Monday, March 24, 2008

A visit to the Harold Washington Library Center

After buying a couple of books, and contemplating the growing pile of recent purchases, earlier this month I decided it might be prudent to obtain a new Chicago Public Library card so I could borrow those books that interest me but that I don't intend to keep—which is most of them. Off I went to the Harold Washington Library Center, boarding a northbound Brown Line train headed south and east (it loops).

The Harold Washington Library Center (HWLC) is one of those unpleasant reminders of how long I've been in Chicago. It opened in 1991, but I recall seeing a display of perhaps five scale models submitted by the architect-finalists. One, a Helmut Jahn design, took me back to my church days, when our sponsored missionaries would include in their slide shows photos of rickety Philippine houses teetering on stilts over flood waters. In the scale model, the stilts appeared to be represented by toothpicks. It did not seem to fit in architecturally with downtown Chicago, and it did not look sturdy enough to house a world-class library.

It didn't win.

I don't love the winning design, by Hammond, Beeby, and Babka. The general style complements the Rookery, Auditorium, and Monadnock buildings, according to Wikipedia. It is not quite right, however. The building itself is too massive. Its solid square takes up an entire block, with no columns to air it out. The large chunks of granite that serve as the base and the huge arched windows add to the bulky effect, while the red brick exterior and verdigris roof and ornamentations make the building garish. Enormous owls perch on the State Street corners, looming ominously and implying, "Abandon all hope, ye who enter here." Their Gothic presence evokes thoughts of a drawing in the Edward Gorey style, perhaps captioned, "Mistress Greatbottom was not aware of Lord Snapethicket's unrequited affection or great physical strength." It looks like something that Joseph Sheridan Le Fanu might have designed in one of his nightmares.

At 756,640 square feet, the HWLC seems to have earned its status as largest public library building in the world (Guinness World Records).

By the time I arrived at the HWLC, it was too dark to pay much attention to the architecture.

But it wasn't too dark to be overwhelmed by the size. While there are many doors, apparently only one set opens, and a commuter passing by saw my confusion and pointed me in its direction.

Finally, I was in.

And then I remembered what I hadn't liked about the inside those many years ago.

If I were to design a library, the visitor to my first floor would experience the pleasant hum of activity, with an information desk at the center of the approach from the main entrance, and circulation and reference desks nearby. This would be your arrival, departure, and destination point, the place where your library adventure begins and ends.

I didn't design the HWLC, so I found myself in a hallway that seemed to go nowhere. After wandering a bit, I found an escalator down and discovered myself outside the Cindy Pritzker auditorium. I turned around.

Back on the first floor, which houses the "popular library," I finally spotted the narrow escalator to the second floor (Thomas Hughes Children's Library). In the center of the floor I stumbled upon an information desk and interrupted a woman who was reading a compelling magazine article. She glanced at me briefly when I asked where I would go to get a library card. "Third floor," she answered, by the second syllable already immersed again in the magazine.

I took the discreetly placed escalator (not too visible to the public) past a tiled pool of water cluttered with coins as well as some juvenile (I hope) artwork to the third floor.

At last, in the institutional lighting that was starting to bother my eyes (something I remembered from my previous visits), I came upon the circulation desk, completed an application, handed over my state ID, and was soon equipped with a brand-new Chicago Public Library card, complete with bar code and access to "MY CPL" online. On the fourth floor, I found the book I was looking for, returned to 3, and checked out. Interestingly, although the HWLC has electronic anti-theft similar to those at Regenstein Library at the University of Chicago, they still engage security guards to peruse the contents of your bags.

I'm not a librarian, so I don't know if there is a Dewey Decimal System logic to the arrangement of the floors, which is:

4: Business, science, and technology
5: Government publications/talking book center (visually impaired)
6: Social science and history
7: Literature and language
8: Visual and performing arts
9: Special collection

The less practical and more esoteric subjects are the most distance away. Business is, of course, first. This is the United States of America, after all.

I haven't seen it yet, but I made a mental note to visit the tenth-floor winter garden some day. In keeping with Chicago tradition, this public space can be made a private one for a hefty fee affordable only to wealthy individuals and families and to corporate entities, so at least I know not to count on being able to see it on any given day.

Now I have a library card, three books checked out that I will not be able to finish even after renewing them, and a refreshed knowledge of the quirky layout of HWLC. With luck and concentration, I may be able to find the working main entrance next visit. We'll see.

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