A Tale of Two Libraries

I just got back from a four-day spree with an old friend in Chicago, and finally visited two major libraries there I’d been meaning to see for years. (Apologies to friends in Chicago I didn’t see; I was a bit rushed while there, what with all the eating, drinking, and museum visiting.) I’m not one of those librarians who has to see every library in every city I visit. I took a great library buildings class at Illinois, and after our tour of libraries I was library-buildinged out, so now I approach them sparingly. However, on Saturday I was on the UC campus to visit the Seminary Coop Bookstore and decided that it was silly not to stop by the Regenstein Library since I was close. I don’t know what I was expecting, but not that. Not being a huge fan of bludgeony modernist architecture, the outside put me off quite a bit before I stepped inside, but it certainly prepared me for the inside, which I also didn’t like. I saw only the reference room, but it didn’t make me want to go further. For some reason I found the waffled ceiling and the lighting oppressive. I probably missed the attractive spaces by not venturing further afield, but the entry didn’t pull me in at all.

Tagging along with another friend on a Monday mission, I found myself in the Harold Washington Library downtown. I’d also never been there, and all I can say is “wow.” The exterior is lovely, but the interior, especially the Winter Garden on the ninth floor, was outstanding. If only Firestone Library were that attractive. The Winter Garden might have been one of the most attractive library spaces I’ve ever been in. The light airiness of the interior drew me all the way to the ninth floor.

There’s really no point to this other than to report my own shock at how vastly different were two libraries in the same city. I expected the Harold Washington Library to be reasonably attractive, as main public libraries in major cities often are. Still, for some reason I expected the Regenstein Library to be impressive rather than just imposing, and I don’t know why.

This evaluation is no doubt entirely subjective, and I will allow for the fact that I saw very little of Regenstein, but the contrast was definitely an object lesson on how library buildings can be more or less inviting spaces. Public libraries want to be attractive because people don’t have to use them. Academic libraries often have captive audiences, but still it’s a nice surprise to go into one and be awed at the space.

6 thoughts on “A Tale of Two Libraries

  1. Hey Wayne,
    Yeah, the Reg is pretty oppressive-looking. A huge leap forward was the addition of maps.
    Amy Babinec

  2. I’ve heard librarians at U of C refer to Regenstein as the “Fortress of Solitude,” which seems to be an apt comparison.

  3. Wayne,
    But remember, today’s persons do not want to be awed – they want to be comfortable…
    Maybe some do in some places. Maybe more do in more places – for now. When it comes to human history “awe” has quite a pedigree.

  4. Maybe comfortably awesome should be the goal of library buildings. I could live with that.

  5. Wayne,
    I work in Regentein and know very well that our first floor could be improved (and you should have seen it 10 years ago…), but comparing it with the Winter Garden, an events space that happens to be in a library, is rather like comparing a potato and a pineapple. Thank goodness Chicago students aren’t put off–if you visited now instead of a Saturday you’d find the room nearly full.

  6. Well, I thought the whole interior of the Harold Washington was more inviting, much more so than either your or my library. Firestone has a couple of nice spaces, but in general is in desperate need of the renovation we’re supposed to be getting over the next few years. There were plenty of students at Regenstein even on the Saturday I dropped by. I’m also betting that if you have carrels, the students don’t aptly call them “people lockers” as they do the carrels in my library.

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