Text Patterns - by Alan Jacobs

Monday, September 9, 2013

the libraries we need

The new central library of the city of Birmingham — England, that is, not the one I grew up in in Alabama — is pretty darn cool, I think. It's wonderful to see cities investing in big beautiful spaces in which to seek books and knowledge.

And maybe every major city needs a building like this to signal its commitment to learning and the arts. But we should probably also think about the limits, for the local population, of this kind of project. 

When I was growing up in the other Birmingham and making good use of local branch libraries, I don't know whether I even knew that a main library existed downtown; I certainly never visited it until I was in high school, and then only because a friend of mine worked there. What mattered to me was having a library within walking or biking or short driving distance from my house. 

A neighborhood library ought to be easily accessible, and ought to be a place of refuge for people who need to study or think or just relax. It should have stacks that can be browsed, with as many books and journals as the library can afford, but — and maybe I'm flirting with heresy here — only after the library is well-equipped with internet-enabled computers and a staff who knows how to help people find what they want. (And no, not everyone, even in America, has reliable internet access at home.) Every local library can be a portal for the vast multi-media resources of the Digital Public Library of America or the British Library, especially if the computers' interfaces are customized and the staff trained to emphasize the best-quality resources. 

A big central library is an immensely attractive thing, as I've noted, but more intimate library spaces can be beautiful too. Consider the Julian Street Library at Princeton University:

Or, a space made on a smaller budget, the Anacostia Neighborhood Library in Washington, D.C.:

(See these and other award-winning library designs here.)

As I say, I love the big libraries — I find them irresistible. When I visit a city one of the first sites I want to see is the central library. But how many neighborhood libraries could be built, or renovated and more fully outfitted, with the money it takes to build one enormous place? We might do better by distributing our resources, and shifting them from the central city towards the periphery, towards the neighborhoods from which downtown can seem a very long way away. 


  • Very nice post. Thank you for it. I am always struck by how heavily used my modest local library is. I grew up with a neighborhood library around the corner from my house and used it far more than I did the central library, which was more of a showcase. And for a neighborhood like Anacostia, traditionally underserved when it comes to cultural resources, local branches are especially good investments.

  • I too have grown up in libraries, loving books because of that. I followed your link to your post in the American Conservative and your link there to the John Scalzi essay. There are more than 160 great comments about libraries attached to his essay. Thanks for an enjoyable time reading about love of libraries and books.

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