When Does A Library Feel Like Home?
May 06, 2021
Photo courtesy of Frick Art Reference Library
I was speaking with my dear friend Michèle this past weekend about libraries and librarians, and it reminded me of the time I worked at the Frick Art Reference Library (FARL) in New York City when I was a freshman in college. I shrugged this memory off as one of many things floating through my head, when I happened across this article in The New Yorker, When a Museum Feels Like Home. "OK," I muttered to myself, "Can't ignore this any longer — there's a story in here somewhere."
For those of you unfamiliar with the Frick Museum in Manhattan, it was built by Henry Clay Frick the chair and co-founder of US Steel (not exactly the nicest guy in the world by our standards today). Despite his less-than-appealing persona, the one thing he did do was collect a lot of European art. His collection became one of the finest in the U.S. He eventually built a mansion on E. 71st St. just off 5th Avenue and in the mid-'30s it was transformed into a museum on one side and his daughter, Helen, bought and attached two brownstones for the Frick Art Reference Library (FARL) on the other.
In the late '70s, I was attending college in Manhattan and I needed to make money — what student doesn't? One day, as I was scouring through my college's card index file of job openings (ah, the days of hand-written job notices!), I came across one for working at FARL. I'd not heard of it before, but what the heck, I needed money. The job was for an art clerk and the only requirements were to be physically fit (really?), a book lover, know how to use a card catalog, be highly accurate, quiet, and polite. I called right away and off I went for an interview.
The FARL is incredibly intimidating. As you walk up, you see flags hanging a few stories up. One was the Stars and Stripes, another was the NYS flag, and the third — as I learned later, indicated whether or not Miss Helen Clay Frick was in residence. You enter the doors through this stunning portico, and you take an elevator to the "main" floor or the ground floor (you needed a special key to go up to the penthouse where Miss Frick was when in town).
The building was beautiful from the outside, if somewhat overwhelming — it was not what I was expecting. I gulped, got in the elevator and emerged on the "main" floor where the reading room was. It was an absolutely gorgeous room. Tall windows let in natural light, rows of tables with desk lamps and comfortable chairs. Beautiful floors. Some individual desks scattered here and there. All I could think was that I'd love to move in to this room with my books.
At the room's entrance sat this well-dressed, handsome man who greeted me so quietly I almost didn't understand him. There was a contraption next to his small desk — turns out it was a machine that had a stylus and a surface with a piece of paper over it. What you wrote on that paper was transmitted to the other floors in the library that had a station identical to this one. This is how instructions were given to the art clerks who were on the floors finding materials. His desk phone was muted. When it "rang", it made one quiet "tick" sound like a clock.
There was a strict dress code we all had to adhere to, guests as well. Ladies wore skirts or dresses with stockings, no high heels or boots. Men had to wear jackets (ties were optional). I was shown the employees' locker room, and the time clock, as well as the employee entrance to be used in the future. I could bring my lunch or dinner and put it in the employee lunch room, which was on the top floor of the FARL. However, if Miss Frick was in residence, no one was allowed up there.
My first job at FARL as an art clerk meant I took guests' requests for books, found them among the stacks, and delivered them to their desks. The FARL was free for anyone to use (still is), but you had to make a reservation in advance as they only allowed so many guests each day. And OMG! The stacks were on 10 massive floors that were almost an entire block long (or so it seemed)! One floor housed the oldest materials, and the rare book vault. My other responsibility was to put materials away when they were done with them.
The reading room was always so quiet. All you could hear was the turning of pages, scribbling in notebooks with pencils (no ink was permitted for fear of damage to the materials), people shifting in their chairs or moving around to stretch their legs. Occasionally you might hear a whisper between researchers, but that was frowned on and discouraged. It always smelled of old books — that combination of dried paper, must and dust as books and documents were handled. And occasionally, you'd hear some snoring as one of the more elderly guests would fall asleep at their desk!
We clerks didn't bring only books. There were thousands upon thousands of exhibition catalogs as well as photos in the archives. The staff research librarians created documents with photos specially mounted on a stiff archival paper, typed with tons of information. These photos included art beyond what was in the Frick Collection, and had photos of restorations in process, and restorations completed.
I loved this job! It was quiet. People were polite and gracious. I got to handle rare and fascinating books on art. Occasionally I got to help guests find books in the extensive card catalog. In short, I got to play art detective! I had no special training other than an insatiable curiosity and burning desire to solve mysteries. I loved hunting information down. And being down in the stacks was sheer heaven. Again, totally quiet except for the ventilation system, no one to bother you. And if it took an extra five minutes to find something because a tome caught my eye and I rifled through its pages, well, who was to know?
I did this for about three months, when my supervisor asked me if I knew how to type. I did, and as an extremely fast and accurate typist I was whisked to the floor below Miss Frick's apartment to work with the research librarians on the photo archives. I began typing information onto that special stiff archival paper. Discerning their different handwriting was a challenge. I remember one librarian in particular whose handwriting was so bad I thought I'd go blind trying to read it. But I loved this job! Loved it! Because as I was typing, I was learning so much about different artists and their specific works of art. Who the subject was, why they were important to the artist, the artists' techniques, the context behind the work, who commissioned the work, who owned it through the years, how much it sold for and when, when and where it was exhibited. It was an extraordinary learning experience.
All was going well until the ONE day (the ONLY day) I went up to the "employee lunchroom" to eat. Unbeknownst to me, Miss Frick had arrived unexpectedly about an hour before and no one had told me. The staff librarians had gone out to lunch together (something they did occasionally), and I was left alone. I went up the stairs bringing my sack lunch hoping to make a cup of tea. As I was filling the kettle with water, a soft voice asked, "Could you make me a cup of tea too?" Without turning around, I said, "Of course." And as I went to turn the stove on, I turned and OMG! There she was!
I must have turned sheet white. I began stammering apologies, grabbed my sack, and began backing out the door as quickly as I could. Miss Frick smiled and said, "I'm sorry to have startled you. I only just arrived and snuck in. Thank you for putting the water on." I ran as fast as I could down those stairs to the next floor. All day long, I kept waiting to get fired. The librarians came back from lunch, settled into work. The head librarian, Miss Steinbach came in, glanced around, smiled, waved, and went on her way. When I went to punch out at closing, there was a note attached to my time card. It said, "Not your fault this time. Don't let it happen again. Ask before going upstairs." No signature. I never, ever, went upstairs again. No way. No how.
I only worked at the Frick for two semesters because I chose to transfer upstate to a big university. I remember thinking often in those first few months at university about how much I missed working at FARL. Despite its formal atmosphere, it was a warm one. I felt at home among the stacks, helping the guests, working with the librarians. For me, it was a place of learning, sharing information, discovery, and beauty. I never realized until then that I had "detective" skills. And everywhere you turned, there was something beautiful to look at. (Including being able to visit the Frick Museum around the corner for free.) No one begrudged me asking questions about a work of art. Everyone liked what they did. There was never a moment of boredom (which would have been excruciating for me).
Every so often in our lives, we get lucky and find work and a place that makes us happy. FARL was that for me. I'd go back in a heart beat!
What about you?
I'd love to hear about your experiences in finding work and a place that made you happy, a place that felt like "home."
- Where were you?
- What work were you doing?
- With whom did you work?
- What made it such a happy experience?
- Would you go back?
- Are you as happy today? If not, why not? If not, what small change could you make to improve the experience for yourself?
- How could you make it a better experiences for your employees? Your colleagues?