The New York Public Library was featured in a recent NYT’s article discussing the “overhaul [of] its branches and to renovate its Fifth Avenue flagship.” I love public libraries. Having grown up on a farm, the nearest one was so far away that I never went to it. Yet, over the years, as I have been introduced to them as an adult, my admiration for the tasks they perform has only grown.
Francine Houber of Mecanoo Architecture, called libraries the ‘cathedrals of our millennia.’ The first time I read it, the phrase stuck in my throat like a large vitamin pill. As I thought more about the rich implications of the phrase, it slowly slipped into my understanding.
We think of cathedrals as beautiful entities that make us look upward. Well, they make me look upward. I can’t resist the high windows or the frescoed ceilings or simply the spires as I approach from the street. It’s said that cathedrals were the symbol of what was most important in the Middle Ages and so they were the tallest structures. Inside, the cathedral is a hushed sense of power. Inside I tend to walk quietly along the aisles, eschewing the mosaics that embellish the floors so that I might not wear them out with my step.
But then I think of the morning I visited Notre Dame in Paris during Mass. The chairs were close together, and I could smell one person’s breakfast and another’s delicious perfume. (Why do perfumes smell so much better in Paris?) As we performed the rituals of the service, there was a unique connection that occurred among the participants. Ah, this is the real reason for cathedral – to draw us into community in order to restore the invisible threads of our energy and commitment as we walk out and return to the world.
But how can a library be a cathedral of the 21st century? Do we value information so much that we make them tall? Hardly. Do we make them beautiful to instill in us a sense of awe? Sometimes. (If you haven’t visited the Library of Congress, you really must. Talk about awe inspiring!) Does the sense of community exist in today’s libraries? Yes!
Today, I have several public libraries that I can visit, and when I go, my eyes are not drawn upward; they are drawn to the shelves of books and periodicals. I do not worry as I step. The floor is covered in carpet. But there is a real sense of connection and community – from the woman who quietly browses the rows of books in the history section as she seeks inspiration for her next class, from the two boys who chat as they peruse the science fiction shelves exchanging their delights from different authors, from a young person who is conferring with his parent on which DVD to select, from the silent group in the computer section whose eyes are glued to the screens as they search beyond the physical walls of the library, from life long students who sit quietly reading in the research area enriching their minds lest they grow old, or from the children who are gathered to listen to the reader as they learn the joy of great writing. Each has come for the common purpose of finding something new to learn even from an old favorite or the latest novel. Like the cathedral, we are drawn to the library for something that is invisible, yet energizes us to move on to the next step in our lives.
Years ago, I created a technical library as part of the work of my division. The library was created at the time when PCs were being first placed on employee desks. Within a large international organization, the library was anything but quiet, yet it was most assuredly a place of learning. We often said that while training might provide new skills to do the work, the library offered the big picture of how the new technology could fit into the work flow. I suspect that some of the earliest communities of practice met on Friday afternoons at the weekly coffees the library sponsored. Learning occurred, enhanced by invisible lines of friendship and a real sense of community.
And if you think that public libraries are a thing for only the few, the NYT’s article states, “Statistics show that more people go to public libraries in New York City than visit all sporting events and other cultural institutions combined.” Not bad!
I have come to appreciate so much more the hidden power of the library to transform individuals. At a time when knowledge is growing faster than at any other time in history and access can be at our fingertips, it is good to know there is still a place where both mind and spirit can be nourished.
Public libraries make a remarkable contribution to American life. Where is your favorite public library? How do you feel when you are there? What is your favorite story of a library experience?