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Travel / Exploring the Boston Public Library

Monday, May 19

For someone who claims to love books I have spent very little time in the Boston Public Library. It's a ten minute walk from my campus, the second largest library in the nation, and breathtakingly beautiful. I spent some time in the BPL during last year's Boston Book Festival; I got my library card a month later, despite the fact that this is my third year attending school in Boston; and the library came in very handy when I had to find some out-of-print books for my Hispanic Caribbean class (I highly recommend The House on the Lagoon if you can get your hands on it!).

Last Monday I had a work meeting, which meant I had to travel about an hour-and-a-half into the city for a one-hour meeting. To make the most of it, I decided to head down to the Central Branch of the BPL and properly explore it! Don't mind the terrible iPhone photos. (Next time, I want to bring my real camera and take one of the free guided tours.)

Boston Public Library
BPL's McKim Building


The Central Branch is made up of the McKim Building and the Johnson Building, with the two connected by a courtyard. I started in the older portion, the McKim building.

Boston Public Library courtyard

Boston Public Library lions

Boston Public Library murals


Boston Public Library courtyard

After exploring the entrance hall and poking my head in the very busy Bates Room--one of those long, tall rooms full of tables and green lights, which I have decided will become one of my haunts next year when I am living off campus--I found my way to the Sargent Gallery.

The murals in the Sargent Gallery, were done by John Singer Sargent (the Museum of Fine Arts had an awesome exhibit of his watercolors a few months ago). I really love this painter; standing in a vaulted gallery surrounded by his work was unbelievable, and reinforced the feeling of ridiculousness that I haven't spent time in the BPL before this!

Boston Public Library Sargent Gallery

Boston Public Library Sargent Gallery
my favorite of the Sargent paintings
Boston Public Library Sargent Gallery
I was also enamored of the ceilings :)
After lots of wandering I found the Rare Books Department--it's tucked in the back of the McKim Building through many study rooms and stacks and unused rooms. On my way there I passed several printing presses :) I also couldn't help but note the state of disrepair some of the lesser-used rooms are in. (Luckily, they do accept donations!)

Boston Public Library peeling paint

In contrast to the rest of the library thus far, the Rare Books Department was basically empty. There was one librarian, one woman doing research, and me. I only went in the lobby--a beautiful room with low lighting and two floors and tons and tons of amazing, beautiful bound old texts. It put me in mind of the room I used to do my volunteer work in several years ago, at the New England Historic Genealogical Society--besides the two computers and work table, there were stacks upon stacks of books so old they couldn't be handled every day.

The actual room holding the rare books is locked. I spoke with the librarian about how one would get permission to do research in the room, and what sorts of books they had. It turns out many of their books are digitized and can be found on the BPL's website. If there is a book you want to see in person or that has not been digitized, you call and ask for them to set it aside for you.

One of the awesome things about the BPL is all of the exhibits they curate and host. I just missed a big one, "Dear Boston," which was about the Boston Marathon Bombings. But there were still some cool ones currently on display! In the Rare Books Lobby was one called "Public Women, Private Lives" showcasing rare writings, letters, and first-run books of Massachusetts women writers. I was super pleased to see all of the Emily Dickinson things, but they also had Louisa May Alcott, Harriet Beecher Stowe, and many others.

Public Women, Private Lives

Emily Dickinson
early draft of "Success is counted sweetest..."
Emily Dickinson
Emily Dickinson's letters
Emily Dickinson
letter from ED to Thomas Wentworth Higginson

The other exhibit I saw was just past the courtyard, called "City of Neighborhoods." This one looked at maps of Boston, over the years and across demographics. Very cool!

City of Neighborhoods Boston

The Johnson building is where most of the books are kept, and where you pick up books that you've put on hold. This is also where Tech Central is located, which was absolutely packed the day I went. I have to admit I was surprised--a bustling library at two in the afternoon on a Monday?--but I suppose Boston has a ton of people on very different schedules. Someone is bound to be using the library!

library stacks
books on books on books!
Finally, I went to the courtyard and read some more of The Maze Runner while eating my snack (I made many bird friends), before heading back to my house.

Boston Public Library courtyard

Boston Public Library John Hancock

book and birds

Copley Square
Copley Square also had a fun farmer's market going
The BPL also has a cafe, rooms for rent (even for weddings!), and tons of spaces and collections and departments that I didn't explore. It's stunning, beautiful, relatively peaceful, and, best of all, free! If you're interested in getting a library card, check out their eligibility requirements. For those who might like to visit, you can see their hours and directions (for all the branches). 

Have you ever been to the Boston Public Library? What is your favorite aspect of it? What is your local library like?

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