A boomlet of spring art and photography books about libraries coincides, serendipitously, with National Library Week (April 9–15). But it may have something to do, too, with widespread anxieties about the state of the American experiment.
Libraries and democracy have always been joined at the hip. The founding fathers were devout readers: Ben Franklin launched the nation’s first public library in 1731; Thomas Jefferson sold Congress his impressive collection to help replace the congressional library, torched by British soldiers during the War of 1812. President Trump, in contrast, has submitted a budget that would defund, among other agencies, the Institute of Museum and Library Services, which provides financial support to some 123,000 libraries nationwide.
Yet as the following titles make clear, libraries have never been more urgently needed. Knitting together communities, offering safe spaces for LGBTQ youth, providing Internet connections for those who can’t afford them, and, not least, offering a world of knowledge at no charge, they’re one of the last truly free things in the land of the free.
Wittily designed, with a facsimile of a date-due card tucked in the regulation-issue pocket inside its front cover, The Card Catalog by the Library of Congress (Chronicle, Apr.) traces the evolution of the catalogue from a Sumerian clay tablet up to the present. The earliest version of the modern index card was a playing card with a book’s identifying details written on its blank back—a quick-and-dirty solution brainstormed by French librarians during the French Revolution. Audubon’s Birds of America, Houdini’s books on magic and the occult, Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man, and other touchstone titles are paired with their catalogue cards. Luckily for us, librarians pled the case for the LOC’s vast catalogue during digitization, arguing that “trashing this unique historical document” was “unthinkable.” Now the old paper cards, fastidiously annotated by generations of librarians, are used to correct errors that crept in when the catalogue was manually entered into the online database.
Deindustrialization nearly dealt Detroit a deathblow, but the city is on the upswing, and one indicator of renewed local pride is The Detroit Public Library by Barbara Madgy Cohn and Patrice Rafail Merritt, which Painted Turtle, an imprint of Wayne State University Press, will publish in May. The fruit of a popular docent-led tour, the book guides readers through architect Cass Gilbert’s magnificent monument to early Italian Renaissance style. The library, which opened its doors in 1921, is a palace for the masses. Jaw-dropping photos draw attention to the imposing grandeur of the interior and to the riot of ornament everywhere: decorative stonework, ornamental ironwork, frolicking cherubs, zodiac friezes. Most thrilling, though, is the tough, terse maxim inscribed over the main entrance, the perfect adage for a town built by industry: Knowledge Is Power.
Bibliothecaphilia—the love of libraries—gets its due in The Library Book by Thomas R. Schiff (Aperture, Apr.). Schiff uses a motorized camera that rotates 360 degrees on its tripod to take panoramic pictures, in this case of America’s most visually stunning libraries. In Schiff’s dizzying, slightly fish-eyed photos, the State Library of Iowa’s Law Library, with its curlicue staircases and ornate tiled floors, and the New York Public Library’s Rose Reading Room, its vaulted ceiling a Beaux-Arts fantasia of rosettes and painted clouds, really are Sistine Chapels of knowledge—houses of worship for all who reverence books.
Any echo of the protest-march chant, “This is what democracy looks like!” in the title of Kyle Cassidy’s portrait gallery of librarians across America, This Is What a Librarian Looks Like (Black Dog & Leventhal, May), is entirely intentional, no doubt. The librarians captured by Cassidy’s lens speak up, in voices well above the customary whisper, for libraries as bulwarks of democracy and bastions of community. There’s the librarian whose library is “the only LGBTQ safe zone in our rural, conservative town,” the youth-services librarians battling self-appointed censors who want to purge their shelves, the librarians who fought the FBI’s attempts to snoop into patrons’ check-out history. Librarians, notes one of Cassidy’s subjects, with more than a hint of defiance, “are so much more than Google.”