A Night at the Library
In the early twentieth century, the Brooklyn Library system had numerous Carnegie-funded branches, but, unlike the Manhattan system, then developing its 42nd Street pièce de résistance, it lacked a Central Hub. Some academics and public figures toured France to draw inspiration for what would become a Beaux-Art design for the new Brooklyn Central Library, hearkening back, like the nearby Brooklyn museum, to a classical architectural style, with intricate columns, grand stairs, and domes.
Libraries, classifiers of Knowledge, explicit arbiters of what is, ontologically speaking, and what is not, have long reinforced elite efforts to instill a higher national character in the lower hordes, whose tastes and proclivities never did match their own, who never did give up their vulgar taste for fiction, which, of course, under the system devised by Melvil Dewey, is not, as a genre, internally classified at all. It was to this tradition that Brooklyn Central Library was to be a monument. In artfully invoking clean aesthetics of a higher past, it would evoke, and even perhaps inspire and direct, the utopia of the future.
Alas “the domes,” as one account puts it, “were never lifted heavenward.” The Brooklyn Central Library project, stymied by lack of funds and public support, remained mired for decades in purgatory, its foundation laid on the pointy triangular end of the “hitherto inviolate precincts of Prospect Park,” its Flatbush-avenue wing built up and the rest left for later through the Great War and far beyond.
The incomplete structure became shrouded in legend. Some said dark gloomy waters flooded the basement, obscuring the ghoulish secrets it was rumored to contain. Others speculated that construction had stalled because the library’s foundations were built upon quicksand.
Last year Forbes published and retracted an ill-advised piece arguing that private third-places like Starbucks and online services like Amazon have rendered the tax-dependent public library obsolete. The common line of critique, predictably, was that this was a take of remarkable privilege, and that libraries remain a vital resource and safe space for the those without access to others—who do in fact make ample use of free internet access, books, and programs. “The communities that would be affected the most would likely be low-income people, immigrants, and, really, the most marginalized among us,” an Urban Libraries Council spokesperson told Quartz. The Forbes piece was thus dismissed on fairly standard liberal grounds, upon which the public library was more or less cast as a form of public welfare—a virtuous line to be held in the front against neoliberal-style privatization.
As the Forbes writer acknowledged, the public library is not at an end, and least of all in Brooklyn, where the BPL reports that in the last year library card sign-ups increased by 13 percent. But a generous take on the Forbes piece might grant that heightened availability in other mediums of certain types of “knowledge” has, for better or worse, undermined the relative epistemic monopoly the public library maintained through recent American history. Whereas the BPL’s original charter aimed to “improve the quality of the minds of the people”— which, for librarians and gentry of yore, usually meant exposing the underclass to the traditional canons and classic texts meant to normatively exemplify Platonic or Christian or Scientifick ideals—in the digital age, housing the stories and collections and references of the past remains a necessary though even less sufficient condition of enacting the system’s conceptional mission to “lay a foundation of a better civilization for the future.”
This much is clear, and one arrogance of the Forbes proposition was to ignore how this changing milieu is already, for many librarians, driving a renewed conception of purpose. Reorientation of the public library’s traditional top-down mission of Knowledge-bestowal has long been afoot. Some libraries rent musical instruments, or push career centers and emphasize digital access. One mid-sized Colorado community is debating funding a library-operated newsroom that would impartially cover local goings-on. The Brooklyn system’s growth has, in part, been animated by the library’s increasing emphasis on events and programs, which reflect the institution’s present ambition to become “a truly public forum that transcends well-worn divides to gather people together, generate genuine dialogue, and energize a sense of possibility.” In keeping with contemporary currents in academia that prize relations over hierarchies, this utopian-ish vision conjures a new public library form rooted less in the beneficence of the elite to the hordes, the erudite to the vulgar, the past to the present, than the proposition that the truly public space is essentially generative, brimming and alive with the power to disrupt any and all who enter within, regardless of their social station beyond.
“Certainty,” said DJ Zenon Marko, who has DJed the Night of Philosophy and Ideas since its inception, “is kind of my obsession.”
A worthy mission. But if the Forbes piece underscored—in an ongoing age of paid-shared work spaces and pricy cafes and cloistered university libraries—the well-worn social divides regarding who spends their time in what public realms, the critical responses to the piece hinging on the public library’s benefits for the underprivileged underscored something else: the well-meaning but rarified liberal attitudes of old die hard.
It was the winter of 2019, and the Brooklyn Public Library had, once again, determined to give the public access to its Central Building for a “Night of Philosophy and Ideas.” New School philosophy PhD student Zenon Marko, who studies the “problem of beginnings,” began a dusk-to-dawn DJ set in the Grand Lobby, ambient and inconspicuous, prepared, he said, for all paths the night may take. He presided like a minor deity behind his turntables, themselves behind the circulation desk, next to a sign that read “Check Out.” The vast hall filled with revelers, energized perhaps, as the U.S. French embassy’s cultural counselor Bénédicte de Montlaur described it, by the power of “resistance, of occupying a place.”
By the preliminary designs, this lobby was to be the library basement. But after three decades with little headway on the structure, the abiding powers replaced the old architect and brought in new ones with new plans—a sleeker, cheaper structure in the art-deco mode popular in contemporary fashion. Limestone replaced marble. Designers kept the foundations but removed the neo-classical facade of the partially constructed wing on Flatbush Avenue. The layout was made to resemble an open book. From the hilly park behind it, built atop the old reservoir, vestiges can be seen of the original design, left uncovered even after the modernist revision.
With the air thickening, Brooklyn Library President and CEO Linda E. Johnson took to the podium and told the assembled, who had already filled the space beyond comfort’s capacity, that they were “standing at the heart of the most democratic institution in our society.” Above her on a second-floor walkway, a fragmentary inscription, prominently visible to all entrants, read: “having abandoned the flimsy fantasy of certainty, I decided to wander.”
Attendees made plans. One woman scanned the crowd nervously, circling and starring and double-starring her program, eyeing sessions like “How to Err Wisely” (11 p.m. — Society, Sciences & Technology) and “Hegel’s Big Mistake” (4 a.m. — Languages & Lit Division). The decision to attend one session over another came, as at a music festival, with an opportunity cost, a FOMO-inducing stress factor. Frustrations simmered in the rising heat. The keynote speaker released the assembled and they dispersed to their respective sessions. Some migrated to a first floor reading room to hear a talk on Buddhism, but were stuck among the stacks, behind which a faintly audible disembodied voice could be heard opening the floor to questions.
A man yelled out, “Should we tolerate neo-Nazis?” Another man murmured under his breath, “that’s a stupid question.”
“Certainty,” said DJ Zenon Marko, who has DJed the Night of Philosophy and Ideas since its inception, “is kind of my obsession.” His basic quandary, as he explained, is delimited in the Münchausen Trilemma, named for a German Baron who is said to have pulled himself—and the horse he rode in on—out of the muck by tugging upward on his own hair.
To completely justify any given bit of knowledge, the DJ went on, either, like an inquisitive child, you can continue to ask “why?;” or your argument will be circular, justified by its own premises; or it will arise from a dogmatic axiom such as “life is Good” or “I exist.”
And so: Is there a standpoint, DJ Zenon Marko wondered, from which different philosophical accounts can be authoritatively assessed? Or does truth just come down to a matter of perspective? Power?
Sometime after midnight, DJ Zenon Marko cut the music, and a cellist took the stage, and the assembled sat and stood in a semicircle. Next, one person after another appeared behind a microphone and revealed a personal fear for a live recording of WNYC’s short-form podcast, 10 Things That Scare Me.
- My dog being unfulfilled: “I wish she could tell me if she was living the kind of life she wants.”
- Embarrassment: “my defense mechanism since about the fifth grade has been to make a joke about myself before anyone else can.”
- Having my visa denied: “I no longer feel like I belong here.”
- Rip Currents: “You can’t fight. You have to let it carry you away until it ends . . . You have to fight by not fighting” [eerie cello accompaniment rising]. “I’ve never been caught in a rip current. I wonder, if I could survive.”
It was shortly before 2 a.m. in the basement of the Central Library, and artists in black were holding long black tubes to the ears of listeners, who sat beside upside-down black umbrellas on the floor. The artists spoke into the tubes, their voices inaudible to an outsider. Listeners sat bemused.
After a short while, and according to whatever idiosyncratic rhythm, the artists ended these intimate one-on-one sessions, pulling the tubes away as the listener scurried off.
You would like to hear these secrets.
The public library stands for everyone occupying the same space in solidarity about the mysteries of existence that humble us all without distinction or prejudice.
“The more you stay the more and better and better you understand the meaning of the concept,” said László Jakab Orsós, Brooklyn Library vice-president of arts and culture, who explained that the Night of Philosophy and Ideas is ultimately a “theatrical performance.”
Academically speaking, he said, it is “somewhat superficial.” But “take one step back,” Orsós continued, and “you understand the project.” The event was not so much about teaching but about “seducing people.”
“Almost like a slow dance, you enter a different realm,” he said. “Change your pace. Calm down.” If you were to first look at the building and the institution, he added, you’d wonder what kind of event would work here, now. Last year the event felt “revolutionary, like a movement.” But this year was more poetic: “This is the sobering up.”
Sometime later, well after the artists in black had moved along, David Wallin stood in a line and scribbled in a small notebook. He modified his approach earlier in the night when a drunk person asked him, “Are you having fun?” He said, “yes.” His inebriated interlocutor responded “Fuck you” and kept walking. “And then I realized in that moment.” Wallin said, “that I actually wasn’t having fun and that I had merely said that out of a social norm of ‘yes I’m having fun.’”
He had been too concerned, he realized, with his “plan.” It was stressing him out. Where were his friends? When is this talk? He reckoned his problem came from “trying to figure out what should be.” He partially attributed his initial agitation to the evening’s programmatic form, which he saw as being too compartmentalized, school-like: the authority on the podium bestowing knowledge unto the people, “a space for consumption.” That’s not, for Wallin what philosophy is all about. And moreover, he says, “The company is mixed!”
The political thinker Hannah Arendt made a compelling case that human freedom actualizes in the public realm, amidst a plurality of vantages. Its merits notwithstanding, Wallin found that plurality, also, can utterly tank the vibe. Earlier in the evening, a man approached two female friends of Wallin “under the guise of wanting to have a philosophical discussion.” The line for a puppet show in which Wallin stood began to move, and he paused his story before continuing on. The guy “kind of injected himself into our conversation and then sort of forced them”—his friends—“into a conversation where he was not willing to, kind of, listen.” The topic, as it happened, was “women.”
“I guess one of the problems is that philosophy can mean different things to different people,” said Wallin.
Departing the puppet show, attendees ascended the stairs to the Grand Lobby to find that DJ Zenon Marko had unleashed dark heat upon a nascent dancefloor. The air’s stuffiness has cleared. The edges of the dance zone were not clearly defined in the cavernous lobby, and some attendees milled about the fringes.
In DJ Zenon Marko’s academic studies, that pesky problem of beginnings had, at that time forced him seeking a “middle way” amidst the messy in-between spaces where truth mischievously muddles into paradox.
But DJing, on this night, had him engaged with higher questions: could the lighting in the Grand Lobby be dimmed, all of these inhibited outer-rim folk, too, would be dancing, and so he asked an associate if something might be done.
The associate looked into it. The lighting could not be dimmed.
The dance party had come early. Organizers hoped to end the night in this mode but hours still remained. DJ Zenon Marko wanted to please the organizers, but he was merely following his DJ instincts. It was time to unleash the disco. Some Brazilians requested Brazilian Funk. DJ Zenon Marko feared this might lose the crowd, but he took the gamble. Someone requested a low-down tune, one that may well have been appropriate earlier in the night. DJ Zenon Marko declined.
The distant bass pulsed in a nearby reading room, where William Xie was listening attentively to a talk on Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel, which was being delivered, remarkably, by a high schooler, who treated the matter with uncommon lucidity, particularly considering the hour, which was simultaneously early and late.
The talk ended, and Xie sat waiting for the next. He was a “new traveller,” he said, and a “stranger to this city”—he came to the United States just two months prior. He had never before been to America, and this night of philosophy and ideas, he said, made an impression on him. His English was fluid but deliberate. He particularly enjoyed an 11:30 p.m. lecture by a sociologist on libraries that was given in light of a book the sociologist wrote called Palaces for the People: “It impressed me deeply.”
Xie’s personal experience with libraries so far had corroborated that talk’s sentiment. “I am not a resident,” he explained. “I don’t have a permanent stay in the US. I’m just a visitor.” Nonetheless, he had procured a library card in the Brooklyn and New York systems. “This system is open to everyone,” he said. The library helped Xie print documents that he used to apply for a driver’s license. He had also borrowed law books from the library “to study the possibility of my immigration case.”
Xie was seeking asylum in the U.S. He had little money and “no legal standing here,” he said—an uncertain road ahead. But for now, the 4:30 a.m. talk, entitled “Rhapsodies for the Present: Museotopias, Chronotopes, Conditional Stories” was about to commence, so Xie gave a quick nod of accord, raised one eyebrow knowingly, and returned his attention to the matter at hand.
The Grand Lobby had quieted. Two young women lingered on the second floor balcony, watching over the guided-meditation session. With increasing frequency a meditator stood up and looked around, shaking out her arms, wandering to the door. Outside the air was cool and pleasant to breath. Three young attendees huddled and smoked cigarettes. A bus roared by.
Back inside, a calm hum rose above the remaining din, as though the building, having been rendered sentient by the night’s activities, was returning to its resting form. The mass of attendees dwindled, though DJ Zenon Marko manned his station in the Grand Lobby still. But there would be no dance finale.
I departed the library, walked down its steps into the coming dawn. I savored the air, the relative silence pocked by a gentle quiet horn somewhere. I aspired to negotiate my mental tangle into a singularity commensurate with the aesthetic coherence of this pleasant pre-rush scene.
But my mind refused to settle: just as in the public library, where disruption rules, where the person next to you watches John Wick: Chapter 2 with the volume on medium while emitting erratic grunts that may or may not be their usual course of breathing, it’s difficult, even in solitude, to find that singular peace.
So what, then, do we make of the un-peace, personally? Or more broadly, of the simultaneously sensible and subversive notion that sharing a public space is a necessary condition for sharing power?
If public libraries are not for the rich, they probably are not otherwise for the poor. To understand the public library as a benevolent form of welfare would be to entirely miss the radical potential of the institution as a political project. It isn’t utopian, nor is about culturing the masses, nor offering the marginalized a space where they mustn’t “pay for coffee.” Rather the public library stands for everyone occupying the same space in solidarity about the mysteries of existence that humble us all without distinction or prejudice. It is about renouncing all certainties—all except for one: that to stand in common is, in itself to establish a common ground on which to stand.