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PROWLING BUFFALO'S LIBRARIES ON A QUEST FOR THE CLASSICS

Let's take on odyssey on the Buffalo waterfront to find James Joyce's masterpiece "Ulysses" -- and to search for the classics in the Buffalo and Erie County Public Library system.

Recently, "Ulysses" was unanimously selected by a panel of scholars and writers as the best English-language novel, as announced by the Modern Library's editorial board, listing the 100 best English-language novels of the 20th century.

Our adventure takes us to the Riverside Branch Library on Tonawanda Street. In this case the golden fleece is a particular edition of "Ulysses," published in 1961 by Modern Library with a special historical foreword.

That specific edition was checked out on the recent morning we looked. But it can be picked up on the shelves at the East Clinton branch, Brighton branch, the Grand Island Memorial Library and the Elma Public Library.

If you're out of travel time, you can order it, and it will be waiting for you at the Riverside branch in a week. If you would be just as enchanted with, let's say, the 1961 Random House edition of "Ulysses," it can be there waiting for you in 48 hours. That "Ulysses" is also on the shelves at the Williamsville branch and the Eden Library. And downtown, naturally.

The Buffalo and Erie County Public Library system does permit you eventually to get the classic you want, even if it's not on the shelf at your local library. And discussions are under way to see how waiting time can be shortened.

"Truthfully, our branches are very small libraries," concedes Michael C. Mahaney, assistant deputy director of community relations for the Buffalo and Erie County Public Library.

"When they're small, they can't maintain large collections. However we have a very large, well-equipped Central Library on which they can rely, in addition to those other libraries in the area.

"We have a system where we share resources, so every library won't have every single classic or multiple copies of classics, but they can always get them from somebody else."

Yet circulation here, compared to other libraries in the country, is relatively high, just a page under 9 million. This figure includes also videos, CDs, and magazines. But it's mostly books. "Books are still most important," Mahaney stresses.

"I think Western New Yorkers read a little bit more than people in other places," Mahaney says. "But because of the nature of our library system, we don't feel you have to have every single title, at every single location, because we share our resources. You might not find a title at your neighborhood library, but we can get it for you one way or another in as little time as we can do it."

On average, every man, woman and child in Erie County borrows about 10 items every year from the library, perusing current novels, self-help books, biographies, books that appear on the New York Times Best Sellers list, children's materials, general reference and non-fiction.

"I'm very happy about that," Mahaney says.

"The thing about classics is that they don't get requested all the time," he added. "You probably have better luck finding John Grisham at every library than finding every title of Milton at every library. Every branch will have a basic reference collection and basic non-fiction. If you look at something like 'Adventures of Huckleberry Finn,' with school assignments, most kids are going to have to consider reading it, most libraries will have copies. Probably paperbacks, in some cases hard cover."

The central library has all 100 best books, and the list is posted in its Peter C. Cornell Lifelong Learning Center. Librarian William Sutton reports that interest in the classics has been heightened since the list appeared. Especially in demand is Nabokov's "Lolita."

And, of course, many Western New Yorkers have already read the heralded classics on the list such as "The Catcher in the Rye," "Brave New World," "Slaughterhouse Five," "The Sun Also Rises," and "On the Road," and are looking for the next J.D. Salinger, Aldous Huxley, Kurt Vonnegut, Ernest Hemingway and Jack Kerouac.

That's the thesis of Mary Bobinski, director of the Amherst Public Libraries -- which includes Audubon, Clearfield, Eggertsville-Snyder and Williamsville branches. She observed that interest in the classics picked up a little bit after the 100 Best was published, "but there wasn't a whole flurry of requests."

Her patrons -- 3,500 a day -- are interested in a wide range of books, but they do like looking at what's new. Yet even if a book is never checked out, it might be kept for historical or literary value. If it doesn't meet that standard, it might be donated to another library.

The library system has not conducted a formal study on the reading habits of Western New Yorkers. But to give you an idea of what people are reading for example, only one copy of "The Studs Lonigan Trilogy" by James T. Farrell (No. 29 on the 100 Best list) was checked out on a recent day. There are eight copies in the entire system, four at branches and four in the Central Library collection.

Library system computer records as of last Wednesday afternoon reveal that Danielle Steel's "Five Days in Paris" had been checked out 156 times, while Hemingway's "For Whom the Bell Tolls" had been checked out 114 times. (Of course, Buffalonians have been reading Hemingway a lot longer than there have been computer records.)

Throughout the library system there are 36 copies of Theodore Dreiser's "Sister Carrie" (No. 33 on the list), not including paperbacks. When Grisham's "The Street Lawyer" came out, the library ordered 368 copies.

No need to get snobbish about reading habits. When the great novelist John Barth spoke at Daemen College in Amherst several years ago, the former UB professor noted that he sees many people reading Danielle Steel. Far from being discouraged, Barth was thrilled that people are reading.

"I don't know if I'll be around in the next century," he said. "I have a wistful hope at least the novel will be. It delights me to see ordinary taxpayers still reading anything that's fiction. When I'm at a resort beach or on a wide-body plane -- two famous enclaves of reading for pleasure -- if I see 299 people all reading Danielle Steel, it doesn't depress me at all," Barth said. "It cheers me up to see people still reading for pleasure. Of course one wishes they were reading Gabriel Garcia Marquez, perhaps. But then everyone to his own taste."

Mahaney and Ms. Bobinski share Barth's liberal views on reading.

"Reading skills are cumulative," Mahaney says.

"People are reading for a variety of reasons. They might read certain titles because they're changing careers," Ms. Bobinski says. "Computer books get heavy use."

On Grand Island, "a lot of people like best sellers," reports Lynn Alan Konovitz, director of the Grand Island library, which has 57 of Modern Library's Best 100 in its collection.

"Grand Island is a big 'mystery' community," he points out. When patrons see an author profiled in The News or on "Oprah," there's also big interest in their books."

The lists, however, are fun, and Ms. Bobinski is planning a special display honoring the classic leading books. And "Ulysses" may just be on it.