Library porn is practically an internet genre for those of us who swing that way. Blog posts and articles about the world’s greatest/most beautiful/most spectacular/just plain best libraries display photos (sometimes the same ones) of soaring ceilings and numerous shelves crammed with countless volumes, or sleek, modern construction that promises physical comfort and distraction-free study in a building that will convey your materials directly to you, or libraries of the eco-friendly future with grass roofs and water recycling systems.
And I eat it all up. I start imagining the day when I can go on worldwide tours to see these architectural marvels, created or adapted for housing knowledge, entertainment, recreation, memories: books and their info tech successors.
Do we need to travel to Taiwan or Austria or Brazil for the ultimate booklover’s experience, though? These buildings are amazing, but are we restricted to second-string library love until that far-off day when we can travel the literary world? Or do we just need to appreciate the libraries that have already shaped our lives a little bit more?
You always remember your first
Our first libraries are usually our school libraries. At Primrose Elementary School in Somers, New York, I clambered around the Choose Your Own Adventure books with the other eight-year-olds, all of us trying to find one we hadn’t read all the endings of yet and some of us looking for the scarce few in which the second-person protagonist seemed to be female or gender neutral.
It was also where I found a series I wanted to read through and learned, when I was called out in class for overdue volumes, that even as late as 1984, some teachers thought girls weren’t supposed to be interested in learning about sports.
Lessons in teenage love
I was 16 and a newly licensed driver but not at all new to procrastination. I drove around to all the public libraries in the San Fernando Valley, trying to find books on a topic—Richard the Lionheart and Eleanor of Aquitaine, let’s say, though I really have no idea—about which our entire class was supposed to write a paper. Due the following day. Naturally, everything relevant was checked out, perhaps by my classmates (the school library proved unfruitful for the same reason) but also maybe Ricky and Ellie were just big that week.
For some reason I remember the Woodland Hills library the best, maybe because I always liked driving around that particular area with the pretty tree-lined avenues. I vowed, as I stepped back out of the building with nothing in hand yet again, that my days of leaving a research project until the last minute were over.
Window to new worlds
Everyone is impressed by Thompson Memorial Library at Vassar College when they step through the gothic foyer and get their first glimpse of the Great Window and the surrounding shelves and balconies. This one does sometimes end up in the “best libraries” blogs. When I first visited Vassar, I was determined to make the most of this library if I ended up attending, studying under the glassy gaze of Lady Elena Lucretia as she became the first female doctorate holder.
In practice, my dorm was too cozy to leave it when the weather was bad, and when it was good I was more likely to sit outside. But I did study there often enough to learn my way around most of the building: sections older and newer, well-trafficked and well-tucked-away, brightly lit and frighteningly dim (complete with collapsing, rollable stacks that could physically crush you). It was the library that taught me not to take libraries for granted.
Everything old is new again
I have to confess that I never noticed that both my undergrad and my grad school libraries were both called Thompson Memorial until I was searching for pictures of both of them to include here. But here you go: Thompson Part Two, OSU Style. The most amazing sections of this massively refurbished library weren’t open until I was thigh-deep in dissertation work, and I never even stepped inside until I’d finished my degree. So goeth the online research generation.
But damned if this isn’t one sexy library.
Actually, the part that left the biggest impression on me before the old version of the library closed for rebuilding is a part that may or may not still exist. Up in the tower were floors containing private locked study carrels that my entering class was told could be used by doctoral candidates during dissertation writing. I might be strange, but the idea of locking myself in one of these silent, remote cages appealed to me. It wasn't the solitude that piqued my interest, nor the cold concrete floors and shaky fluorescent lighting, but the idea of the history, of studying at a table used by generations of grad students before me. As I alluded to, though, I ended up doing most of my actual dissertation work online from home, so I didn't seek out the carrels. They might be there, or they might have been replaced by this open, airy canyon of materials.
Home is where the shelving is
Although college and university libraries are often the most awe-inspiring ones that most of us have access to, my main point here is that there are things to treasure about any building dedicated to providing information in the form of books, periodicals, audiovisual materials, and access to the internet. I’m concluding with a branch of the Columbus Metropolitan Library, but not the massive and stately downtown branch built in 1907 with funding from Andrew Carnegie, however gorgeous and important a specimen of library architecture it might be.
The library I currently call “mine” is the Whetstone branch, newer and more humble but attached to the lovely Columbus Park of Roses. At the moment, I have a pulpy vampire paperback novel and a cyberpunk audiobook checked out (in addition to the Emerson, Eliot, and professional development books I have in various stages of completion).
As much as we’d like to visit all those incredible and stunning international bastions of learning, the libraries that are closer to home and closer to the heart deserve a shout-out as well. I hope my Library Memory Lane meander inspires others to remember and recognize the school, public, and other smaller libraries that have contributed to their relationships to books and their learning.
I'm Lea, a freelance editor who specializes in academic and nonfiction materials. More info about my services is available throughout this site.