The other night I logged on to my library account to see whether I had anything coming due, and up popped a survey. I answered the questions as well as I could, but was left feeling that I could have said a lot more.
I submit that the best buildings in the world are public libraries. A library serves humanity at its essential best. Being open and not prescriptive, it does so more broadly than a school or theater or museum, and is prior to these. While I am no impartial judge, and can think of many great libraries, I think that mine, in Boston, may be the greatest.
THE PUBLIC LIBRARY OF THE CITY OF BOSTON BUILT BY THE PEOPLE AND DEDICATED TO THE ADVANCEMENT OF LEARNING
That monumental inscription runs high along the entire length of the neoclassical main building on Copley Square. I couldn’t say it any better. I believe in the power of public things to make our lives better and gladly contribute my share. I wish that weren’t such a controversial position these days. When I go in this way, I always read the inscription, and then I glance at the hundreds of names of famous authors and scientists carved in smaller letters underneath the windows. I know most of them, but Goldoni? Massinger? Which Ford is that? Someday I’ll have to make a study of them.
Once I’ve passed the iron and bronze entryway and the marble floored and tile vaulted lobby, I generally head for the circulating collection in the adjoining building, but I have a choice: I can stay on the first floor and skirt the fountained courtyard, a route that drops me off in front of new nonfiction, where I’m sure to spend a few minutes. Or I can head up the stairs, between the lions (older than New York’s I read somewhere) memorializing Civil War infantry units and the towering Chavannes murals.
Though it’s out of my way, I’ll stop in the dark and usually empty room where Edwin A. Abbey’s dreamlike series of grail murals decorates the higher portions of the walls.
This upper route leads to the second floor of the new building where the reference and circulating nonfiction books normally reside.
So what do I actually use the library for? My notes tell me that I’ve read more than forty books from the library in the two and a half years that I’ve been here, over a third of the books I’ve read in that time. I remember checking out Dostoevsky’s The Idiot, Neal Stephenson’s Reamde, Laxness’ Independent People, volumes of Livy, Plutarch, and Sallust, and of course Shakespeare. A pretty good mix, I think.
I’ve checked out other books repeatedly without reading them, and I don’t feel guilty about that. Chaucer and a book on backgammon shared that fate. On the last trip I agonized over whether it was time to tackle the last volume of Livy, but I finally decided I had enough to read already. I feel like I could make better use of the library. There’s a lot besides circulating books. I’ve requested books from delivery, but only rarely. I’ve barely glanced over the list of available databases. On the other hand, there’s no sense worrying about having a lack of books to read or pretending to have given the ones I have the attention they deserve.
For someone who believes he’s in the greatest place on earth, I could really stand to pay more attention to what goes on here. Right now the library is in the midst of a major renovation, and for all I know they could be getting rid of all the books and replacing them with video games. That’s a worst case scenario, obviously. I duly filled out my survey, expressing my opinion of the importance of buying books and maintaining the collection. My sense is that it’s reasonably up to date and investments are being made in the right places. When I read about a hot new title in The New York Review, I can usually find it.
The last question on the survey was an open ended ‘what would you like to tell us?’ Well. The trouble is, I hesitate to share my most outlandish fantasies about what a great library could be. With apologies to my many friends in primary and secondary education, I often find myself contrasting the current state of public schools with my dreams of what a library could be. I don’t mean this to reflect badly on teachers; I think it says more about our ideas of education as a society.
A large city might spend billions of dollars on public schools. What do we get? The bitter struggle with which children are forced to attend school is matched by the bitterness of the controversy over who should teach them and what. The solution, so far, has been more testing. Those who voluntarily continue their education fork over at a rate that increases far beyond inflation.
Now I would never, ever suggest that it would be a good thing to actually defund the public schools and invest the money in libraries. But just imagine what we could do with that money. Or with the money we might save if we decided that we didn’t need to invade two countries on the other side of the earth at once, or secretly keep track of every electronic message. That’s what I’d like to see. I picture a colossal open stack library accommodating every collection of works ever dreamed up, open twenty four hours. It’s a possibility: it is high time that America saw another architectural and engineering milestone, a wonder of the world. It would be the kind of place people would go willingly, as they already do, in droves, to our underfunded and vanishing libraries, but worthy of their most admirable self improving impulses. Add a Roman bath and I would go homeless for such a place. At the very least, the true public spiritedness and endless possibility embodied in our libraries should be the model for all of our public endeavors.
First photo is by Fcb981 (Eric Baetscher?) via Wikimedia Commons, CC Attribution Share Alike, the rest are the author’s own.