Libraries Now and Then
A more modern library, not a good one
March 4, 1977
I’m sentimental about Springfield old Carnegie library because I experienced it as a patron, not as a librarian. I am the last person to begrudge good librarians the facilities they need to do their jobs, but the old libraries felt like institutions and the new ones feel like buildings with books in them.
I praised the new building housing Springfield's public Lincoln Library when it opened. I would later change my mind. The building's virtues, here described, remained real but the space proved characterless and bland and, oddly, noisier than the old one, owing to the central atrium around which each floor is arrayed.
The grand opening of Lincoln Library's new main branch was, as they say, a real occasion. It's been an eventful year in Springfield, what with Paul Revere riding through town on a horse and Gerald Ford riding through on a train , (both of them, it turned out, on one-way trips), but neither of those events generated as much excitement, as much plain good feeling as the library opening. "Imagine," I heard one woman remark, "a library like this in little ol’ Springfield." The new facility made Springfield a better place to live in and a lot of people felt a little better about living here because of it. The whole thing was a perfect antidote to the February blahs that weigh so heavily on folks after winter has lost its novelty and spring is still many weeks away.
The library's virtues as a building are debatable, like those of any new structure. An enthusiastic majority was delighted, but a few thought the exterior stolid and intimidating, and a lawyer I know worried (with some cause, I think) that the building was a little too large for its site. Others would doubtless find about eight million reasons to dislike it, but their gripes are financial, not architectural.
Whatever the merits of the structure as a building, though, there's no doubt that it will be a more successful library than its predecessor. The old Carnegie-funded temple that used to sit on the 7th and Capitol site was the town's library for something like sixty-five years. It had to be torn down because (mainly) it lacked floor space and flexibility—both assets the new building has in abundance.
As I strolled around the bright and spacious floors of the new library I thought of the old library. Many of us who grew up in Springfield did a lot of that growing up in the old main branch. It was there, for example, that generations of Springfield school kids mastered the arcane skills which would prove so useful in their later academic careers—how to write a plausible book review without reading the book, how to inflate two pages of ideas into ten pages of report, how to camouflage an article from the encyclopedia so the teacher wouldn't recognize the source. I remember especially the ominous tolling of the chimes on the grandfather clock that stood on the stairway landing, reminding me of how much time had passed—and how little work I'd done—on those Saturday afternoons before the Monday mornings when term papers were due.
Many of us who first went there as students later returned as readers. I remember the feeling of having arrived someplace important that I felt when, turning twelve, I qualified for an adult borrower's card and was thus able to lift myself (both physically and metaphorically) from the world of the children's room on the ground floor to the higher plane of the main room upstairs. I remember the glass-floored stacks where it was always too hot and where the price of admission was the sharp bite of static electricity that nipped at your finger when you laid your hand on the brass-knobbed stair railing. I remember the bums who sat for hours, sometimes fast asleep, in front of open magazines or newspapers without turning a page—this masquerade being the price paid for being allowed to sit inside where it was warm and dry. I remember the tiny men's room that had a stink no disinfectant could erase. I remember the cramped office of the public relations director (a peculiarly modern need the building's architects could not have anticipated in 1905) hidden behind shelves of westerns and mystery novels in the Popular Books Room because there was no place else in the building to put it. I remember once being escorted into the nether world below stacks, a place so dark and cramped I half expected to see dust-smeared librarians wearing coal miners' hats creeping around corners peering through the gloom for a book buried there. And I remember those agreeable summer afternoons when I paused during the time between buses and stretched out with a good book on a cool stone bench beside the main entrance.
Naturally there will be memories of the new building too. I have one or two already, the first of them picked up on that busy, happy opening day two Mondays ago. I tried to recall then when I'd first visited the old building, but I couldn't be sure. I think I was ten years old. I'd spent that summer going through the small collection at the South Branch, devouring anything they had about baseball, dinosaurs, explorers and aviation; the librarian there had to lick herself dry putting tinfoil stars on my summer reading program score sheet. Anyway, I'd felt good that day twenty years ago, thinking about the pleasures in store. I felt a little like that again while I was touring the new library. A lot of us did. ●