Three library books, in their plastic covers, lie on top of the bookcase next to the front door of my apartment. They have been there for three weeks, and by now they are three weeks overdue. The problem is I can’t return them to the library: It’s never open.
My library, the Sixty-seventh Street branch, is open Monday to Thursday and closed weekends. There is no book slot—they were closed throughout the system after someone dropped a Molotov cocktail through one in the Bronx. The library is open one morning a week, but not until 10 A.M. It is open late only one night a week, Monday till 8. You have to be a member of the leisure class to use it.
Borrowing books from the library has become a difficult and expensive proposition. Lately, when I browse through the shelves, I am reluctant to take books out because I know how difficult it will be to bring them back. I say sternly to myself, “Do you really want to read that?” knowing that it’s liable to cost me five or ten dollars. But a large part of the fun of using the library is the luxurious feeling of taking out a lot of books that you won’t necessarily read or will only read part of—books you wouldn’t buy.
Now those books lie on my bookcase, partly read. For the past several Mondays I have been absolutely unable to get to the library after work. It is Tuesday morning and I am determined to get the books back no matter what. Should I take them back at 10 A.M. Tuesday and go to work late? I rule out that option. Should I leave work early in order to get there by closing time at 6 P.M.? (One day I got there at 5:50 and the library was already shut.) This is something I’d rather not do.
It occurs to me that the Yorkville branch on 79th Street might have better hours. I call before leaving for work, expecting a tape-recorded message. The phone rings and rings. Finally a man with a Spanish accent picks up the phone.
“Hello?” he says timidly.
“Hello. Is this the library?” I ask.
“Yes,” he says.
“Can you tell me the library’s hours?”
“Just a minute—I find out,” he says. After about five minutes he returns to the phone.
“I’m sorry. I can’t tell you,” he says. “I’m the janitor.”
I resign myself to leaving work early.
The Sixty-seventh Street branch lies between Second and First avenues, across the street from the Julia Richman High School, most of whose students seem to come from Harlem and the Bronx. The street in front of the school is covered with litter. The lintel above the front door eerily proclaims “Knowledge Is Power,” a thought we owe to Francis Bacon.
The library, built in 1905, is narrow-fronted and deep like most of the Carnegie branch libraries, because streetfront property was so expensive even then. Inside the front door a wide staircase leads up to the main floor. Glass display cases, fans, fluorescent light fixtures and linoleum are from a different era, and if it weren’t for the pathetically small collection of books, it would be rather pleasant. It is like a library from a small town in, say, 1940.
Bookshelves line one long wall, and parts of two others. Another seven shelves are lined up at one end of the room. With some revolving book stands, these contain the entire adult book collection. At the checkout counter sits a glass jar on which someone has taped a sign with masking tape. “Please Help Your Library,” it says. Inside lies a dollar bill.
In the city’s budget, libraries are only a drop in the bucket. Like the threatened closing of the Central Park Zoo, the cuts in the libraries’ funding come out of a schoolmarmish equalitarianism that insists that cuts must be made across the board, even if the pain far exceeds the fiscal gains. But does it make sense to budget so that nothing in the city works really well? Isn’t a budget with bright spots more appealing, especially if they can be had cheap? A schoolmarm’s job, I suppose, is largely the fair distribution of pain, but she has a captive audience. A city that only disappoints, however equitably, is going to have a lot of truants.