Neighborhood: Libraries

Originally published in Kinfolk Magazine, Issue 18

Straddling the US and Canadian border, the Haskell Free Library and Opera House has a black stripe across its floor that separates Vermont and Quebec. The 110-year-old library is a designated heritage site for the two countries—a symbol of shared culture and community. To border patrol, it’s a headache, but to the locals who visit Haskell, their public library is a place to read, socialize and take in cultural performances with their neighbors — even if the stage is technically in Canada and the seats are in the States. During an era when the public library’s staying power is diminishing, Haskell is a reminder that these spaces have exist- ed for millennia as physical manifestations of equality, knowledge and community— unbiased areas that encourage neighbors of all types (even nations, in this case) to come and learn in one mutual environment.

Public libraries exude an ancient quality that makes them seem like they’ve always been there. Like Tolkien’s wizards, libraries appear so eternally wise that it’s almost impossible to imagine them in any kind of undignified infancy. After all, humanity has been collecting texts to demonstrate and develop an understanding of the world since the creation of the written word.

However, until relatively recently, access to these texts had been exclusively restricted to certain members of society. More than 2,250 years ago, only scholars, royals and rich bibliophiles were welcome in Ancient Egypt’s Library of Alexandria, which boasted a massive inventory of text categorized via systems developed by Aristotle. As Ancient Egyptians believed that writing was a way of communicating with the future, scribes also enjoyed special library privileges along with an elevated social status. The role of gifted writers was to create textual time capsules in the hope that their civilization’s accomplishments would always be remembered. And in some ways, they were right, for now many of their tomes sit beside each other in the very establishments in which they once penned (or quilled) those histories.

The first public libraries opened in Rome shortly after the Library of Alexandria was destroyed during the Roman conquest of Egypt in 30 B.C.—Caesar saw its loss as an opportunity to establish Rome as the epicenter of intellectualism. And how better to one-up a civilization than by encouraging the dissemination of impressive academia, effectively creating a more enlightened populace? In a society that equated books with prestige, Roman scholars who were un- able to afford the lavish personal libraries that were trendy among the wealthy had now been granted a means to learn.

The intellectuals of the time also believed that a library’s architecture should reflect the empowerment of society. As a result, these buildings were built to communicate the breadth of knowledge that the people had at their disposal, complete with dramatic entry staircases that conveyed a sense of astral ascendance toward education. Likewise, cultural rulers began to scoff at the misappropriation of books as home decor. Roman playwright Seneca eye-rolled at private libraries in De Tranquillitate An- imi, writing that personal book collections were too often assembled for show as home decor rather than serving their true purpose of being spread and read.

Though it may seem like an odd match today, many of Rome’s public libraries were built as additions to public bathhouses. These institutions were said to be lavish and well-respected community centers where all levels of society congregated to chat, soak, eat and—for the literate minority—read.

Following the fall of the Roman Empire in the fifth century, the intellectual Dark Ages caused the general public’s literacy rates to dip even lower than their already dismal levels. During this time, libraries were kept alive by monastic communities such as the Byzantine monks, who be- lieved reading and writing were essential for spiritual development. They customarily loaned their sacred works to neighboring monasteries, thereby technically creating the world’s first inter-library loan (no word on late fees).

The Renaissance of the 14th century saw a resurgence of Greco-Roman educational ideals. Private book collections were still the domains of the wealthy, but public libraries surged in popularity particularly after the 15th-century invention of the printing press made literature easier to circulate. Through both technological and cultural evolutions such as these, libraries have supported intellectual freedom, free speech and creative property through the ages. And above all, they have championed social equality by making resources increasingly more accessible to everyone.

Regardless of geographic location, libraries are uniquely situated between the private and public realms. Unlike bookstores, libraries are free from consumerist expectations: There’s no purchase necessary to spend an entire rainy afternoon harvesting new reads, and all walks of life are welcome, as long as they respond compliantly to a pointed “shhh”. They uniquely toe the line between lounge room and town square, which leads to all kinds of small territorial acquisitions—the full-day carrel stake-out, the tabletop stationery sprawl—as well as the inevitable surprises that occur when diverse groups of strangers share a space, such as stumbling upon someone napping between the stacks or brushing their teeth in the bathroom. We can be privately absorbed in a novel that bears the decades-old underlined passages and dog-eared pages of those who’ve come before us, all the while being present in the sphere of public life.

As modern methods of gathering information have evolved, so has our practical use of the library. For many, internet searches have replaced card catalogs, but libraries still offer active experiences that no passive content provider can replicate. A new technology movement aims to provide public library patrons with even Public libraries speak volumes about our communities. From the Ancient Greeks’ ornate marble displays through to the digital era’s shifting designs, these shared spaces provide whole neighborhoods with a location to share ideas as well as knowledge (as long as you keep respectfully quiet).

Designed by Cologne-based Yi Architects and built in 2011, Stuttgart’s Municipal Library is built around a four-story contemplation chamber that is surrounded by study rooms. Other areas include the reading room, which is encased by white staircases and a skylit ceiling, a cafeteria and a seminar space.

more opportunities for activity and inter- action. More than 2,000 workshops called Makerspaces (or Fab Labs) have opened in various places—including many public libraries—worldwide, allowing visitors the chance to not only accumulate knowledge, but to apply it. “Makerspaces are creative, DIY spaces where people can gather to in- vent and learn,” explains Jeroen de Boer, whose work with FryskLab, a Makerspace at the Library Service Friesland, earned him a nomination for the Netherlands’ 2015 Librarian of the Year. Makerspaces encour- age new inventions that can be made for the price of a library card with tools that would otherwise be expensive and inaccessible. His co-authored 2015 book, Makerspaces in Libraries, expands on how these facilities are “bringing back the value of making things yourself and with others” by acting as laboratories where library patrons can actualize their own creative designs using relatively low-cost hardware and software (as well as information from books and the web).

“Libraries have always been places for gaining knowledge, building insight and launching investigations into the nature of things,” de Boer says. “The whole idea of a Makerspace is to make tools and knowledge available to everyone.”
And it’s not just the technology within libraries that has advanced—their physical entities have adapted too, and the forms libraries have now taken are endless. You’ll find a library within a repurposed army tank in Buenos Aires, roadside in a small New Zealand town and open-air in a Tel Aviv park. The Liyuan Library on the outskirts of Beijing employs the twigs that locals use for firewood as a building material, the Taipei Public Library is the country’s most eco-conscious building (it collects rainwater and uses photovoltaic solar power) and the Picture Book Library in Iwaki, Japan, skips a spine-out approach in favor of displaying every book cover face-forward to create a rainbow honeycomb of tantalizingly visible stories. Each distinct library conveys a narrative of its community’s identity, both present and past. What we read becomes part of us. Libraries facilitate discoveries, introduce us to untold facts and propel us into the minds of characters. They contextualize our lives in a greater scheme and help us find reasons to relate to each other. Every balance from the atmospheric mix of cozy and vast spaces to the social cocktail of public life and satisfying introversion has played a part in the spread of knowledge and development of civilization as we know it.

Most importantly, libraries are capable of inspiring imagination and a sense of intellectual adventure. They emanate a seductive pull that should not be under- estimated—the mesmerizing promise of row upon row of beckoning, beautiful books. Libraries are more than the sum of their parts or the books in their catalogs: They also serve as entry points into the infinite adventures waiting to be selected from their shelves and enacted together.
© Adrienne Matei 2017