Check out library's romance

August 28, 1998

From scholarly journals to glossy magazines, everyone is talking about what social historian Gertrude Himmelfarb calls the "Revolution in the Library" (American Scholar, spring 1997) - one revolution about which neo-conservative Himmelfarb and I both feel ambivalent.

The title of a recent American Academy of Arts and Sciences symposium, "Books, Bricks and Bytes" (Daedalus, autumn 1996), registers how the cyber-revolution is transforming library life, from the depositing and accessing (listen to me!) of works, to the very structures in which they take place.

The library as an institution may not be exactly "under siege" from the dangerous digital forces of cyberspace (though I do worry that my students and children too readily assume they can go online for any information they need); but libraries have never before captured quite so many headlines.

Here in the United States, the Library of Congress's Beaux-Arts Thomas Jefferson Building celebrated its 100th anniversary in 1997 with the completion of a ten-year restoration project (Jefferson's books provided the basis for the United States' official book collection); and the grand Main Reading Room of the New York Public Library, which celebrated its centennial the year before, closed its doors to undergo a two-year-long, high-tech renovation.

Also, Bill Clinton announced that he would establish his Presidential Library at the University of Arkansas; such centres usually house a president's letters, records, and memorabilia (the mind boggles). And, in the fashion of Andrew Carnegie a century ago, multibillionaire Bill Gates has announced the creation of a $200 million Gates Library Foundation to "upgrade" and connect the nation's public libraries to the information superhighway.

Not all of the recent news has been good. Even as the Library of Congress celebrated, the Washington D C Library System suffered not only drastic funding cuts, along with all of D C's public services, but accusations of sexual harassment in its executive offices.

Of course, the opening of the new British Library is this year's big international story. Preparing for our biennial summer trip to Britain, my family and I placed a tour of the building on our itinerary. It seemed imperative to examine the facility that is making the beloved Reading Room of the British Museum redundant.

Whatever had drawn us to the museum on previous London visits, I had always insisted we peek first into the Reading Room, not just because Karl Marx had worked there, but also for its inspiring vastness, which no domed sports arena could ever match.

Moreover, because our elder daughter will enter the University of Virginia School of Architecture this autumn, it seemed wise to have a look at the building that had stirred up so many controversies.

I had passed by the site in 1996 and, though I felt nostalgia for the library's old quarters, the new building's ship-like appearance had impressed me. It seemed right for an island nation's "memory" to be housed in such a vessel. Yet I had read Robert Wernick's "Books, Books, Books, My Lord!" (Smithsonian, February 1998), which recounted the library's history and reported that Prince Charles had sneeringly referred to the new building as a "dim collection of brick sheds I resembling an academy for secret police". To prepare myself, as soon as we arrived in London, I picked up the June Architectural Review devoted to libraries, in particular, to "Wilson's British".

We decided to leave the library tour until after our traditional fortnight's trek around southern Britain visiting family and friends. But I thought about libraries every step of the way.

In Aberaeron, Wales, we stayed in a pub opposite the town hall containing a one-room library of Welsh and English books that lends to an avid reading community (if my in-laws are in any way typical). In Aberystwyth, 15 miles north, our stops included the National Library of Wales high on a hill just below the university campus. Even if you cannot read Welsh, its exhibition galleries warrant a visit, and its forecourt offers outstanding views of town and sea. And in Birmingham, where the same shopping-mall-like complex housing the Central Library also houses the "golden arches" of a McDonald's and the sexist "delights" of a Hooters bar and restaurant, we encountered capitalist postmodernity.

A conversation with a friend, who was heading to Paris for a month of library research, instigated further reflections. When I said I hoped he would not spend every moment inside, he promised me he would allow plenty of time for cafes, dining and romance. Then he added: "But I love working in the libraries - they have a certain romance about them."

As the photographs in Diane Asseo Griliches's Library: The Drama Within (University of New Mexico Press, 1996) attest, it is not only Parisian libraries that have a romance about them. From the Biblioth que Nationale to the Beverly Hills Public Library, from elegant edifices to homely "book-mobiles", libraries have rendered knowledge, refuge, connection, insight, fantasy, memories, hopes.

They can even encourage romances of the heart. For this, and more scholarly reasons, my only complaint about British academic libraries was always that they did not maintain the late-evening hours common on US campuses. I well recollect that when, as undergraduates at the then all-male Rutgers College in the late 1960s, my buddies and I needed to accomplish serious reading (and, perhaps, a good nap) we would hide ourselves away in the voluminous university library, not to be seen for hours, or even days. However, when male companionship would not suffice, but "lite study" would, we would shuttle across town to the far less monastic library of our sister school, Douglass College.

Though small, the Douglass Library's glass walls made the building seem open and airy. And to (foolish) young men who had spent too long in the company of just guys, all the young women seemed pretty and flirtatious. To keep everything in check, and the noise level down, a grandfatherly security guard strolled the rooms.

Who knows how many youthful affairs commenced among those bookstacks? Indeed, I wonder if college libraries of the future, dramatically transformed by technology, will still afford spaces for young people to discover not only great works, but also each other? Then again, who am I kidding? Young folks find their way. Just imagine when holographic searching becomes availableI Harvey J. Kaye is professor of social change and development at the University of Wisconsin-Green Bay.

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