Friday, March 15, 2013

Libraries Past and Present

by Sheila Connolly

I wanted a new author photo, so I got in touch with the photographer who has done all of mine (not only does she take great pictures, and not just people, but she is also a woman who had made some wild leaps between careers, not unlike I have).  The last batch I had done, a couple of years ago, we took in an orchard near where I live, but at the moment all the trees are bare and we'd have to slog through leftover snow and/or mud, so not the best way to approach a portrait.

For an appropriate setting she suggested a place nearby:  the former library the next town over, now a combination coffee house and used bookstore, with the occasional music performance.  It's a Carnegie library, completed in 1914, so it's a sturdy stone building with some delightful features.  We agreed that it would be perfect.

Much to my embarrassment, I had to admit I didn't know much about Carnegie libraries.  I could have given you a one-line summary, but that was all, and that didn't seem right.  Here's the mid-length version, thanks to a quick Internet search.

Scottish-American businessman and philanthropist Andre Carnegie donated funds for the construction of over 2500 libraries between 1883 and 1929, some public, some part of university systems.  Nearly 1700 were built in the United States.  When the last grant was made in 1919, there were about 3500 libraries in this country; nearly half of them had been funded by Carnegie.

They were built in a variety of styles (there was no single Carnegie blueprint), but one common feature was a broad and welcoming doorway.  The buildings were usually solidly built and imposing, though they weren't always large, at least not by current standards.

I wasn't thinking about any of this consciously when we trekked over to the place looking for nice backdrops.  The library was converted to a coffee shop when the town built a larger new one across the street—all very nice, shiny and modern.  The old library, on the other hand, has charm.  There's a fireplace straight ahead as you enter, flanked by cozy seating.  There are plenty of windows around the perimeter, over the remaining bookshelves (if you stop to think about it, that was probably hard on the library books, but definitely people-friendly).  It was and is a warm and welcoming place

Plus now it combines books and food.  What more can you ask for?  There are tables with chairs scattered around, and plush sofas around the perimeter.  People aren't required to buy anything, but can come in, sit at a table, and read or do a crossword puzzle.  Two or three people can hold a meeting.  Various local vendors display their wares, from pottery to knits and quilts. 

The place is open from six a.m. until four p.m.  My photographer friend tells me that it does a booming breakfast business.

I came away with the feeling that the library, or at least its essential spirit, lives on in its new incarnation.  It's about books, and reading, in a comfortable, welcoming setting.  It's warm and intimate, as well as aesthetically pleasing. Isn't that everything a library should be?

And I think we got some great pictures.


Sandra Parshall said...

So where are the pictures? When will we see them?

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Sheila Connolly said...

Haven't seen them yet, Sandy--maybe by next week. The light was lovely thought, and I love older buildings.