I have always imagined that Paradise will be a kind of library. – Jorge Luis Borges
There are libraries that are so physically beautiful, their creators must have modeled them on some heavenly idea of a treasure box. It’s as if they knew that only a building constructed of precious stones and the finest woods could adequately house a commodity like the book.
Beautiful libraries date back to ancient times—Alexandria, Rome, the Valley of Mexico, China, Arabic Spain, the Vatican—but anyone who has passed time at the New York City Public Library knows how extraordinary and fantastical libraries still are. Just sit at one of those long tables where the wood has known the impress of readers researching the creatures of Greek myth, the ruin of ancient cities and the weapons of modern warfare, the faith of Buddhists, the political machines of Chicago or the fine wines of California. Whoever it was who sat where you are sitting may have been a scholar, a writer, an advertising executive, a teacher, or a plumber on his day off. He, or she, may have been writing a Pulitzer Prize-winning history or researching the best cheeses. She, or he, may have been reading a Shakespearean play or studying the history of the stock market. The library contains the world, and you have been dropped there at its heart. You sit there, blessed by the long light from tall windows and the rustle of soft voices and turning pages. It’s like grace.
There are much smaller libraries like that in the Northeast Kingdom of Vermont. Climb a circular staircase in St. Johnsbury’s Athenaeum to reference books where you can study a volume of Abby Hemenway’s Gazeteer for Orleans County where the tales of pioneers like Silence Cobb and Samuel Craftsbury come to life on the yellowing pages. There, where shelves of books stand tall as the ceiling, if you pay close attention to tomes rich with agricultural statistics you can hear sheep bleating; if you study Fodor’s you can travel the world and back in the space of a few hours. Of course, that’s if you have an imagination. But who wouldn’t in a space so rich and so full of past lives?
The libraries of the Northeast Kingdom often occupy old houses where extended families celebrated the holidays in what was once a formal dining room or a parlor, or stores where the wooden floors still slope, where the shelves that hold books once held sugar and flour, where a glass cabinet once exhibited ladies hats for sale. The rooms in these libraries are astir with the people who once lived there, shopped there, or shared the town’s gossip. The hubbub from them and from the thousands of characters who inhabit all those books would be overwhelming if we could hear it. But magically, it’s become a remarkable silence—a full living silence. Not like any other.
In the Northeast Kingdom, you can sit by fireplaces of colored brick, granite, or marble on the finest oak furniture or a grand settee. You can daydream while you watch the light stream through a stained glass window. You can admire old bindings or read the latest mystery novel.
Today, of course, you can also google and write e-mails and research oceanic tides and African tribes online. You can play video games and chafe at the news in the Huffington Post. All in those same magical places.
Over the millenia, books have come in the form of stones, bamboo strips and silk sheets, the skins of animals, clay tablets, papyrus, parchment and bound paper. Today, they come in computers made of metal, plastic and who knows which of its derivatives—and inside, information transformed into digits.
Libraries have come in just as many forms. None of them have endured: most often, they’ve been destroyed by war and fire, and the information stored in them lost.
Perhaps digital information will be different since it’s ubiquitous and not confined to any single place. As different as our new libraries.
Still, I can’t help hoping the libraries of the future have fireplaces, comfortable chairs, old wood and ghosts lurking ‘round.