The Magical Realm of Libraries
Every time I enter into a library I get the feeling I am embarking on another great adventure with some old, dear friends. Our expeditions are truly priceless. Alone or together, I leap at the opportunity to explore the past or the future, to journey to new places or re-visit locations I hold dear, and of course seeing old friends while possibly making new ones - it all begins here, at your nearest library.
I think Malcolm Forbes got it right when he said, "the richest person in the world – in fact all the riches in the world – couldn’t provide you with anything like the endless, incredible loot at your local library." Ralph Waldo Emerson, the American essayist, philosopher, poet, and leader of the Transcendentalist movement of the early 19th Century and known for his speech entitled The American Scholar, that is considered to be America's Intellectual Declaration of Independence, once said "man’s library is a sort of harem." I couldn’t agree more! Emerson’s fanciful insight is supported by his opinion that "some books leave us free and some books make us free." Clearly, a book is a free ticket to anywhere in the universe, and a library is the realm transporter that takes us to new worlds and new dimensions.
It never fails me that right before I enter into a library I think of Mel Gibson’s role as William Wallace in Braveheart. Internally, a little voice in my head screams Freedom! It is no wonder that a library is considered an arsenal of liberty.
I must admit I am drawn to some of the grand buildings that contain some of the most magical of books. My personal favorite libraries are quite diverse, but there are certain libraries that I have visited that really stand out. Perhaps the most intriguing library is a religious library: The Vatican Library. Located in Rome, the Vatican Library contains a majority of the world’s remaining historical Christian doctrines. This has been by far my all-time favorite library to explore. In my own very personal way, simply being inside the extensive and somewhat exhaustive library has made me feel more reflective and closer to God. A separate section of the Vatican Library, and much less well-known, are Vatican Secret Archives, that contain the majority of surviving original scrolls and manuscripts of early Christianity. Call it sacred, or magical, or a holy experience – but conducting research and writings inside the Vatican Secret Archives was one of the highlights of my life. What will follow from my time there is contained in Cloning Christ's sequel, titled Quest.
The Library of the Benedictine Monastery of Melk, known throughout the world for its meticulously kept medieval collection of scrolls and manuscripts is another favorite religious library of mine. I was first introduced to this magnificent library by Italian literary icon, Umberto Ecco, who named one of the protagonists in his well-known novel The Name Of The Rose in honor of the abbey and its famous library "Adso von Melk". Here, I have written several important chapters of Quest.
There are university libraries such as the Christopher Wren Library of Trinity College in Cambridge – with its grand marble floor surrounded by large windows that overlook Nevile’s Court - is an absolute favorite of mine. I feel good sitting amongst the stacks at the Wren. Ironically, one of my favorite and most meaningful books which the library contains is A.A. Milne’s autographed first edition copy of Winnie-the-Pooh – which reminds me of many things, including that in the mist of life’s serious ways, never take anything too seriously.
A library that has really become a part of me – where I have written a portion of every book I have or will publish to date is Columbia University’s Butler Library. For those who may not know this, it is Columbia University’s School of Journalism that awards the prestigious Pulitzer prize for excellence in journalism and does so for good reason: all that is Columbia evokes man’s pursuit of discovery. The Butler Library I know and have come to love is a special place for many reasons. First off, Columbia University’s library system, with Butler being the largest of twenty-five libraries within the system, has one of, if not the most extensive, university collection in the United States. Additionally, there is something very special in knowing that nearly 90 winners of the Pulitzer have been connected to Columbia. And finally, well . . . with some difference . . . is the fact Butler Library is open essentially twenty-four hours a day. Late at night, the library’s stacks have been used for other purposes than reading. Many students and scholars alike have indulged themselves in this grand library located in New York's Morningside Heights community. As for me . . . I have written significant portions of The Production up here, while enjoying a few strolls around the stacks for good measure.
Two stone lions respectively named Leo Astor and Leo Lenox stand protectively on the base of a marble staircase that invites people of all ages to explore new realms. Here on Fifth Avenue between East 40th Street to East 42nd Street in New York City’s Manhattan – what was once the Croton Reservoir – now stands one of the most important buildings in the world: The New York Public Library. Leo Astor and Leo Lenox, sitting defiantly remind me what it means to be a New Yorker. I have always maintained that to be a New Yorker, a person doesn’t necessarily have had to be born in town or presently live there. What makes a person a New Yorker is your attitude and your willingness to celebrate your neighbors’ differences. It is about the way you see the world, and how you try to make a positive difference in it. And it is about the belief you have in yourself, and what you do with this belief. To be a New Yorker is to celebrate new discoveries, seek new understandings, and rejoice and learn from our differences. And no place celebrates what it is to be a New Yorker more than The New York Public Library. Row upon row, shelf after shelf – bound books, rolled scrolls, fading magazines, secretive rooms housing great artifacts – this majestic library is in fact a diary of the human race.
Toni Morrison got it right when she said "Access to knowledge is the superb, the supreme act of truly great civilizations. The New York City Public Library is, in this regards, both symbol and act of what the best civilization has to offer."
The library consists of two very different divisions: the largest book circulating public library system combined with one of the best research libraries in the world. One of my favorite place in all of New York (outside of several great restaurants and Belvedere Castle in Central Park) is the library’s main reading room, known as the Research Library (Room 315). It is one of the primary places that I will go to write when I am working on a novel of a historical manuscript. Every book that I have written to date has had a part of it composed in this majestic Reading Room located on the top floor of the library. It is 78 feet wide by 297 feet long, with a 52 feet high ceiling — lined with thousands of reference books on open shelves along the floor level and along the balcony. It is lit by massive windows and grand chandeliers; furnished with sturdy wood tables, comfortable chairs, and brass lamps. Cicero once said "if you have a garden and a library, you have everything you need". Though not built yet, he must have had this particular reading room in mind. Astronomer Carl Sagan must have just visited The New York Public Library before he said "the library connects us with the insight and knowledge, painfully extracted from Nature, of the greatest minds that ever were, with the best teachers, drawn from the entire planet and from all our history, to instruct us without tiring, and to inspire us to make our own contribution to the collective knowledge of the human species. I think the health of our civilization, the depth of our awareness about the underpinnings of our culture and our concern for the future can all be tested by how well we support our libraries."
Under a gilt ceiling that has been likened to an inside-out Fabergé egg, there is a glorious 1598 depiction of sea monsters in the waters of the Indies. Close by is a much savored, renowned 1668 map that depicts modern-day California as an island, an image now sardonically viewed, by some, as a sign of things to come. Welcome to my favorite place located in the New York Public Library - room 117: The Lionel Pincus and Princess Firyal Map Division room located on the southwest corner of the library’s first floor. Filled with over four hundred and twenty thousand maps, I am absolutely inspired every time I grab the bronze door handles and set foot inside this, the most beautiful of parlor rooms in all of New York, to write, to create, to allow my imagination to travel to different realms. No wonder I have started every book I have ever written in The Lionel Pincus and Princess Firyal Map Division.
As a man of ritual, there is no library in the world that can come close in grandeur, size, scale, collection, and empowerment than the United States Library of Congress. This research library was established for Congress as part of the accord that transferred the seed of government from Philadelphia to Washington, D.C. in April of 1800. After a fire destroyed the Library of Congress’ marginal collection of books, President Thomas Jefferson offered to sell his personal library as a replacement for the lost collection. Jefferson had spent 50 years accumulating books, "putting by everything which related to America, and indeed whatever was rare and valuable in every science". In January 1815, Congress accepted Jefferson's offer, appropriating $23,950 for his 6,487 books, and the foundation was laid for a great national library.
The Library's Jefferson Building faces the United States Capitol Building. As you walk up the main entrance to the building's first floor, you will notice three double bronze entrance doors. They depict Tradition, Writing and Printing (shown in the image on the right). Collectively they represent how man has disseminated and preserved history, literature, religion, and science. As you enter, you will find yourself in the white marble entryway of the West Corridor that leads to the Library's gilded Great Hall.
The Great Reading Room, with its elaborate dome that stretches 160 feet above the floor is the most spectacular reading room that I have ever seen. There are 16 bronze statues set upon the balustrades of the galleries. They celebrate man's continual growth. Included are Moses and St. Paul (Religion); Christopher Columbus and Robert Fulton (Commerce); Herodotus and Edward Gibbon (History); Michelangelo and Ludwig van Beethoven (Art); Plato and Francis Bacon (Philosophy); Homer and William Shakespeare (Poetry); Solon and James Kent (Law); and Isaac Newton and Joseph Henry (Science). Sitting in one of the reading tables circularly set in the main room while surrounded by these imposing figures is quite a feeling. Making it an unimaginably divine experience only requires that you look up, where you will notice a female figure painted in the cupola by Edwin Blashfield representing Human Understanding. The dozen 10-foot-high figures in the circular mural at the apex of the dome, also painted by Blashfield, represent the countries or epochs that contributed to the development of Western civilization. Stained glass representations of the seals of 48 states (excluding Alaska and Hawaii) adorn the eight semicircular windows surrounding the Reading Room. Eight giant marble columns each support 10-foot-high allegorical female figures in plaster representing characteristic features of civilized life and thought: Religion, Commerce, History, Art, Philosophy, Poetry, Law and Science. It is here in this great room that I completed the novel The Den of the Assassin, while also learning that very same day of the death of a famous reporter working for Forbes magazine in Russia, who was murdered gang-land style due to his public sharing of Russian Underworld and Oligarch information that certain individuals did not want publicly released.
There are so many spectacular libraries to see. If you are like me, and consider yourself a ‘librophiliac’ (a lover of libraries), I suggest that you plan your next vacation or two exploring some of the world’s greatest libraries. Below is a list of other libraries that I can attest to as being magnificent, and would be ideal places to plan a holiday around:
The Boston Athenaeum in New York City.
The Boston Athenaeum in Boston, Massachusetts.
The Suzzallo Library in Seattle, Washington.
The Chicago Public Library, Chicago, Illinois.
The Riggs Library, Georgetown University, Washington, D.C.
The Folger Shakespeare Library, Washington D.C., USA
Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library, Yale University, New Haven, CT
The National Library of Austria, in Vienna.
The Reading Room, British Museum, London, England.
The National Art Library, Victoria and Albert Museum, London, England.
The Queens College, in Oxford, England.
The Sorbonne Library, Paris, France
Biblioteca Angelica, in Rome, Italy.
Biblioteca Di Bella Arti, in Milan, Italy.
Abbey Library in St. Gallen, Switzerland.
The Seattle Public Library
The Los Angeles Public Library
Regardless of where you go to get your ticket to travel to the magical realms that await you, one thing is clear: reading is as vital as breathing. Assisting all of us passengers as we board the highways of our imagination are the dedicated librarians across the universe willing and able to assist you take flight. In fact, I do not recall ever meeting or speaking to a librarian I have not appreciated. For book lovers and writers alike, librarians are a critical, yet often unheralded part of the wonderful community that is created around your local library. Always welcoming, always inviting, returning to your library of choice is like coming to your second home.
Today, most libraries have had their operating and acquisition budgets substantially reduced, dramatically limiting the number of new books and other entertainment products available to the general public. After school reading programs have been cut. So have ongoing education programs, lectures, and conferences. We're all paying a price. Please do your part in aiding your local library. You can do so by contacting your local government representatives and share with them your opinion that library funding must be increased. You can also contact your local library and ask how you can help. I personally know that nearly every library will direct you on how you can best help. In the past, I have contacted and offered assistance to several hundred libraries across the country. Each accepted my offer to help. And every one of them wrote back to me letting me know how important my assistance was to help them help others. I cherish these letters: they remind me of my responsibility to help as much and as often as I can.
If you're not sure who to contact at your local library . . . well, just walk in and ask your librarian. I'm sure there will be many suggestions on what you can do.
One last word: there is a ticket waiting for you at your local library. Why don’t you go pick it up? Read!
Peter Thomas Senese is an outspoken children's advocate and activist in the area of international child abduction prevention. His latest book that critiques everywhere are praising titled Chasing The Cyclone will be released on February 1st, 2011. The story is drawn from Peter Thomas Senese's experiences of finding, rescuing, and recovering his own child who was a victim of international abduction. Peter has also produced the groundbreaking documentary film titled Chasing Parents: Racing Into The Storms of International Parental Child Abduction, and remains actively involved in championing legislation that will prevent both domestic and international parental child abduction such as the recent legislative passage in Florida of the 'Child Abduction Prevention Act'. For more information please visit Chasing The Cyclone.