December 14, 2013

M.C. Escher's "Library of Babel"

These photos of the old-time Cincinnati main public library that was finally torn down in the 1950s have been going around. The picture above looks like an illustration for Jorge Luis Borges's The Library of Babel if done by M.C. Escher after visiting an exhibition of Piranesi's prisons. It reminds me that while I love vast reading rooms, such as Boston's, I always found going into the stacks at Rice University's big library slightly nightmarish. 

I particularly like the contrast in men's headgear between the polite gentlemen scholars in the Art Room:
and the hat-wearing hoi polloi in the Newspaper Room:
This confirms all my treasured stereotypes from reading Ben Hecht and watching His Girl Friday about the profound link between old time newspapers and wearing your hat indoors. (In case you are wondering, although Magritte's paintings are full of men wearing hats, they only wear them outdoors.)


Mr. Anon said...

Call me old-fashioned, but men wearing hats indoors really pisses me off. Like Ron Howard, who always has a hat jammed down on his head (And, dude, it ain't fooling anybody - we all know you're bald, okay?)

Mr. Anon said...

That's a neat picture of the library. It's hard to believe that we actually built such expensive and ornate public buildings back then. Of course, why spend much on a library today, given that it is now not much more than a video-rental outlet, and a warming-hut for homeless guys.

pat said...

When I was about to go west, I and a friend grabbed as many of my overdue library books as would fit in my VW bug and ferried them into the old Carnegie library. We refused to stop when they yelled at us. We just dropped them on the check out desk - or the floor. That was the official DC public library in those days. It was old, dirty and filled with books. It was quite wonderful.

Years later I came back to Washington DC as an urban planning grad student. In class we were taught to worship Le Corbusier and Mies van der Rohe among others.

The new DC public library that replaced the old Carnegie Beaux Arts building was a sort of Bauhaus design by Mies. At the time it was the most expensive public building ever built in America on a dollar per square foot basis.

It was very recognizable being essentially just the lower four floors of the Seagram's Building in Manhattan. When Mies said 'Less is more' he also meant the thinking he did on government contracts.

The funny thing about it was that they hadn't spent a single cent on new books. The old collection that overfilled the former building looked lost on the acres of new empty book shelves. I used to think of it as my personal library. When I went there I was usually the only member of the public in that vast empty space. The neighborhood had turned dangerous.

As it happened I was chosen for a Mellon Fellowship in my second year of grad school. I was picked to do a regression analysis for the National Capitol Planning Commission but the other foor fellows were set with different tasks. As it happened one guy had the job of increasing the public's utilization of the new Mies library. No one ever checked out a book, it seemed.

We do-gooding fellows met once a week with our sponsoring professor so I heard a lot about the library. I was told for example that the suburban libraries in Maryland and Northern Virginia were doing land office business. But no one ever went into the DC Public Library - as I very well knew myself.

Finally at the end of the year and the end of the Mellon money we all turned in reports. The fellow who was working on the library recommended showing movies in the library basement. Ha!

He wasn't a native or he would have known better. The public library was near 'F' Street which had been the street of giant movie palaces. I used to commute downtown when I was kid to F Street to see first run films in those huge architectural marvels. But F Street essentially closed down with the MLK riots. After that no one went to Washington DC from the suburbs after dark.

The Mellon folks had subsidized a guy for a year to recommend opening a movie theater in the center of the failed movie region.

Even so, what happened to the old San Francisco public library a few years later was even more bizarre. But that's a story for another blog - when Steve next posts on libraries.


Anonymous said...

"When plotted geographically, shared Minoan mitochondrial DNA variation was lowest in North Africa and increased progressively across the Middle East, Caucasus, Mediterranean islands, Southern Europe, and mainland Europe."

Should race be called 'mitochon'?

European mitochoneans.

Anonymous said...

I noticed the hats when I saw this yesterday. Reminds me of how, according to Archie, Nero made Fred Durkin eat in the kitchen because he wore his hat at the dinner table,

The Boston public Library is a classic, but another good one is the Cambridge one. A psuedo-Richardson building. You used to be able to wander around in the stacks unsupervised.

Anonymous said...

Mr. Anon: Of course, why spend much on a library today, given that it is now not much more than a video-rental outlet, and a warming-hut for homeless guys.

Albertosaurus: The neighborhood had turned dangerous.

Mark Twain Branch, Detroit Public Library

dearieme said...

In my undergraduate Mathematics Reading Room I once came across a slightly puzzling but interesting job advert on a notice board. Then I realised it was for British Counter-Intelligence, MI5 or GCHQ presumably. That realisation meant I'd passed the first test, I reckon.

ricpic said...

All these pictures of the old orderly America are heartbreaking.

Anonymous said...

"All these pictures of the old orderly America are heartbreaking."

I dunno. That one library looks pretty scary.

Besides, they have dvd rentals at libraries now.

Anonymous said...

we actually built such expensive and ornate public buildings back then.
perhaps we tear them down because we are reminded we can no longer build them.

Anonymous said...

Few things to notice, besides the little black boy reading in the first photo, very little "vibrancy" contract this with today's modern urban library, where pretty much the only people you will find in there are crackheads and minorities just looking to either stay warm in the winter or cool in the summer.

It's neat looking without the floors and the natural light entering the building. Essentially each bookcase has its own walking areas. Most libraries that I have been to do not have that open space but, instead are one floor on top of another. Which means they can hold more books. Nonetheless, its an aesthetically pleasing view.

SFG said...

Ah, the old lost America.

I've got fond memories of the Boston Public Library--they have bums there, but they also have huge rooms full of old, old books. You could learn an awful lot paging through them, and they were mostly full of the more harmless sort of 'diversity'--Indians, Asians, and (law-abiding) Hispanics prepping for some test or other.

Sulla said...

An exception to the rule in the Naval service that one must uncover one's head while indoors is when one is under arms.

Harry Baldwin said...

I have done a lot of research in the stacks of Yale's Sterling Memorial Library and it is one of my favorite places to be. You will find books on the shelves going back to the beginning of the 18th century. (The really rare books are in the high-security Beinecke Library.) The smell of old books, the steam-heat in the winter, the almost complete absence of other people, and the little carrels where you can do your reading by leaded windows all make it a great place to be.

The computer banks on the open-to-the-public ground floor used to be a wonderful public resource, as they gave you access to all the specialized data banks a university library subscribes to--JSTOR, newspaper archives, etc. The problem was that local "teens" became aware of them and began monopolizing the computers to look at rap videos and computer games. The university imposed a time limit on computer use, but the teens ignored it and just sat slumped in their chairs, silent and sullen, when the guards reminded them. The guards were too intimidated to enforce the rules, not just by the teens but by fear of creating some non-PC incident that would cost them their jobs. Now to use those computers you have to be university-affiliated or pay for privileges.

Harold said...

Kids, this is what a hard-drive used to look like. To retrieve information people had to walk around inside the hard-drive and find it themselves. The information was all printed in ink on sheets of paper. Crazy huh?

Anonymous said...

Thanks for posting those great photos. I love the big atrium with all the books on balconies; I'd like to have that be my neighborhood library.

As it is, my neighborhood library is pretty great, though. I'm glad we have a new comfortable pomo one to replace the Modern cheap Mies imitation library we used to have. Now we have glass walls and big views outside and from the roof garden but there's lots of cozy intimate space for working inside. And somebody worked to make sure the noise doesn't carry -- Mies didn't care much about that. ( )

I remember a charming library with precarious galleries in Puebla, Mexico was the sixteenth century Biblioteca Palafoxiana. Be sure to click and enlarge the blown-up image on Wikipedia ( ). It was the first public library in the Western Hemisphere. The books are mostly 1600s and earlier latin and greek hand copied work for native american and theology studies; if you were into that, though, what a space to read in!

Thanks, Albertosaurus, for your comment. It was a great read and I await the next time you post about libraries.

Anonymous said...

"My college took doors off the library’s basement bathroom stalls due to the gay stranger sex. After years of protest, they put them back on for privacy to use the stalls. When I worked in the library years after the doors were returned, at closing time, you had to go in 10 minutes before closing to tell anyone in there having sex that you would shut lights off and lock up in 10 minutes."

Sheila said...

I used to love browsing through the card catalogue and then wandering through the stacks at my college library. There were main floors and then atriums (atria?) with lots of cast iron and odd nooks and corners. Wonderful place. I'm sure they've long since destroyed the ambiance.

In contrast, the stacks at the Library of Congress (at least the annex) were merely modern, utilitarian mid-20th century shelves (my father used to take me in there) with all sorts of things cheek-by-jowl due to their different cataloging system. The reading room in the Jefferson building was much better than the one in the main building, however - since many people didn't know about it. Less ornate and a good deal smaller, but lovely nonetheless.

Anonymous said...

Actually Pat, the F Street area where the "new" Mies DCPL is, as well as the Mount Vernon area where the old Carnegie DCPL is, have long since gentrified, and you will find SWPLs walking those areas at all hours of the night.

The libraries, however, are more or less black holes. The Mies one is now called the Martin Luther King branch, and, predictably, has the kind of civic funding and attention you would expect from the kind of municipal government that deifies Martin Luther King.

The old Carnegie Library is now the home of the DC Historical Society, and as such, the only history featured in its museum is black history. It's almost always "closed for renovations."

Anononymous said...

Thigh high guard rails, 2.5 foot wide catwalk, 4 stories tall. It's like walking around in the Death Star.

Seriously, the rails are shorter than the hands held at the side and lower than a persons center of gravity. If you misstep, you would need to bend down to reach the rail because it's so short. Such a motion can't help if you're losing your balance.

Jerry said...

The Mark Twain library in Detroit also came to my mind immediately. But there are others in the metro Detroit area that are less dramatically disastrous but also sadly in decline or vanished.

I believe that the urge for physical association in pleasant surroundings is a permanent human trait, and the argument about how the internet has destroyed public spaces carries less weight with me than it used to. And I love Mr Sailer's posts about what it is like to be outside the home in California.

Anonymous said...

Rice's stacks were nightmarish? I visited there once and was thrilled to death by the sight of all those books. I didn't notice anything nightmarish about them, but then I'm a salvering bookhound.

My worst memory of a library was visiting the basement of Colorado State University just after they'd installed the movable stack system. A week or so later, they had a massive flood and lost everything in the basement, tens of thousands of books wiped out in a few hours. It's one of the few times I could have stolen books to my heart's content and it wouldn't have mattered.

Anonymous said...

The old university libraries often had a place, often near the entrance, where they would have painted portraits of all the Chancellors or Presidents. I've noticed in the last decade or two these seem gone. Have others noticed?

The colors must have been too boring. Wouldn't want artifacts to confuse the Narrative.

slumber_j said...

When that library was built, Cincinnati was extremely culturally German, and it continued to be so even in the late 1970s and early 1980s when I was there. To a degree, anyway: I wonder how much of what was in those stacks was in Blackletter and super-serious, from back when you needed to read German in order to work in almost any academic discipline.

Anyway, it's a shame we like to renew stuff so much in this country. I wish I could spend some time in that building.

Cail Corishev said...

"I'm sure they've long since destroyed the ambiance."

Our library has almost completely discarded the "quiet in the library" concept that was so important to that ambiance. As part of a recent remodel, they put a bunch of PCs as an Internet kiosk right in the middle of the stacks, and those people chat on their cell phones and call questions out to the help desk on the other side of the room. Families and groups of friends stroll through chatting aloud, and only way back in the stacks will you find people whispering.

Used to be that having your cell phone go off in the library would be like having it ring in the middle of church. Not anymore. I'm not sure when librarians stopped hushing people, but I wonder if kids nowadays are even familiar with that idea.

Auntie Analogue said...

In my hometown main Public Library stacks - vast dense grid galleries of rivet-studded, silver-painted steel, battleship-linoleum catwalks pierced by the stack-shelves that rose continuously through the catwalk levels from ground level to the vast Eiffel Tower ironmongery squashed horizontal, frosted glass skylight above the uppermost shelf - I felt as if I were deep in the bowels of Civilization's Engine Room of Knowledge. How many hours - how many whole days - I indulged, my nose in the splendid aroma and mind in the sizzling steaks of splayed books, in that Industrial Revolution maze I cannot calculate; but every one of those days was more completely absorbing than doing an internet marathon. When I come away now from my computer, I feel rather half-jaded; but when, after a day engulfed in the deep hush of those old huge stacks, I emerged I felt - and there is only one word for it - I felt...worthy.

Perhaps the only advantage the internet has over the grand old stacks is that now I don't have to feel embarrassed for browsing cyberspace in my pyjamas. But data-mining of my internet usage is not even in the same warm-fuzzy-feeling league as was the anonymity that the vast stacks of the great old public library afforded.

agnostic said...

The biggest parasitic threat to public spaces these days are laptops and smartphones. And "Free Wi-Fi" is like Open Borders.

The Morrison Library at Berkeley has a "no laptops" policy, and the New York Public Library has three rows of tables set aside as a "no laptop" zone (usually empty). It'd be hard to imagine a more unpopular policy today, but good for them.

If no one else joins them, though, our entire public sphere will become a hive of distracted, web-surfing goof-offs.

agnostic said...

Nappers and sleepers are another problem, at college libraries anyway. It takes you out of the place when you have to wade through slumbering bodies.

I don't mean people resting their head at a desk, but curled up or stretched out on the ubiquitous "big comfy seats."

agnostic said...

Library heaven, the La Trobe Reading Room at the State Library of Victoria in Melbourne, Australia (built in 1913):

You can find other pictures where daylight pours in and makes it all brighter -- but why would you want to? Romantic contrasts between dark and light are so hard to come by.

Tailor made for night owls, too. I can't stand bright light flooding down on a work area when it's already dark outside.

Plus being crammed in with a crowd of other people feels weirder when the place is brightly lit -- that's why night clubs keep the lights off. Soft light overhead, and bankers lamps at the personal level, makes us feel more safe and cozy.

Anonymous said...

Anonymous said...

Bum Phillips never wore his trademark Stetson in domed stadiums because a gentleman never wore his hat indoors.

Ron Howard wears his trademark hat indoors because .... .

dcite said...

"The reading room in the Jefferson building was much better than the one in the main building, however - since many people didn't know about it. Less ornate and a good deal smaller, but lovely nonetheless. "

I think you mean the Adams bldg. Housed the "business" collection. The main reading room is the enormous Jefferson reading room, a round affair with several story high domed ceiling with frescos as I recall.
The Library of Congress lobbies and meeting rooms are quite spectacular.

Also, someoe was talking about the DC public library. I don't know which one he meant, but around F st., Gallery Place metro, there's the MLK Public Library. It is noted for not being used by the vibrants much, although I used it a couple times for interlirary loans. The area around it does have bums about, but it is mostly business and tourists. DC has changed a lot in the past decade.

canspeccy said...

Are those guys wearing hats or lamp shades?

Anonymous said...

We're lucky in Boston; we're surrounded by historical library buildings. The BPL, the Thomas Crane in Quincy and the Widener at Harvard are all great places to spend an afternoon.

And SFG, you must remember that the bums at the BPL tended to be pretty conversant in a wide variety of subjects, like the Harvard bum Joe Pesci played in the movie With Honors.

Harry Baldwin said...

@Auntie Analogue--wonderful description!

Anonymous said...

The latest development scandal in NYC - destroying historic libraries and turning the land over to developers.. (funny weird coincidence, they are all scot irish?! ) on dubious claims such as the AC not working.

Re Boston Library - Great murals by Sarent too - murals the Scot-Irish raised a stink about even back then.

Anonymous said...

What a magnificent library that was. Such a shame it is gone now.

Anonymous said...

Weird - this is a frontpage item at Yahoo right now:

Lost in a Library: 12 Epic Reading Rooms

No matter the size and style of your home, incorporating a reading room will give your book lovers a space to curl up and while away a cold winter afternoon.

Maybe as with theaters, public libraries are now being replaced by home libraries?

I seem to recall that Albertosaurus was a big home theater guy.

Maybe he needs a home library to go with his home theater.

And a special glass case for the collected works of de Sade...

Anonymous said...

I don't care what anybody says, there's nothing quite like getting a feel for what's going on in an entire subfield by flipping through a few yards of the related material on the shelves in an old-fashioned top-notch research library. There's a sort of physical and spatial overlay on what you learn and the relation between the things you are studying that is very powerful.

Internet search and online resource are powerful and have their place as well, but they aren't the same. And somehow skimming online documentation is mentally different than skimming a book. Often for me there's a level at which a book is considerably faster, I guess I don't have to move the mouse and then look, it all happens instantly at once.

Being able to do both in the same library is the best of both worlds. Sadly, the physical publishers seem to have priced themselves out of the business (or maybe profits are just higher doing it all online).

I'm really going to miss musty old journals and books.

Auntie Analogue said...

My dear Mr. Harry Baldwin, for your kind compliment, thank you.

Conatus said...

Cool Pics, I used to work at the Library of Congress in the seventies and had a desk at the top level of the main reading room, behind a sheet of light green plywood and the statue of Shakespeare. I described it as the "best indoor view in the world." The holy homeless really hadn't discovered the advantages of library research(heat and shelter from the storms) until the early eighties. In the seventies they were still living in the penumbra of the 'Bum' shame cloud . Once they came out into the light of righteousness, the powers that be had to institute a picture IDCard requirement on all readers because the gagging, stale smell of unwashed homelessness disturbed regular patrons. Generally the homeless avoid official registration.
Before that, In the early seventies there was an old white guy, happily sliding into his dotage, who frequented the main reading room. He would occasionally make La Tourette BJ gestures, like a woodpecker, but everyone put up with it because he was well dressed and didn't smell.

Ahh...the good old days when order prevailed and disorder was merely eccentric and benign.

Felix M said...

When I was a kid, our city's public library was housed in a sprawling, chaotic building and had a chaotic collection ranging from Newton's Principia to religious tirades of amazing nuttiness. Now it's in a bright user-friendly building, and the collection is equally sanitised - no nuts and no Newton.

BTW, a week ago I entered a building and naturally took off my hat. An elderly woman comes over and says, "It's so nice to see a gentleman remove his ht indoors". I guess this practice must be getting less common.

O tempora etc.