How to praise a library? It has a lot of books! The buildings are nice! The above painting of the central branch of the St. Louis Public Library can be found here. Everything in it is an imitation - a ceiling copied from Michelangelo, a floor from Florence, a dome from Venice. Also, a bronze bust of Mark Twain, funded, partly, by Mussolini.
The books were the point, of course, and the books are what sustained me. And the CDs, another story. And the toys, and the Xbox games – well, I never checked any of those out, but still, the things libraries do today. Kids don't know how lucky they are. Where was I?
Books, books. Because I was teaching during this last year, I had access to almost every university library in Missouri, including Washington University, which was a twenty minute walk from home. I could, within a few days, get anything I wanted. The startling fact, though, was that, aside from university press monographs, the St. Louis Public Library was as likely to have what I wanted. The three Oxford World’s Classics translations of Sergei Aksakov, a hundred year old illustrated translation of the poems of Théophile Gautier, forty-seven titles by Margaret Oliphant, twenty-four by Bjørnstjerne Bjørnson. Not that I ever read any of those, and I’ll bet half are in Norwegian, but now I feel like I should have read some. The Chicago Public Library has, as far as I can tell, not a single book of Bjørnson’s. What? Nobel Prize for Literature, 1903!
A few minutes at the keyboard, and a few days’ wait, and any of these books – say a 19th century Blackwood edition of Oliphant’s The Perpetual Curate - would be placed in my hands. Why do they keep all of this stuff? How wonderful that they do. I once asked a librarian – it was because of the Gautier book – if I should really be allowed to leave with it. She said that she had wondered the same thing with books that she had used. I guess they’re not really that valuable. They seem valuable.
The central branch of the library, a 1912 beauty that has fallen on hard times, is now closed for a massive renovation. My photograph of the closed stacks is on the left. The one problem with the library was that much of the collection was inaccessible, so mastery of the irritating online catalog was essential. The renovation will make all of this accessible. Note the glass floors! Note the pneumatic tube system (left and down)! I never requested a book merely to see the pneumatic tubes operate, I swear. All of this will be torn out, a shame but a necessity.
Now, back to weeding.