Library Bucket List: On loving all libraries
by Jen Li, INALJ Contributor
I have a ‘library bucket list’. Although my PhD research focuses on three case study libraries in Sydney, my reading and travels have taken me beyond Sydney and those three libraries. I have a mental list of libraries that I would like to visit one day, libraries that I would love to return to, and whenever I’m in a new city I will visit their libraries and discover ones that I didn’t realise I wanted to visit but am glad that I found them. The bucket list is developed through hours upon hours of reading books and articles about libraries, following libraries and librarians on Twitter, and reading websites like BookRiot on an almost daily basis. There are many lists out there that proclaim the ‘Most Beautiful Libraries in the World’ or ‘Libraries You Should Visit Before You Die’, and I like to read them for two reasons: to see how many libraries I can tick off and say, “Yes, I’ve been there!”, and to add new libraries to my list.
A note on these lists, however: these lists typically contain grand, beautiful libraries. There are palatial and majestic libraries out there in the world, libraries with marble floors and columns, and what seem like endless rows of bookshelves. You know the ones. They are spectacular libraries that intimidate. These are generally national libraries, or a city’s first or central library, or academic libraries. My bucket list contains these libraries, and I will never say no to an opportunity to visit them. But I also love the library that never makes it onto those lists; the humble neighbourhood library that perhaps isn’t as well funded, or is open as many hours as its users would like, or whose decor and furnishings might not have been updated for a number of years because its budgetary priorities lay elsewhere.
These are the branch libraries, the thousands of libraries around the world that serve primarily the residents of a few suburbs, which may be located in shopping centres or next to council chambers or town hall. Some are in quite amazing and spectacular buildings, but there are also a lot that are not. These libraries are the ones that hold storytime sessions, an important activity in early literacy, teaching parents and guardians to read to their children, and inculcating a reading and library habit. These libraries host computer classes, knitting groups, provide access to local council and community information, and connect citizens with their local communities in various ways.
Sometimes, the contrast between the branch libraries and their parent central library can be stark. In one of my case study library systems, the central library is a large and recently refurbished library that provides plenty of space for leisure and study. It is the only library in that library system that meets the space guidelines set out by the State Library of NSW; the other branch libraries are smaller than what is recommended for the populations that they serve. In Pittsburgh, although both the Squirrel Hill and East Liberty branch libraries that I visited were impressive and welcoming spaces, it was the Main Library (Oakland) that inspired awe, with its high ceilings, large spaces, and a dinosaur statue out the front. Likewise, while I love the Carmel Valley Library in San Diego for being everything I hope a branch library would be, it is the San Diego Central Library, officially opened in late 2013, that makes me tell non-library people, “That library is awesome! You should go and visit!”
Spectacular libraries are tourist destinations; cultural icons and attractions of a city. Spectacular central libraries in public library systems are where large parts of its reference and circulating collections are kept, where key administrative and professional tasks are carried out, and they are like the brain of the library system that keeps the whole thing functioning. Many of them are worthy of being on lists of ‘Most Impressive Libraries Ever’—I almost cried when I visited Seattle Public Library for the first time, it was that amazing. But when I say that I love libraries, these are not the only ones that I mean.
I love the library as an institution, and everything that it stands for. I love that it is a free and accessible space where pretty much anyone can enter and spend time, without the need to buy a single thing. They can access the internet, read books and newspapers, research, study, be sheltered from the cold and heat. They can collaborate, create, discuss. They can meet friends and make new ones, or they can be in their private bubble but still be in the comforting presence of other people. I love that libraries store and promote local culture, history, and literature. I love that they are spaces where readers can come out to play, and they are places where readers are made. A lot of these elements of the library that I’m writing about here take place in the small, perhaps a bit downtrodden branch library. My bucket list of libraries includes the grand libraries, as well as any branch library that I may stumble across. They might not be spectacular on a grand scale, but they are impressive nonetheless. I love that they are safe places to go. I love that there is a vast cross-section of society that uses them. I love that they exist.
About the Author
Jen Li is a geographer and researcher from Sydney, Australia who is currently completing a PhD on public libraries and library spaces. She completed a Bachelor of Commerce (Liberal Studies) (Hons) at the University of Sydney in 2008 with majors in geography, marketing and management. Her Honours dissertation was on independent bookshops in Sydney and how they had been affected by rationalisation and consolidation in book retailing. Clearly, her research has a common theme. In the years between her undergraduate degree and undertaking the PhD, Jen has worked as a Research Project Officer at the University of Western Sydney, a Research Assistant at the University of Southampton, a researcher on various festival projects, and a tutor in geography. Since she began researching libraries, Jen has decided that when she grows up, she wants to be a librarian.