#898: The Library

March 7th, 2018

They picked at the jigsaw puzzle scattered over a large table on the sixth floor.

Well, picked at the jigsaw puzzle and gossiped about boys.

A few dozen people had set up laptops around the library, taking advantage of the WiFi for cardholders in order to watch videos, scroll through tweets — I saw one guy editing a song and another watching a full-on Hollywood film shot in Oscar-bait lighting. Others read. Two women chatted in the 3D print lab on the third floor, a floor which also held the mass homeless encampment of men and women who found a brief respite from the cold by clutching a magazine from Periodicals for a few hours.

In the stately two-story open lobby, a tour group with matching shirts depicting the state of Ohio nodded as different features of the walls were pointed out. And I flipped through my phone and considered a nap in a warm, dry corner on 6 next to a man pawing through a stack of research texts.

We were all doing it right.

One of my favorite spots in the city is the Harold Washington Library on the south end of the Loop. Underneath aluminum fire-owls jutting over city streets is a refuge and gathering spot. A place for wisdom and a place for celebrity autobiographies with jaunty, slightly sassy pun titles. A place for gossip about boys, voter registration, study guides for citizenship exams, old government maps no one ever pulls out from person-sized drawers and, well, whatever else one could want.

I don’t mean to romanticize this spot, at least not for the reason libraries are commonly romanticized. For every researcher on the brink of a discovery that will shake our perception of history to the core, there were 20 people goofing around online, 10 homeless people looking for a moment’s warmth, five teenagers not doing homework like they promised. It’s prosaic, louche and human.

That’s what I love about it. That’s the part that should be romanticized. The temple to wisdom is a living, breathing spot for people.

Yes, that means bathrooms for the homeless. Yes, that means the smell that lingers through Periodicals. Yes, that means names carved in desks and people like me who come intending to get wise but end up checking Twitter a lot and, yes, I did end up taking that nap with my head on a desk.

So what is a library? Book museum, gathering spot, ersatz homeless shelter? Is it a place to grab a quick sorta-nap, head on at a desk in a warm, dry corner, expensive phone clutched in hand to flummox thieves? Is it a place to expand your mind or is it a public building they can’t quite kick you out of, so scrounge some WiFi, use the restrooms and leave?

It’s whatever we want it to be. And that’s what’s beautiful about it.

Read about another, quieter library

And an archive of African-American culture

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