Thursday, May 21, 2009

20 Most Beautiful Libraries (and others less so)

"The World's 20 Most Beautiful Libraries" illuminates with splendid photos Borges' “I have always imagined that Paradise will be a kind of library.” I've only been to Trinity's Long Room in Dublin. I'd glimpsed the old British Reading Room once and again minutes before closing the same at its new location; in Prague I could not slip into the narrow time-frame opening Strahov monastery to the outside.

Layne and I visited the Library of Congress but it was closed for repairs so we got as far as the open gift shop; we'd been to the Rijksmuseum too, but I had no idea a library was attached. Out of twenty, these I'd been even near; others include abbeys, Seattle's severely vertiginous but dynamically glassed edifice, a garish private library by one Jay Walker, and mostly Germanic and monastic institutions predominate. Belarus' national library's ugly, but the other 19 get a pass from me. Although that Walker place could double as a "Batman" set for Wayne Mansion.

Contrast these with my post May 3rd on Bruce McCall's library of the future, but really the present. I hear the local colleges have couches, coffee, and carrels galore. Not for reading, but for laptops. Now, I can hardly, with my own use of the Net, be blaming younger folks for their on-ramps onto the information highway, but is this the contrast we must face? Curators or coffee?

Starbucks on campus with a few magazines, lots of terminals, and token books? Or, museums displayed in the photos, but like the Strahov, in the care of monks or the Trinity by docents, venerable treasures behind glass or out of reach by grubby daytrippers trundling through with camera in hand, headphone audio tour spiel in six languages in ears? My own traffic with local libraries descends as I move along circling tiers, down the income level and educational accomplishments, or lack thereof. The fact that everyone's attracted in a downturn to the library perhaps speaks well of their democratizing, non-curatorial impulse, or betrays the decline of standards as libraries turn into coffee shops-- only with books around you not glued down as they are, bought-by-the-yard, at a Marie Callendar's chain.

I once in a while consult the Huntington Library nearby for research, as an approved "reader." Ph.D.'s or doctoral students only need apply. While the treasures such as an Ellesmere Chaucer, Blake's "Songs," or Chinese porcelains and British portraiture rest securely in their own installations under guard outside the scholarly lair, this division does remind us of the rarified, academic, protective quality necessary for the care of learning. Librarians as monks, fanatically protecting misunderstood blueprints and indecipherable detritus, as in the post-apocalypse envisioned as Walter Miller's 1960s SF novel "A Canticle for Leibowitz"?

And, by separating the "readers" from the "visitors," The Huntington serves both constituencies well; the former contingent supported by the latter's admission fees. There's always been a slightly musty, pleasantly aged atmosphere around the galleries that since childhood I loved to walk in, "Blue Boy" and "Pinkie" and "Mrs. Sarah Siddons," glass cabinets brilliantly lit, splendid tomes opened gently to reveal dazzling miniature illustrations, rock and cactus and Zen gardens beyond the tea room and gazebos over two hundred acres of the railroad (robber?) baron's estate founded nearly a century ago just south of Pasadena, and the equally lovely Caltech campus, in San Marino. It also sets off my hay fever now.

I suppose the Huntington represents the best compromise for a stately, scholarly purpose that also appeals to a gentrified audience. South Pasadena's little branch, from the same time period nearly that settled that region with dry-county Midwestern transplants bent on civilizing the dusty ranches and dividing them into tidy tracts, has its own share of regulars, but the air, literally, one can still breathe. One dishevelled man shuffled through stacks of library sale books next to me, and I shrank back in sensitivity. I fingered through a "Prague Hrad" b/w picture book magnificently illustrated with mid-century studies of the Castle, but the captions were all in Czech, and I have enough books, including a handsome one of the city already, so I left it for him.

I go to Glendale when I must, but its brutalist 1973 architecture disheartens me. With the new Americana (better called Armenia-cana for the teen and/or immigrant demographic that loiters at this high-end "shopping and entertainment destination" pretending to be a town square not in Yerevan but the kind of burg that Henry Huntington or "The Music Man" might have mythologized) nearby now, the parking gets used up by mall-goers. I hate the ambiance inside and out of the frayed, stark, cinderblock-grey library.

Cypress Park rebuilt a decent space a few years ago to serve the local barrio, but there's no reason to linger long given the lack of sustenance for grown-ups on the shelves. I was berated by a clerk for using my teacher card to check out a book for my son last year, and I don't go back there now to increase its user stats with my loans sent in from other LAPL branches. Arroyo Seco gets my architectural nod for its remodel with Craftsman style and river-boulder facades, but the sparse offerings for anyone over twelve disappoint inside. I switched to Lincoln Park for my needs, a delightful crescent imitating a Venetian palazzo, and while it has the same bare wares for a mixed clientele of chattering Vietnamese-Chinese, pre-teen gamers, and a few misfits slumped in chairs, their staff doesn't hassle me on my card choice.

The Los Angeles downtown library, of course, only three miles away from my house but a world of difference in feel and range, must serve the great unwashed that stream into its corridors. It stands, half-rebuilt after the fire in the mid-80s. It restored the Depression-era murals in what was the Children's Room that I also recall with delight from earlier years. It keeps its café adjacent, however, and manages if not to keep the bums out, it being central city after all, it does post signs warning of theft. I needed an art book (on a vaguely erotic topic, but not that explicit, as consultation elsewhere verified later) once only to find all the pictures of lissome lasses and stolid gentlemen in the middle razored out.

The LAPL for perhaps such accumulative reasons does, from my experience doing a bit of chess history research, keep many more valuable books on call. It only lets you see them in house, after surrendering your driver's license. The librarian consults a computer terminal, rings a bell, a teen clerk shuffles up, and a few minutes later comes back with your book plucked, as half of the holdings, from some invisible niche.

Apparently chess books, Buddhism, film, or sports all meet some level of popular demand, as inevitably many of them are lost or permanently missing despite what the catalogue promises. I've wasted more than one visit there on false hope. Even an arcane monograph on medieval political theory relating to chess texts met this fate!

Pasadena follows suit, in a handsome Spanish 1925 building, with iconically acquisitive or mouth-aspirating patrons. It's across from the Courthouse. I do find it hard to settle into the comfier chairs in its lounges, however, due to the smellier sleepers around me. They do have a helpful staff, and it's pleasant to stop in when I can find an empty space outside. The adjacent courthouse, with probably many drivers wanting a free spot as they pay their parking tickets, may be to blame!

I had to use the microfiche, of all contraptions, in its basement recently. First time in twenty years. I had to get the librarian to help me, and he had problems too. This antiquated but necessary device to rescue the knowledge shrunk to tiny film of a 1992 "Scientific American" reminded me of who filled diligently the adjacent room: about forty people madly tapping away on today's machine, computers. I wondered how many of them were out of work, how many due to automation or "rightsizing" or abandoned technology-- and how many of them feared becoming the daily sleepers all around us.

Photo: One of the oldest in the world, at the Swiss Benedictine monastery of St Gallen. Its own ceilings, as with many of its neighbors featured in the photos, come close to Borgesian heaven, if a decidedly Baroque manifestation of divine taste.

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