Sunday, January 11, 2015

The Trouble With Libraries

The New York Public Library comes with lions

While I was home for Christmas, I had the opportunity to visit the Free Library of Philadelphia.  I had never been there before, despite having grown up a mere 20-minute drive from the place.  Because I had had my first opportunity to visit the much more distant New York Public Library the preceding winter, when I was in the city for a Lincoln College reunion, I could not help making a comparison between the two. 

The Free Library of Philadelphia

Both libraries, I have discovered, are stunningly beautiful.  The buildings are old, ornate, replete with carvings, mouldings, paintings and statues, and those lovely marble floors and niches, those scrollwork-railinged second-tier balconies and rolling ladders that adorn such buildings.  These are places that will draw you in by virtue of their form as well as their function.  Both libraries, when I visited, were full of people: people admiring the architecture, people visiting the various museum exhibits (one on children's books is what drew me into the NY library in the first place), people listening to audio-tours of the history of the place, and, of course, people reading and doing research.  I was most impressed by the sheer number of people reading in the Philadelphia library on what for most people was a holiday Monday, but I should not have been.  Like all public libraries, it is free, and furthermore it is warm, a nice respite from the cold winter day--but even more than that, it is a lovely place to sit and read, and that makes it more of an experience to be there.

Main reading room, New York Public Library
One of many lovely reading rooms at the Philly Library
I have heard people say that libraries are going out of fashion.  That the rise of the cafĂ©-book-store has made them obsolete, or that the advent of Google and its search engines have rendered your helpful librarian useless.  In some respects, they have a point.  I used to go to the library for all of my school research projects, and spend hours there flipping through card catalogues and browsing the stacks around whatever book I had located, in case there were more on the same subject.  Now I don’t need to go to the library to look up even the minor questions that pop into my brain each day.  I don’t have to write out my request on an index card and submit it to someone else’s investigation, like these curious library patrons did. (Not that my personal pride ever would have allowed me to do that!)  I can now do advanced philosophical or theoretical research without even getting out of bed, using countless online journals or academic websites.  And if I want to read a book that I do not already own, I can download it to my Kindle for free (if it is a classic) or for a relatively low price.  What would keep me returning to the little local library in my home town, if I still lived there?

When the humble local library saw these changes coming, it tried to adapt.  It started offering dance classes and yoga classes and film nights to attract people.  It added hundreds of movies to its DVD collection, which also got moved from the front lobby of the library to the middle, so you had to at least brush past some books in order to get to it.  It put together children’s story-time events, pizza and game nights for teens, and reading/ knitting/ birdwatching groups for adults.  It replaced its practical desks and chairs with bold red sofas and graphic print pillows.  It sold off or donated most of the beautiful-but-outdated books in its reference section. It retired its sturdy old card catalogue and introduced fancy new computers, eventually adding a laptop bar where you could bring your own just to use the free wifi.  You can now borrow books onto your eReader of choice, with no late fees for not “returning” it on time.

The techniques were effective, in part, and have so far kept this dying species from going the way of the buffalo.  But there is still something missing.  Something this particular library never actually had, but no one noticed, because it used to be a necessary evil, a place you had to go if you wanted books or information.  There is no beauty.  The building I knew growing up was a homely, single-story cinderblock affair, with the durable blue carpeting and fluorescent lighting of a typical office building.  (Nobody ever wants to go into an office building. They go there because they have to.)  There are plenty of windows and skylights to let in natural light, which I always appreciated as a young student, and to be completely fair, I think the artificial lighting has recently been updated to halogen.  However…the stark plaster walls are unadorned with moulding, the dropped styrofoam ceiling is bare of frescoes, the industrial-metal shelves are an ugly taupe colour unembellished with any wrought iron scrollwork, and it is increasingly more rare to spot upon them a book bound in cloth rather than shiny, plastic-coated paper. People still use the local public library. Of course they do.  They go for the access to books and for the free internet use, and maybe even for the dance classes.  But they don’t go for the experience.

Astor Hall, New York Public Library

Second floor stairwell, Philadelphia Library

I am no architect, but I can clearly see that there are reasons why some locations need to be beautiful as well as functional.  This was the philosophy behind the elaborate (and later much maligned) churches and cathedrals of the pre-Reformation era: to feel truly inspired, it helps to be surrounded by magnificent achievements of art and architecture.  A Jewish friend of mine who recently visited a number of Catholic churches in Rome (including the Vatican, of course) was moved to tears by the grandeur, craftsmanship, passion, and pulchritude visible in all of them.  Art has power, and its absence can dampen the soul as much as its presence can brighten it.

I know there is some irony in my making this plea for beauty in libraries. I am the kind of reader who gets so absorbed in my book that my immediate surroundings melt away, and you can call my name from a distance of ten inches and possibly fail to penetrate my cloud of musing.  Even when researching, I reach a point of hyper-focus where I tune out everything but the words on the page and the notes I am taking for the paper I will write.  But there always comes a moment, when I finish a chapter, or when I close one volume of a journal in order to move on to the next one, when I pause to stretch, sigh, and admire.  That is when the senses of awe, of appreciation, and of accomplishment mingle in me.  I am doing something special, I think, something worthwhile.  They didn't quarry and carve and stack these stones into sweeping archways and lofty domes for nothing; here am I, fulfilling the promise of this monument to human achievement.  I have had the good fortune to make use of some extremely beautiful libraries: the Bodleian Library and its stunning Radcliffe Camera, the Lincoln College library, which is a decommissioned church, the Beinecke Library at Yale.  I have also used plenty of local, school, and county libraries that were far less impressive to look at, even if their collections of resources were perfectly adequate to my needs.  But, just look at these photos, and tell me honestly, where would you rather read?

Inside the Rad Cam
Lincoln College Library, Oxford University

Beinecke Rare Books and Manuscripts

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