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11/12/2010 / Lynn Rabbitts

To the Newberry: A Love Letter

The polished brick floor has been smoothed with the passing of feet. Murmurs and whispers bounce off the arched ceiling, dancing with one another like a secret in a schoolyard. There is peace here, a quiet solace extending to all those who walk through the front door, seeking the comfort of the Newberry Library.

Facing southward, toward the oldest park in the city, near a century and a quarter worth of history stand the walls of this library, but ten fold those 123 years is housed in the knowledge within. When the library was first built, the architects felt this southern exposure would offer the learned scholars entering the gentle grace of sunlight. However it is also this same light, lack of temperature and environmental control that mired the books into trouble.

To preserve these tomes, the Newberry erected a ten-story, windowless construct to the north. This building is not to be made accessible, but more in the lines of a wildlife reserve; a place books might dream deep dreams in their ideal environs, awaiting the day they shall be called upon to reveal their contents.

The door to this building is pulled open, and the smell washes out, washes over, drenching the invader. Not in any crude sense, but a beckoning, inviting one as an old friend from some past life who is known instantly upon meeting. Perhaps this is the feeling Odysseus accepted while lashed to the mast of his ship, listening to the song of the sirens. The book’s call is no less powerful. “Just slip open the cover, flip through a few pages.”

The books placement seems haphazard, until it is revealed they are housed with their family. Now in the care of the Newberry, available to all, the spine backs remain in the same collection from the one so generous as to have donated them.

In the quietude, with the spell of the books still lingering, the fourth floor’s special reading room is revealed. Researchers sit behind glass doors, lingering over the paper in front of them. One such researcher holds up a piece of paper, marked in a purposeful hand for the next book he needs, and a curator walks out to retrieve it. A humorous, yet telling sign is left in his wake: “Please limit your book requests. I only have access to 10 million today.”

Exiting to a crisp fall day, with the lightweight of history still resting on the shoulders, it is possible to see the orators gather at Bughouse Square. The mind feels an ease creep over as a last ray of summer strikes through the fire branded leaves in the trees. Feet press on farther down the pavement, inspired by the journey so many others have taken here before.

A special thanks to my guide, John Brady, the Newberry’s Bibliographer of Americana.

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