Wow, can't believe it's been almost two years since I last posted. But hey, there's only so much spare time in a life to devote to writing, so one has to prioritize and the new novel definitely takes the priority... but I was on a day trip to central Illinois to do a little research on the lay of the land down there and stumbled upon this gem. Unfortunately, it was closed so I couldn't go inside. All the more reason to take another jaunt down to Havana, Illinois on the lovely, slow-moving Illinois River. But I'll go on a weekday, when the library is open. You can find out more about this little jewel box that public library benefactor Andrew Carnegie helped fund by checking out their website here.
Hey, it's the beginning of the school year... no time to ponder deep thoughts about library land... time to let someone else do the writing for me.
So here, presented for your approval, a trip back into a Libraryland of yore: the chained library.
Reading, like sex, is -- in general -- a private occupation. However, just as we all engage in public displays of affection -- within reason (unless you happen to be a confirmed exhibitionist or a sociologist doing research) -- we also all engage in PDRs: public displays of reading. People can be caught reading in myriad public places:
Yes, even with all the 21st Century bells and whistles of "doing" -- ("Don't just sit there," they seem to shout, "create!) touted by today's public libraries -- maker spaces, 3-D printers, Media labs, STEM studios -- you will still find people sitting and reading in a library, whether it's an old-school print, an e-book on a tablet or a blog accessed via a laptop.
However, not all library reading spaces are created equal. Just what turns a seating area -- a space with an arrangement of chairs -- into a great reading place, a spot that encourages lingering and where patrons feel comfortable enough to settle in for a good long bout of public perusing?
In hot pursuit of the answer to that question, I recently spent an afternoon checking out some of the best spaces for PDRs in the western suburbs of Chicago (as well as a ringer from the south side). Here, submitted for your approval, are seven wonderful spots -- one for each day of the week -- to curl up, stretch out, assume a fetal position -- whichever way you like to relax with a good book, in full view of the rest of humanity.
For Nature Boys (and Girls)
The best library spaces for public reading often include a link to the natural world, which provides relief for the eyes from the man-made constructs of fonts and graphics and a calm view to soothe a mind racing and wrestling with the words one has just read (such as the death of a beloved character, which, if you happen to be reading a George R.R. Martin tome, occurs at least once every 500 pages).
Wheaton Public Library
225 North Cross Street
This library is located just to the east of Adams Park and uses that to its great advantage in creating alluring patron reading areas on both its main and second floors. Both areas feature comfy chairs overlooking the green serenity of the trees and garden beds, as well as the paths that wind through the park. The second floor also has a Quiet Reading Room, which on select Fridays this summer, will not be soooo quiet. As part of the iREAD "Read to the Rhythm" Summer Reading Program, the library is running a "Quiet Music Reading Hour", from 3:30 to 4:30 pm, during which patrons can enjoy "quiet, wordless" music as a background to their reading.
Elmhurst Public Library
125 S. Prospect Avenue
Another library situated next to greenspace, Elmhurst Public Library not only features a window wall overlooking soothing Wilder Park, but brings the outdoors inside with its lovely leaf carvings on the ends of its bookshelves. (OK, I'm a sucker for that kind of thing.) Ergonomic chairs, an airy ceiling, a "Silent Reading Salon," and a beguiling outdoor reading area with comfortable white benches set under the soothing shade of blossoming trees all seductively whisper "read... read here... now."
Warrenville Public Library District
28W751 Stafford Place
Here's a gem of a library with the Illinois Prairie Path on its front steps and a fabulous greenspace called "The Commons" as its backyard. The area set aside for reading is not especially large, but it has great views and wonderful pendant lighting that enhances it cozy atmosphere. The evening that I visited a band was playing outside, a nice selection of dusties from the '60s and '70s. Sure enough, the library hosts "Concerts in the Commons" on Wednesday evenings during the summer months, which, depending on the type of music, might distract from your reading. On the other hand, it might encourage you to dance!
Light My Reading Fire
We all know that a fireplace, lit or unlit, is just looking for a reader to pull up a chair and set a spell, and some libraries have capitalized on that to create a home-away-from-home atmosphere for their lucky patrons.
Sugar Grove Public Library
125 Municipal Drive
I have blogged about this beautiful library and its troubled history in an earlier post, but today I would like to feature its lovely, two-way stone fireplace, which can be enjoyed in both the main room of the library and a quiet room on the south side of the building. This is truly an all-season delight that entices its patrons to warm up or chill out with a good read.
Tinley Park Public Library
7851 Timber Drive
I just had the pleasure of making a presentation and taking part in a local authors' expo at the jewel of a south suburban library a couple of weeks ago. It has all the bells and whistles of a 21st Century library with the charm of prairie-style architecture and design, stained glass, gorgeous lighting and soaring windows. And it has this absolutely fabulous reading area, which just makes me want to pull Anna Karenina off my shelf, hop in my car, drive 40 minutes and sink into a chair for about 8 hours!
Elmhurst Library also has a fireplace, a glass-enclosed, eternal-flame type, which even on the summer day when I visited, drew a number of patrons around its dancing flames.
Tech, Tech Baby or It's a Table... No, it's a Tablet... a Bii-iii-iii-g Tablet
Glen Ellyn Public Library
400 Duane Street
Here's another library with prairie-style architectural touches and tall banks of windows that give it a light, airy feeling. It's also located next to the Prairie Path and the Union Pacific and METRA West Line train tracks, so the act of reading here, punctuated periodically by echoing train whistles and signal bells, evokes memories of my childhood spent reading blocks away from the EJ&E line on the south side of Chicago. But while its sounds and welcoming reading area nestled under a gorgeous round window recall those old-school days, its most curious feature is a large interactive Samsung table-sized tablet outfitted with Microsoft Surface. It's loaded with games and an app that explores the universe. So if the book you happen to have chosen gets a little boring, you can always abandon it for a quick trip through the solar system.
A Back Porch Where All are Welcome
Sugar Grove has another amazing feature that invites its patron to enjoy and engage in a public display of reading at its finest: its back porch, called, yes, The Back Porch! Wouldn't your book club love to hold its next meeting on this baby, or perhaps in the reading circle in the midst of its beautiful garden:
So there you have 'em, six wonderful public libraries which have created amazing physical spaces for their patrons to engage in the act of reading in public, spaces that both foster a sense of community and security, that engage the mind and the heart with dreams and possibilities, and that enrich the lives of all who wander... and take their rest... in these places.
There's always another adventure waiting on a higher shelf...
When the future was... utopian
Lately, we've been reading about all sorts of building (and other structures) being repurposed as libraries. There's the vacant WalMart in McAllen, Texas that was transformed into a massive public library that, in fact, won the 2012 Library Interior Design competition. And the big-box supermarket that morphed into the Eden Prairie branch of the Hennepin County (MN) library system. Or an old jail in Nassau, Bahamas which now holds books instead of prisoners. Not to mention the old train cars and shipping containers that now carry the means to transport readers rather than cargo.
But what about old libraries? They don't just fade away. They, too, have a storied history of repurposing and there's not better example than the Cultural Center in downtown Chicago.
The Cultural Center was built back in the day when public buildings were monuments to the glory of living and testaments to the continuing progress that mankind was making in pulling itself up from the swamps of ignorance and venality.
The White City...
It was the heyday of neoclassical architecture. Chicago had just hosted the World's Columbian Exposition in 1893, a monumental undertaking in which Daniel Burnham and Frederic Olmsted transformed a 600 acre marsh into a glorious utopian dreamland where grand edifices emboldened with elegant fluted columns and capped with stately domes rose above a stunningly crafted landscape and were reflected in man-made pools and the natural wonder just to the east, Lake Michigan. For an informative and entertaining account of this massive achievement, read The Devil in the White City by Erik Larson (serial killers, urban planning and architecture: the nexus).
In 1891, Chicago actually had the largest library system in the country, possessing well over 120,000 volumes. These volumes had been essentially homeless, moving around from one temporary location to the next. Finally, the Library Board decided that it needed a permanent residence and after some wrangling over the location (the state legislature had already given part of the preferred site to a Civil War veterans organization), it was decided that the new building would serve both a central library and as a Memorial Hall to the Grand Army of the Republic, honoring the Northern soldiers who had fought in the Civil War. The instructions that the board gave to all the architects who bid on the design project were simple: the building should "convey to the beholder the idea that the building would be an enduring monument worthy of a great and public spirited city."
Shepley Rutan and Coolidge won the bid with a design that continued along the White City's neoclassical path, featuring Greek columns, Roman arches, and not one, but two domes.
The People's Palace...
Construction was completed and the library opened in October of 1987. In the first week, thousands of citizens ogled its limestone and granite exterior before they passed through its massive doorways. Their necks strained and eyes blinked as they marveled at the amazingly beautiful stained glass domes. Did they feel light of foot as they traipsed up and down its glisteningly white marble stairways and shimmering halls embedded with mother-of-pearl and colored glass mosaics?
Here was, indeed, a place that could transport one from where he or she was... to someplace else... a marvelous place... a palace of learning and culture.
No, black and white would not do it justice.
Now, as time passed, while the incredible beauty of the building lingered, the mechanical, electrical and communication systems become obsolete and for awhile, it seemed that building would go the way of the old Chicago Board of Trade and be demolished. Then Mayor Richard the First formed a committee to consider the building's fate. Eleanor Daley, known around town as "Sis," made a comment in public that she thought all the beautiful, old buildings should be saved and restored. Signed, sealed, delivered... the Chicago Public Library soon achieved landmark status in both the National Register of Historic Places and the Chicago Landmarks registry.
I have a personal connection to this hallowed place. When I was a callow young woman, just out of college, my first job was at a large advertising agency which shall remain anonymous. Now shortly into my career as a "Mad Man," ("Mad Woman?"), I came to my senses and realized that the 24/7/365 business of selling things was not for me. (And there was no creative director who looked like Don Draper.) So I quit. But since I was still living at home and my decision to abandon this excellent position to do....what?.... would have been severely frowned on by the parentals, I made no mention of it. Instead, I would get dressed in the morning and ride the bus down to the Loop as usual and hang out... you guessed it, at the library! And conduct my job search... as so many other people have done and continue to do... at their public libraries, places rich in resources for when one faces this type of traumatic life event. Only I got to do so under a sweeping ceiling of mosaics with the names of some of the greatest writers in history. Surrounded by walls inscribed with the deep thoughts of the greatest thinkers... Sanctuary... inspiration... another place, another library that would help me get from where I was to where I wanted to be...
After the new Chicago Public Library, named after Mayor Harold Washington, opened in 1991, the city repurposed the old library into the Cultural Center, thanks to the vision of Lois Weisberg, the Commissioner of the Chicago Department of Cultural Affairs. The building was renovated and restored and now features an art exhibition space named for Congressman Sidney Yates, who championed the cause and obtained federal funding for improvements, several small theaters and galleries, the previously mentioned Preston Bradley Hall, which features frequent musical performances and the weekly Dame Myra Hess Memorial concerts, as well as the Museum of Broadcast Communications. It's also apparently a hotspot for wedding ceremonies...
If you've never been, you should consider a pilgrimage to the building called The People's Palace. It's a place out of time, when the future was utopian and men subscribed to the notion of City Beautiful and that we should make no "little plans, they have no magic to stir men's blood..."
You can read more about the Chicago Cultural Center and plan your visit here.
There's always another adventure waiting on a higher shelf...
The Obligatory Halloween Post
Portions of this were previously posted on the Ridiculous to Sublime blog...
It's that time of year again... when ridiculousness runs rampant among children and adults. Especially adults, who love to dress up as vampires, pirates, French maids and superheroes of either gender and consume mass quantities of liquor on a weeknight. And writers of all kinds feel the need to expound on the some aspect of Halloween: its origins, its contemporary manifestations, the co-opting of a child's holiday by adults, yada-yada-yada. Well, why should I fight against the current? So I herewith present the obligatory Halloween blog post.
What else? Haunted libraries of the Midwest...
Oregon, IL: Public Library. The Oregon, Illinois Public Library is believed to be haunted by the ghost of former governor Frank Lowden (1917-1921). And the library even has a video which purports to show just a few of his after-hours adventures:
Peru, IL: Washington School. Located in downstate Illinois, Washington School serves students in fifth through eight grade and apparently has a library with paranormal activity. The story goes that a disturbed school librarian (!!!) killed three students and herself April 12, 1956, in the library. Since then, students have reported hearing screams and seeing an apparition.
Apparently the standard "shush" wasn't working for her.
Peoria, IL: Peoria Public Library. According to legend (as usual), the library was built on ground that was cursed by its previous owner. In 1830, Mary Stevenson Gray, a matriarch of the city, lived in a house on Monroe Avenue. After her brother died, she took over the care and feeding of his ne'er-do-well son, who was something of a hooligan. After one run-in with the local constabulary, he had to hire a lawyer, who took out a mortgage on Mrs. Gray’s home as security against the strong possibility of nonpayment for billable hours. When the deadbeat couldn't pay up, the lawyer sued to foreclose on the home and collect his fee. Mrs. Gray was furious (and understandably so). She kicked her worthless nephew to the curb. (Not long afterwards, his corpse was found floating in the Illinois river.) Mrs. Gray promptly cursed the property and all its future owners. In 1894, Peoria purchased the property and built a library. And even though the library was built next to Mrs. Gray’s home, not over it, the first three library directors promptly died under unusual circumstances. The first, E. S. Willcox, was killed in a streetcar accident in 1915; the second, Samuel Patterson Prowse, died from a heart attack suffered at a library board meeting in 1921. The third, Dr. Edwin Wiley, committed suicide by swallowing arsenic. Ghosts and paranormal activity ensued. The original library was torn down in 1966 and a new one built in its place, but the ghosts apparently have no intention of leaving the building. Employees have reportedly heard their names being called while alone in the stacks, felt cold drafts, and even claimed to have seen the face of Prowse in the basement doorway.
There's always a cold draft in my library, but that's just because they can't seem to regulate the temperature in any public building in which I've ever set foot...
Evansville, IN: Willard Public Library. A “lady in gray” supposedly haunts this 1885 Victorian Gothic building. (How appropos!) The spook apparently doffs a spritz of her favorite perfume before undertaking her spectral wanderings because a whiff of it is often sensed near the elevator, near the rest rooms, or in the children’s room. (Apparently every woman alive and dead loves Chanel No. 5!) Occasionally staff will walk into cold spots. (See above.) Former Director William Goodrich said the lady appeared once on a security monitor placed near the rest rooms. One theory is that the ghost is Louise Carpenter, the daughter of the library’s founder. Louise sued the library’s trustees, claiming that her father was “of unsound mind and was unduly influenced in establishing [Willard] Library.” She lost. (But this begs the question: if you don't like libraries, why would you want to spend eternity in one?) The library enjoys its notoriety: it was once featured on an episode of SyFy's Ghost Hunters show. You can check out the library's ghostcams here.
Detroit, MI: Detroit Public Library, Skillman Branch. This library is apparently located on the site of a former jail where executions took place in the early 19th century. Patrons and employees claim that the library stacks sometimes reverberate with moans, rumblings, and other strange noises.
(Hmmm, no comment other than librarians are very familiar with the variation of the "Mile High Club" that some people occasionally try to achieve in the stacks.)
Cornell, WI: Cornell Public Library. Apparently, people get the heebie-jeebies in the basement where the restrooms are located and report feeling "overwhelmingly uncomfortable."
(Uhmmm, I think I will just take a pass on this one.)
Hinckley, Ohio: Old Stouffer House. Once a private home, the building was re-purposed as a library in 1975. Not long after, paranormal activities began in earnest. The librarians, those co-ordinators of information, began to keep a file on the occurrences. They found that books left out the night before would sometimes be reshelved, while others (particularly the novels of Anne Rice) would be flung to the floor. (Everyone's a critic! Even dead people!) Patrons and staff members report feeling an "odd" presence in the second story rooms and, upon occasion, paper clips have been known to sail through the air. A tradesman in the building to repair the furnace once saw a spectral figure on the basement stairs. The ghosts are believed to be those of Orlando Wilcox and his daughter Rebecca, who during the early to mid 1800's lived in a cabin on the site before the house was constructed. In 2003, the weight of the books and mold inside the walls forced the library to move to new quarters.
Broken Bow, OK: Broken Bow Public Library. This building, built in 1998, stands on the site of a former high school. Sometimes at closing, staff members report a cold spot and argumentative voices in the southeastern corner of the library. (Well, perhaps the ghosts are arguing over the relative merit of Anne Rice's Vampire Chronicles versus Stephenie Meyer's Twilight series. Or maybe they think both are crap...)
The words "beautiful" and "troubled" seem to be used most often to describe young female singers and Hollywood starlets with names like Britney (alternate spelling: Brittany) or Lindsay or Miley whose private/public lives are tinged with the usual scandals: drug and alcohol abuse, diva-like behavior, clothing malfunctions and poor choice of male companions.
But rarely, if ever, to a library.
Yet those two adjectives apply to the Sugar Grove Public Library, an amazingly stunning piece of architecture that has, in its short history, seen enough controversy to fill volumes on the gleaming white shelves within its striking facade.
It's a church... no, it's a cathedral...
No, it's a barn... the biggest, cleanest, freshest-smelling, most light-filled barn you've ever seen...
Whichever edifice you liken it to, the Sugar Grove Public Library is absolutely gorgeous... outside and inside. Rusticated cast stone and brilliant white siding highlight the exterior. Enormous windows, light woods and a soaring cathedral ceiling braced by exposed timber trusses and punctuated by skylights ensure an airy interior with plenty of breathing space and breath-taking views.
Touches of whimsy add to the welcoming atmosphere: a circulation desk enveloped with a mural of prairie grass silhouettes, papier-mâché dragons looming from pipes, a tree decorated with Christmas lights and snippets of old newspaper ads...
The shelving units are gorgeous... clean, open, inviting to browse. The children's area, which occupies the northern wing, is massive, with several reading areas furnished with comfy chairs and a separate story time room.
The adult side of the library, in the southern wing, is both stunning and incredibly functional. A massive, two-sided stone fireplace welcomes browsers on one side and warms a dedicated, quiet reading room on the other, in which one can sink into a cushy wing chair and wile away an afternoon. Flanked by two study rooms, this area offers a wonderful "home away from home" reading space. The library also has a "back porch," a charming room outfitted with wicker chairs and tables, potted palms and a sunny view of blue skies and prairie grass swaying in the breeze just outside the windows.
There are, of course, the pre-requisite technology center, Wi-Fi and a Teen Space room. It's 24,000 square feet of a library lover's died-and-gone-to-heaven dream.
And since the Harper Memorial Library at the University of Chicago was reduced to the Arley Cathey Learning Center/Reading Room, the Sugar Grove Library is now definitely on my "Top 10 Most Beautiful Libraries in Illinois" list.
In 2004, when Sugar Grove residents voted to approve a capital spending referendum to build a new library to replace the tiny, obsolete building they had, they also voted on a companion referendum to increase the library's tax rate for operating funds. They rejected that measure. And they have continued to reject an increase in taxes, including one proposed this past March, which was the 13th time since the district was created in 1963. In the meantime, paying off the "mortgage" for building the new library continues to consume a significant portion of the library's budget, reducing the amount available to pay for staffing, facility upkeep and expansion of the collection. After the rejection, library treasurer Louise Coffman put it this way when residents were surveyed about cost-saving measures: "Would you like books or light bulbs? Because you can't have both."
Did they overbuild? Quite possibly. When the referendum to build the new facility initially passed, the days of rampant growth seemed to stretch out before them like the wide prairie horizon: green and endless. At the time, the population was anticipated to grow to over 60,000; this was the heyday of the "exurb," before the Crash and Great Recession. And so they designed a 24,000 square foot facility to replace a library of less than 7,000 square feet.
Now the population hovers at just under 16,000. Property values have fallen precipitously.
Maybe the former trustees and library director should have seen the writing on the wall... there was apparently dissention and in-fighting on the board in the years after the referendum and the building project, which led to the firing of the director who spearheaded it. Squabbling on library boards occurs more frequently than you would think... et tu, Carol Stream...
But the question in my mind while standing in the midst of this library's soaring splendor... why would a resident be unwilling to spend what amounts to about $54 a year on this incredible resource? (The tax increase would have levied about an additional $25 for every $100,000 of property market value.)
If you buy your café latte at Starbucks five days a week, you're spending over $57 dollars a month. Or a month's worth of craft beer will run you about the same (depending on your consumption). Or a couple of bottles of decent wine... And your pleasure is consumed and gone... down the drain... literally... eventually (actually, sooner than you think).
I recently purchased Donna Tartt's Pulitzer Prize winning novel, The Goldfinch, in hardcover from Amazon for a little over $18 because my book club selected it for our next read. I have abandoned reading it after fewer than 200 pages. Because there's not enough time in this life to continue reading a book that's over 700 pages when you just don't find it absolutely compelling. (How it could possibly have won the Pulitzer Prize is probably the topic for another blog post.) In retrospect, my book club should have waited and gotten our copies FREE from our local libraries... because no one else liked it, either. It's gathering dust on my nightstand, while I have moved on to other, more interesting reads, which cost me $16 and $12, which all total adds up to close to $50...for three books, none which I will ever read again.
Point being, most people probably waste close $54 in a month... or two. $54 spent in taxes for a library is an investment... in the present... and the future.
During my visit to the library, I spoke with its current director, Carol Dolin, who will be resigning her position to take the director's job at the Zion-Benton Public Library. She's leaving because she wants full-time employment with benefits, which is not a possibility in Sugar Grove. Sections of the roof are leaking, perhaps due to cost-cutting measures during the building process. The library relies on numerous grants to add new books to its collection. However, she stated that circulation is up, library usage is up, participation in family programs is up, attendance at the kids LEGO club is up, even though the library is only open 50 hours a week.
What I want to know is what's up with the residents of Sugar Grove. You have a treasure in your midst... work with your library board...brainstorm ways to increase revenue. Could the facility be rented out for special occasions...concerts? Small weddings? (I kid you not, it's that beautiful.) Other events? Community theatre or poetry groups? Be creative... but be willing to pay to keep your treasure growing... because a library is the heart of a literate, vibrant community... more so than any shopping center.
Aint it strange the way we're ignorant
How we seek out bad advice
How we jigger it and figure it
Mistaking value for the price
And play a game with time and Love
Like a pair of rolling dice
So beautiful, so beautiful
----- Paul Simon, So Beautiful or So What
There's always another adventure waiting on a higher shelf...
A Teacher/Librarian's Thoughts on the 1st Day of School... or a Math Lesson about the Importance of Reading
They are all so eager on the first day of school... but here's the rationale for when the initial eagerness wears off and the question rears its ugly head: "Why can't I skip my 20 minutes of reading tonight?"
Then it's time for a math lesson... and it's perfectly okay to use a calculator for this.
Student A, (let's call him Austin), reads 20 minutes a night, five nights a week.
Student B, (let's call him Blake), reads only 5 minutes a night... or not at all.
Step 1: Multiply minutes per night x 5 times each week.
Austin reads 20 minutes x 5 times a week = 100 minutes per week.
Blake reads 5 minutes x 5 times a week = 25 minutes per week.
Step 2: Multiply minutes per week x 4 weeks each month.
Austin reads 400 minutes per month.
Blake reads 100 minutes per month.
Step 3: Multiply minutes per month x 9 months/school year.
Austin reads 3600 minutes in a school year.
Blake reads 900 minutes in a school year.
Austin practices reading the equivalent of ten whole school days per year.
Blake gets the equivalent of only two and a half school days of reading practice.
By the end of 6th grade, if Austin and Blake maintain these same reading habits, not counting reading on the weekends or during summer break:
Austin will have read the equivalent of 60 whole school days, while Blake will have read the equivalent of only 15 school days.
One could rightly expect a gap in knowledge acquired and retained to have widened considerably over the course of time, as well as school performance.
Questions to ponder:
Which student would you expect to read more fluently and with stronger comprehension? Which student would you expect to know more? Which student would you expect to have stronger writing skills? Which student would you expect to have a larger vocabulary?
Which student would you expect to be more successful in school... and in life?
The second in an occasional, continuing series...
Because sometimes laughter is the only thing that saves us...
Librarians have always been rather self-effacing about their superpowers. Because, at the end of the day, we are all about empowering others. And then there's Dr. Barbara Gordon, Ph.D. Zealously committed to justice, she yearns to follow in her father Police Commissioner Jim Gordon's footsteps and join the police force. However, in an effort to protect her from Gotham's meaner streets, he puts the kibosh on that ambition.
So she becomes a librarian instead. Sounds about right.
Barbara earns her doctorate and becomes the director of the Gotham City Public Library, where she presumably:
But that still leaves her with plenty of spare time to kill. She's constantly improving her computer skills, through coding classes and hacker tourneys. She takes karate and judo lessons as an outlet for her pent-up aggression. She snags an invite to a costume ball (sponsored by the Policeman's Benevolent Society) and decides to attend dressed as a female version of Gotham's caped crusader, Batman. Well, wouldn't you know, traversing those mean streets, she happens upon an attempted kidnapping. The victim? None other than bazillionaire reprobate playboy, Bruce Wayne. The villain? Killer Moth. Using those martial arts skills, she kicks some moth butt, allowing Bruce Wayne to escape. And, once unleased, you can never put the crime-fighting genie back in the bottle. Or the librarian back into sensible shoes...
There's always another adventure waiting on a higher shelf...
Superheroes of Library Land
The first in an occasional, continuing series...
I have a thing for Batman... I like my superheroes dark and brooding and shorn of "superpowers," except for their exceptional brains, a few incredible gadgets, and the brawn necessary to go mano a mano when the situation arises.
The Dark Knight indeed...
So I was extremely pleased to discover Batman's library connections and the depth and breadth of his knowledge of library science (with a little help from a Gotham City librarian). In Detective Comics #643, Peter Milligan, a fabulous British writer known for his work in television, film and comic books (X-Men and X-Force), crafted a tantalizing story titled "The Library of Souls," with artwork by Jim Aparo. In the story, Gotham City is bedeviled by a serial killer... who is employing the Dewey Decimal System in his heinous crimes. Get the gist and a look at a few of the panels at A Year of Cool Comics blog.
Holy Classification System!
There's always another adventure waiting on a higher shelf...
Time was, you couldn't just stroll into a library, walk up to a shelf, close your eyes (or leave them open, if you prefer) and pick out a book to read. And that time is now... Days of Future Past. Or would it be Days of Past Future?
Well, to explain my befuddlement, please allow me to digress for a brief history of libraries...
In the beginning...
...there was chaos. Things... information... knowledge was scattered everywhere... and no one could find anything they needed... when they needed it. And it was said by someone... although we don't know who... "let there be a semblance of order." And there was a library.
The earliest libraries were housed in the temples of Sumer, a region of city-states in Mesopotamia. They housed:
And someone said... although we don't know who... "go forth and multiply... gather up all the information and knowledge and have dominion over it... sort it... and organize it... and make sense of it... so that you might make it available for mankind so that knowledge may grow from more to more and therefore human life be enriched." And so the idea of libraries spread and grew, from the Egyptian "House of Papyrus" at Edfu (I kid you not!) to the fabulous scholarly collections of Ashurbanipal and Alexandria and the Ottoman Empire to the imperial libraries of Constantinople and Damascus to the monastic libraries of the Middle Ages to the libraries of the great universities at Oxford and Paris to the earliest "public" libraries in Europe and the United States.
If it's a temple, then I must be a Goddess...
But even as libraries spread and developed and evolved, the notion of "library as temple" remained. It was a Temple of Knowledge of which the Librarian was a Guardian Goddess who sat at the Altar of Reference. The patron/supplicant would approach the altar seeking succor in the form of information (a tablet in Mesopotamia, a book elsewhere, once the "miracle of Mainz" occurred) Because in these early libraries, the emphasis was much more on storage and preservation rather than use. Hence, books were often chained to tables to prevent their removal by sticky-fingered patrons or kept behind bars (literally and figuratively) and only handed over reluctantly for brief periods of perusal within the confines of the temple/library.
And then someone said... "Books are for use." (We actually know who said this, the rock star/ library god, S.R. Ranganathan, who didn't carry his 5 Rules down from Mount Sinai engraved on a tablet, but he still became one of the most influential philosophical figures in the history of librarianship. He also didn't conclude his pronouncement with the interjection, "Duh!") He also said that every book has its reader and every reader has his/her book. Now these truths may seem self-evident, but it wasn't always so.
So, over time and with the brilliant innovations of a few smart librarians following the Laws of Ranganathan and the organizational system of Melvil Dewey (or Library of Congress, if you're in academia) and bolstered by the monetary input of at least one capitalist with a thirst for knowledge and a taste for philanthropy of the intellectual kind, the idea of a library has evolved into being more of a market place. And the buildings and their accouterments changed to reflect that notion. Andrew Carnegie (btw, that's Car-NEG-ie, not CAR-ne-gie), who provided millions to build public libraries in towns across the United States, was also a smart businessman who kept his eyes on his pennies. To reduce operating costs in the branch libraries in his native Pittsburgh, his directors introduced the "open stack" policy, a revolutionary idea of "self-service" in which patrons could access books directly, without having to approach the Reference Altar. John Cotton Dana pursued this same policy in the Denver Public library and other systems that he administered.
Books had become far more plentiful and easier to replace; the cataloging systems were easy to use and made locating material much more straightforward for the average person. Entering the stacks was no longer like entering the Holy Sanctuary, it was like entering Books R Us or Infomart.
Would you like some Nietzsche with your Kierkegaard?
Hence the idea of library as marketplace: librarians, instead of reclining at the altar, go out and drum up business and patrons get to browse and touch the goods before committing to a purchase.
Which, of course, led to exploration and the birth of Serendipity, who, unlike Venus, did not rise up out of the ocean on a clam shell wearing only her hair. (Serendipity the word was coined by Horace Walpole in 1754 and means "a fortunate happenstance" or "a pleasant surprise.") Indeed, it (or she, or he, however way you roll), as a library experience, blossomed in the midst of the freedom that patrons had to, in the words of Ranganathan, "wander among the books and lay his (or her) hands on any of them at his will and pleasure." Accompanied by Serendipity, in the course of looking for one book, a patron may find, just by chance, another even more suited to his (or her) liking. Or perhaps even two or three or an armful... Because you can't always know what you want, much less get it, unless you can take a look around. (And yes, I know that with the sophistication of our online PAC systems, you can "virtually" wander a shelf, but it's not quite the same thing, now, is it? And don't call me a Luddite. I love technology, I am comfortable with it, I teach it, I respect it, blah, blah, blah...)
Serendipity deepens the joy of using a library (there's one of those feeling words again) for patrons of all ages, from the pre-schooler stumbling upon Ruby and Max, those irrepressible bunnies created by Rosemary Wells, while on the hunt for the latest Pigeon book by Mo Willems to the tween who finds the fantasies of Emily Rodda while picking out the sequel to Rick Riordan's The Lightning Thief to the adult who might walk into a library looking for Gustave Flaubert's portrait of a bad marriage and went home carrying Gillian Flynn's as well. And it happens all the time in the nonfiction section as well. You stride purposefully down to the 551s section for books about tornadoes, only to have your eyes drawn to the stunning geode on a cover in 540s. And, of course, you just have to stop and peruse. (Or at least I do!)
Marian the robot librarian?
So, besides being a rather simplistic origin story of libraries, what exactly is this all about?
The Joe and Rika Mansueto Library, the self-proclaimed "library of the future," that's what.
The Mansueto Library, opened in 2011, is the newest library on the University of Chicago campus. It sits just to the west of old Regenstein, like a sparkling, many-faceted, oval-cut diamond tossed down next to a chunk of concrete. The Mansuetos, both alumni, provided a cool $25 million for its construction. Designed by Chicago architectural icon, Helmut Jahn, the library, constructed in the shape of an ellipse, is a stunning physical space and an engineering marvel, consisting of an 8,000 square foot "Grand Reading Room," a state-of-the-art preservation and digitization lab, and an underground Automated Storage and Retrieval System (ASRS) (the "stacks") with the capacity to hold 3.5 million volumes (or volume equivalents, as they put it).
Rather than shelves, the books are stored in mausoleum-like bins and metal shelf units which are attached to 50-foot-tall storage racks.
Patrons search for and request materials in the library's online catalog. A robotic crane swoops along a track, gathers up the correct bins where the books are located and shoots them up to the main floor circulation desk where patrons can check out the material. The whole process takes about 5 minutes or so.
A particularly unique feature about the ASRS is that the material is shelved by size, rather than library classification. Poor old Melvil is probably rolling over in his grave, because this is the way books were often stored before he came up with his classification system. Ah, progress...
Under the Dome...
You have to enter the Mansueto through Regenstein for "security reasons." You do so by passing through a connecting steel and glass bridge with sliding doors that exude a Star Trekian vibe. You emerge into The Grand Reading Room, which is very high-end IKEA: yards and yards of blonde white oak, plenty of stainless steel, long tables, shorter tables, all enclosed by an aluminum-framed glass dome.
The day we visited, the place hummed. Literally. Twice as loud as old Reg ever did. And instead of seeming light-filled and airy, the dome felt oppressive. I felt like I was a firefly trapped under a jar: I could see the enticing natural world (that lovely green grass, those well-tended shrubs) surrounding me, but I just couldn't get to it, no matter how far I crawled. (Shades of Stephen King with some Kafka thrown in...) I imagine in the winter, particularly this past winter with its 80 inches of snow, the effect is igloo-like, which might be kind of cool. Until claustrophobia takes hold.
But the worst aspect for me, the library adventuress, was the absolute lack of serendipity in that ultra-modern space. Yes, I understand the rationale.
Closed vs. Open Shelving:
A closed automated shelving system allows library materials to be stored at temperature and humidity conditions (60 degrees Fahrenheit and 30% relative humidity) that are ideally suited for their preservation but could not be achieved in open spaces where patrons browse and retrieve materials.
And I appreciate the efficiency. And I understand the "electronic open stacks" of digital image-based texts. Like I said, don't call me a Luddite. That's knee-jerk.
It's just that... as a library wanderer, in a place where "not all those who wander are lost," I feel the loss of serendipity.
Closed stacks = no wandering. No wandering = a limit on the possibility of every book finding its reader and every reader finding her book.
That seems kind of like ancient history to me.
There's always another adventure waiting on a higher shelf...
Well, it's not a music video...but it's kind cool to get to go behind the scenes.