The Seattle Public Library’s insides match its outsides. It’s a freaky, asymmetrical creation by architect Frank Gehry, and inside you are treated to an entire floor of red lacquer (walls, floors, ceilings) so you feel like you are in the womb. Bright yellow escalators take you from one floor to another, one of which includes TVs along the side with blinking eyes, that bring to mind Space Mountain at Disney World. The top floor, my favorite, is an insane, slanty space that includes an aluminum floor, a geodesic ceiling through which you can see out onto the city and Elliott Bay, and a quiet reading/computing area with desks and power strips. It isn’t a space that inspires reading. In fact, there isn’t a place in the entire library where I want to curl up with a book on a rainy day. Instead, it makes me think back on a short-lived TV series from my youth called Space: 1999, in which the very near (then) future, was all white and involved mylar blankets and ski boots.
The tenth floor is one of the few places in the library that is quiet, the way libraries used to be when librarians still shushed. Most people under twenty-five probably don’t even know that about libraries: that back before more videos than books got checked out you’d get shushed if you so much as cleared your throat.
Of course this is not why I am here. I don’t come for the books or views or atmosphere or quiet. I come for the free internet. Z and I don’t have a connection at home yet and spending time at his university stealing their wireless makes me homesick for my own university, so there is a certain nothingness I enjoy while sitting in this lopsided building full of strangers.
There are a lot of men hanging around the Seattle Public Library, and not so many women. As in there is probably a 4:1 ratio if I don’t count the women downstairs who are here with their children in tow to pick up Captain Underpants books. Women alone don’t hang out at the public library. In fact, I’m only one of two women in the reading room, and she and I are surrounded by men in various stages of unraveling. I guess at what goes on in their lives when I look at their shoes for telltale signs of duct tape or holes. Half the shoes today are in good shape, and so I can only assume that the men around me are here to do research or download music or avoid their homes.
A group of pre-schoolers edges up the escalator. They are chattering and are more interested in the moving stairs than they are the library tour that they are on. Their shrieks pierce the silence and all of us look up from our computers and books. The guy behind me sushes them. They don’t even look over. More and more little heads pop up as the escalator drops them onto the aluminum floor, which creaks under their light-up sneakers and tiny Crocs. Some of them shout and chase each other in a small circle. I hear the guy behind me slam his book, exasperated, and he says, “Didn’t your teacher tell you to be quiet in a library? You’re supposed to be qui…” Suddenly, he realizes that he is not being quiet and so swallows his words. I hear him re-open his book. Just then, the children’s teacher appears. I expect him to tell them to be quiet. He is talking more loudly than the children to his helper. They are both about twenty-three.
Here, inside this weird, work of modern art, I think back to the library I went to as a child. It was a turreted, Victorian monstrosity with terrifying glass floors and narrow spiral staircases. It was dark and smelled of books and history, and yes, the silence made you itch to giggle, but you didn’t. It wasn’t a friendly place. The librarians never cracked a smile. Instead, they guarded the books and looked at you suspiciously and shushed. Still, you wanted to stay and sit in the presence of all those written voices.
When I was ten, the city tore that old library down, turned the glass floors into coffee tables, and replaced the building with a modern one, replete with friendly, open spaces and bad acoustics. I worked there for three years after college and we got in trouble if we shushed even the loudest of patrons. We were there in service to the people, not the books. And the people paid the taxes that kept the library running, so maybe that’s the way it was supposed to be. But it never felt right to me, so I quit.
Oh, how I loved that former reverence to the written word. The way the books were protected. That acknowledgement that someone with a book in her hand deserved a cocoon of quiet around her so she could absorb the words and get lost in another world.
I’d give up the free internet in a heart beat in order to go back to that less visually and aurally stimulating space.