Saturday, February 19, 2011

Libraries I Love

Today I’m camped out at the Concord Free Public Library’s Reference Room to get a little writing done. When the weather is nasty, or even sometimes when it’s nice, the library is a wonderful destination for getting out of the house to enjoy a day of introvert fun without having to spend any money.

The Boston area is blessed with some of the best libraries for hanging out. What makes a library great for spending time in is a mix of feng shui and practicality. The most important factor is at least one open room filled with plenty of tables and chairs. Great lighting, including a mixture of natural and indoor, is essential, as is free wifi or at least a strong cell phone signal. I like a variety of seating options, though I almost always opt to sit in a straight back chair at a long wood table with lamps, if that’s available. The next important factor is the quality of the distraction space. I like to get up and take a walk every half hour or 45 minutes to find inspiration for whatever I’m working on. I like a library that’s always putting interesting books in my path. I’ll never understand why, but there are some libraries I can walk into with no particular book in mind and walk out of with a whole stack of exciting discoveries, while at other libraries I can’t find anything unless I come in with a list.

So here are a few of the libraries I’ve spent time in, and what makes them special:

Concord Free Library: This library has a great range of study spaces, form the quiet Reference Room with its high windows, chandeliers and bankers’ office furniture, to inviting sitting chairs in hidden nooks. The heart-stoppingly lovely room that houses the fiction section is a mahogany room with a fireplace and a second story wrap-around walkway protected by filigree iron handrails. In architecture, it is the platonic ideal of a library; each room is tailored to the contents of that room. The children’s room is full of inviting furniture for kids to play on and the lighting is bright and inviting, the reference room has big tables to spread out your work and crucial electric outlets for laptops, the fiction section has all the romance you hope to find between the covers of the books. My only complaints would be that beyond these rooms it gets a little dull, and the library isn’t easily accessible by public transit from where I live.

Cary Memorial Library (Lexington): The Cary Memorial Library’s writing space beats out Concord by doing everything just a little bit better. The room I like to write in has more tables, more windows, and the walls are lined with periodicals rather than encyclopedias and dictionaries. Magazines are reference materials for fiction writing, as much as dictionaries are for nonfiction, so when I take a break at the Cary library I can usually find fresh inspiration without even needing to leave the room. This is a big benefit because I would never leave my laptop unattended, and at most libraries taking a break means I have to pack everything up and carry it with me (and risk losing my seat!). The downside of the Cary Memorial Library is that they’ve stuffed the fiction section in a bleak little room in the basement. Why, why, why, why, why? It’s the equivalent of storing food in the chicken wire box on the floor. Nothing’s going to look appetizing that way. I find it impossible to check out fiction books there.

Cambridge Public Library (Main Branch): I once heard that the goal of the redesign of the Cambridge Public Library’s main branch was to emulate a bookstore, and they absolutely accomplished it. The airy, open layout and prominently displayed new release books mean if I go in looking for one book, I will walk out with ten. The library’s old section (as opposed to the new addition built on a few years ago) has a gorgeous Richardsonian study room so beautiful I could live there. Unfortunately, the study room is not very well lit, and like in Lexington, the regular fiction section is in the basement.

Robbins Library (Arlington): I think highly enough of this library that we’re getting married there next August. It has a beautiful reading room, and a well-lit fiction section. The only problem with this library is a problem that much of Arlington’s businesses suffer; there are simply too many people in town looking for somewhere to sit for 5 hours without having to buy anything. Every coffee shop in town is perpetually full. Walk into Starbucks, Jam’n Java, Quebrada or the library and you will see knitting groups, book clubs, parenting groups, nanowrimo-ers, and online daters. There are just too darn many of us! And don't even get me started on the subject of restaurants on Saturday night.

Brookline Public Library (Coolidge Corner Branch): I have a book of essays by Brookline authors titled “The Fruitful Branch” and that’s just what this library is. The layout is similar to the library I used to go to in Michigan; it’s not large and doesn’t have a lot of seating or study space, but for some reason it’s really easy to find a good book to read by browsing here. It occurs to me at this point that I haven’t been giving proper credit to the librarians of these libraries for their part in the collections, but a lot of times it really is about the architecture. If I’m looking through a fiction collection under fluorescent lights in an underground lair, I’m not going to find anything no matter how good the selection. However, the Coolidge Corner library’s architecture doesn’t get in the way of the collection, and the library has a great collection. Be forewarned, there really isn’t that much space at this library for setting up your workspace, and Coolidge Corner, like Arlington is full of coffee shop squatters, so you can’t count on finding space at a nearby Starbucks or Peets either.

Boston Public Library (Main Branch): What can I say? It’s the Boston Public library! Great place to find books, great place to write books. It even has a secret garden with a restaurant in the middle. I will say it can be a little drab in the winter, though.

So that’s my list of great local libraries. Now I think I’ve earned a break to take another look at the fiction room…

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