Tuesday, February 5, 2008

The Total Environment

Some libraries just feel like magic when you walk inside. It's a rare feeling these days, as more and more libraries forsake their original buildings for newer (generally drab international-style) abodes. In my hometown, the original library was international-style. It also looked exactly like a Pizza Hut, and one year the senior prank was to spray-paint "Pizza Hut" on the top of it. I heard an apocryphal story that there was also a restaurant down the street called "The Pizza Hut" long before the chain existed, and that the developer stole the name from them and the architecture from our library. Anyway. Even that library has moved on now, to a newer, larger building.

Small-town libraries conjure up a range of emotions in me. Around the corner from where I used to live, there was a library that was open three days a week and housed in an old carriage house. They never had a single book I was looking for, and for the first time, I understood how it was possible to have read all of a library's books. The librarians, surprisingly enough, were these grunge-looking young dudes, with long hair, tats and piercings. They oversaw the dust and decay and the comings and goings of the Barbara Cartland and Agatha Christie novels. It made me sad, yet it also made me hopeful: here was a town that could barely afford to have a library, and yet they did anyway.

My all-time favorite library will always be Buffalo's Central branch, despite its outer International-style hideousness. This is Book Heaven, bigger than a Wal-Mart, with two entrances and guards at the doors. It has everything. There's an entire local history room that's the size of a lot of libraries. There's a cafe with a flat-screen TV. There's an escalator, a huge children's collection, a special collections room, a super-special collections room, large banks of computers, self-checkout machines that give you Wendy's coupons, and of course, all of the novels, non-fiction books and DVDs and CDs you could ever want. There's exhibit space and really pretty glass benches that are illuminated from within. Going there is almost overstimulating. I've mentioned my tendency to take as much as I can carry out every time I go to the library, the strange desparate feeling that it'll all be gone the next time I go. It's really bad there -- I want to read every book they have and persist in the delusion that I can get through ten of them in three weeks.

I also went to a really interesting small-town library recently. I met most of their staff and got to see their building, although I didn't have much time to spend with their collections (nor do I have borrowing privileges). The Swan Library in Albion is just pure magic. It's housed in an 1850s mansion with a lot of the original architectural details intact. They have books in the drawing room and the dining room. The upstairs has been renovated to house more books, the offices, the computers and a meeting room. The building's been used as a library for over 100 years. Walk in, and you feel the generations of readers who've gone before you. If there really was a book like Jumanji, if there actually exists a president's book like in the most recent National Treasure movie, it'd have to be housed somewhere like here.

One staff member told me that they've got a serious space crunch, though, and are looking at solutions. At least one scenario involves abandoning this space, and possibly turning it into a museum. I understand the need for it, but at the same time, it'd be a shame. Without naming names, I've visited libraries that are utterly soulless, and I don't think that's the way it should be. What a strange glitch they are in our capitalist, anti-intellectual society, after all. We have a government that's unwilling to provide free health care to poor kids, and a populace that's encouraged seven seasons of Big Brother and made a celebrity out of Paris Hilton, yet in any sizeable town, there is a building where anyone can go and get as many books as they can carry, all free, just as long as they bring them back. They are magic, and they should feel like it.