After living here for more than a decade, I thought it was time to visit the Boston Public Library. I wasn’t avoiding the library. I don’t have any past traumatic library experiences like racking up enormous overdue fines or getting busted reading a copy of the Karma Sutra tucked behind A Brief History of Time. It was more a case that I got used to passing by the hulking structure that sits at the edge of Copley Square rather than making an effort to walk inside of it. But thanks to the myth of climate change gifting New England with an unending winter, I decided that a recent cold, raw, inhospitable Sunday in April offered me a perfect excuse to get out so I could go in.
I love libraries. I think they are among the most important institutions on earth, and I’m including artisan doughnut shops on that list. Free knowledge for anyone willing to spend the time to mine it—I can’t find any flaws to this logic. The access to all kinds of intellectual materials—books, newspapers, magazine, music, films, art work—is necessary for the sustainability, success, and growth of any community. Libraries are transformative in the way they are able to provide anyone with the tools to unlock their own extraordinary potential. My earliest and happiest memories involve visiting our town library as a kid. My mother would take me to their weekly story hour. Squashed into a beanbag chair, I blissed out listening to the librarian read Mike Mulligan and His Steam Shovel or The Adventures of Frog and Toad while my eyes traveled over the shelves, mentally collecting my book booty. I remember getting my first library card when I was about five or six. I stood at the desk while the librarian filled out my name, address, and phone number on a small, yellow card in block letters. I remember feeling incredibly antsy, like a barfly itching to wrap her hands around that martini glass. I had a stack of Dr. Seuss books burning a hole in the counter that weren’t going to read themselves.
Besides being invaluable assets to the development of our society, libraries can be, as we say in Boston, wicked cool. The Boston Public Library is no exception.
The main branch is a Renaissance-style building with high rows of arched windows with a series of medieval-looking wrought iron light fixtures jutting out from the entrance. At the top of the wide granite steps running the length of the building are statues of two women. Both are seated, wearing long, flowing robes because the scandal of lady parts. One holds a palette and brush to depict the essence of “art” and the other holds a sphere to designate the essence of “science.” The figures were created by sculptor Bela Pratt in 1910 who earns a polite round of applause for using women to symbolize these poles of knowledge. Though I am sure that for Bela they were simply the right kind of artwork for the job, what with muses being represented as women and all, but I like to think that he inadvertently gave us a feminist statement challenging who wields the power of intellectual and artistic pursuits.
Boston didn’t have a centralized library until nearly 1850. Prior to this there were smaller libraries scattered around the city and it seemed like any time someone raised the notion of making a unified library for the commonwealth, that person was told to go “John Hancock” themselves. This was a nineteenth-century way of saying “get the f*&&^% outta here with that, kid!” All of that was going to change when word reached city officials that the recently deceased, New York grazillionaire, John Jacob Astor, had bequeathed the city a small island-sized amount of money to build a library. “You think yaaahr bettah than us?” came Boston’s typical response, along with a bit of beer swilling and additional bluster about sports. And just like that, Boston suddenly found time and money to authorize the creation of its own public library.
In 1880 the city commissioned American architect Charles Follen McKim to build what would become the city’s main branch. Architecturally speaking, McKim really went full Monty on borrowing from all kinds of styles and approaches in both French and Italian schools of design. He pulled it off. The building feels like part art museum, part history museum (in addition to being lousy with sculptures and artifacts, the library houses all kinds of rare materials such as one of Shakespeare’s First Folios, which is a little like owning the first guitar Jimmy Page ever played), part Italian villa, and part actual library. It’s sounds a bit overwhelming with a lot going on, and it is, but in an inspiring rather than flea market kind of way.
I know I looked like a tourist when I walked into the vestibule and stopped with my mouth flapped open and my cell phone raised. My eyes swept upward to gawk at the series of undulating ceilings. Each section bore the name of famous thinkers, writers, and innovators and was tiled in a tapestry pattern of winding, tangled flowers along with images from Greek, Roman, and Egyptian mythology.
Just beyond the information desk and metal detectors (a total drag), a marble staircase leads you to the upper floors that contain the library’s collections and reading rooms. Two imposing marble lions flank the staircase. They were built to honor the men who sacrificed their lives in the 20th Massachusetts regiment during the Civil War. The names of infamous battles are etched into the lion’s pedestals. I believe this is what’s called “setting the tone.” And I believe this tone is one that conveys tuck in your shirt, Susie, you’re treading on sacred territory here.
Dramatic—possibly. Accurate—absolutely. McKim made sure to stock his library with more than just books, he filled it with reverence for what those books represent: the unfettered potential of the human mind.
If this is initially lost on you as you enter the library, it’s unavoidable when you creep around the remaining floors. McKim hired several different artists to create murals throughout the library. Paintings of things like Homer reading the Odyssey and Muses floating above pastoral landscapes cover the walls of the stairway and upper hallways. The renowned painter and portraitist John Singer Sargent whipped up a series of panels depicting “The Triumph of Religion” for the, aptly named Sargent Room. Sargent was going to go with something easy like scenes from Spanish literature, but decided that was for baby artists. The Bible’s greatest hits would do just fine. Another artist named Edwin Austen Abbey painted the story of “The Quest for the Holy Grail” for the, also appropriately named, Abbey Room. Luxurious images of the Arthurian legend wrap around the perimeter of the 64-foot long space above dark, mahogany paneling.
And then there is Bates Hall. This is the library’s primary reading room. It could be an alternate set of Hogwarts from The Harry Potter movies. Named after the library’s chief benefactor, Joshua Bates, the room resembles a Roman basilica. The ceiling ripples in something called “robust double coffers,” which I think is a fancy term for “holy crap, this ceiling is fancier and more beautiful than any part of any house I will ever live in over the course of eighteen lifetimes.”
I wandered around from room to room while other visitors filtered in and out and people actually using the library worked on their laptops. I couldn’t quite bring myself to leave until I had poked in and out of every space at least twice, my head swiveling like a pigeon. I thought about what it must have been like to visit the library a century ago. It would have been impressive, of course. I mean, you’d have to be a member of the Saudi royal family to think it was just “meh.” But I think it also would have felt peculiarly homey. The acquisition of knowledge was always something to be prized; it’s a privilege of being human. The library’s aesthetic flourishes—the art, the sculptures, the fine details in everything from the chandeliers to the banisters—were never meant to detract from its utility. Instead, I think they work as a contract with the visitor. Everything you see at the Boston Public Library and everything it has to offer affirms the library’s role in being a profound and critical force that shapes the world. In exchange, it only asks you do the same.