Great Libraries

I have been fascinated by libraries, in particular the great libraries in the east. The five most important libraries in the US by many standards are the Library of Congress, New York Public Library, Boston Public Library, and the research libraries of Harvard and Yale universities. Together these five libraries contain over 225 million items –half of these are in the Library of Congress in Washington, DC.

The Thomas Jefferson Building of the Library of Congress is an impressive building as are many of the other large libraries. Built in the 1890s, its classical architecture and richly decorated interior has dazzled those who venture inside of it. It is often referred to as the Sistine Chapel of the US because of all the paintings on ceilings, walls, and archways. More than forty artists and sculptors were commissioned during the construction of the building. It was named after Thomas Jefferson when he donated his substantial book collection held in Monticello to the library. This library isn’t as open to roaming as others, but there are great guided tours available that are well worth the time.

The New York Public Library is the second largest library in the US. It has 87 branches scattered throughout New York City boroughs, but it is best known for the 42nd St. and 5th Ave. location in Manhattan. This building was constructed around 1910. Two great stone lions, Patience and Fortitude guard the 5th Avenue entrance. Inside, the bottom two floors are constructed entirely of white marble –marble floors, stairs, walls, ceiling. The third floor has walls and ceilings covered in wood, mostly old-growth quarter-sawn white oak and mahogany, for those who appreciate such facts. My favorite room is the Rose Reading Room on the third floor. This room measures 78 feet wide by 297 feet long, with a 52 foot high ceiling. The ceiling is divided by woodwork into several sections, each featuring a large painting. Although books are not permitted to be checked out, this library is fairly open for the public to explore the rooms and even read books.

The research library of Harvard University is the third largest library in the US with over 15.8 million items. This library began in 1638 and now includes 90 branches. I’ve only been to the Widener Library –the historical central building, located on the south edge of Harvard Yard on the main campus at Cambridge, MA. It’s a Beaux Arts brick building with an elaborate marble interior with wide open spaces and high ceilings. The reading room is probably the most prominent room, but not nearly as large as New York’s Public Library.

The Boston Library is high on my list of places to see in Boston the next time I’m there. From what I read and the pictures I find, it’s nearly equal to the Thomas Jefferson building and New York Public Library in terms of art and decoration. The Yale library is well-known for its extensive collection of research and rare books.

In comparison, Cumberland County’s entire system of eight libraries contains less than 600,000 items and the Cline Library at Northern Arizona University, 1.4 million.

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