When this blog was still new, I proclaimed that I went to the public library to work. Alas, those days are long gone. Two years ago, when I moved away from the pleasant idyll of California to the quick-quick-quick urgency of Greater Boston, many precious parts of my graduate student life were left behind. With the move to the east coast, the innocent Saturday afternoon ritual of visiting the public library, browsing half-aimlessly through its sections and making a serendipitous literary discovery came to an end.
This is not to say that Cambridge lacks a public library system. There are six branches in all, which is astonishing for a city that can fit comfortably inside half of the Stanford University campus. However, with the exception of the main library, the branch hours remain stubbornly unfriendly to the working professional. Only one of the branches is open late in the evening, and all of them are closed on Sundays. As if that isn’t enough, the main branch decided to go on an extended renovation holiday over the past year. The website says cryptically that they would love welcoming us back in autumn, but no date is set for the opening. It is a gorgeous site with a huge lawn, some trees and even a play area for children. A bright modern glass building extends out from the courtyard of the beautiful 1890s relic that used to be the old library. Everyday, while biking to work, I crane my neck over the traffic hoping that there will be a banner telling us when it is alright to go in. For now, the lawns are well-watered and invitingly verdant, but autumn is upon us already, and I fear that when the library eventually opens to the public, we will make our way there sloshing about in melting snow and mud.
Last month though, something wonderful happened that ended my recent drought of public libraries: my parents came to visit . One evening, while admiring Copley Square in Boston, we decided to check whether the famed Boston Public Library was still open. With my expectations lowered to unhealthy levels by the recent goings-on in the Cambridge system, it was a complete surprise to find the library still open at 7:30 pm. I found myself grinning from ear to ear as we went in and, straightaway, filled out forms for a library card. It turns out that I can configure my library card to be used in the Boston Public Library as well as any library in the Minuteman Network – Cambridge, Somerville, Arlington , Watertown, and a host of towns close by. (It is a reflection of just how distracted and un-bookish I have allowed myself to become, that it took me two years to step inside the oldest public library in the United States even though it is only a 30-minute train ride from where I live.)
For those who haven’t seen the Boston Public Library, it is a beautiful monument to literature with spacious interiors, large sculptures and Renaissance-style paintings on its walls. One could spend hours just looking at all the art. It has a large reading room named after one of the library’s early benefactors, Joshua Bates. On the outer walls are thousands of inscriptions of names of great men – writers, scientists, philosophers, poets, artists. As one walks out of the train station and reads the tablets high up on the walls, a familiar name incites a little spark of recognition – there’s Newton! Gauss! Beethoven! Mozart! Mr. James and his philosopher brother! Homer! Dante!. Some distance out from the front porch in Copley Square is a memorial to the great Lebanese poet Kahlil Gibran. The building opens on the inside into a quiet courtyard with a small pool, in the center of which is a bronze statue of an exultant mother holding an infant in one hand and a bunch of grapes in another. From down here, it is possible to look inside some of the library’s windows and see an orange glow on the walls; From this vantage point, it feels like a church or a temple, which, in a manner of speaking, it is.
We spent all of our time marvelling at the architecture, and admiring the rich interiors of Bates Hall and there was very little exploration of the books themselves. But I’ll return soon enough, and often. In a few months, if not a few weeks, the Cambridge Library will open as well, and while Old Man Winter empties his annual tonnage of snow on our heads, I am looking forward to a few leisurely hours immersed in a book with shelves all around, feeling the type – Braille-like – under my fingertips, hearing the crackle of turning pages and breathing the scent of old yellowing paper. It is the happiest thought I’ve had in a while.