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Thursday, January 4, 2018

Snowy Days and Libraries

looking out our front window a few minutes ago
New York City and points north, west, and south have "blizzard-like conditions" today.  I almost always like these days, because, hey, I'm a professor (at Fordham University in the Bronx) and we like the schools being closed every bit as much as do the students.  And with the Web, you have all the connectivity you need to the world, without going out of your house.   But it wasn't always that way ...

Back in the mid-1960s, I lived in the Bronx, was a student at CCNY around 137th Street in Manhattan, and I worked as a clerk at the George Bruce Branch Library on 125th Street in Harlem.  That was a trip in itself.  I often got lunch at a Chinese restaurant on Broadway, where 25 cents bought a big plate of chou mien, with tea, and an orange slice for dessert.  One of the librarians at the library was Ruth Delany.  When she discovered my love of science fiction - which I read every time I was on any kind of break - she told me about her son, Sam Delany, who was just starting out as a science fiction author.  Little did I know then he would be named Grand Master by the Science Fiction Writers of America in 2013, and I would have the privilege of participating in his selection, since I was a former President of SFWA (1998-2001).

But back to the snow.  More than one blizzard hit the city in the mid-1960s, one of them on a day I was supposed to work at the George Bruce Branch.   CCNY was closed, but the trains were running on a limited schedule, and the library was open.  It had to be.  In those days, although we all had radio and television, a blizzard meant no newspaper delivery, and nothing to read unless it was already in your home.  I called the George Bruce Branch.  Mrs. Delany wasn't in, but the librarian I spoke to told me to go to my local branch - the New York Public Library had intelligently decided that the best way to keep all its branches up and running in the blizzard was have its personnel - librarians (ran the library), clerks (checked out books), and pages (shelved books) - report to work at whatever branch they could walk to.  That, for me, would be the Allerton Branch, about a 10-minute walk from where we lived on Bronx Park East, right around the corner from my Grandma Sarah (who had moved to our neighborhood after decades on the Grand Concourse), and around other corners from my friends Jordie Axelrad and Paul Gorman (Gorman was in several of my rock 'n' roll singing groups back then - here's a home recording of one of our groups, The Transits (which I named after the New York Transit Authority, which ran the trains in those days), singing I Only Want You).

I knew the Allerton Branch well, and loved it.  I used to take every book they had on dinosaurs out for as long as I could.  And when Mrs. Dayson, the librarian at my Junior High School 135, banned me from the school library because all I ever read was science fiction (more details about this here, I should also mention that I dedicated the Kindle edition of The Consciousness Plague to Mrs. Dayson), I brought my wonderful reading obsession to the Allerton Library, and read every science fiction book they had on their shelves.   Indeed, it was there that I first encountered Isaac Asimov's Foundation trilogy, to this day still my favorite science fiction on the page.  (I wrote to him with my analysis of the trilogy, and he sent me this postcard with his response.)

So I was more than happy to go back to the Allerton Branch Library in that blizzard in the 1960s.  Looking back on that time now, it's clear that society had a sensitivity, or at least the New York Public Library did, that may no longer be with us.  The idea of having workers report to the local branches during the blizzard was brilliant - it kept the libraries open to the public on a day when they were especially needed, and they allowed people who worked at the library not to miss a work day and the pay that it brought.

Here's a toast across time to whoever came up with that plan.  And for everyone else - enjoy the snow, whatever you may be reading, and wherever you may be reading it.

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