Library apartments, the culture that was New York

In the early to mid twentieth century, the majority of the city’s libraries had live-in superintendents. Like the superintendents who still live in many of the city’s residential buildings, these caretakers both worked and lived in the buildings for which they were responsible. This meant that for decades, behind the stacks, meals were cooked, baths and showers were taken, and bedtime stories were read. And yes, families living in the city’s libraries typically did have access to the stacks at night—an added bonus if they happened to need a new bedtime book after hours.

There is also this:

The family, who were joined by Rose Mary’s younger brother Terrence in 1945, lived in the library until Patrick Thornberry retired as the building’s superintendent in 1967. Their home was in what the library now refers to as the “closed stack” (a locked stack reserved for rare books). While the closed stack is currently sealed off to daylight to protect its rare contents, when the Thornberrys lived in the library, it was a light-filled and vibrant space. But the family was by no means confined to their apartment. They also enjoyed a penthouse-level garden and after hours, access to the library’s stacks and large reference rooms too.


Cait Etherington offers much more, including additional photos.  For the pointer I thank Ted Gioia.


On TCM on July 4 "The Music Man" was featured. I have never watched the whole movie. This time I saw for the first time the small sub-plot which involves the jealousy of the older women in town for the youngish librarian - apparently, the local elderly millionaire had "left the library to the town" but "left all the books to her" ( the librarian). (She explains the innocent reason for this to Professor Harold Hill after he incorrectly hints that she, like he, is an "experienced" person). (For the record, the old women in the movie - actually middle aged actresses, but that was then, this is now - pronounced Chaucer and Balzac correctly, but not Rabelais. Who knows why?)

Sounds paradisiacal.

"While the closed stack is currently sealed off to daylight to protect its rare contents"

Why should the contents be rare? The real value of a book is the contents, which can be easily copied. The book itself, no matter how rare, is simply a curiosity.

Most old artifacts aren't useful other than as curiosities, but they're still considered valuable.

Also, copying the content out of books, particularly old, fragile ones, is a non-trivial exercise. It may be cheaper to preserve a collection of old books than to copy all of their content.

Why not have live-in employees now? Companies may have real-estate in valuable, desirable locations that is not being fully utilised; this would be a way to get more value out of it.

A few decades ago I worked for the Canadian Federal government and one of the buildings had an apartment where the building manager lived. He had retired, but still lived there. He still owned the building though, and in all the odd corners he had a bunch of stuff stored. A building of that size required someone to run the heating and cooling systems, keep the sidewalks clear, and do minor repairs. Things have been automated and far more simple to operate now.

Now the requirements are more specific and demanding; security, specialized trades and certifications for operating and maintaining equipment. The trained security officer isn't going to sweep the sidewalk, nor is the mechanical maintenance engineer, you hire someone cheaper. Many of these people almost live there, they are there all night, but they have a residence somewhere else.

Schools in eastern Europe normally had live-in caretakers until recently. I recall them from my primary and secondary schooling in the 80s and 90s.

I'm currently working at a university in Beijing, and one of the biggest surprises has been the prevalence of live-in caretakers. Every dorm has a doorman/woman, behind whom you can always see a bed and a dresser. Even the cooks in the cafeterias have beds somewhere behind the kitchen; more than once I've seen students go back after hours to request a particular dish for the next day. Not to mention that all the lower-wage workers have accommodations on campus (the professors, of course, live where they feel like). In my experience it makes for more of a sense of community between students and staff - one absolutely lacking from my experience in America, besides a few half-hearted efforts at "dialogues."

Anyway, this seems idyllic, and makes me wonder why we aren't still doing it in the U.S. today.

Malianwa, When I participated in a programme in Oklahoma State University, Stillwater , in 1998, I was lodged in a student hostel and the manager told us she resides in the building and is available 24 hours for any help. I thought this was the norm in all American campuses .

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