As a child I was irascible — easily bored, prone to tantrums, and always on edge. Luckily for my parents, they discovered a cure early on: books. We’d make weekly trips to the library, where I’d fill up a tote bag with as many books as it could hold. The bag was always so heavy that I’d have to schlep it over my shoulder like a bindle, which was only cute because I was at an age and size when carrying really heavy things was endearing rather than pitiful.
I’d check out more than thirty books at a time and finish them all within a week. I’d often lock myself in my room, finishing seven novels in a day. I was the kid who read under the table at family dinners and was told my eyes would melt away for reading in the dark or in the car. I discovered early on that books had a palliative effect on my otherwise choleric temperament. Books became for me the tokens of comfort that stuffed animals were for many kids. Libraries and bookstores were both places of discovery and havens of refuge.
There’s a part of me that refuses to believe in the possibility of obsolescence. Will books and libraries soon be, respectively, the LPs and the record stores that we visit with a nostalgic glance? Are they already mere emblems of authenticity, marks of a certain “type” of person whose usage of books and libraries avows a certain devotion to higher principles? Are libraries soon to be museums of objects rather than places where we go to borrow books?
Already, the function of libraries is changing — but then again, perhaps they, like any institution, have always been dynamic. Many people have written about the library as a “third place,” a term coined by Ray Oldenburg in his 1990 book, The Great Good Place. Simply put, a “third place” is “a neutral social surrounding separate from home and work/school.” Kevin Harris, who writes about libraries as being third places, notes, “all societies need places that allow informal interaction without requiring it, places that are rich in the possibility of the safe, mundane encounter…” Libraries can serve this function, but they should also be distinct in focus and intent from other places of informal interaction, like cafes and parks.
If libraries are to survive, then they must be able to adapt to their own changing functions, or people’s perception of their function — and capitalize on their distinctiveness from other “third places.” Besides being a meeting place, the library environment should at least foster, if not an appreciation for books as objects of both beauty and experience, an appreciation of reading, learning, and the pursuit of knowledge. They should expand both the breadth and depth of intellectual exploration.
One of my college professors, John Stilgoe — an eccentric man whose curmudgeonly facade could never truly obscure his brilliance and kindness — said that the reason why he never sent research assistants to the library and did all book-fetching himself is because of the serendipity that happens when scanning bookshelves. In the process of seeking one book, you find another, whether tangential or relevant, that might be even better than the one you were seeking in the first place. The same is true of a librarian’s expertise: human knowledge, memory, and association create strands of interpersonal discovery and sharing that we’ve tried to replicate in our digital libraries, without complete success. Serendipity is diminished, if not lost, in algorithmic recommendations. Even the most personal of reviews online are less human than in a conversation, in a physical space.
Can the design of a library, then, facilitate serendipity and discovery while attracting the masses in an age where digital convenience is highly prized and sought after?
Last week I visited both the Stockholm Public Library and The Royal Library in Copenhagen, both of which are grand pillars of design. To the credit of Swedish architect Gunnar Asplund, the Stockholm Public Library’s most notable feature is its rotunda, which though remarkable from the outside, is even more remarkable for the experience it creates for the visitor upon entering the library: the feeling of being enveloped in books, as in a forest, or as in a crowd. The modern design, which is both functional and aesthetically pleasing, creates a sense of monumental grandeur that does not preclude accessibility, which can often be the case in spaces that feel larger-than-life. In fact, Asplund intentionally implemented open shelving so that visitors could access books without the help of librarians; this democratization and access is at the very heart of the communal book-borrowing system.
But in a day and age when borrowing books seems antiquated, if not superfluous, the best libraries serve other functions. The Woodberry Poetry Room at Lamont Library, for example, houses rare archives and recordings. It also hosts readings and lectures, which are ends in and of themselves, but also means for people to become more acquainted with thelibrary’s stock. The Seattle Central Library offers a list of the top ten things to do on its “Plan a Visit” page, which include “enjoy exciting public art,” “tap into technology,” and “pick up a gift in the friendshop,” all of which are extensions, not origins, of a library’s function. The word “library,” after all, comes from the Old French word “librairie,” which means “collection of books.” Even if these new functions are necessary for libraries to survive, they must also not eclipse the foundation of libraries: the books themselves.
I say this because I love and romanticize books as objects. (My one flash of kleptomania was during the summer before third grade, when I stole Sweet Valley High books from the summer camp library; never has anything else tempted me like books have.) But despite that love, I admit that I am also obsessed with my Kindle and visit libraries now for their architecture, aesthetics, sometimes their food, and very often their bathroom, which is true of my visits to the Stockholm and Copenhagen libraries.
At first glance, the Royal Library in Copenhagen seems to be a library only in name. Situated on the waterfront, the black marble and glass facade is a sleek backdrop for tanning in the sun, which is the preferred activity of many who visit the library. Besides the sun-kissed visitors, the library also houses a fancy, modern restaurant, a bustling cafe, and a concert hall, all of which could stand alone, as if the library were a mall or arcade. None seems to need the word “library” as a descriptor, as in a library cafe, or a library restaurant, or a library concert hall (in fact, those couplings all sound rather awkward), yet all incentivize visits to the library — at the very least, a reason to go inside the library after tanning outside. The structure, an eight-story atrium with wave-shaped walls and transversal corridors impresses more easily than its contents. Its modernity is a far cry from the beautiful University libraries of classical architecture, but its structure’s ability to captivate, the same.
More than ever, we must recognize libraries as places of modernity, not antiquity, that we can utilize in non-traditional ways. It is only in doing so that we can perhaps keep their original purpose, as houses of books, intact. We rarely use the word “patron” anymore, but one of its root meanings, “protector,” is an apt word for any book-lover’s relationship to libraries, both public and private. In attendance and in finances, I want to patronize libraries. This is my love letter to libraries and the serendipitous discoveries we make inside: the books we find, the knowledge we devour, and the occasional human encounters. This is for all the times that books made me feel better, for all the times I escaped into libraries as a world unto themselves, for all that I’ve stolen and loved and read and learned. This is my plea to keep libraries alive.
Natalie So is a writer and photographer living in the Mission District in San Francisco. By day, she is the creative content manager at a tech company. Occasionally she writes on her blog my daily toast about eating out, food gatherings, and libraries. She is currently working on a series of interviews with artists and creators that makes visible the connection between belief, spirit, and the work we do. If you have a story to tell, please contact her at nataliejso [at] gmail [dot] com.
This post originally appeared on her blog.