Tuesday, July 13, 2010

The magnificent St. Louis Public Library

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. 

St. Louis is a city in which many public institutions – how to say this politely – do not function as they should.  The library is an exception, an enormous exception.  It’s one of the treasures of the city. 

Now, back to weeding.


  1. I have access to the university library system here in Lausanne, so I am spoiled for French and German literature. Getting stuff in English is so-so. I can get a lot of stuff, I cannot get all that I want. But I may also be a little greedy.

    Good luck adapting to the new library system!

  2. What a fantastic library! Are you so far from it now that you wouldn't be able to use it anymore at all? Hope the weeding is going well :)

  3. Oh how I miss the library at the University of Rochester. Nearly three million books! *cries*

    Of the three libraries I have access to right now, one is in lovely old house, another is brand-new and completely state of the art, and the third is located downtown, right in the middle of the ghetto, and is a gorgeous five-story Neoclassical building with Corinthian columns. It is listed in the National Register of Historical Places.

  4. "Adapting" is just the right word.

    Stefanie, that's right - this is my farewell to the St. Louis libraries.

    E.L. - that sounds not so bad. The importance of the physical space of the library has grown for me for some reason. I now like to write in them. I don't know why.