Refuge at the Boston Public Library

August is one of my least favorite months every year. The heat gets very tiresome by now; the humidity takes all the wind out of my sails.  We had that fabulous cool June, and then Peter and I  were fortunate to be in Maine during the worst heat waves in July, although even Maine was hotter than I would have liked some of the time. Now August is being difficult, and I just want summer to be over and crispness to return to the air. I want the freedom to move around outside and live my life without being dominated by the oppressive weather.

Boston Public Library_McKim Building

Today I decided to escape to the library in Copley Square. We have only two air conditioned rooms at home, and I get tired of being cooped up in there; I realized I could take advantage of the library’s air conditioning and spend the day there instead. Shortly after a small breakfast, I took the air conditioned bus to Copley Square and went right into the library, where it was cool and quiet still in the morning.  First stop was the café, for second breakfast, a cup of iced tea and a cheese Danish (Friday treat).  While sipping the tea very slowly, I read my current library book, Diana Athill’s Alive, Alive Oh!, reflections of a 97-year-old English writer on what seems important as she looks back on her life–my kind of book.  I looked through the Globe on my phone, wrote an email to a former colleague who is still working while I’m blissfully retired, and looked at photos on the 365 Project, which I’ve recently started, all while luxuriating in having the whole day ahead of me to spend in the library in whatever way I wished–a play day!

Lobby Ceilings

After a while I got up and wandered around the library taking photos. The McKim building (1895) was built as “a palace for the people,” and I feel privileged every time I pass through the door, which has “Free to All” chiseled in the stone overheard. We take libraries for granted, but what a great concept this was in the 19th century!  As a result of the generous civic mindedness of that era we get to have one of the best libraries in the country as our very own.  The building is breathtaking, full of inspiration in itself.

Grand Staircase with Lions

Up the grand staircase with the lions

All around, murals by Pierre Puvis de Chavannes, painted on canvas in France and installed in these spaces in 1895. I often walk right by them, but I focused on them more today. The various arts and sciences are represented on the sides of the staircase.

Murals on Grand Staircase2

left to right, physics, pastoral poetry, dramatic poetry

At the top, the muses and Enlightenment over the entrance to the Bates Reading Room:

Then the awe inspiring Bates Reading Room with its lovely green lamps:

Bates Reading Room

The library takes in a whole city block, so there is plenty of room to roam. I didn’t go to the courtyard today, because it was so hot, but it’s one of my (and everyone’s) favorite spaces and  one of the best public spaces in the entire city. Free concerts are offered there in the summer on Fridays at lunch time  and Wednesdays in the evening, and it’s a wonderful place to take a cup of iced tea from the café and sit and read. It’s like a cloister, a sanctuary in the heart of the city.

BPL Courtyard

And now for something completely different — I crossed into the Johnson Building (Philip Johnson, 1972), which has recently been renovated by William Rawn Associates. (See the gorgeous photo of the library front on their website.) The strange granite barriers across the front of the Boylston Street entrance, which seemed to defend the building against the street, have come down and been replaced by glass walls, opening up the library to the street and the public.

Not everyone notices the “Free for All” on the stone above the McKim Building entrance, but here it is front and center at the welcome desk just inside the doors.

Free to All

As a beneficiary for over thirty years of the library’s book collection, lectures, programs, concerts, and classes, I find this sign thrilling. I can’t think of any other institution in our society that offers such riches to every one of us–for free! The library is the center of my city.

Those touch screens in the background of the photo are really fun. The library has fabulous collections of prints and photographs and rare books, which you can look at on the website, but here you can play around and search in different ways, for instance by color, and see the results on the large screens. I often stop for a while and look at things. One day recently I looked through the library’s collection of books designed by Sarah Wyman Whitman, whom I admire greatly–those were the days for book design!

The Johnson Building used to be gray, gray, gray. Now it’s filled with color. I’m not sure all the colors are the ones I would have chosen, but it’s all vastly better than how it was before.

Fiction Section

The new Children’s Library on the second floor, which opened last year, is delightful and seems to be a huge success with the young set and their parents. Every time I look in on it, the place is hopping. Mothers stream in there with their strollers, and the pre-readers romp around the carpeted section provided for them. Picture books are displayed everywhere. Since I love children’s book illustration, I like to spend time in there sometimes, and today I looked at some of the books featured in the windows of the children’s library-within-a-library. It is wonderful to see the young ones enjoying this space; one can hope and expect that they will grow up to love reading, and the world will be a better place for it.

Childrens Library

What a great idea it was to spend the day at the library–I had such a good time. I’m going to do it again on some of these hot August days and bring my laptop too. There are places to sit and plug in one’s laptop all around the library; on the mezzanine, the windows in back are lined with counters and stools where one can work quietly. It is such a luxury to have clear surfaces to work on, something I don’t seem to have anywhere in my home. I’m lucky to have practically door-to-door bus service to the library as the bus stop is around the corner from my building and the bus drops me off at the library.

If you’re visiting Boston, don’t miss the art and architecture tours of the library or at least look around on your own. Get something in the café and take it to the courtyard or have a lovely tea in the restaurant. The BPL is the first place I take out-of-town visitors. I’m so proud of our library.

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