Libraries as learning hangouts

Main stairwell, Central Library, McKim Building, Boston (photo: DY)

Among the things I miss most from pre-pandemic days is filling up my backpack with papers, books, and magazines, joined by my laptop or iPad, and heading out to the Central Library of the Boston Public Library. It is a truly wonderful place. I had come to enjoy a modest ritual of enjoying a light breakfast or lunch at the library café before finding a place to set up for a few hours.

There are two main parts to the Central Library. The original research library building is an architectural classic, designed by Charles Follen McKim and opened in 1895. When out-of-town friends of sufficiently bookish orientation visit Boston, I often take them on a quick stroll through this building. The BPL’s research collection (not available for lending) is one of the nation’s richest. Its Bates Hall reading room is a showpiece. There are plenty of other beautiful spaces in the building, as well as a fancy tea room with table service.

Bates Hall reading room, Central Library, McKim Building, Boston (photo: DY)

The research library connects to a newer part of the Central Library via this lovely Italianate courtyard, which also serves as a nice spot to read outside or enjoy a picnic-style lunch when the weather cooperates.

Italianate courtyard, Boston Public Library (photo: DY)

The newer library building, added in 1972, was originally designed by Philip Johnson. A recent, beautifully done renovation has made it very appealing and spacious. It houses all of the books and other materials available for borrowing; tables, carrels, and chairs for reading and working; computers and other facilities for public use; a basement auditorium for public events; and the aforementioned (and very good) café. WGBH, one of Boston’s NPR stations, has set up a satellite studio adjoining the café. 

Johnson building, Boston Public Library (photo: DY)

I mention Philip Johnson because he also designed another library that I spent countless hours in when I lived in New York City, NYU’s Bobst Library. Bobst is the university’s central library, and it was my main study location while I was in law school. After I graduated, I obtained an alumni card and continued to use it frequently. Its exterior isn’t all that appealing, a giant red brick structure on the southeast corner of Washington Square Park, which is NYU’s unofficial campus quad in Manhattan. Its interior is also rather utilitarian. But what counted for me were millions of books available on open stacks. I did a lot of exploring in that library during my 12 years in New York.

In fact, I credit Bobst Library for nurturing yet another bookish habit, that of taking a weekend afternoon and going to the library, simply to read to my heart’s content. I’ve done the same at the Boston Public Library. Typically I mix reading stuff that I brought with me and browsing the stacks for new discoveries.

Bobst Library, NYU (photo: Beyond My Ken/Wikipedia)

Libraries are one of humanity’s greatest creations, and they are incubators for lifelong learning and adult education. Once we have the pandemic wrestled down, I look forward to returning to the Boston Public Library. Perhaps you’ll consider a visit or two to your local library as well!

In the meantime, if you’d like to ponder the place of libraries in society, I have some recommendations: First up is The Library: An Illustrated History (2019 ed.), by Stuart A.P. Murray. Call it a delightful, paperback equivalent of an enriching coffee table book, with lively text, photos, and illustrations. The final long chapter takes quick looks at great libraries around the world.

Next is a more serious work, Palaces for the People: How Social Infrastructure Can Help Fight Inequality, Polarization, and the Decline of Civic Life (2018), by Eric Klinenberg. It’s not specifically about libraries, but rather discusses them in the broader context of vital civic institutions that help to build community and foster connections.

Finally, there’s a book I confess I haven’t read yet, though it awaits my attention: Susan Orlean’s The Library Book (2018), an bestselling ode to libraries, crafted around the story of the Los Angeles Public Library and a devastating fire in 1986. It has received so much praise from reviewers and friends alike that I list it here, with a reminder that I need to put it on my short list.