Literary Movement

Stepping into America’s great libraries—from Austin to Chicago to San Francisco.

WORDS Tom Austin
May / June 2019

photography Matt Conant

Libraries have long served as truly public museums, mounting exhibitions that are free, smart and actually about something meaningful. They can also help you fall in love with a city, and the determined intelligence of the Harry Ransom Center at Austin’s University of Texas made me absolutely smitten with a place far removed from all the Keep Austin Weird clichés. This is a library with everything, from costume designs by Cecil Beaton to the archives of Robert De Niro, a perfect retreat for celebrating National Book Lovers Day on August 9.

In 1956, UT English professor Harry Ransom announced his outsized Texas intention to build a “Bibliothèque Nationale” for the “only state that started out as an independent nation.” It’s still an ambitious institution of international scope, with reproductions of items in the collection—from Max Beerbohm caricatures to illustrations for Charles Baudelaire’s Les Fleurs du Mal—etched into the exterior glass walls of the atria.

So many wonderful worlds are contained within one building, from David Alfaro Siqueiros’ Portrait of George Gershwin in a Concert Hall (the audience members in the painting are the composer’s family, friends and rivals) to Jean Cocteau’s 1923 ink wash and pastel piece Barbette?, a deft rendering of the Texas cross-dressing trapeze artist who dazzled 1920s Paris. In a gallery adjacent to the lobby, the exhibition “Stories to Tell: Selections From the Harry Ransom Center” is a kind of greatest-hits parade, culled from a collection encompassing early childhood writings by Charlotte Brontë, drawings by Aubrey Beardsley, and the effects of Arthur Miller. Within the exhibition, a working notebook for The Crucible is counterpointed by selections from Miller’s FBI file and an unpublished essay about his refusal to attend Marilyn Monroe’s funeral.

On the second floor, the Reading and Viewing Rooms set a certain tone with a desk used by Edgar Allan Poe and Compton Mackenzie’s writing chair, a strange Rube Goldberg-type contraption. Special Collections also contains a room based on the London study of Fleur Cowles, who founded the cult 1950s magazine Flair. Cowles published Colette, Simone de Beauvoir and Gypsy Rose Lee in Flair, and the Ransom Center has the entire run of the magazine.

Effects from the writing desk of John Fowles author of The French Lieutenant’s Woman, at the
Ransom Center 

To touch the remains of human endeavor, to physically absorb history, is a visceral experience that no contemporary art museum can match. Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein’s Watergate Papers at the Ransom Center includes Woodward’s first note about the notorious affair, casually scrawled in a reporter’s notebook. In another part of the library, the glitz of Florenz Ziegfeld and his Ziegfeld Follies yields to the Mad Men archive, with costume sketches and props.

Gloria Swanson’s collection includes the tortoiseshell sunglasses and leopard-print case used in Sunset Boulevard. David O. Selznick’s career had plenty of glamour—1940 Rebecca publicity stills with Joan Fontaine looking like a cornered doe, costume designs for 1939’s Gone With the Wind—as well as the inevitable banality of business, such as a 1950s tax-code guide. Scholars from more than 25 countries have used the library’s resources, and to Ransom Center director Steve Enniss, the collection is intended to suit a “global community of researchers.” While on campus, visitors can also stop by Cass Gilbert’s 1911 Battle Hall—known as the “Old Library”—as well as the LBJ Presidential Library, containing more than 40 million pages of documents.

At the W Austin, I’d end the evenings contentedly flipping through a collection of 8,000 vinyl records in the Living Room Bar, a kind of library nightcap. The public-radio program and podcast This American Life has examined libraries and their knack for transforming “into what you need them to be.”

They offer an escape from the everyday, a sense of human possibilities.

In his book BiblioTech: Why Libraries Matter More Than Ever in the Age of Google, John Palfrey argues that the Internet has made libraries, which have thrived amid the onslaught of technology, only seem nostalgic. Libraries still serve 96 percent of the United States population and Austin’s Central Library is the future, one of America’s best public spaces. Opened in 2017, the building’s six-story atrium contains a “technology petting zoo” with 3-D printers and such, a children’s section out of 2001: A Space Odyssey, Cookbook (a café featuring menu items from the library’s culinary books), projected avatars of local writers, and a rooftop butterfly garden. Austin still adores Lady Bird Johnson, and outside a reading-room window overlooking Lady Bird Lake, a quote from the former First Lady is carved into a metal sunscreen: “Perhaps no place in any community is so totally democratic as the town library.”

Chicago’s Newberry library

Chicago’s Newberry Library—a leap into heartland America and writers like Nelson Algren and Sherwood Anderson—is spearheading the yearlong initiative Chicago 1919: Confronting the Race Riots, and also presenting this summer’s Bughouse Square Debates. Marxists and other firebrands once waxed voluble on soap boxes across from the Newberry in Washington Square Park—known as Bughouse Square—and the library is bringing back this era of spirited public speaking. To Alison Hinderliter, curator of modern manuscripts, the Newberry’s proximity to Bughouse Square and the Dill Pickle Club—“part of the city’s bohemian scene in the early 20th century”—has helped the institution document both “Chicago’s creative past and its present, materials from Chicago writers, journalists and artists.”

The Newberry, a grand 1893 Romanesque Revival building in pink granite, is also invincibly beautiful, with the magnificence of the Boston Public Library and New York Public Library. All three were built during the robber-baron era, but philanthropists like Andrew Carnegie did bring an everyday opulence to public libraries, a national living room without class distinctions.

Austin’s Central Library

Another great public building is the 1893 Art Institute of Chicago and its Ryerson and Burnham libraries. In the 1930s, Ludwig Mies van der Rohe and the New Bauhaus rewired Chicago’s
architectural game, and the library’s Chicago Architects Oral History Project entails taped recollections from New Bauhaus students and such talents as Paul Rudolph, Helmut Jahn and Tadao Ando. For museum archivist Nathaniel Parks, the oral histories give visitors to Chicago “a more profound understanding of the forces that helped shape our rich architectural heritage. Ultimately, we hope these buildings will truly be seen.”

On the South Side of Chicago, the artist and civic activist Theaster Gates created the Stony Island Arts Bank project, incorporating a library with the record collection of Chicago house-music pioneer Frankie Knuckles. On West Superior Street, the Poetry Foundation Library is a light-filled 2011 building by Chicago architect John Ronan. Some 30,000 volumes of poetry are complemented by recorded readings by such writers as Gwendolyn Brooks.

This summer, the library’s exhibition is “Yoko Ono: Poetry, Painting, Music, Objects, Events and Wish Trees,” merging Ono’s early typescript for what became her book Grapefruit with a grove of Wish Trees artworks in the courtyard. Library visitors can hang written expressions of their desires on the trees, and as art director Fred Sasaki notes, “engage their imagination through poetic cues.” 

Chicago is able to balance forward-thinking establishments like Hotel EMC2 and Alinea—which has three Michelin stars—with plush standards such as The Blackstone hotel, which opened in 1910. An old-fashioned typewriter in the lobby smacks of Ben Hecht’s 1928 Broadway farce, The Front Page: Hecht, a Chicago reporter made good, is also in the collection of the Newberry.

The San Francisco Bay Area enjoys a unique balance, mostly tied to the written word. The supremely ritzy St. Regis San Francisco incorporates a library and the Museum of the African Diaspora’s Poets-in-Residence program. Everyone moans about the gentrification of the Mission District, but the slap of the real is on hand at Bolerium Books, featured in The New Yorker and on John Waters’ annual Christmas card list. Co-founded in 1981 by John Durham, Bolerium stocks every fantastic saber-rattling text imaginable. In the hallowed Beat Generation turf of North Beach, City Lights bookstore—co-founded in 1953 by Lawrence Ferlinghetti, who recently turned 100—is still going strong, a sanctuary for engaging the ghosts of Jack Kerouac and Allen Ginsberg.

    In Oakland’s touristy Jack London Square, an actual Jack London haunt—Heinold’s First and Last Chance saloon, built in 1880 from an old whaling ship—is still pretty real. Berkeley’s Moe’s Books, where a scene in The Graduate was filmed, is close to the Graduate Berkeley Hotel. Berkeley is also known for the downtown Poetry Walk, with poems written along sidewalks. 

The University of California, Berkeley, is a stunner, brimming with history. The Bancroft Library on campus holds the archives of the landmark 1964 Free Speech Movement protests; now, the school’s Free Speech Movement Café serves chai latte. The library also has the Mark Twain Papers, whose general editor, Robert H. Hirst, points out that Twain was a “lifelong, inveterate and ambitious traveler.” As Twain famously observed, “Travel is fatal to prejudice, bigotry and narrow-mindedness.”

Past a street of free parking spaces assigned to a covey of Nobel laureates who work at Berkeley is the seasoned charm of the Morrison Library reading room, an ideal setting for delving into the world of books. Jorge Luis Borges, who served as director of the National Library of the Argentine Republic, once said, “Paradise will be a kind of library,” and it’s hard to imagine a richer reward.



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