On May 1, 2017, the main branch of the Jersey City Free Public Library reopened literally after years of renovations. As I’ve feverishly worked on my book manuscript for the last eight months, I found myself unable to consult a needed book for an obscure fact or flip through a bulging vertical file to search for a newspaper clipping. Simply put, I had questions needing answers. And I needed the New Jersey Room Collection to provide them.
On a recent Saturday afternoon, I stepped away from my writer’s garret and ventured downtown to address these questions and other new topics of interest percolating in my mind. Upon entering the library, I climbed the marble stairs to the third floor and the library’s most unique and valuable collection.
With freshly painted walls and hardwood floors, the New Jersey Room exuded an air of quiet seriousness. Spacious tables invited the intrepid researcher to hunt through papers and books for a eureka moment. Sunlight poured through the large windows. When needing a break from reading, one could look up and glance at trees and beautiful brownstones.
Within a few minutes of sitting down and shedding my coat, a staff member approached and offered assistance. Through the course of my visit, I chatted with the staff about my research interests and thanked them for their attentive service. The librarians in the New Jersey Room hold a deep and rich knowledge of Jersey City history and they exhibit the infectious passion of true experts.
Pencil and notebook in hand, I looked around the room at the bookshelves, filing cabinets, and drawers holding the history of Jersey City. Survey maps, directories, scrapbooks, newspapers, long out-of-print books, and assorted ephemera are the raw materials for writers and scholars. Bit by bit, laboriously, patiently, we piece them together and create a coherent, factual, and hopefully engaging story. Looking around the room, Jersey City’s history appeared very vulnerable.
Without institutions such as public libraries and their staff, how will local history be saved and told? Easy answer: it won’t. Jersey City is a city with a population of well over 250,000, yet it’s public library system is woefully underfunded. The library needs more books, more staff, and more branches. This is a critique of city government priorities, not the library. For instance, how many books are never purchased, so that the city can hire another ward leader as a pothole inspector?
A vast amount of investment and building is occurring within our city? How are we collectively benefiting? How is the city developing current and future resources? Robust and reliable funding for our public library system would mark a good improvement. Libraries are free, public universities and reveal rich worlds to their users. They help citizens demand more of themselves and where they live. For the powerful and secure in status, that might be a problem.
Musings aside, if you’re looking for a good book to read, wanting to research the history of your home, or hoping to discover the story behind your neighborhood park, make a trip to the Jersey City Free Public Library.
For the record, I’m a librarian, writer, and autodidact. I enjoy nothing more than a quiet room with books and my imagination.