Sunday, April 5, 2015

The Public Library

If you love public libraries, I recommend the book The Public Library by Robert Dawson. It's mostly a photographic essay from his travels across the U.S., but it also includes short ruminations from writers like Barbara Kingsolver, Ann Patchett, Amy Tan, Philip Levine, and a number of librarians.

I appreciated that several of the essays dealt with the way public libraries have increasingly become the only place that allows homeless and often mentally ill people a place to be. The book also covers the closing of libraries in hollowed-out small towns and bankrupt cities, the role of libraries in maintaining civic memories, and how they've had to change with technology.

A few favorite facts:

Identifying the first public lending library is a bit disputed. The Franklin, Massachusetts, library (1778) says it's first, but it wasn't financially supported by the public. The Darby Free Library (Pennsylvania) also says it was first (in continuous operation since 1743), but its funding sources from the early decades are not mentioned. It sounds like most people agree the Peterborough Town Library in New Hampshire (1833) was the first public lending library that was funded by a common tax on the people of the town.

Once that library set the standard, the model spread rapidly across the country. (This kind of viral spread of institutions fascinates me. The YMCA, for instance, was founded in 1844 in London; by 1851 there were chapters in 10 countries. The first natural food co-op opened around 1970, and by 1975 there hundreds across the country -- dozens in the Twin Cities alone. I know that it's a human tendency for us to copy each other, but opening an organization and constructing a building take a lot more effort than switching a hairstyle.)

The Seattle central library -- the one with the unfriendly doors -- opened in 2004 and was designed by a pair of Dutch architects. It is considered a tourist draw (and I agree, it's worth a visit, as long as you can find the door).

A librarian from Troy, Michigan, wrote in 1971 to dozens of authors and other prominent people and asked them to send a message to the child readers at the library. She got responses from almost a hundred, including Isaac Asimov, E.B. White, and Neil Armstrong. I liked this one from Dr. Seuss the best:

No comments: