Thursday, June 29, 2006

What Should a Library Look Like?

I’ve been discussing library architecture with Madison Guy, who blogs at He sent me a link to photos of the new Seattle Public Library, which looks amazing. Yet at the same time, I find the design a little confusing, I think because I have certain expectations of what a library looks like. The truth is, I don’t expect a library to be that fancy, or at least that modern. I expect a library to look kind of used, or lived in, if you know what I mean.

The libraries that I love the best are cluttered, slightly down-at-the-heels sorts of places. My local branch library has orange vinyl Danish Modern love seats, a battered photocopier, and a barrel for the food pantry donations. I can’t see any of these things in that beautiful glass tower in Seattle. This conversation with Madison Guy made me think about the library of my childhood, which is something of a Greek Revival pile, built around 1920. It's located in Haddonfield, New Jersey, and here is a photo of it.


It’s the only photo I could find on the Web. Apparently someone is thinking of remodeling or rebuilding it, because I also found references on line to new designs for it. I spent many days (Saturdays, summer week days) in the children’s section of this library from the time I was old enough to ride my bicycle there alone and for several years thereafter. The children’s section (in the basement) had its own entry, through a back door and down a dark staircase. I can still remember the smell, which was mildewy, and the sound of the card stamping machine (ka-thunk). I remember the summer reading program, which mostly consisted of writing my name and the name of a book on a green paper leaf and sticking it to a picture of a tree on a bulletin board. Some books I remember from this library are Nancy and Plum by Betty MacDonald, My Side of the Mountain by Jean Craighead, A Little Princess by Frances Hodgson Burnett, the Mary Poppins series by P.L. Travers, and Dancing Shoes by Noel Streatfeild. We moved to another town when I was 13, and I have never returned to this library. In my head it has stayed exactly the same.

I don’t know whether my children will reminisce about the orange vinyl couches when they are grown and gone. They seem to prefer the library of Mr. Barnes and Mr. Noble. I’ve recently heard that my local branch is also scheduled for reconstruction, to be replaced with some combination of faux prairie-style library/retail/condo nonsense. So I guess I’ll get a chance to see if I can still enjoy myself in a place that smells like new carpeting.

Please know that I am all in favor of libraries getting what they need, be it new books or new buildings. I’m just talking here about expectations and memories.


Maxine Clarke said...

I was at Dulwich library last night, in South East London. I found this picture of it on the web:
Dulwich library
(no idea if this linking will work).

There is a picture of it as it is now on Wikipedia at:
Library today

I like old fashioned library buildings more than these modern glassy things. Where I live in Kingston the library building is not bad in that way but the library itself inside is very dull and unimaginative.

Anonymous said...

I think you would love this library: The P.L. Travers series is there, plus --The All of a Kind Family.-- And, my favorite as a kid, --The lonely Doll--. I love your blog! Please keep writing!

Becky Holmes said...

I loved The Lonely Doll! Edith! It was a huge favorite of mine as a kid. After my sons were born I searched for it, but couldn't remember the name or the author, so I never found it. Then it was reprinted a few years ago, and I rediscovered it. By then my sons were too old for it. But now I see, on the Amazon page, that there is some kind of controversy about the "message" in this book. What message? I can't remember any message! All I remember is how interesting the photographs were. Here is a link to the page. Thanks so much for reminding me of Edith and her bears!

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