I’ve adored libraries for as long as I can remember. My library obsession began in my childhood hometown, a place blessed with an All-American civic jackpot of the early 20th century: a Carnegie-endowed temple to books and knowledge. Our little public library was a surprisingly grand space, rich and substantial. From the granite steps and copper downspouts to the long oak tables and brass hardware, I always loved how that jewel of a building smelled and sounded and felt. I loved the heavy doors with their oversized knobs, the echo-y sound of my footsteps in the entry vestibule, the smooth slide of the card catalog drawers. No one needed to be hushed there; the architecture informed all who entered on the etiquette of how to be. Which meant that everyone had to be like me—well behaved by way of being painfully shy, and very, very quiet.
Perhaps the most delightful artifact of my first library was the little yellow library card it bestowed to me, with my name and address typed in bold capital letters. When I was still reading picture books, my card lived in a file drawer at the checkout desk, accessible only to the librarians. Later on, as I graduated to chapter books, I got to carry my library card with me—my first, and for a long time, my only wallet-sized form of ID. That card proved that I existed, that I mattered. I could walk into that library anytime I wanted and pick out whatever I wanted to read, so long as it wasn’t from the grownup section. For the girl who memorized whole passages from the books she loved, my library card was my ticket to somewhere else, someplace magical.
You might think that my early experience would cause lesser bookish institutions to pale in comparison, but no. I knew from the start that any library was a celebration of reading, no matter how humble the structure might be. Years passed before I realized that my grandmother’s library was really just a dusty storefront on her Main Street, with no reading room, and no divisions between the grownups’ and the children’s sections. It may have been small, but it gave me a whole new collection of books to choose from, and that was all that mattered. I do remember being underwhelmed by the offerings at the laundromat that my mom dragged us to on our school vacation ski weeks—though that was not so much a lending library and as a random collection of paperbacks that fellow wash-and-dry patrons were willing to leave behind. Even so, the mere existence of that cardboard box always gave me hope, that there might be something new to read while we waited to pair up our ski socks. More than once, a stash of Archie comic books buoyed me through a rinse cycle.
This is a more scholarly version of my old laundromat reading options. But the fact still is, when someone in my neighborhood puts a box on the sidewalk with a sign that says, “Free Books,” my heart skips a beat.
Later on, I went to a college that boasted libraries galore. But the library I called my own those years, the one I rode the subway to get to when I had something important to attend to, was the one I discovered while wandering around on my own. The Boston Public Library in Copley Square became my go-to locale for term paper drafting and midterm study sessions, or anything else that required applying seat-of-the-pants to seat-of-the-chair attention. Something about the rows of long oak tables in the Bates Reading Room threw me back to my little Carnegie hometown library, I think. Perhaps it was the smell of the place, or maybe the glow through the thick green glass shades on the individual reading lamps. I liked the pilgrimage of getting there and settling in, and I liked that there were people not exactly like me there—people who were older, people who were reading for pleasure or working on their taxes. On the days when my college felt a little too exclusive, I loved the all-are-welcome element of the public library.
Confession: I took this photo of the BPL courtyard on my way to Fenway Park.
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Years have passed, and still, libraries draw me in. When I travel, I seek out the libraries, old and new, big and small. This past week found me in Chicago, where I noticed a building worth circling back to, on my cab ride in from the airport. Turned out my library radar was working just fine, thank you.
Even though it opened two decades ago.
I learned that Chicago has two impressive library buildings downtown. The first one I met up with is pictured above: The Harold Washington Library Center. It’s the equivalent of the Philip Johnson attachment to my beloved McKim, Mead and White library in Copley Square–the not-so-grand, but highly user friendly cousin to the old Beaux Arts palace. What the HWLC lacked in ornament, beyond that amazing cornice, it made up for in helpfulness. That, and great quotes, everywhere.
At the Library of Congress in DC, there are also soaring quotes, but all unattributed.
You’re in a library! the walls in Washington seem to be saying. Go look it up!
It was a day later that I happened upon a building that was once the city’s grand dame downtown library. Now the Chicago Cultural Center, the 1897 edifice spoke to me, beckoned me in. I didn’t know what I would find, but I was pretty sure the lobby would be compelling.
Turns out Plato and Aristotle were high, high above these guys.
But I love that this little zone had quotes in Hebrew, in Chinese, and even in Egyptian hieroglyphs.
Needless to say, I’ve added Chicago’s library buildings to my long list of libraries I love.
T. S. Eliot got it right. The mere existence of such places is our best hope for the future.