Sep 232011

Jefferson Library

[ N Y C ]

The other day I finally registered as a

member of the New York City Library.

Its been at least ten years since I have

set foot in any library, probably scarred

from university research.  I was excited

to resume my studies until I actually

went to a library.


The Jefferson Library on 6th Avenue in New York City.

— Jefferson Library

Located on the west side of 6th Avenue, in New York City, is the Jefferson Library.  Truthfully I never knew the building was a library.  Its ornate tower and recent scaffolding barely make mention of the buildings purpose.  But after a quick visit to I learned it was a library.  Eager to exercise my new found research capabilities I searched for a few photography titles.  At the beginning of October I will be interviewing photographer Danny Lyon and wanted to look up some of his previous publications.  The local book stores only had a few titles, so I figured the library would have a larger selection.  He is a decorated artists who has won fellowships with the National Endowment for the Arts, Rockefeller Foundation, the Guggenheim Museum,  and holds an honorary doctorate from the Art Institute of Boston.  Some of his status should be fairly easy to find within the New York Public Library system, right?

Well, Yes, sort of.  Why do I say sort of?  Because when I looked online it listed all of his books with a note — Use In Library .  Much to my dismay, this note means the book cannot leave the library.  Now I understand that the original manuscripts of Thomas Jefferson would need to be reserved and never allowed outside of the library, but a readily available photo book should not be on the do not borrow list.  Its no mystery kids don’t go to libraries to learn about art and photography.  If they wanted to do so, they would have to go to the 42nd Street Library and they couldn’t even take any of the books home.

I was hoping the interior would look something like this. But sadly this is the Library at the Metropolitan Club uptown.

From an archival stand point I understand a book not leaving the library.  But from a practical standpoint, is there greater value to a perfectly preserved, unused book or a well worn book that can engage people with a photographer they may not know?  As an artist I believe artwork should be preserved, but books are designed to be used.  In the digital age there is no reason why these books should not be more readily available.  But all things considered, I can get over this hurdle.

The Jefferson Library is located in the heart of Greeenwich Village.  It was once a cultural hub which housed Robert Capa, Hunter S. Thompson, and William Borroughs.  It is the perfect place for an artsy library.  But there is one major obstacle.  There is no F-ing BATHROOM!  I mean, seriously.  When the girl told me there was no bathroom, I was shocked.  What type of public research facility has no bathroom?  This is a deal breaker.  How could anyone be expected to go to a library and read, but have to run to the nearest Starbucks for a bathroom?  As far as I am concerned its insane!  It is no surprise that library attendance continues to fall.  The library should be a haven of lounging, comforts and research.

The bathrooms at the library should take their cue from Chef Morimoto's west side restaurant and use comfortable Toto toilets.

Suggestions to bolster attendance:

  • Install modern bathrooms that come equipped with TOTO toilets.  Toto would probably donate the toilets as a promotion.
  • Acquire a collection of Art and Photography books for local designers, photographers, and artists to utilize.
  • Install a caffe that serves top quality coffee, treats from local bakeries and fresh fruit from the 14th street Farmers Market.
  • Spend the money to replace the flourescent lights.  Reading under green lighting makes you feel like you are in an insane asylum.

The library could serve fresh cappuccini and cornetti from Sant' Ambroeus, which is just around the corner. If they did I would hang out for days on end.

As far as I can tell, the downfall of the library is a marketing issue.  The library, whether public or private, should feel more like a hotel lobby and less like the subway platform.  Maybe, if going to the library was a pleasurable experience, people might actually go.

Danny Lyon's Deep Sea Diver by Phaidon Press. This is one of the nicest photography books I have ever handled.

— An Alternative

Meg Parsont, over at Phaidon, offered to send me a loaner copy of Danny Lyon’s “Deep Sea Diver” in preparation for the interview.  The book arrived yesterday.  The spine of the book is printed in Danny’s handwriting.  Once I removed the book from the sleeve, I thought there was a limited edition print inside.  Turns out, it was just the cover photo.  The entire book was designed to read like a scrap book.  When I showed my girlfriend the book she said, “Wow that’s so cool they gave you a copy with his original handwritten notes.”  I had to show her that the pencil notations were actually printed.  Phaidon must have spared no expense making this book.  And after handling the book, I understand why it costs $200.  The book is simply breathtaking.  This weekend I am looking forward to reading the text, written entirely by Danny as he travelled through China.


The interior of the book is beautifully printed. It looks like every hand written note and piece of tape is real. Its pretty amazing.

Phaidon may have succeeded in getting me to swallow the price tag and go for my own copy.

— Your Questions

This is kind of unconventional for a photography interview, but lets give it a whirl.  What would you like me to ask Danny, when I interview him in October?  Are there any questions you have about his work, his equipment (he uses Leica M4′s and M6′s/Sekonic meters/Kodak Tri-x), or his vision?  If so, leave your questions below and I will try to work them into the interview.

Thanks Everyone in advance for your feedback!


  2 Responses to “Why Libraries are Failing”

  1. Working in a library I can understand your frustration. But the give the poor places a break will you… libraries are usually house in the darkest & dingiest possible buildings the municipal authorities have, they are the last to receive any funding, and generally treated like sh*t. I am very lucky to work in a council/municipal authority which built two purpose built libraries between 2004 and 2007… every librarian in the state of NSW had a heart attack.
    We here are not perfect and we know it, but the place is light and airy, has it’s own cafe and really it’s a joy to work in, the place is alive, alive with people and noise and life. But people still complain, usually people who have set foot in a library since they were 10 and remember the place being like a dungeon, no talk, no food just shut uopm and read, or get out ASAP, who can’t understand why kids are allowed to eat in the library, can’t understand why the place isn’t quiet on Tuesday and Wednesday mornings, when we have storytime for the under 5′s – Adam, the place sounds like an abattoir, kids screaming, having tantrums, shrieking at the point of pain because that’s what kids DO – I love it, although the screeching does hurt, but people are here, interacting, using and enjoying the facility, just what we intended. We can’t be all things to all people…
    The photography book problem… I understand where you are coming from but when we buy these beautiful books people steal them, that’s right mate, they STEAL them. We had a couple of Ansel Adams books in one of the new libraries and they were gone in a year, so there’s is no denying it Adam, some people are bastards!

    So give us a break, we’re trying our best… I wish we had more books, but it kills me when they disappear.

    I hope that you sent this post to the American Library Association, NYCPL and to Mayor Bloomberg’
    s office so he can do something about it..
    All the best, I enjoy the site.

    Have good weekend, Enzo

  2. Hi Enzo,

    Great to hear from an industry insider. There is no doubt that libraries are up against some pretty tough obstacles and being a “cultural wing” of any city, they usually suffer first.

    My major, inexcusable complaint, was how could the library on 6th avenue NOT have a bathroom for its patrons. That single fact alone was absurd and beyond any reasoning. Fortunately they are in the process of renovating the building, which will soon have bathrooms.

    Unlike the buildings that were constructed near you (which is great!) this building is a conversion. The original landmark has suffered a serious downgrade since it was converted. Honestly, I think a few wealthy patrons should adopt the library and make it into a serious place of cultural study. It could be something like the Frick Library.

    The other interesting question you bring up is the kids market. As you suggested, most people have not been to the library since they were ten years old, which suggests that the retention rate of a library is incredibly low. Instead of catering to the “shortest common denominator” it might be of greater interest for the libraries to cater to young adults and adults, who will potentially use the space for an additional 50-80 years.

    As for the stealing, I say track them down and cut off their hands. Ok not really. But I would be ok with the art books having to stay at the library. And I see no issue with the text from the books being available on cheaper versions for research.

    My hunch over all is that libraries are trying to sustain and are caught in the municipal arguments about money. If they were able to take on small business (like the cafes) and have some outside assistance they might do a bit better. Like I mentioned in Monocle, I read stories every month about “how businesses, towns, and old dungeons” are re-thinking their purpose and making adjustments. The common thread is that the people who take on these projects are not always trying to make a systematic change. They are perfectly content making ONE place work. Then it can be an example for the next leader.

    Maybe that leader is you.

    Thanks for you comments and feel free to send the article along to the ALA and the NYCPL.

    And happy to hear you are enjoying the site.


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