Public Option

At Yale, we do not simply house books, we worship them. Sterling Memorial Library, according to its architect James Gable Rogers, is a “Cathedral of Learning” and Beinecke bears resemblance to a marble-walled shrine. Our library system is the fourth largest in the country, holding upward of 12 million volumes. Right off of the Green, closer to Old Campus than Sterling itself, is the New Haven Public Library. Though it is often overlooked by University students, this city library has its own devotees.

The Public Library may have fewer books than Yale’s library system, but each is more carefully selected for popular interest. Besides, while New Haven residents can visit Yale’s libraries during the day, they can’t take out books for free, like they can at the Public Library.

Most interactions between Yale and the New Haven Public Library aren’t for checking out books. It’s sometimes a site for public readings of student writing, and it’s where a number of Yalies do community service, helping visitors with tax forms or technology. Some Yale students use the library’s local history room, which is home to old maps, city directories, and newspapers, for research.

Kathy DeNigris, the Chief of Public Services, guesses a mere 150 current Yalies hold library cards. “They’re probably checking out bestsellers—and films are huge,” she said. Maria Tonelli, the library’s Head of Circulation/Access Services, estimates that only one Yale student visits the library each day.

I arrive for a visit at 9:39 on the Saturday before Easter. The library is supposed to open at 10:00, but I’ve heard a line usually forms before opening time, so I arrive early. When I get to the library, there’s no line. Actually, there’s not a single person on the library steps. A few people walk by on the street, but no one stops. The website had told me the library was closed yesterday for Good Friday, but it said nothing of Saturday. A sign on the door indicates otherwise. “GOOD FRIDAY,” says the printed sign: “We Will Close For This Holiday.”

But someone has reconsidered and left a mark in Sharpie. “Both GOOD FRIDAY + Saturday, April 3.”

As it turns out, many of the library’s visitors hadn’t gotten the message, either. A man saunters up to the doors a couple minutes after I’ve arrived. He’s older—maybe in his 60s—short, and scruffy. He’s wearing a dirty white tank top, a blue denim jacket, and sandals. When he reaches the library’s double front doors, he pulls. Nothing. He pulls again, then tries the other door. He looks around, slowly turns back and proceeds slowly down the steps, hands in his pockets. He leans against a railing, standing idly, looks around for a minute, moves to the edge of the sidewalk. He watches, as if about to cross the street, but several minutes pass and no traffic blocks his path.

Finally, I approach him. “Were you trying to go into the library?” I ask.

He looks at me. Pauses. Slowly, he responds: “No, no.”

I thank him. I walk away. A minute later, he crosses the street onto the Green, and he’s gone.

In the next twelve minutes, fourteen people try to enter the library. Some arrive by car or bike, but most are on foot. A mom drops off her high school daughter in a white pickup truck. A minute later, the girl is back, dumping her iPod and books in the car. “They open at noon,” she says, though I see no such indication.

Only a tall man in a red shirt expresses disappointment before leaving. He arrives alone, tugs on the doors a few times, and grunts loudly before heading back to the Green.

When I return on a Wednesday afternoon, I meet Alberta Taylor standing idly on the steps. She has just left the library. “I was trying to learn how to take care of my math,” she tells me. She’s been going to school—adult classes—for the last two years, though she hasn’t been going recently because she’s working as a full-time babysitter. Her friends would use the library, too, she says, if they were “out here.” But, she adds “I don’t have friends no more. Some of them are locked up.”

Taylor stands in the middle of the stairs for a while, now one of the small crowd of library loiterers, and I go inside.

The New Haven Library, like the books it holds, doesn’t change much each day. The same people visit. The same man sits at the same table in the back corner of the first floor reading room. His name is George Nelson, and he’s leaning back in his chair. Nelson visits the library every other day, mostly to use MySpace and Facebook, as he doesn’t have a computer at home in Hamden. He far prefers the New Haven library to the Hamden one, though. Here, he says, “I know everybody.” He sees friends from school—he graduated two years back and now works busing tables at the Omni Hotel—and family. While we’re talking, he sees his cousin across the room and stops to greet her.

Nelson sees all the same people every day, doing the same things. And he sticks to his routine: He uses the computers.

“No books,” he says as soon as I mention the library’s other offering.

Nelson isn’t alone in passing on books. The larger attraction at the library is its mass of free computers—one needs only a library card to access one of the seventy-five machines. They’re heavily used by visitors, especially by those looking for jobs in this hostile economy. In recent years, many jobs have required applicants to complete all application materials online, so those who don’t own computers come to the library. The library maintains a jobs task force with resources for the unemployed.

But there are also the willful few who stick to reading. In the back of the library’s main level, Everett Echols leans over the Wall Street Journal. He is surrounded by books and newspapers. Under the Journal is the New York Times; next to him is a bulky tome titled Principles of Corporate Finance, which he says is his favorite book.

Like Nelson, Echols comes to the library every day. He sits at the same table every day—unless it’s taken. He sees “the same crowd every day.” He arrives around noon—“I get up, I eat, then I come here”—and stays until closing. “Usually people have their routine,” he says. This is his.

Echols has been retired for twenty years. Born and raised in Cleveland, Echols never went to college, instead working at McDonald’s and in several other jobs in the service industry. He came to New Haven many years ago to work on Long Wharf, loading and unloading.

Now, Echols checks out five or six books every week. He reads about history, economics, philosophy, mathematics, and physics. “I like to read,” he says several times. He started with Waiting for Godot. which he picked up off a shelf in a library in Cleveland for no particular reason. “I just continued reading.” He moved on to Sartre, Camus, Virginia Woolf. He doesn’t like fiction much anymore—turning instead to works like Principles of Corporate Finance.

Echols doesn’t talk to others at the library, though he recognizes many of the people there. The library offers a variety of programs for its visitors, but Echols has never gone to any. He talks quietly, slowly. It’s clear he’d like to get back to his reading. I let him, and leave him to the quiet.

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