And during my life, I've certainly had the opportunity to visit some beautiful and impressive libraries--Trinity College Library (Dublin), the British Library (London), the Oxford Library, the Biblioteque Nationale (Paris), the Newberry Library (Chicago), the Free Library of Philadelphia (main branch)...to name a few. And certainly, I live near some lovely libraries now in Highland Park and Lake Forest (Illinois).
But for me, the most beautiful library in the world is the Wynnefield Library, a branch of the Free Library of Philadelphia, located just a few blocks from where I grew up in West Philly. It's not fancy, it's not glamorous--in fact, the modest 1960s exterior has a lot to be desired visually. A gently flowering tree gracing the red brick walls might look to be the library's only beauty. Certainly, no Baroque drama, no Georgian curves here, not even a whit of Victorian indulgence to be found.
To the left, the children's area awaited.
There, the children's librarians (especially dear Ms. Naismith) knew our names, often greeting us with recommendations and new readings to share. As an inner-city regional branch, I can only imagine now how limited the holdings must have been, how few the copies of popular books, and how few new books ever went into circulation.
Yet, I can remember leaving most days with one, two, three, even up to the maximum twelve books we were allowed to check out on a given day. (Thank goodness it wasn't twelve books total, especially with my--ahem--terrible allergy to returning books on time! I'd never get anything new.) The books were much-handled, many were stained, but I don't remember ever minding their careworn pages.
The library brought us together in ways I can scarcely make sense of now. The librarians didn't just read us stories; they helped us form book clubs, let us put on plays, and stimulated our curiosity in new worlds.
I remembering saying to a librarian once I couldn't find any more good books. She promptly introduced me to Tamara, a girl who lived near me, but whom I'd never met. Tamara in turn introduced me to Louisa May Alcott. Without this introduction, I might never have discovered one of my all-time favorite authors, or found a new friend.
Clearly, the librarians simply loved reading, just as we did, and shared that love of reading with us. We weren't just "patrons" to them (or worse, kids to be ignored). The librarians viewed us as what we were: individuals, thinkers, and above all else, readers.
The Wynnefield Library may not have had much, but in its beautiful humble way, it sustained and nourished a community.
What do you think? What's the most beautiful library?