Philly's eclectic melting pot at play.
The majority of the 30-odd people gathered outside the Central Library’s gated entrance on a chilly March morning appear to be homeless. When the doors open at 9 a.m., the visitors stream past the turnstile and head upstairs to computers and downstairs to the bathrooms. Presumably better-off patrons trickle in more slowly, their needs seemingly less urgent and more narrowly cerebral.
A significant 584,476 Philadelphians—more than a third—have library cards, so it’s no surprise that Mayor Nutter’s 2009 proposal to close some branches sparked such a backlash. If each branch was a unique social ecosystem, however, the Central Library would be the most biodiverse.
The sprawling library is 286,000-square feet and contains approximately 7 million items; a wide marble staircase leads to the reading rooms, each one with its own distinct personality. There’s the Periodicals room, crowded by regular newspaper readers who flip through the Inquirer, Daily News and New York Times—cheaper, for sure, than a subscription.
I grab a seat in the History and Social Sciences room, notable for the old mystic-looking men who quietly work on projects that are clearly more personal than professional. One gray-haired man is taking copious notes on sheets of unattached 8.5-by-11 printer paper, a stack of books on Thomas Jefferson piled before him. He pretends not to hear me when I approach him to talk.
I settle next to an Aero Relief Map of Pennsylvania, the mountains, valleys and rivers spelled out in miniature bumps, lines, pregnant protuberances and cavernous incisions. The map collection is to the right; sports books to the left, appropriately watched over by a poster of Rocky. A few tables away, another bearded man sits in front of a stack of books, surrounded by pages of notes, colored pencils, tape and scissors. “I am very busy,” he says in a foreign, perhaps Eastern European, accent. Then he turns back to his labors.
The library staff is well-aware of the institution’s charm and the eclectic cast of characters it hosts each day.
“On both sides of the desk,” jokes Free Library Chief of Central Public Services Donald Root, an exuberant man sporting a pin-striped suit, a neatly kept gray mustache and a tie with a map of the New York Subway. “There’s one Italian guy in Art and Literature who pulls a little basket,” he says. “Apparently he was a great scholar once, had written books. But now he’s homeless.”
Another man smiling sheepishly introduces himself: “I’m continuing my black history month, researching on African history,” says Sherman Moody, a Vietnam veteran who moved to Philly from New York in 1955.
Moody was paging through the bibliography of Essays on Nubian Culture by Duane Smith. He finished reading the 1997 volume and was now writing down the names of books for future inquiry. Moody is a regular at the Central branch, but he never takes books home. “It keeps me coming here,” he says. “It’s a chance to get out of the house.”
The library as we, or perhaps our parents, knew it has changed over the decades.
“I think a lot of the librarians came here with the misconception that it’s very scholarly, quiet and filled with researchers,” Root says. “Maybe once upon a time that was true.”
These days there are fewer research requests—although some scholarly questions do come in through the “Ask a Librarian” chat feature. Many patrons come in to use the computers and get help writing their resumes or just to escape the outside world.
The homeless are ever-present in the building. For them it’s one of the few indoor public spaces that up-by-your-bootstraps America offers. And while they certainly appreciate having a place (with indoor bathrooms) to pass the day, most of them spend a lot of their time reading. “I think it is a place where the homeless should feel like they should come,” Root says. And they do.
In fact, the library’s H.O.M.E. Page Café is run by and for the benefit of Project H.O.M.E. Aside from the unfortunate provision of Starbucks, it's a really good thing to have coffee for sale at the library.
“It’s a wonderful cafe,” says Tracy Young, a H.O.M.E. Page barista for the past three years. “It’s good for people who work at the library, or who want to come in and read a book and get hungry.” Young has lived at Project H.O.M.E. for 20 years. “When this opportunity came up, I jumped on it,” he says.
The 1927 neo-classical giant and its next-door twin, the Family Court, were crafted in the image of two buildings on Paris’ Place de la Concorde. According to Root, Marie Antoinette “spent afternoons relaxing and taking piano lessons” at one of them. These beauties are unfortunately squirreled away from the heavily foot-trafficked sidewalks of Center City, sitting halfway between the Art Museum and City Hall along the area’s most pedestrian-unfriendly stretch. Despite its location, the library attracts people of all races, the well-to-do and the downtrodden—and consequently makes for great people-watching.
Two events listed on a library calendar illustrate the urban mélange at play. Visitors can choose between “Introduction to Email and Social Networking” and “Psychoanalytic Perspectives on Persepolis.” And the new Senior Center attracts another demographic to a different sort of classes. “We’ve had events on everything from Medicare to love lives after 60,” says Root, standing before a cubical full of gray-haired patrons surfing the Web. Any given function will draw a different crowd into the downstairs auditorium, and events with authors like Jonathan Safran Foer, Barbara Kingsolver and Tim O’Brien can often sell out.
I follow Root up a flight of stairs, through a staff-only door and into the bowels of the library. It’s a secret world with floors of low-ceilinged stacks holding items that patrons rarely request, from “Highlights of U.S. Export and Import Trade 1971” to “Smithsonian Miscellaneous Collection 1862,” a compendium of scientific tables and conversions as they were understood at the time.