This is What a Library Looks Like

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This is What a Library Looks Like

Books about libraries.

When you think of a library what do you see? Do you picture a hushed building with musty shelves and leather-bound volumes? Yes, that’s accurate in some cases, but libraries can stretch beyond physical spaces; they stimulate intellectual curiosity, provide economic and physical relief, and perhaps most importantly, are intersectional institutions that embody a democratic and cooperative spirit. For anyone with a love of libraries, check out these five titles that delve into their diverse histories and evolving aesthetics.

The Public Library: A Photographic Essay by Robert Dawson
In 1994 photographer Robert Dawson embarked on an 18-year-long road trip capturing hundreds of public libraries across the United States--from the grand hieroglyphic columns of the Brooklyn Central Library to the Elko County bookmobile surveying the most remote parts of Nevada. The result is an impressive 190-glossy-page book of library history and architecture. Accompanying the breathtaking photographs are essays, letters, and poems from celebrated writers (and librarians) such as Ann Patchett, Charles Simic, Amy Tan, and Luis Herrera, who reflect on how libraries have enriched their lives. For more on the New York Public Library system depicted in the book, watch the award-winning documentary Ex Libris: The New York Public Library (via Kanopy). 

Packing My Library: An Elegy and Ten Digressions by Alberto Manguel
In this memoir, the renowned scholar and author of The Library at Night synchronously produces a retrospective of 10 metaphysical essays on reading, the formation and reconstruction of personal libraries, and major library events. In 2015 the author was confronted with the formidable challenge of downsizing his 35,000-volume library in France’s Loire Valley to a one-bedroom apartment in New York; which books stay and which must (painfully) go? Manguel lyrically and astutely observes the self-defining and complicated relationships readers have with their books. 

The Library Book by Susan Orlean
Part bibliophile whodunit, part narrative on the multigenerational-endorsed act of reading, here New Yorker staff writer Orlean investigates the devastating 1986 fire that burned for seven hours, injured 22 people, and destroyed 400,000 books from the Los Angeles Central Public Library. Was it arson, or merely an accident? Orlean supplies fascinating character studies of the library staff and suspect, and the history behind the eradication of collective memory, while she pens a love letter to libraries--“[to] tell about a place I love that doesn’t belong to me but feels like it is mine.” 

Freedom Libraries: The Untold Story of Libraries for African Americans in the South by Mike Selby
“It was the crying that woke her…” so begins librarian and newspaper columnist Mike Selby’s well-researched account of segregated Deep South public libraries during the 1950s and 1960s, a time fraught with racial discrimination, intimidation, and violence. Freedom Libraries were the byproduct of the Civil Rights movement; over 80 libraries of varying sizes and conditions were bravely staffed by activists and voter registration volunteers. Selby meticulously presents archival letters, interviews, photographs, and internal branch reports that reveal how vital libraries were to the African-American community. The bookend to this story, the struggle for equity and access, can be found in Wayne and Shirley Wiegand’s The Desegregation of Public Libraries in the Jim Crow South: Civil Rights and Local Activism.

Syria’s Secret Library: Reading and Redemption in a Town Under Siege by Mike Thomson
Former foreign correspondent for the BBC, journalist Thomson compassionately reports the four-year siege of Darayya, Syria. Despite starvation, the loss of shelter, and biblioclastic raids, residents forged a secret underground library in 2013. Thomson profiles resilient custodians like Abdul Basit and the 14-year-old self-appointed “Chief Librarian,” whose excavations of bombed-out buildings adds to the library’s collection and is an act of resistance during wartime.

Speaking of libraries, interested in the DC Public Library itself? Check out these podcasts that cover happenings from all 26 branches, including news about the upcoming MLK unveiling, interviews from customers, and more!