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The secrets of libraries

The Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library at Yale University designed by Gordon Bunshaft.

Will Pryce

The Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library at Yale University designed by Gordon Bunshaft.

The Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library.

The secrets of libraries

When he was an architecture student, James W.P. Campbell hunted for a book that surveyed the history of library architecture. None of the books he found fully satisfied him so 20 years later Campbell, an architectural historian, took on the project.

He and photographer Will Pryce visited 82 libraries in 21 countries for “The Library: A World History” (University of Chicago). They highlight secret doors, soaring rooms, museum-quality art, and the beauty of books as physical objects. “The Library” not only takes readers on a world tour, but it travels through time, from ancient Mesopotamia to modern China.

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Many of the featured libraries are located in capital cities, but the book takes note of some gems farther afield. A library in Cottbus, a small town in what was once East Germany, looks like a trio of castle towers. Inside, a pink and green concrete spiral staircase adds a playful touch. A two-hour drive north of Beijing, the Liyuan Library has an exterior made of flexed twigs wedged between rusty steel rails. Inside is a simple fireplace and tearoom.

It’s no surprise that the Boston Public Library gets a nod — Campbell notes that McKim, Mead and White copied the façade for the BPL from the Bibliothèque Sainte-Geneviève in Paris — but much more is said about three other libraries in New England. The first is the Thomas Crane Memorial Library in Quincy. It is widely regarded as one of the best buildings Henry Hobson Richardson designed. The paneled library, with a lovely fireplace, was completed in 1882. At that time, patrons were barred from fetching books, a task performed by librarians.

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It wasn’t until the 1890s that public libraries in Britain and the United States began to offer the public browsing rights. Yale University’s Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library, designed by Gordon Bunshaft and completed in 1963, has a thoroughly modern exterior, made of translucent Vermont marble and a white concrete frame. On the outside the marble appears opaque, but when the sun shines, it bathes the rare-book collection inside in a honey-colored light. Campbell calls it “one of the 20th century’s most powerful and influential interiors.”

The library at Phillips Exeter Academy in Exeter, N.H., features light-filled carrels next to windows in double-height halls and a soaring interior space framed by concrete circles. Architect Louis Kahn, Campbell writes, designed “an extraordinarily powerful building that has been much loved by the generations of students who have sat in it, and is visited by admirers from all over the world.”

Campbell doesn’t get hung up on the size of libraries or the future of physical books vs. e-books. He writes, “The ultimate success of a building is not measured in floor areas but in how the building works in three dimensions and how much people enjoy using it.” After all, libraries are places of imagination. They are places, he writes, “to read, to think, to dream and celebrate knowledge.”

Coming out

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 “The New Countess” by Fay Weldon (St. Martin’s)

 “Murder and Moonshine” by Carol Miller (Minotaur)

 “The Invisible Code” by Christopher Fowler (Bantam)

Pick of the Week

Annie Philbrick of Bank Square Books in Mystic, Conn., recommends “The People in the Trees” by Hanya Yanagihara (Doubleday): “This deeply imaginative debut novel is the tale of a man’s horrifying obsession with the fountain of youth and eternal life. The author’s powerful writing and use of footnotes leads a reader to almost believe the story is true.”

Jan Gardner can be reached at JanLGardner@yahoo.com. Follow her @JanLGardner.
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