Growing up in New Haven’s Wooster Square meant that we could venture up Chapel Street to downtown just about any time we wished. It was just a matter of walking a few blocks to be able to visit all the stores and wonderful city institutions.
The New Haven Green wasn’t that far from our home and neither was the stately New Haven Free Public Library. The main branch on Elm Street is housed in an imposing building with large, beautiful windows and a grand staircase that leads up to the front doors.
I always enjoyed a trip to the library because it was such a special place, quite unlike any other public institution that I knew. What I loved most was to visit the children’s room in the basement. Everything was of a smaller scale there, all the bookcases seemed to be lower to the ground, and the tables were child-sized.
My greatest fascination, however, was looking at the murals that covered the walls. My personal favorite was the story of Rip Van Winkle, told in a beautifully unfolding series of scenes from the book, painted in a pastel palette with figures reminiscent of the work of a 19th century artist.
How I loved looking at them, and how they livened the space, adding drama to the quiet room. To this day, I sometimes shut my eyes and try it imagine them. They were most likely painted as part of a WPA project, during the ’30s, when the Roosevelt administration developed a series of projects that put people to work, artists included. As a result, public buildings across America were embellished with original art paid by the work program, and New Haven still has murals and carvings in place in a number of schools.
The library was a special place because it created an environment that enveloped you in its quiet, graceful and nurturing presence; and you knew, walking in, that you were going to be transformed by it. There was so much beauty all around — and there were the books.
In those days, a book truly was a window to the world, and in my day some of them were prized as much for the illustrations as for the prose, because illustrations and photographs were still an important source for understanding the world that you couldn’t see for yourself. It was also where you went to get information ... from a book, no less.
A library was a special place and they were built to suggest that. Sterling Library at Yale, for instance, is designed to look like a church from the Middle Ages, a “cathedral to learning” with stained glass windows and beautiful oak wood carvings.
When I was in college, I sold encyclopedias to parents who wanted to provide their children with all the information that was available at that time. Any school project could be researched from that set of books, and they even updated the collection each year with a supplement that covered the new information discovered during the previous year. With that set of books in your home, you had the world’s knowledge at your disposal. They were considered to be a fairly complete record of known facts about many things.
Fast forward to now and you have a very different library experience. It’s just not the same — it’s modern and filled with technology. Everything quick and correct. Some of the new buildings are beautiful in a less-opulent way, and the older grand dames have been modernized and updated with the newest technological devices. After all, libraries have to appeal to a generation of users who have the most current information at the tip of their fingers and which can be accessed on a split-second’s notice. Books are no longer the go-to source for information, they can only embellish the information that we already have.
Still, for some folks, the only reason to go to the library is to borrow a book to take home to read, but only if they don’t prefer to read it online, something you can load on to your phone or tablet and read anywhere. Fortunately, there are still many people who love to read a real book, hold it in their hands, turn the pages, and make a physical connection to the world that is contained within its covers.
For those people, the library and the function that it serves, as a repository of reading material, remains important to their sense of how a civilized society should function. There is nothing wrong with reading an electronic version of a book, but there are still so many reasons to touch a book with your hands, and to go to the library as the source of your literary experiences.
I hope that libraries never go out of style or lose any more relevance with this generation coming up, because if the library experience disappears from their world, our own world diminishes as well.
I’m sure that the magical library visits that I experienced as a child, the elegant building, the hushed sense of being engaged in a very special activity, and of course, the beautiful murals transporting me to an imaginary place, are not easily replicated for me.
But we can surely find a way to make our present-day libraries equally memorable to this tech-savvy generation.