This story originally appeared in the March/April 2015 issue of Inspired Home magazine.
I grew up going to the Wahpeton, ND, public library with my mom on a weekly basis. The Leach library was and continues to be a glorious building with dramatic front steps and big imposing windows and dark, solid wooden shelves filled with row upon row of dusty books; that space had a kind of grandeur that never ceased to amaze me, no matter how many times I went in. The smell of aging paper, the sunlight filtering through the dust motes, the infinite rows of books, the wooden card catalog waiting to be rifled through, the wooden tree in the children’s section that invited a long sit down to page through potential books—all of it was a wonderful sensory experience every single time I went in.
There’s something about the architecture of libraries that is almost as big a draw to me as the books waiting inside. In an era of often very utilitarian architecture, public libraries still seem to have an aesthetic design that makes them inviting and imposing at the same time.
Aging Carnegie libraries are often ill-equipped to manage the current technology needs of today’s library population, but they offer the grace and beauty that is so rarely seen in any American architecture. Contemporary libraries have thoughtful spaces for engagement based on ages and desires. They are bright and open and bring a kind of quiet riot to their design and use of space.
Perhaps it’s that architects of libraries know these spaces require a kind of hushed reverence that is not really required of any other spaces anymore. Perhaps it is that they hold the weight of knowledge, passion, inquiry and answers to all our burning questions in their design.
Of course, today, our burning questions can be answered on our smart phones, but those answers don’t hold the appeal of going to the library and finding the answer through a catalog search and a long walk down the numbered aisles, looking for that perfect letter and number combination that will lead to the answer inside the pages of that particular book.
Perhaps the key to libraries is that their architecture invites that inquisitive mind at any age to come inside and embrace the known and unknown, the sought after and the happened upon.
I marvel every time I enter a library; I pause to consider the design elements that went into creating a space that is open to all, young and old, rich and poor, literate and illiterate. Every person’s experience inside the walls of the library matters and has value, and the architecture is as relevant to that experience as the wonders inside.
Photo taken on a mini tour of the SW corner of ND, aka my childhood hometowns, with Dr Marry in August, 2021.