I mentioned in passing last week that if I confined my blogging to the actual activities I perform in a week related to my artistic career, I’d be writing an entire post about me going to the library. This remark, if you happened to notice it, might have prompted a few questions. “His life can’t be that boring, can it?” you might have thought, to which I reply, “oh yes it can.” More to the point, you might have wondered “how difficult can it possibly be to do library research? You just go to the library and get the book you need.” If that is your response, Constant Reader, then I envy you your innocence. Because in this city, things have a habit of being more complicated than you can possibly imagine. And so, in order to broaden the horizons of your imagination, I’m going to ignore my own advice from last week and tell you all about my epic quest to get reading materials from the library.
Or rather, libraries plural.
For indeed, there is a local branch of the Brooklyn Public library just up the street from me, less than half a mile away. With pandemic restrictions set aside (whether they should be or not is a completely different question), I can go there any time I want. But it’s a small local branch, so if I’m working on an elaborate project – and I’m currently putting together a period piece, so from a research point of view it’s definitely elaborate – they’re not going to have what I need. I can put in an interlibrary loan request, of course – if you’ve never done that yourself, I highly recommend it, it’s the bookworm’s best friend – but it usually takes weeks for each volume to arrive. (That’s assuming my local librarians put in the request correctly, and my branch is very local, if you catch my meaning, so that’s not necessarily a valid assumption.) Since submission opportunities tend to have deadlines, that’s time I don’t have. So, for most volumes in the Brooklyn Library system, it’s much easier for me to travel several miles, taking two subway lines, to reach the main branch at Grand Army Plaza and check out volumes there.
You’ll notice, however that I specified the Brooklyn Public Library system. For you see, by a quirk of municipal history, the borough that I live in (which was once a separate city unto itself, way back in previous centuries) has a completely separate library system from the rest of New York City. So if I want to visit the iconic main branch on Fifth Avenue – you know, the one with the stone lions, the one from Ghostbusters, the one with most of the titles I actually need for my research, that main branch – I have to make a separate trip. With a separate library card. And since I’m working on a period piece that involves legal history (there’s a teaser for you), some of the titles I need are in the main reading room (the one that the tourist groups visit, on the third floor, with the murals on the ceiling) and some are in a separate room on the first floor – Room 121, home of the Millstein division, which specifically houses American history materials. Because these are two separate, non-circulating collections – you have to work with the materials on-site, so you submit your requests to the librarians and the titles are retrieved from the vast, possibly ghost-infested sub-basement corridors below – I’m choosing to count them as two separate locations. So we’re up to four.
Now, if I want to check out a library book as part of my midtown excursion, I do have the option of going across the street to what’s called the Stavros Niarchos branch, on 5th Avenue and 40th Street. It’s the largest circulating branch of the system, so if a title I want can be checked out, and is available, I can just get it there. However, if the title is not available there, and not in the Brooklyn system, and I want to place an interlibrary loan request through the main New York system, I have to go to a different branch entirely. Specifically the E. 96th street branch, about two miles to the north, which I’ve designated as my “local” branch (remember my actual “local” branch is in a completely different system) because it’s just around the corner from my day job.
We’re up to six separate libraries.
And we’re not done! Remember how the Millstein room housed a special collection of American historical materials? The New York library system has a number of locations devoted to those sorts of collections. And since I happen to be researching a period of Supreme Court History that had significant ramifications for civil rights law (another teaser there), that means that some of the volumes I need are housed in the Schomberg Center for Research in Black Culture. That Center is affiliated with the New York Public Library, and is on 135th Street in Harlem, so that’s another mile and change further north!
So. Seven branches. Assuming I didn’t also just visit another local branch randomly because the online catalog said they had a particular title on site. Which I did. So it’s really eight separate libraries, in two separate systems, with two separate library cards, covering about twenty five miles or so geographically. Some of which have required me to dodge ongoing construction and renovation, all of which have required me to dodge various airborne beasties both on site and in transit because there is still a goddam pandemic going on. All in service of a historical piece which, more likely than not, will be a mid-size one act. Maybe 40 pages or so in length. I’m not sure how exactly to allocate it, but that’s about five pages of material to show for each separate library, each of which I’ve scoured as thoroughly as possible for those handfuls of throwaway plot points and dialogue references.
And somehow, I’ve done all this in service of a piece of theatre – and haven’t once visited the Performing Arts Library at Lincoln Center! (I hope this doesn’t mean I missed something.)