The Stories of a Library
If you don’t live in New York City, you may not have read, or paid much attention, to this article: cityroom.blogs.nytimes.com/2009/04/23/midtown-fumes-over-donnell-librarys-fate/ But to me it was both very personal and a good entry into a larger story. Here are the basic facts: the Donnell Library was on 53rd St. in Manhattan between 5th and 6th Avenues, directly across the street from the Museum of Modern Art — as prime a location in a real estate mad city as you could imagine. The library was built in 1955, and so when, as a teenager, I used it in the mid to late 60s, it still looked younger, more modern, than the typical brownstone Carnegie libraries around town. Its huge glass front somehow matched and echoed MoMA across the street — a place for the new, the fresh, the different, the New Frontier of ideas and literature. My father often went to MoMA, I’d tag along. But we also crossed the street to explore the library that in its design and space was like Jackie O’s dresses — clean, fresh, straight lines, smart.
The Donnell also housed the Nathan Strauss Young Adult Library — so, unlike most libraries, it was alert to me as a teenager, giving me a place of my own to find treasures. That was the Donnell I knew growing up, and so I was thrilled years later, as an adult, when the Donnell’s auditorium housed the Book for the Teenage annual event, and upstairs in the YA section we had punch and cookies and meet teenagers and their librarians. When the National Book Award reinstituted its Young Readers award, I was pleased that we held the first teenage-run press conference for the finalists at the Donnell. And the Nathan Strauss had become a teen central, with neat lighting and music. The library of the Kennedy era had, correctly, evolved into the new YA zone for 21st century teenagers. I loved that link between past and present.
It is true that the building did seem a bit faded — the modern ages quickly if it is not kept up. And then came the horrible news — the building had been sold, as part of the Real Estate craze of the early 21st century. Perhaps it was inevitable, how could a library hold on to that treasured space. And yet the sale happened so quickly, out of sight, with no discussion and debate. This ode to the modern, to teenage, and libraries, in the heart of Manhattan, was gone. And now, as the Times shows, the deal is gone, too. Neither the city nor the libraries will get the millions they hoped to garner. The building fades. The holdings scattered.
I wish that the Donnell could come back. That it would be reborn as teenage central, working with MoMA and the folkart museum on the block, and the museum of broadcasting across the street. Teenagers should have their claim in the heart of Manhattan, the nerve center of art, media, communication, ideas. If the old Donnell was fading, the new Donnell — if we could have it — should be a bigger declaration — the home for teenage 2.0, 3.0 — that’s what we should have, not loss but a larger claim