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Room to Think Thoughts to the End

`WE wonder whether buildings not only need be made flexible but should also be made of some expanding plastic, still unknown, and which, given the land, may make a one million, a two million, a thirty million-volume library possible....'' This little snippet is from a recent newsletter of the Boston Athenaeum, a venerable (approaching its second century mark) private research library, perhaps best known as the owners of the Gilbert Stuart portraits of George and Martha Washington.

The newsletter, which surfaced from a pile at the office last week, just as a new bookcase was due for delivery at home, was quoting a 1951 lecture by the architect of the Hayden Library at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. The subject was the conflict between space for books in a library and space for readers.

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The architect went on to say, ``I think that flexibility has its limits, that the book and its storage must once more give way to the reader and his problems.''

A certain gracious spaciousness is called for, he seemed to be saying; a library should ``be thought of as qualitatively monumental in character, for it is quite evident that factory-like libraries produce fragments of culture.''

The Athenaeum was explaining to its members its study of ``possible methods of reorganizing the present structure to provide both printed and warm-blooded inhabitants of the premises more breathing space.'' The newsletter went on to say that although the Athenaeum was following the Hayden Library architect's advice by practicing ``judicious selection and persistent weeding,'' the supply side was also being addressed by the addition of new compact shelving and other innovations.

As I moved books around at home to take advantage of the space afforded by the new bookcase, it felt good to be in such distinguished company as the Athenaeum. For all its books and scholarliness, it is also noted as a very comfortable space in which to work. ``I don't really need books from here,'' one visiting scholar confided to a Boston Globe reporter a few years ago. ``But I happen to like the space.''

The library as a place for readers to encounter their books, rather than as just a collection of books on shelves, was one of those ideas that immediately make sense within the context of one's own observations. A serene space in which to think whole thoughts to the end is surely the heart of a library.

My own thought in investing in the extra shelf space was not really just to allow the accumulation of more tomes; rather it was to give myself enough space to arrange the books more comfortably and logically, so that unrelated volumes aren't jammed together in a given nook or cranny simply because there is space for them there. I hope to be persistent in my weeding, too. Books - review copies, volumes produced by story sources, and so on - follow a journalist home the way stray dogs and cats follow some children. Ordering one's library is a way of resisting the fragmentation of one's intellectual experience.

During my years there, my alma mater pretty much moved out of its old-fashioned, red-tile-roofed Carnegie Library into something called the ``Learning Center,'' which in both its architecture and its nighttime floodlights suggested to us more a federal prison than a library. The old library had a vast reading room with rows and rows of long tables. Studying away of an afternoon, we felt an unspoken solidarity as we each pulled our oar in a great galley of learning.

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The new library was full of primary color and boxy little study carrels about the size of voting booths. They discouraged eye contact, and they discouraged staring off into space, because they provided no space to stare off into. But staring off into space is part of learning.

There were, however, some simple tables affording more space, mentally and physically; some were even beside windows. I tended to head for those. One Sunday afternoon I was interviewed by a psychology student doing a survey in the library; she seemed interested in which personality types gravitated toward which color scheme - the red zone or the yellow zone, or whatever. I tried to explain that I was pretty much ignoring the color schemes and was trying to find a comfortable place to spread out and think. I think I didn't help her research.

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