. It feels archaic, like “no click zones” are now. I didn’t have time to interview anyone who worked at the library about it, so they may well have their reasons, but it felt like an unnecessary segregation to me.
Of course, the NYC Public Library has lots of space, and clearly can provide lovely space that is separate for its laptop users (a luxury we, and many other public university libraries, simply do not now and never will have). But check out the ceiling of the laptop room:
and contrast it with the one in the Reading Room.
In a cathedral to books, I know which space I’d rather be working in, laptop or no.