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I love to spend time in libraries, whether I’m at home or traveling. One of my favorites is the Bass Harbor Memorial Library in northern Maine: a historic two-room brick building with comfy chairs and a cozy fireplace. Another is the Boston Public Library, whose central branch, in Copley Square, spans an entire city block.

These libraries sound like opposites, but they share the qualities that I look for. They provide an atmosphere that is conducive to reading, thinking, exploring and daydreaming. They are free and open to members of any community, with educational programs for kids and adults. There’s accessible technology in a clean and safe space. The librarians are respectful of odd requests, eager to track down something obscure or out of print.

Delivering all these resources is a tall order, whether a library is big or small. But that’s just the tip of the iceberg. Because it is open to all, a public library must accommodate everyone without knowing who might come through its doors.

A library can’t anticipate the filters that each of us brings—filters of age, gender, race, religion, education, geography, politics and more. But it must be cognizant of these filters because the only way we can feel comfortable and accepted is if we are seen as individuals.

They provide an atmosphere that is conducive to reading, thinking, exploring and daydreaming.”

The best example I know of a library that embraces this ambition is the Jefferson Market Library (JML), a Greenwich Village branch of the New York Public Library. The building—a Victorian Gothic gem—was originally a courthouse, completed in 1877. A new, permanent installation by artist Mark John Smith, titled The Reading Room 2017, honors the library’s 50th anniversary.

During a two-year residency, Smith, commissioned by JML’s manager Frank Collerius, designed and implemented the massive installation that covers the walls of the second-floor reading room: a 360-degree, three-story-high print consisting of archival material from patrons’ written correspondence dating back to the library’s opening.

Fragments of patrons’ signatures and handwritten notes—from children’s scrawls to grown-ups’ cursive script—were scanned at a resolution of 64,000 ppi, showing vibrant details, like smudges and fingerprints. The giant letters run sideways up each wall, above the shelves of books. To read them, you turn your head—the same way you do when you peruse the spines of books lined up on a shelf. Smith’s design employs the upward movement of the soaring and imposing architecture, but uses the personal words to make the room warm and inviting.

When you see the phrases on the wall, you immediately notice that each begins with I.

“I had the guts to listen”

“I’m one of the lucky”

“I will not lose another book”

“I see you’re holding a lecture on”

“I am out of work and cannot afford to buy”

Smith explains, “As a viewer, in your mind, you are the ‘I.’” In a communal space that caters to the public, the individual is illuminated.

Because it is open to all, a public library must accommodate everyone without knowing who might come through its doors.”

The library’s responsibility to the individual was also addressed downstairs in JML’s lobby, in a temporary installation by artist Ann Messner titled the free library and other histories. It included a 20-page tabloid, available free to the public, that cites more than 100 references dating from 1833 through 2017 regarding issues such as censorship, privacy and segregation. Entries range from acts of Congress to Supreme Court rulings to resolutions adopted by the American Library Association—all pertaining to the library’s role in serving individual citizens, regardless of who they are, what they seek or where they come from.

One of the entries refers to John Grimes, the main character in James Baldwin’s 1953 semiautobiographical novel Go Tell It on the Mountain. In the novel, Baldwin describes John’s encounter with the main branch of the New York Public Library: “ ... a building filled with books and unimaginably vast, and which he had never yet dared to enter. He might, he knew, for he was a member of the branch in Harlem and was entitled to take books from any library in the city. But he had never gone in because the building was so big that it must be full of corridors and marble steps, in the maze of which he would be lost and never find the book he wanted. And then everyone, all the white people inside, would know that he was not used to great buildings, or to many books, and they would look at him with pity.”

We could stop there, knowing that even though the library had its doors open, ready in its mission to serve anyone, it could not control the realities and perceptions that held John back. But keep reading:

“He would enter on another day, when he had read all the books uptown, an achievement that would, he felt, lend him the poise to enter any building in the world.” ca

© 2018 W. Richmond

Wendy Richmond (wendyrichmond.com) is a visual artist, writer and educator whose work explores public privacy, personal technology and creativity. Richmond has taught at Harvard University, the International Center of Photography and the Rhode Island School of Design, and she serves on the BRIC Artists Advisory Council and the MacDowell Fellows Executive Committee. Her latest book is Art Without Compromise*. Richmond’s column began in 1984.


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