As we celebrate National Library Week, Ann Patchett reflects on the modest spaces where she discovered a passion for reading. Her essay is excerpted from The Public Library by Robert Dawson—a photo survey of these vital institutions across the country.
Had I grown up down the street from the New York Public Library, I might have thought that libraries were defined by the size of their lions. If some of my earliest memories had been of Harvard’s Widener Library, I could have believed that sweeping murals by John Singer Sargent were baseline. But I attended a small Catholic girls’ school in Nashville, where our tiny library consisted of two rows of bookshelves, one on either side of the short hall between the classrooms and the nuns’ dining room. At the end of the bookshelves, Joanne Baily sat at a small table. Mrs. Baily was a mother who volunteered to help children find the book they might not know they were looking for.
Just about the time I read Betty Smith’s A Tree Grows in Brooklyn, I advanced to the upper school across the parking lot. The library there was a big step up. The books were kept in their own small room. I remember wanting to check out Robert Nathan’s Portrait of Jennie because it looked romantic, but at the circulation desk I was denied. Sister Bonaventure, taking a long look at the cover (a painting of a girl looking vaguely pensive), deemed the book inappropriate. I went back for another novel, and then another, and every time was instructed to reshelve my selection. I finally decided that Sister Bonaventure did not approve of fiction. Testing my theory, I brought several books of poetry to the checkout and sailed through. That was how I came to start reading T.S. Eliot and W.B. Yeats and Sylvia Plath in seventh grade.
So while I went on in life to be deeply impressed by the Philadelphia Free Library and the Los Angeles County Public Library and our own stunning Nashville Public Library, my idea of what a library is remains simple: a collection of books, however many or few, that are loaned out and gathered back.
We may never have full equality in our legal system, or our schools, but in our libraries there is parity: All are welcome, all books are free, and, if you can wait a little while, all books are available.
These days, with the advent of the interlibrary loan system, that includes just about any book you might want. The one-room structure in rural Kansas is as rich in books as the aforementioned Widener. We may never have full equality in our legal system, or our schools, but in our libraries there is parity: All are welcome, all books are free, and, if you can wait a little while, all books are available.
Of course, my book-centric view of libraries could easily be seen as dated. Libraries have considerably more than books to manage these days. So why, in a time when libraries also serve as computer centers, senior centers, teen centers, classrooms, and homeless shelters, is there so much speculation that they’ve become irrelevant?
In 1897 Mark Twain wrote a note to a friend that read, “James Ross Clemens, a cousin of mine, was seriously ill two or three weeks ago in London, but is well now. The report of my illness grew out of his illness; the report of my death was an exaggeration.”
Like James Ross Clemens, the book industry has endured a serious illness. The advent of ebooks caused a great deal of panic. But books, ever tenacious, have made a strong recovery. It is my belief that the publishing industry’s illness brought about the notion that libraries were on their last leg. Libraries, like Twain himself, had never been sick in the first place.
So, if you are fortunate enough to buy your own books, and you have your own computer, and you’re not in search of a story hour for your kids, then don’t forget about the members of your community who perhaps lack your resources—the ones who love to read, who long to learn, who need a place to sit and think. Make sure you remember to support their quest for a better life. That’s what a library promises us, after all: A better life. And that’s what libraries have delivered.
Excerpted from The Public Library: A Photographic Essay by Robert Dawson, published by Princeton Architectural Press, 2014.
View a slideshow of some of Dawson’s stunning images below.