The World’s Most Magnificent Libraries
Like many avid readers, my love of books began at my local library. I grew up in a small town, and our library was equally small; a single room below the town hall, just over a bridge which was the subject of a scary local urban legend! And it had the best thing any library can ever have: an amazing and passionate librarian.
When people think of libraries, they often just think of a room with lots of books. But it’s the people that really make it. You won’t remember all the books you borrowed, but you will remember a great librarian. Forever.
But libraries don’t only hold books. There are many more reasons that people visit libraries, and a lot more that they can see there. From comic books and maps to wolf pelts and smells, The World’s Most Magnificent Libraries (Great Big Story) explores the most awe-inspiring and unexpected of libraries from around the globe.
At the Alaska Resources Library in Anchorage, library members can casually check out an animal skull on a two week loan, just like picking up the latest novel from their favourite author. The library lends out animal bones, along with furs and full taxidermy mounts. I can’t help but imagine strolling out of there with a stuffed animal under my arm. Imagine writing about werewolves, and being able to borrow a wolf skull to sit on your desk while you write!
If you’re looking for a more classic library experience, you can’t go wrong with the Library of Congress, Washington DC, the biggest library in the world, with more than 160 million items. The numbers here are simply staggering: 5.5 million maps, 15 million photos, 24 million musical items. You can peruse millions of archived newspapers, or even thousands of comics. It feels like, if you wanted to experience the history of human culture, this would be a good place to start.
There is a book shop and library in Yangzhou, China that uses mirrors to create the illusion of infinite books. Endless books sounds like a dream for any book lover, right? In fact, it sounds a lot like my to-be-read pile! The building has a black mirrored floor, designed to represent the water that is so important to Yangzhou. The whole place has been created to emulate flow, between people and books. People and ideas. It sounds beautiful.
In a time when everyone has the entire world wide web at their fingertips, it’s easy to think that libraries might be heading towards insignificance, but here’s a heartwarming fact to thwart that assumption. In 1967, the New York Public Library opened their dedicated AQA phoneline: Ask NYPL. Anyone can call their number, and ask absolutely any question they want, and the librarian will find the answer for them. They even keep records of the questions they’ve been asked. Imagine browsing through those! While this may feel like something that’s resigned to soul-stirring nostalgia, it’s not. That phone line still receives around 30,000 calls every year!
Often, when it comes to libraries, all you want to see is classic history, and Dublin’s Trinity Library offers exactly that. Founded in 1592, the library’s famous Long Room, which stands at 213 feet long, houses over 200,000 books, marble busts, and artefacts, dating back to the 8th century. That is certainly a room I would love to stand in and take a big, deep breath. I bet all that history smells amazing!
And, talking of smells, this exploration of the world’s most amazing libraries ends with what has to be the most bizarre: the Library of Smells in Berlin. Smell is such a powerful memory tool. Have you ever smelt something that instantly transported you back to a specific time and place? And if you happen to be a fellow book-sniffer, you’ll know the absolute joy a good smell can bring! Curated by Sissel Tolaas, she picks from her collection of 4,000 chemical compounds in order to reproduce smells, and recreate the ‘invisible reality’ of them. Smells are a part of history that is generally lost; an entire sense lost from the context of human life.
And, I love that idea of reproducing an ‘invisible reality’. I think that’s what we do as writers; reproducing the invisible reality of our imaginations in the words we put on the page.