The public library is a city's epic living room – that's why the French neoclassical architect Étienne-Louis Boullée designed his utopian library as a monumental, barrel-vaulted hall big enough to hold the memory of the entire world. That's why the New York Public Library is a source of enlightenment and architectural pilgrimage. And it's why every year 19 million people flood into Toronto's libraries, many of them exhilarating, award-winning structures. Now, under constant fire from cities desperate to save money, libraries are figuring out how to get the message across that they are crucial to a vibrant civic life.
The Free Library of Philadelphia is focusing hard on the economic case. After $12-million (U.S.) was cut recently from its budget, the institution fought back with a compelling economic analysis. Its business plan targeted fresh ways to assist job hunters, education for small business entrepreneurs, orientation for newly arrived immigrants, the appetites of digital geeks and classes for pre-kindergarten kids. The University of Pennsylvania's Fels Institute of Government created an economic impact report quantifying the value of the city's vast library system in dollars and cents. What it discovered was that homes located within one-quarter mile of the library were worth more than those further away. And that the library had contributed through its training programs and sourcing of jobs an estimated $30-million in earned income in one year. To cost-cutting politicians, those are the kinds of arguments that matter.
There's a key similarity between Philadelphia and Toronto: Both cities have seen an increase in police budgets while delivering punishing blows to libraries. Put more boots on the street to manage increasingly disenfranchised populations – the logic seems crazy but it's real. "Nearly 50 per cent of working-age Philadelphians are functionally illiterate," said Siobhan A. Reardon, president and director of the Free Library in a lecture at the University of Toronto's Munk School of Global Affairs. Though it operates as a municipal agency of the city of Philadelphia, the Free Library's 40-member private board is planning to step up its fundraising efforts to cover recent budget cuts.
While the Free Library has used hard business-case facts, there are also libraries that have fought back with exhilarating, high-design environments. Desperate to re-engage a disenfranchised, illiterate community, politicians in southeast London turned to British pop-architect Will Alsop to produce the Peckham Library as one way to compete – somewhat – with hooliganism at soccer games and nightly binges at the pub. The copper-clad library raised up on cock-eyed stilts, much like the Alsop-designed Sharp Centre for Design at Toronto's Ontario College of Art & Design, won the Civic Trust Award in 2003 for excellence in public architecture. In a city that enjoys wealthy patronage as well as the harsh reality of inner-city crack alleys, the $170-million Seattle Public Library was designed as a piece of contorted urban spectacle by Dutch cerebral starchitect Rem Koolhaas. On a Sunday afternoon a few years ago, the ground-floor atrium was pleasantly peopled, though not with the crush of people that regularly flows through the sumptuous, wood-lined Grande Bibliothèque in Montreal by the Patkau Architects of Vancouver.
Because of its critical role as a receptacle of collective memory and consciousness, the public library has always attracted among the most talented architects and even geniuses of art and design. In a cloister in Florence, Michelangelo designed Italy's first public library, the Biblioteca Medicea Laurenziana (1534), with theatrical, almost surreal flourishes such as overscaled stairs that cascade from the reading room into a grey stone entrance vestibule.
One afternoon this week, walking through the white, light-filled Bloor-Gladstone Library in Toronto's west end, reimagined in 2009 so that a contemporary glass jewel dialogues with a historic Beaux-Arts library, I was struck by the young, fit-looking urban dwellers focused intensely on a book, or working through some chemistry problems while others studied computer screens. Every lounge chair was taken. Every wooden work counter set below each of the gracefully arched windows had been claimed by pairs of people.
Across the city, where some 40,000 newly arrived Muslims from countries such as Pakistan, Afghanistan and India live in high-rise towers, the new Thorncliffe Park Public Library is crammed with children who march from their elementary school – at more than 2,000 students, considered to be the largest one in North America – and into the naturally-lit, joyous space. There's an interactive early literacy centre for parents and children under 5 at work here, and the computer stations are packed with teens and adults who are without Internet at home.
More and more, true, unfettered public space is increasingly hard to come by. And no, Coffee Time and Starbucks do not count. In a world obsessed by connection, via Twitter, e-mail and endlessly multiplying Facebook friends, the library gives us permission to hunker down by a window or a fireplace, disconnect from the hammering distractions of everyday life, and get on with what has to be learned, and contemplated.