Since I started doing a PhD on public libraries in 2012, I’ve been to 86 libraries in Australia, Zealand, the UK, Cambodia, the US, and Canada. There have been some truly spectacular libraries, in terms of the scope of their collection, the buildings they are in, and the historical significance of the library itself — libraries such as the Library of Congress, the State Library of Victoria, the Morgan Library in New York, Boston Public Library, Seattle Public Library, and the Carnegie Library of Pittsburgh.
I also make a point of visiting branch libraries: the smaller, more humble libraries that don’t usually receive as much attention as the more impressive central libraries but are the ones where people line up before the library opens, stay until closing, and are vital parts of the urban fabric. I visit the big libraries to gaze in awe, check out exhibits, see monuments that are significant historically, architecturally, culturally. I visit branch libraries to read, hang out, and experience what a more everyday library experience in that particular city is like. I try to stop at multiple branches of one library system, chat to librarians, and spend time in the library, absorbing its atmosphere and character. Below are some of my favourites.
- Seattle Public Library. Shannon Mattern’s The New Downtown Library was an important source for my research, and I spent years reading about this library before I finally visited in 2014. I was walking in downtown Seattle, turned a corner, and out of the corner of my eye, I spotted a strangely metal and angular building. I knew. This was it. This was the library that I had been wanting to visit for three years, and finally made it. I walked inside, took a deep breath, and took it all in. I finally saw the non-fiction spiral, the living room on the third floor, and the reading room at the top of the library – everything I had been reading about and imagining for years. I almost cried my first time there.
- Room to Read Library in Cambodia. Room to Read is an organisation that builds libraries, published books, and supports girls’ education in developing countries all over the world. I’ve been supporting this organisation since 2009, and in 2012, my then-boyfriend donated money to build a school library in Sambath, Cambodia (near Siem Reap). We visited shortly after the library opened, met the librarian, the students, and saw how this small library was benefiting an entire village.
3. State Library of Victoria. I was in Melbourne for a geography conference, and the conference dinner was in this library. Before dinner started, my friend and I went to look at the reading room before it closed. It was beautiful, amazing, and I had nowhere near enough time there that evening. I skipped a conference session the next day to go back to the reading room. There is a ribbon of words that line the wall of the reading room, quotations related to literature and reading.
4. Parkes Library. Parkes is a small town in central New South Wales, about a six hour drive west of Sydney. I have been visiting the Parkes Elvis Festival for a number of years for research, and this year I spent a weekend in their local history library, going through old books and newspaper clippings, researching for a book on the festival. I love how comfortable this library is, how helpful and warm the staff are, and the great events and initiatives they do, like words on a coffee cup.
5. Brighstone Community Library. This is a small, volunteer run library on the Isle of Wight in the UK. It’s one room, but organised in a way that will be familiar to most library-goers: fiction, non-fiction, young adults, children’s. Many libraries in the UK have become staffed by volunteers in recent years due to budget cuts, and this is one of them.