Tuesday, December 6, 2011

Public Libraries

There seems to be so much interest in terms of books as “objects” that one can practically have a blog devoted to that subject alone!  I have received heaps of email on the subject.  (Strictly speaking, email doesn’t really come in “heaps” – but it really felt like it!)  It’s quite an interesting subject, to be sure, and I will revisit it from time to time.

My blog post, What Makes a Good Personal Library, prompted a wide range of opinions, from “how fabulous to have a personal library,” to “how pretentious,” to “save trees by reading eBooks,” and everything you can imagine in between.

But there’s something about walking into a room full of books – whether it’s a library or a bookstore or a friend’s living room – that feels wonderful:  the scent; the muffled silence (as many sounds are absorbed into the walls of books); the colors and patterns of the book-filled shelves; the enticing anticipation created by all those beckoning spines….

While some libraries fill you with a sense of ease and comfort when you walk into them, others fill you with wonder – and awe. 

Public libraries are a luxury that all of us can enjoy.  In New England, every tiny village was built around its own library.  One might think that this creates an unnecessary redundancy, but local libraries can give you a very homey, welcoming feeling; it’s a place where you see familiar faces and know exactly where to look for the books you want.  It can be so welcoming a place that you are drawn to visit it more often than you might a larger and less intimate one.

But there are other libraries that offer a completely different experience.  When you step inside one of those, you often find that you need to pause for a moment, look around, survey the scene, and drink in the room’s  “landscape” before you venture further inside.

I recently stumbled upon a website which featured “The 35 Most Amazing Libraries in the World,” and the libraries are – amazing!  Each of the 35 libraries is photographed and described so as to explain why they were chosen.  It’s an informative list, and although I’ll be posting some photos here, I urge you to visit the site and look at them all.

I have been fortunate enough to have been in some of these libraries – Trinity College Library in Dublin, the Bodleian in Oxford, the British Museum Reading Room in London, the Vatican Library, the New York Public Library, Yale’s Beinecke Library, the Boston Public Library, the Morgan Library in New York, the Peabody Library in Baltimore, Phillips Exeter Academy Library in New Hampshire, the Library of Congress – and I can say that every time, my experiences exceeded my expectations. 

No matter how august the setting, how precious the books, how steeped with history the building, you can always find a friendly-faced librarian who is eager to show you around, to share the library’s treasures with you.  (And what treasures there are!)  Book lovers seem to love book lovers, wherever they appear. 

In a few of these libraries, I was given special, behind-the-scenes tours, and while that was, indeed, exciting, it’s the reading rooms – the rooms everyone has access to! – that gave me the most pleasure.  You can view and even touch unimaginable treasures in these repositories of civilization and history; you can do research; you can even read!  (I have to admit, though, that just looking and wandering around is what I most enjoy.)

When in such libraries, I feel much as my children did when they looked at our [temporarily owned] copies of the 2nd and 4th Shakespeare Folios; I feel the magic, the wonder, the awe.  I tread softly and touch slowly, carefully.  And I feel lucky.

Here are photos of some of the libraries featured on that website which I found particularly interesting.

The Stockholm Public Library was built in 1928, and I’m surprised at how modern it looks.  I love the way the visitor is surrounded by books, and that the books on the balconies are also open to view and are accessed by an open staircase.  Such balconies remind me of one of my “dream” libraries:  the one belonging to Henry Higgins in MY FAIR LADY!

Stockholm Public Library

Jose Vaconcelos Library

How’s the Jose Vaconcelos Library in Mexico City for modern?  While this  architecture can be considered impressive, I prefer the books to take center stage rather than the architecture.  Here the books don't beckon to me adequately, but perhaps it feels different when you're actually inside the building.

 The Library of Alexandria, Egypt, is another modern space.  If you’re wondering where the books are, at the moment there are only 500,000 books in a space that is meant to hold over 8,000,000!  
Library of Alexandria

It is hoped that this library will recreate the library that was known as the “greatest library in antiquity” before it was destroyed.

Phillips Exeter Library

Famed architect Louis Kahn designed the modern Phillips Exeter Academy Library.  The building won many architectural awards, and it was even used as a  commemorative postage stamp!  While this photograph emphasizes the architecture and looks rather cold, this is one of the libraries I visited, so I can tell you that it doesn’t feel that way when you’re inside.  There are many intimate spaces in which  small groups can gather, the collection is notable, and the books are very accessible.  

When I worked as a reference librarian and book purchaser for the  Howard County Library in Maryland, we got all of our inter-library loans from the George Peabody Library in Baltimore.  Howard County is midway between Baltimore and Washington D.C., and Columbia, a modern, “planned” city – the first of its kind in the U.S. – was built there.  With all the competitive people working in that cosmopolitan government and business corridor, it's easy to forget that Maryland is a Southern state and fought for the Confederacy during 
The Peabody Library
the Civil War; but when you step into the Peabody, you're quickly reminded:  those ornate iron railings on the balconies almost shout "New Orleans and the South!  It's a wonderful library.

The Trinity College Library Long Room has become something of a tourist attraction.  Those roped-off bays are a bit off-putting, but if you really want to do research, you can arrange an appointment and work there.  I love libraries that have such open “bays.”

The Long Room at Trinity College Library
The Morgan Library

The Morgan Library is also a museum, and the book shelves are gated so that you can’t really get at them but can only look at them as a kind of permanent exhibit. But the rooms are magnificent and the exhibits are always worth seeing.  Here, too, you can ask for permission to actually use the books.

The Chateau de Chantilly Library: what can I possibly say other than "WOW!"

Abbey Library of Saint Gall

I’ve never been to the Abbey Library of Saint Gall, but one 
of my favorite books is the exquisite 3 volume monograph of 
THE PLAN OF ST GALL published by the University of 
California Press in1979.  The original plan was drawn on vellum between the years 820 and 830 CE - and survived!  Astonishing that the public is welcome to use this library!

The New York Public Library

Sometimes I feel as though I spent a third of my life at the New York Public Library.  I lived and went to school in New York, and this was my library of choice.  It was a great and inspiring place to study - and a wonderful place to meet people, too!

The Boston Public Library was the first public library in the U.S. and is my current library of choice.  You can see from this photo what I mean when I say that some libraries are hushed, dreamy, and magical….

Boston Public Library
Beinecke Library
In addition to being beautiful and having an amazing collection of rare books and manuscripts, Yale’s Beinecke Library is also extremely high-tech. That central air-tight column of glass which houses and preserves the most rare of the books is a modern marvel; it’s even been featured in novels and film as the place where the good-guy gets locked into and must find his way out before he stops breathing – or where the bad guy finally stops breathing!

Reading Room at the British Museum
The relatively new Reading Room at the British Museum does not have the charm of its predecessor, but it has an impressive collection of books; and I love that such a wonderful museum has a library as its centerpiece.


For me, Oxford University’s Bodleian Library is the very definition of what a library should be.  One of the oldest libraries in Europe, it has everything:  impressive history, important works, and great beauty – inside and out.  It consists of several buildings, with the Radcliffe Camera Science Library the most beautiful among them.  I love this building so much that I actually bought a paper construction kit of it and made myself a small replica that now sits on my desk.  I love to look at it.

Radcliffe Camera of the Bodleian Library

The Library of Congress really does have everything:  it is the largest library in the world, “as measured by shelf space and number of volumes.”  And just think:  it belongs to us!  

Library of Congress

Wouldn’t it be great to travel to all the great public libraries in the world?  And in each of those libraries, you’d probably find a fellow book-lover eager to show you around….

But in the meantime: visit, support and enjoy your local libraries!


P. J. Grath said...

Helen, I am bowled over! Especially since at the moment (for the sake of the wireless signal) I am sitting in my car outside our sweet, tiny little Leelanau Township Library, way smaller than others in our county (Leland, Suttons Bay, Empire) and way, way smaller than the magnificent new public library in nearby Traverse City, so big and grand that when we went for the Grand Opening (a very dressy affair to which we were invited, to the envy of many friends), we felt as if we were "somewhere

One of my life's biggest thrills was having a letter admitting me to the library at the Sorbonne. (I had to write the letter in French and have my philosophy department chairman sign it.) The first time I went to work there, I was so excited I could hardly see straight, let alone read. Not allowed to roam the stacks, I had to take slips of paper to the counter requesting specific titles. It was fine. Those long, venerable wood tables and the green-shaded lamps, the high ceilings--I was in heaven!

Have not been to any of the great libraries in your post, so thank you for the wonderful tour, overwhelming as it was.

Farshaw@FineOldBooks.com said...

And I've never been to the Sorbonne Library, Pamela; nor have I ever been invited to gala grand opening of a new library. But, like you, I feel as though I'm in heaven when I get to work or just be in a wonderful library.

Bonnie S. said...

I loved this blog, Helen.  It was a travelogue of the libraries of the world.  Great job -- beautiful photos, interesting architecture and wonderful collections of books.  Thanks for sharing!

Ester said...

Wow how amazing. Your description and knowledge of these great libraries is wonderful. This is the best
blog of all them. I have visited some of the libraries, in different parts of the world, and enjoyed being there, but could never see it the way you do. This is a wonderful education.

Keep on sharing, I love it.

Marash Girl said...

Here's to the little local library, the library that is disappearing, the library that opened our hearts to books, the library that we walked to on our way to second grade, the library that is not economically viable in the greater scheme of things. After Newton, Massachusetts, closed all of its village libraries, it built the most expensive high school in the United States. Go figure. If kids don't learn to love books/libraries/knowledge from their earliest days, what good is the most expensive high school in the United States?

Farshaw@FineOldBooks.com said...

Amazing, Bethel, that the government thinks that "expensive" means "good" -- or is it the expression of power that this reflects? What you need for a good school are good teachers and good libraries. (Didn't Socrates do all his teaching in a grove?) Now, even universities build libraries at the outskirts of the school, or in one awful case, underground! You can go to school in these places and never even know that there IS a library there! In days of old, the library was the CENTER of schools and communities. Woe is me....

Farshaw@FineOldBooks.com said...

Thanks, Bonnie. That's my idea exactly: a travel itinerary centered on the visiting the great libraries of the world. Where there's a great library, there will be many other "great" things nearby, like museums and theaters.

Bob Rush said...

Your posting is fabulous!!!! The libraries were extremely interesting, and the store looks great. I can't wait to visit it again!!!

Anonymous said...

Hi Helen-
 Such a great blog-you put so much work into the library blog- I loved it-the pictures were wonderful! You're so fortunate to have been to so many special,wonderful,happy places! If you remember--the library is a very happy place for me-I'm still there twice a week!