visiting libraries

Back in October, I went on vacation, and, somewhat unusually for me, I took a bit of a busman’s holiday while I was there and visited a number of libraries. I saw the zine library at ABC No Rio. I got a tour of the SUNY Maritime library (which is in a fort!), courtesy of a friend who works there. I strolled through the library at Vassar, where I went to college. One of my hosts, Jenna Freedman, showed me around the Barnard library, including its zine collection, and John Blyberg very kindly gave me a grand tour of the Darien library, where I also got to meet a number of other staff members (hi, all!), who are all just as great as Kate says they are.

Walt Crawford has talked about not being a fan of the “one big library” concept. I must admit I’ve always had a fondness for it, probably at least in part because of its echoes of the IWW and their “one big union,” but Walt’s point is worth taking: libraries are — and should be — as different as the communities they serve. There are a lot of neat things that I could point out about all these libraries, from the kinds of periodicals they have at SUNY Maritime to the automated book return system at Darien, but what I’ve been thinking about most in the weeks since I returned is how radically different these communities are and how the library not only reflects the community but also shapes it.

As I have noted before, I never once spoke to a librarian when I was in college, and though I spent over an hour wandering around there, I did not talk to any librarians at Vassar on this visit. In part, that’s because I didn’t set anything up ahead of time and didn’t want to bother anyone, but largely it’s because I still have no idea where the librarians in that building are.

I love the Vassar library. It is everything people say libraries shouldn’t be these days. It does not have much in the way of comfortable furniture (though there is more than there was when I was there, but there are still plenty of long wooden tables with hard wooden chairs). There isn’t much in the way of group study space (or if there are such spaces, they are well hidden). It is one of the most confusingly laid-out places I have ever been. It’s made up of a few large rooms and then a series of interconnected small rooms. You’ll be following along with a call number just fine, until suddenly you’ll get to the end of one of these small rooms, and then you have to figure out where the rest of your call number continues. I think the continuity is somewhat better than it was when I was there, but it looked to me as though there were still some big jumps. And, as I’ve mentioned, the librarians are conspicuously hard to find.

But you know what? I love that place. When you walk in the door, you go up a few steps, and you’re standing in a sort of central courtyard. In front of you is one alcove with a gigantic stained glass window depicting the first woman to get a bachelor’s degree. To either side are longer alcoves with long tables running down the middle (long tables with rows of green-shaded lamps that look just the way you think an old, woody library should look) and rows of stacks on either side. There are mysterious staircases and all sorts of nooks and crannies. I have a recurring dream — one of my very favorites — wherein I discover a set of stairs I’ve never seen before, and it turns out to lead to a whole other section of the library that I’ve never been to, and it is even more gorgeous than the rest of the building.

Now, I’ve been to a lot of college libraries, and in many of them, the whole reference and instruction and group study stuff is much more apparent. But I didn’t choose to go to those colleges. I chose this one with the gothic architecture and the weird nooks and crannies and the leaded windows, and I learned to find my way around it, and though I never spoke to a librarian, I ended up being one. There’s a place in this world for the library as beautiful place filled with interesting books. It’s not the hippest, to be sure. But it’s still legitimate.

The Darien library has some architectural similarities (I have a semi-annotated photoset on Flickr). It’s been made to look like a sort of old-fashioned library with new-fashioned accoutrement (the Thomas Ford Memorial Library in Western Springs, IL has the same kind of feel). But it is also very consciously designed to be a community space, and a particular kind of community. Thus you’ll find many of the things you’d expect in a great new library — new books front and center, lots of information about programming for all ages, a teen room with comfy furniture and Rock Band, and kick-ass technology everywhere. But also caters to — or shapes — the community. There’s a room called SoHo, which, if you are into office equipment and supplies, will just make you drool. Computers, fax machines, scanners, paper cutters, staplers — they’re all there for the use of patrons with small offices or home offices (hence the SoHo name). All that equipment, out there and available, made me think that the library really is a place to make things, and it made me think — how ever incongruously — of the zine library and activist space I visited on the Lower East Side, ABC No Rio.

When we talk about libraries as community centers, it is places like ABC No Rio and various infoshops around the country that immediately come to my mind. Why? Because these are places that are about making things: making zines, making music, making art, even making food for Food Not Bombs. No, I’m not advocating that all libraries immediately open up their kitchens (though that would be cool — but it would also quite probably be a disaster). I would kind of like it if every public library had a sign that said PROPERTY OF THE PEOPLE OF ____, because our libraries are the property of our communities, and communities should be given pride of place.

What I am advocating is that people think about their libraries not only in terms of how they reflect their communities but also in terms of how they shape them. I was shaped by that Vassar library. I was shaped by the group study rooms at the Iowa City Public Library and by their public LP and CD players (you could even combine the two — if you took a stack of CDs to the circulation desk, they’d put them on and pipe them into your group study room for you) and by their wall of flyers and pamphlets from all the sorts political and social community groups that now show up now in their local associations database. And I hope that the people who come to the library here are shaped by it — shaped to consider the world as wide and vast and varied, even in this tiny little town.

2 thoughts on “visiting libraries”

  1. I think your post is amazing. I too, even though I am a librarian, never spoke to one during the entire breadth of my first two degrees. Funny, I hope we are much more accessible than those people were.

    1. I hope we are more accessible, too, but I also think that there are some people for who appreciate the services of the librarian in the background but don’t really want them in person, and I think that’s okay, too.

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