Monday, January 27, 2014

On the Road at the Library - Philadelphia

One thing I always like to do when I'm travelling, is check out the local library of the city I'm visiting. Just as I like to browse the aisles of my own local library, I also enjoy doing the same when I'm out of town. I suppose it's a nice relaxing atmosphere where I feel at home. But I also find that libraries offer insight into a city that many places do not. Often the typical tourist areas or haunts don't offer a real glimpse of a new city, but rather an image cities want projected. As libraries are not often visited by out-of-towners, they show a city not often seen by the typical tourist.

Just as I enjoy talking about books, I also enjoy talking about libraries; something few others seem to be interested in. But since this is my blog, I can talk about whatever I want! And I'll assume that if you're reading this, you probably have an interest in books, and more likely than not, an interest in libraries.

This past summer, I visited friends in Philadelphia, and while spending the day walking around their downtown, or Center City as they call it, I was able to pop into the Parkway Central Library, the cornerstone of the "Free Library of Philadelphia."

Parkway Central Library
What is most impressive about Philadelphia's central branch is the building itself. Built in 1927, the building looks more like a train station than a library, lined with grand white columns and narrow floor to ceiling windows. Even before entering the building I was already jealous of this library, remembering what an eyesore Calgary's main library was. There's just something so nice about walking into a library that is housed in such an impressive building; it makes me feel as if whatever I'm going in there for is important. Even if it is to pick up the latest John Grisham thriller (which it never would be).

Inside, the building may have been even more impressive. At the end of the large foyer was a marble staircase that wrapped around both sides of a two level atrium. On the second floor, giant white columns reached to the ceiling, where large skylights allowed the sun to shine in. I don't think I've ever been more impressed with the inside of a library. It was simply fantastic.

To make this staircase and atrium even more impressive, it was featuring a display on the history of Philadelphia beers and breweries for the month of June. Two of my favorite things all in one place. The display featured old photos and paraphernalia from both existing and long gone breweries, as well as articles and essays on brewing in Philadelphia. I had found exactly the type of "local knowledge" I love finding in libraries. To top it off, I was able to sample a couple of Philadelphian brews that night at dinner, and impress my friends with my knowledge of their history. 
The Fiction room features a three
story balcony, which houses
most of the collection.

The collection itself was housed in large, almost cavernous, rooms that all featured a balcony circling the room, accessed by tiny, narrow staircases. It reminded my of the stairs Indiana Jones goes up to find that 'X' marks the spot, while searching for the Grail in Venice. The narrow balconies offered, for lack of a better word, a cozy feeling while one searched the shelves, even if the low ceilings made it seem somewhat cramped. I imagine it's a nightmare to shelve books in there.

But while I was charmed by the building, and was left longing for something better in my town, I also felt quite fortunate to live in a city that features a much more "robust" public library. Calgary's libraries might not be as pretty, save maybe the Memorial Park branch, but they are a lot more vibrant. I've never seen the Calgary central branch as devoid of people as this one was on the day of my visit; you could actually hear a pin drop; if there was anyone there to drop one.

After a little research, I found I wasn't that far off either. Calgary, with only 1.1 million people to Philadelphia's 1.5 million, circulates 10,000,000 more items each year (17,500,000 total). And I see that Philadelphia's library offers limited hours at almost every branch; most are open only five days a week, and few are ever open past 6PM.

I'm aware, of course, that there are many reasons for this, and it has mostly to do with demographics, but it was a little unnerving nonetheless. I was glad to see however, that an extensive ad campaign was underway in the subway. Almost every stop and train featured numerous ads for the library. Philadelphians can't say they didn't know their city had a library. I guess only time will tell if it's successful.
We're giving books away here people!

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