According to George Orwell, a bound collection of old magazines is the closest we can come to a time machine. I would add that reading that bound collection in The New York Society Library brings us a little nearer to that elusive invention.
I am not suggesting that the Library is hidebound. Its many charms lie in the ways it changes, and the ways it does not. The online catalogue is quick and handy, but the burnished wood drawers lurk like old friends, reminding us of earlier escapades. Internet connections and rooms for writing on laptops are invaluable—ah, the fury with which we type, the speed with which we "access" information—but the sleepy Members' Room and the even more silent Whitridge Room remain eternally seductive.
The Library's determination to keep up with the times, as we all must, gives me confidence in its future, but my favorite moment of the millions I have spent blissfully at work and leisure in the Library is rooted in the past. And that brings us back to Orwell. One afternoon, while researching a book set on the homefront during World War II, I was sitting in the Members' Room leafing through issue after issue of old New Yorkers. How many places in the world can you do that? When I came across an ad for a military-inspired sweater that I thought would make an ideal Christmas gift for my husband, I quickly jotted down the name and address of the store and went back to the happy job at hand. Only when my feet hit 79th Street did I realize that the magazine was half a century old, the company had undoubtedly gone out of business, and the building had probably been torn down. But within the body-cosseting, mind-enlarging walls of The New York Society Library, they all still existed. How grateful I am for that.