an immigrants love of the library
Books of the New World and the Old An immigrant comes to America--through the library.
BY LUCETTE LAGNADO Friday, December 7, 2007 12:01 a.m. EST
As a little girl newly arrived in America, I couldn't wait for the Saturday afternoons when my mother and I would board the subway near our home in Brooklyn for our weekly outing to the Donnell branch of the New York Public Library in midtown Manhattan. It was our favorite corner of New York.
So I was sad when it was announced last month that the building housing the Donnell was being sold to a developer. Paul LeClerc, who heads the New York Public Library system, said that the property didn't measure up to its neighbors on tony West 53rd Street, a stone's throw from Fifth Avenue, on a block that houses one of the city's greatest attractions--the sleek, renovated Museum of Modern Art.
Donnell--or some semblance of it--will survive, but in a considerably smaller form. It will be lodged on the ground floor and a couple of subterranean levels, with a modern luxury hotel sitting above. But the "poor, shabby" building, as Mr. LeClerc calls it, that welcomed us when we were shabby and poor will be no more.
Public libraries have always embraced immigrants. Especially in a strange, expensive city, where so much seems off-limits, they are among the few enclaves that take in newcomers, no questions asked. And for those who can't afford to buy books--and many immigrants cannot--they can offer a better education than any school.
After getting out of the 49th Street station, my mom and I would march up Seventh Avenue, passing the Americana (now Sheraton) Hotel, and turn at 53rd, toward the Hilton. I am sure that, even then, there were more luxurious hotels to be found in New York, but both seemed the epitome of American opulence to me. When we crossed Sixth Avenue, we would walk past the designer ateliers and then the Museum of Modern Art before getting to Donnell.
Those blocks became a window into this gilded New World we had not fully entered. We couldn't afford the Americana, the Hilton or, for that matter, the museum. Rather than going into MoMA itself, which had an entrance fee of $1 in the 1960s (forbidding to us at the time), we would stroll into the gift shop, browsing through postcard replicas of the artworks upstairs.
Our pilgrimage ended with Donnell. No entrance fees there. The only barrier was the stern librarian who peered at me when I tiptoed into the young-adult collection on the second floor. My home was the children's section, so cozy, which housed a wonderful collection of books--not simply the American childhood classics but, in one special corner, a bookshelf overflowing with French books.
We had emigrated from Cairo, where French was my first language. My mother despaired that at P.S. 205 in Brooklyn I was becoming too Americanized. That is why, week after week, we set out hand in hand to this corner of New York.
She waited patiently as I browsed and picked out French books--a collection of children's stories by Colette, a Jules Verne novel or, my favorite, novels by the Comtesse de Segur, a 19th-century French author whose stories of misfortunes always featured redemptive endings.
Then it was her turn. Together we headed to the adult foreign-language collection, one of the finest in the city, with shelves and shelves of French novels. As if under a spell, my mother would let go of my hand she always clutched so tightly in this country and drifted off on her own. I watched her fingering some Proust volumes or the essays of André Maurois. Back in our native Cairo, she had once worked as a teacher and librarian, and she missed the French novels we could no longer afford to buy.
As I grew older, I would head toward the young-adult section, filled with tales of American girlhood. I would take out those teen romance novels--stories about lovelorn young girls who wore "formals" and went to proms with boys. In the same way that Donnell's children's section kept me connected with my French past, its young-adult library was shaping my future, teaching me about becoming an American teenager.
I went back to 53rd Street last Friday. Though I can now afford the $20 entrance fee at MoMA, I made my way into the gift shop instead and nostalgically looked through the postcards.
Then I went to Donnell. The place is still as welcoming as I remembered. Even as the guard searched my bag, she was so pleasant I wanted to hug her. The patrons were an eclectic collection of urban youth and workers from offices nearby. The teen romance novels were still there. And while the children's section was larger, its foreign-language collection reflected the city's new immigrants, with books in, among other languages, Chinese, Russian, Spanish and Hebrew.
But Donnell had changed. There were rows of computers where once there had been bare tables. And rap music was playing in the young-adult section where I used to hear only the sound of shushing librarians. I guess the library is still assimilating new immigrants to American culture. It's just the culture that's shifted.
Will the new Donnell in a chic hotel be just as embracing?
Ms. Lagnado is a Wall Street Journal reporter.