Anyone who knows me, knows I love libraries. If I have a few hours to myself, then I'll often find a library (or a coffee shop, these days) to read, write, think.
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.
Posters like these urged kids to read
The interior is equally simple. If I'm remembering correctly, a main circulation desk greets you when you enter, and just after, the young adult section. Beyond that lay the Adult Reading Room. (I only ventured in there looking for my mother, usually finding her in the mystery stacks. To this day, I'm fairly certain that the area would still feel off-limits to me).
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?
4/8/2012 10:56:59 pm
While I've never actually been inside this library, your description leads me to the same general conclusion: Your first will always be your favorite. For me it is the Falls Church Public Library in Virginia, which only beats the Arlington County Public Library by virtue of the fact that I was allowed to walk there alone when I felt like reading a book. The Arlington Library was more majestic (from the point of view of an 8 year old), but to get there we had to make family trips.
Mary V Leslniak
4/9/2012 12:27:35 am
Yes, your first library will always be your love. Mine is the Brown Deer, WI Public Library which is a branch of the Milwaukee Public Library. If you're ever in Milwaukee with time to spare check out the Milwaukee Public Library in downtown Milwaukee. It's a gorgeous old building and you get a sense that the books are alive and calling to you. My current favorite library is the beautiful Northwestern University Library which is also old and gorgeous.
Hey Mary, I have been to the Milwaukee Public library--it is wonderful! I've never been to Brown Deer though. And I have to admit, I love Northwestern's Deering Library too--especially the archives! A little secret...the other series I'm developing features a library just like it! :-)
4/10/2012 05:19:26 am
Thanks for the compliment! The University Archives has been in Deering Library since 1935 (the Archives staff is a bit younger). True, we're in the basement (as so many archives are) but we love to give visitors a tour of the "pretty part" upstairs. And the Archives' location in historic Deering sets the tone for our collection of documents, photos, scrapbooks, artifacts, and much more-- relating to every aspect of NU's history. Happy National Library Week to all library lovers!
4/13/2012 09:06:48 pm
WHAT OTHER SERIES???!!! Yes, I meant to shout. Great post on libraries, too. Certainly engendered a multitude of comments! Anyway, let me repeat, more quietly, in honor of the librarians reading the blog: What other series!!!!?
4/9/2012 02:53:26 am
Susie! This is such a beautiful post - it made my eyes tear up a bit!!! :-)
4/9/2012 03:27:43 am
4/9/2012 03:36:57 am
Susie, I forgot to mention this is a very timely post since it is NATIONAL LIBRARY WEEK!!!! :-)
4/10/2012 12:50:29 am
We are having a special prize give away, library trivia contest, Culver's coloring contest, complimentary cookies :-) All sorts of fun.
4/9/2012 08:00:55 am
I must say that I am jealous of these wonderful "first library" memories. Sadly, I did not have such a connection with my first library. Since then, however, I've enjoyed many fine library experiences. Highland Park and Lake Forest are not only physically beautiful, but are comfortable and inviting. I'll never forget the view second floor of the U of Louisville library--I always felt like I was in a tree house, gazing out at the massive trees.
Matt, Well maybe your 'first library' is the Highland Park library. Wherever you feel connected... That U of L library was great though! And the LFC library is also very pleasant--I think I've done some writing there (or at least some grading, bleagh. a little less fun!)
4/9/2012 09:05:42 am
Wynnefield Library!!!! Man oh man that takes me back...I have gigantic storage containers of books on industrial shelving units in my basement. Since I don't read books twice and I think throwing a book away has to be one of the original sins...I have a collection of books that rivals Wynnefield (that place was small)...
4/10/2012 01:42:52 am
Whoa! I apologize for not looking at the link...That place is still open?! That is unbelievable...I saw a few years back they were trying to shut down the Center City Library (gorgeous place w/ JR memories intact) and assumed they already went after the smaller branches. They should call that place the Miracle on City Line Avenue...libraries are a dying breed...
8/12/2013 09:32:49 pm
Hey Susie. I am very happy that we somewhat share a common interest for books, Me too have a habit of visiting libraries but not on par with you as I don’t travel around the world. But books make me happy too..just like you!
5/2/2014 01:02:34 am
And during my life, I've certainly had the opportunity to visit some beautiful and impressive libraries-
12/22/2014 12:16:03 am
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Historian. Mystery writer. Researcher. Teacher. Occasional blogger.