Awed by the public library

As bankruptcy predators began salivating over publicly owned treasures in Detroit–namely, the assets  of the Detroit Institute of Art–I was visiting the newly renovated, taxpayer-supported St. Louis Central Public Library. The $70 million renovation–funded to the tune of a $50 million bond issue, with $20 million more in private donations–has elevated a fading public asset  into a state-of-the-art city gem. Using the original bones of the 100-year old building, designed in the early 1900s by Cass Gilbert, the renovators have kept all of the exterior walls intact, while rethinking the old, dark stacks, restoring natural light, rejuvenating the magnificent ceilings, opening up big new public spaces, and generally creating an exciting, inviting place for exploring and learning.

I am obliged to admit, here, that as a suburbanite, before today’s tour, I hadn’t set foot inside the downtown library in at least two decades. So, I’m far from an expert on the place, and I’m eight months tardy in touring the renovation. [[It reopened, after a two year shutdown for the life-changing renovations, in December 2012 to celebrate its centennial.] Like other suburban residents, I had driven past it and/or parked near it many times, when I went downtown for the kinds of events non-city-dwellers travel to: Cardinals’ baseball games, a visit to the Gateway Arch, and special events. But going inside to do research or just look around was not my thing–especially in the dawning of the Google age–and when a perfectly adequate, suburban library was within five minutes of my house.

But earlier this year [2013], when the downtown library renovation started getting rave reviews, I knew it was time to make the trip–an easy 25-minute drive that I hadn’t bothered to take in so many years.

Our tour group was led by a very knowledgeable docent–a chemist by profession–who reminded us about the private-public partnership of the early 1900s that gave birth to the St. Louis Public Library system in what was then America’s fourth largest city. It all started with good old Andrew Carnegie, who provided the initial funds for many of the municipal libraries around the country–a lot of which are still standing as the biggest buildings in many small towns. After Carnegie kickstarted things in St. Louis, the citizenry got involved and passed a property tax to provide public funds for an asset then widely regarded as essential to the cultural and educational health of the city.

Our docent pointed out the role played by architecture in creating a–literally–enlightening environment. And the 21st century renovation continues that wise tradition, allowing in even more sunlight than ever.library_window

Cass Gilbert [he was chosen as the architect because he had designed the St. Louis Art Museum for the vaunted 1904 World’s Fair, and, by the way, the U.S. Supreme Court building] also incorporated into the building many decorative details aimed at reminding us of the importance to a civilized society of literature, art and intellectual inquiry. The renovation has retained and polished up details such as the stained glass windows and the names of authors chiseled into the walls. The 21st century renovators have added their own literary touches, too, including an outdoor infinity fountain with famous literary quotations that shimmer under the glassy water’s surface. In the fiction section of the library, the first sentences of well-loved books are embossed on the ceiling in huge letters, as if to remind us of the pleasure of starting a book and wondering where it will go.

The huge [it takes up a full city block] Beaux Arts-style building has that cathedral-like feel that is meant to inspire you. [I generally am not inspired by that church-y thing; rather I feel that they’re trying to make me feel small and insignificant. But I’ll give the library a pass on that, because it is a building of its time, and because the renovators had the wisdom to leave well enough alone, while improving on things that–in the name of 1950s modernism–had been subjected to some misguided changes–such as the dropped ceilings that have now been eliminated, revealing the original, airy vaulted architecture.]

And speaking of ceilings, some of them are simply amazing. In the large room dedicated to art books, Gilbert recreated a ceiling he saw in Italy in the late 19th century. The library renovators had to remediate some very ill-advised modifications that had been made along the way to accommodate fluorescent [ugh!] lighting fixtures. But they have done a brilliant job of restoration, right down to removing the ugly fluorescents and replacing them with the beautiful chandeliers [rewired with LED] Gilbert installed at the beginning. There are other ceiling and light-fixture marvels in several other of the public spaces–so beautiful that staring at the ceiling–an activity usually reserved for the inattentive or bored–could become a worthy habit.

In a large space dedicated to St. Louis history and books, the library has added a touch of nostalgia that will probably be lost on anyone under 50, but worth noting. In the center of the room stands a large wooden case, filled with small drawers. Medicare-eligible people will recognize it as a card catalog–the erstwhile “search engine” we all learned to use in grade school. But, rather than relegate it to the dust pile, the library has given it a place of prominence and has cleverly populated its 3-by-5-inch drawers with index cards on which are written short notes jotted down over the years by librarians who recorded found tidbits as they ferreted out information for library users. Next time I have an afternoon with nothing to do, I’m going down to the library to slide out a couple of those drawers and flip through the cards, just for fun.

I left the tour feeling awed by the building, and ashamed of myself for not having appreciated it before. And I thought about how lazy Google has made me, and how much knowledge I haven’t tapped into…yet.

But I also felt thankful to the wise people, a century ago, at the height of the Progressive Era, who valued learning and who understood that books and knowledge and the tools of inquiry should be available to everyone–and that these things are essential public assets in any community. In an era when intellectual curiosity is scorned, when learning takes a back seat to test scores, and when cities like Detroit contemplate gutting their cultural heritage, the progressive values that created places like the St. Louis Public Library are worth restoring.

  • Phoenix Justice

    Public libraries, like public parks and public schools, used to be one of the factors in the “quality of life” quotient that companies used to decide whether or not to put down roots in a particular area. Now you have companies such as Wal-Mart pitting each town/city against each other to see who can offer the lowest taxes at the expense of the “quality of life”.

  • I’m under 40 and I still remember card catalogs. 🙂

    Not sure how well the under 30s will remember them, but how to use them was still being taught when I was in elementary school.