by Olivia Hamilton
Walking into the Main Reading Room of the New York Public Library is an overwhelming experience. The books, which cover the walls, are stacked so closely together they look more like wallpaper than books on a shelf. The rows of elegant chandeliers are reminiscent of something out of a castle, and the elaborately painted ceiling seems as though it belongs in an art museum. But beneath all of this grandeur, people are reading and working, often with the help of one of the librarians in the room.
John Ragh is one of those librarians.
“I’m here because I want to hang out with the books,” said Ragh, who will have worked at the library for 40 years in September. He sits behind the reference desk at the entrance of the room, ready to hand out laptops to those who need one, or track down a book on his computer.
Ragh’s love of books is evident in everything he says. “Books, they were created by people for a specific purpose and they continue to work for people,” he noted. “Once you learn to read, you’re admitted to all of this knowledge.”
Even as the world becomes increasingly digitized and technological, the New York Public Library remains open and popular. The Main Reading Room fills with both tourists and locals during the day who admire its beauty, read books from the extensive collection and get work done. “This is an excellent library not just because of its depth and breadth of collections but also because of its openness to the public,” said Ragh. “There’s a long history here from the very beginning of the general public coming in here and using the library to really educate themselves. We cover most subjects that people want to know about.”
While Ragh praises the history and tradition of the library, he also sees the value of moving the library forward with modern technology. “You can’t stand still,” he said. “We have gone from handwriting books of parchment to printing them on paper to photographing to reproducing them on photographing machines. Every one of those developments and the texts they’ve produced, [the library keeps] all of those.”
He added: “The point [of technology] is to take things that are painfully slow and make them faster for our benefit, not for the machines’ benefit, and not for the benefit of the tech department.”
As a librarian Ragh is not only concerned about books; there are other forms of information with which he works. One such source of information is newspapers. They are an example of the crucial role technology plays in a library. “They are very hard to catalog,” says Ragh. “But when you scan a newspaper and put it in a [computer], that’s when I like the machine very much.”
The depth of information the New York Public Library collects is essential to its availability to the public. “Libraries are basically stuck with collecting everything,” notes Ragh. “Why? Because we have to keep up to be available to ourselves and people.”
Ragh has seen the New York Public Library evolve over the past 40 years, primarily because of advancements in technology. However, its core principle remains the same. “The library allows people to learn or to entertain themselves at a human pace,” he said. “Come in, sit down, and that’s what you’ll get.”