Libraries Matter!

English: A panorama of a research room taken a...
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If you’ve never visited the magnificent 101-year-old library building at the corner of Fifth Avenue and 42d Street, the one whose wide entrance is guarded by two enormous stone lions, Patience and Fortitude, you’ve missed one of the world’s most beautiful spaces devoted to  books, reading and learning.

The library is going to get a $1 billion facelift thanks to British architect Norman Foster:

With the expansion the main branch will become the largest circulating library in the United States, Mr. Marx said, with publicly accessible stacks. “We need to provide the opportunity to browse for books at a time when bookstores are closing,” he said, adding that “scholars and researchers should be able to enjoy the serendipity of what they find on the shelf.”

But some patrons fear crowding at the main branch, where annual attendance is expected to rise to perhaps 4 million, from 1.5 million. “It won’t be O.K.,” said Donald Jones, 55, a Manhattan resident who uses the computers at the Mid-Manhattan branch several times a week. “One problem I already have is crowding with the computers.”

The plan also calls for turning second-floor offices in the main branch into workspace for as many as 400 writers and researchers and for keeping the library open until 11 some nights. (The latest it stays open now is 8 p.m. two days a week.) “We want this to be Writing Central for New York,” Mr. Marx said.

I confess, I haven’t spent a lot of time there, mostly because I work from home (as a writer) in our suburban apartment; I can’t justify the $15 trainfare and two lost hours commuting to go sit there, although it is truly a spectacular space.

I did spend a week or so there a few years ago working on a specific, fascinating and highly unusual research project for a fellow writer. He had discovered an amazing true story on a remote and distant Pacific island, Mangareva, about a crazy French priest who subjugated the natives and created a bizarre and highly punitive penal system using his own religious followers as his enforcers. Seriously.

My role? To translate original French documents — stored in Australia — into English so we could re-create and understand this story. It was utterly extraordinary. Reading the 150-year-old reports felt like opening a reporter’s notebook, so filled with specific details they were — from the narrow, muddy paths across the island to the huge piles of coconuts stacked aboard their vessel while in port. It was riveting reading and one of the most fun freelance jobs I’ve ever had.

Day after day, I’d settle into my seat at one of those long wooden tables in the glorious Rose reading room, my dictionary and laptop close at hand, disappearing for hours into a world thousands of miles away and decades distant. By day’s end, weary, I’d share my head, as if awakening from a delicious dream, walk down those wide marble steps and re-enter the riparian sidewalk on Fifth Avenue.

Here’s a fantastic trend already in 28 American states and worldwide, small boxes that resemble birdhouses or mailboxes called Little Free Libraries. The idea is to spread a love of books and community:

The idea has mushroomed.  Bol now encourages people to visit his website for suggestions on how to build their own library.

Today there are Little Free Libraries in at least 28 states and six countries including Ghana, Australia and Afghanistan. And people from more than a dozen other countries have expressed interest, Bol said.

On Bol’s website he offers suggestions on how to build the libraries and sells kits for a fee starting around $100. Money donated to his non-profit helps build libraries in needy communities and developing countries. The website says, “If you need help let us know.  Don’t let money get in the way.”

You can find the little libraries not just in front of homes, but also outside of health centers, coffee shops, bike paths, bus stops and store fronts.   People are encouraged to send in a picture of their library so it can be posted on the website.  In return they get a “Little Free Library. Take a Book, Return a Book” sign to post on what they’ve built, as well as a Little Free Library Charter number.

Do you have a Little Free Library near you?

Do you use (and love) your public libraries?

18 thoughts on “Libraries Matter!

  1. free penny press

    When I was 13 years old I rcvd my passport to life.. my very own public library card.. I actually still have that card. I adore walking up & down the aisles and trying to decide which one will I check out.. My children made weekly visits to the local library while growing up and are avid readers today.

    Long live our free public libraries ( and thank you Mr Gates for all of the free computers for those without one to use.)

  2. Several years ago on the recommendation of an efficiency consultant, the State Library in the state capitol where I live was closed and turned over to office space. It had been a fantastic public resource for readers and researchers across the state, whether you were looking for obscure research materials or a great fiction read. Now it’s a nest of cubicles. What a waste.

    Thanks for the heads up on the Free Little Library program!

  3. Libraries are sacred spaces. I love the calmness they offer .. their respect for history, for stillness and for knowledge .. it dances in the air. They are humble, magnificent.

    I miss my university library and my local library back home in Ireland. There is no pastime as satisfying as leafing through the pages of an old book, and the moment you realise that you are looking into another mind.

    1. So true. Some of my happiest memories are from libraries, including several at my university as well. I suspect we’ll never again spend that kind of time in libraries after graduation, and maybe that’s one of the after-effects of college, this love of libraries.

      A friend once photographed copies of my first book at a library in Las Vegas and I felt like they were my kids. So proud!

  4. I love libraries and anywhere I can be surrounded by books! Even when I’m using my e-reader, I’m surrounded by a slew of print books as well. When I can’t get to the public library, I love that I can have the option of getting an ebook or audiobook from the library too. 🙂

  5. Ironically, I brought my AP students to the University of Oklahoma Library today to do research for their critical perspectives paper. Many of them have never been in a library bigger than a peanut. They are wide eyed and mystified.

  6. I had never heard of the Little Free Libraries, so thanks for mentioning them. Very cool concept! There doesn’t seem to be one near me, though.

    I visit my local library often. We’re fortunate to have a nice one that has been recently expanded and updated. Nothing like the Norman Foster project that’s happening there in New York, but we’re a semi-rural area and we’ll take what we can get! 🙂

    1. I love visiting the library. I like getting to know my librarians. We have quite a few authors in our town, so there’s a nice sense of connection to our library thanks to knowing they buy our books as well…

  7. Speaking of libraries and books, I’ve found the book you recommended. I started it late last night and am halfway through. It is immensely helpful, and I see that what I am going through is quite normal. Thank you so much for mentioning it, Caitlin. What a godsend it was, and/or you are! I linked to your recommendation in my post.
    (Please omit/delete this comment if it is too off topic.)
    With sincere thanks, ~ Lily

  8. “a crazy French priest who subjugated the natives and created a bizarre and highly punitive penal system using his own religious followers as his enforcers.”

    Whoa. Is the final product of your translation stored anywhere on the web? It certainly sounds like some fascinating reading!

    I love the public library system here in Western Australia. It’s completely free and you can request books from anywhere in the state, country, or even internationally (for a small fee). I wonder that more people don’t use the library. When I worked a few doors down from the city library, i used to spent all my lunch times there, browsing books or simply hiding happily among the shelves.

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