Archive for the ‘E-Readers’ Category

From Boston to Peru: Reading Books at the Boston Athenaeum and the Peru Free Library

October 9, 2012

How are we to bring order into this multitudinous chaos and so get the deepest and widest pleasure from what we read? 

V. Woolf, “How to Read a Book”

Photo Credit: Megan Manton/Boston Athenaeum

“To enter the building is to feel an overwhelming impulse to read.”  So wrote Sarah Schweitzer about the Boston Athenaeum in a 2009 Boston.Com article.  Indeed, pushing back the building’s red, leather-bound doors, one plunges into the world of reading like a sea-creature slipping into the ocean’s depths.

How is it that a building can transform us from scatter-brained urban land creatures subject to Boston’s many disparate calls into more focused beings equipped to swim through the world of learning?  It may be that the library’s high ceilings and twelve floors expand our sense of possibility, inviting the mind to unbend.  Certainly, the Athenaeum’s quiet aura of uninterrupted work offers a refuge from the jostling noise of the city’s streets.  Fellow readers lost in concentration call us to our task.  Art, sculpture, newspapers, journals, 750,000 books, maps–all await, encouraging inquiry.  The interior’s opulence telegraphs the value of spending time with books, transporting us to a lost age when leisure allowed one to linger over fictions and treatises, sermons and histories, maps and art, with nothing more pressing awaiting than afternoon tea.

But the Athenaeum’s true luxury is something even more precious and more rare than comfort and splendor alone: it offers the order necessary for sustained reading.

We see this order in the carefully designed reading spaces enticing one to that concentrated state of mind so beneficial for reading.  Solid walnut tables provide space for research materials.  Desks tucked between bookshelves beckon. Upholstered chairs placed next to side tables allow readers to sit next to stacks of books and begin the task of browsing.  The reference room displays recent journals side-by-side on long tables (shown below) carefully ordering the chaotic possibilities before us.

Photo Credit: Megan Manton/Boston Athenaeum

In short, the library has been designed for readers by readers to encourage us to leave the tyranny of the present by plunging into the otherworldly and timeless worlds contained in books.  Seated at the Athenaeum, we can take down volumes and, in Woolf’s words, “make them light up the many windows of the past; we can watch the famous dead in their familiar habits and fancy sometimes that we are very close and can surprise their secrets, and sometimes we may pull out a play or a poem that they have written and see whether it reads differently in the presence of the author.”

Photo credit: Megan Manton/Boston Athenaeum

The Boston Athenaeum is a subscription library.  To borrow books and use the upper floors requires a membership fee beyond the reach of many.  But the first floor is open to the public six days a week, and the Athenaeum’s programs, including concerts, are open to the public free of charge.  Its value as a public space is at least threefold: it is a research and membership library; an art museum and public gallery; and a public forum for lectures, readings, concerts, and other events.

Perhaps most of all, the Boston Athenaeum is a valuable icon reminding us of the civic value placed by a community on reading.

Less palatial, but no less essential, are the public spaces created by our public libraries.  Situated by the apple orchards of upstate New York is the Peru Free Public Library (shown below), a lovely 1927 structure that blends the old and the new.  It maintains its early twentieth-century elegance, even as it runs on solar energy.

Photo credit: Theresa Sanderson

Smaller in scale than the Boston Athenaeum (it holds about 14,000 items), it, too, beckons readers with its carefully arranged reading spaces.  A fireside (below) often warms  readers working at the reference room’s long tables during the shortening fall days and throughout the winter.

Photo credit: Theresa Sanderson

Carefully arranged reading spaces offer an opportunity to clear one’s head:

Photo credit: Theresa Sanderson

A children’s reading room is designed to invite young minds to the world of books:

Photo credit: Theresa Sanderson

The Peru Free Library’s many activities bind the community through art shows, pottery shows, book sales, children’s activities, public lectures, and other events.  Like the Boston Athenaeum, the Peru Free Library is carefully and creatively managed.

Public reading spaces like the Boston Athenaeum and the Peru Free Library contribute immeasurably to their communities and to their readers, allowing them to expand their sense of who they are.   By orchestrating spaces designed to slow us down long enough to stop skimming and sink into deep reading, they encourage a more studied approach to thought than is possible away from books.  If we feel as Woolf did, that heaven is “one continuous unexhausted reading,” the Boston Athenaeum and the public libraries that share its commitment to encouraging reading make it a little easier to experience heaven on earth.

A Digital Public Library of America

March 8, 2011

Robert Darnton has championed the concept of a national digital public library through a series of galvanizing essays in The New York Review of Books.  In October 2010, he convened a community of what Harvard Magazine described as “forty-two leaders of research libraries, major foundations, and national cultural institutions” in Cambridge to discuss strategy for building a digital public library of America.  That same month, Darnton’s opening talk at that conference was published in the New York Review of Books.  His The Library: Three Jeremiads, appeared in NYRB in December, further delineating the complex relation between digital libraries and their brick-and-mortar counterparts.  Details of the conference were published both by Jennifer Howard in the Chronicle of Higher Education and by the Harvard Magazine, which cited Darnton as describing the project as

the digital equivalent of the Library of Congress…bringing millions of books and digitized material in other media within clicking distance of public libraries, high schools, colleges, universities, retirement communities, and any individual with access to the Internet.

Responses to the concept of constructing a national digital public library have been positive.  In December, David Rothman published “Why We Can’t Afford Not to Create a Well-Stocked National Digital Library System” in the Atlantic, arguing that one of the benefits of the project is that it digitizes more than the commercial selections offered by Kindle’s and iPad’s digitization projects: significantly, it digitizes library books.  Referring to a digital public library, Rothman claims it’s a cause

I’ve publicly advocated since 1992 in Computerworld, a 1996 MIT Press information science collection, the Washington Post, U.S. News & World Report, the Huffington Post, and elsewhere, including my national information stimulus plan here in the Fallows blog?

Rothman departs or seems to depart from Darnton, however, over the issue of access.  Rothman wants the digital public library to be a genuine public library, open to all citizens, not simply those affiliated with research libraries.

Details of the plans continue to emerge.  Michael Kelly provides an overview of Harvard’s Berkman Center for the Internet and Society and its plans for a year of workshops regarding the project in Library Journal.com.  Recently (Feb. 18th), Jennifer Howard again interviewed Darnton for the Chronicle of Higher Education to obtain updates on the progress made by Harvard’s Berkman Center for the Internet and Society on the Digital Public Library of America.

Now that Oxford and Cambridge are making plans to digitize their backlists, this may be a good time to discuss the benefits and consequences of having a national digital public library.  Will digital books be read?  Do readers need POD (Print-on-Demand) options?  Is this project getting the attention it deserves?


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