Exploring Boston: Another Public Library Gem

Given the interest in my post on New York’s Public Library, I thought some of you also may be interested in another public library of equal magnificence — the Boston Public Library, located in Boston, Massachusetts.  Boston’s library has the honor of being the first large public library in the United States, constructed and open to the public at its current location on Copley Square in 1895, after residing in smaller quarters elsewhere for its first 40 years.

The exterior of Boston's Public Library
The exterior of Boston’s Public Library

From the moment we walked up the marble steps and glanced through the large bronze doors, we were aware this building held many treasures, with the building itself a treasure and piece of stunning architecture designed to reflect the significance of this public resource.

Boston Public Library main entrance

We visited the library during Boston’s “First Night” activities on New Year’s Eve several years ago.  The library offered art and architecture tours as part of the city’s day-long arts and cultural festival.  Free tours are offered throughout the year, and the library’s website provides a convenient self-guided walking tour, from which I obtained many of the historical facts outlined in this post.

Marble mosaic in the entrance hall

Gracing the arched ceiling of the grand entrance hall were extensive marble mosaics, featuring the names of famous Bostonians. Walking toward the main staircase, arches and columns of yellow Siena marble framed beautiful murals in the upper hallway by the French painter Puvis de Chavannes.  He painted to depict the four great expressions of the human mind: poetry, philosophy, history and science.  An extensive recounting of the history behind this artwork can be found on the website for the Journal of the American Institute for Conservation.

Puvis de Chavannes mural in the hallway above the main staircase
Puvis de Chavannes mural, The Inspiring Muses Acclaim Genius, Messenger of Light, above the main staircase

I was fascinated by the marble lions, sculpted from unpolished Siena marble, sitting in contrast to the beautifully-veined yellow Siena marble lining the walls and banisters of the main staircase.  Each of the lions was erected as a memorial to a Massachusetts Civil War volunteer infantry regiment, one in honor and memory of the Second Regiment and the other in honor and memory of the Twentieth Regiment.

Marble lion memorial in honor of the Second Massachusetts Volunteer Infantry Regiment
Marble lion memorial in honor of the Second Massachusetts Volunteer Infantry Regiment
Marble lion memorial in honor of the Twentieth Massachusetts Volunteer Infantry Regiment
Marble lion memorial in honor of the Twentieth Massachusetts Volunteer Infantry Regiment

Our tour guide encouraged us to touch the tail of the lion honoring the Twentieth Massachusetts Volunteer Infantry.  While the lions were sculpted from unpolished marble, we could observe the result of thousands of hands “petting” the lion over the years, wearing its rough coat to the smooth, polished marble, a soft gold with striations of darker marble emerging from the rough outer coat.

One of the marble lions gracing Boston Public Library's main staircase
Veined marble shines through after innumerable hands have worn down the unpolished outer coating of the lion sculpture

I could not help but feel a sense of awe and wonder as we walked into Bates Hall, and I experienced a similar feeling as we walked into New York Public Library’s main reading room.  Boston Public Library’s Bates Hall was named after the original major contributor to the library:

Joshua Bates was born in 1788 in Weymouth,        Massachusetts. As a youngster growing up in Boston he spent as much time as the proprietors of the Hastings, Etheridge & Bliss’s bookstore would allow educating himself by reading books. Mr. Bates went on to become the senior partner of the great banking house of Baring Brothers and Company.

On October 1, 1852, after reading the first Annual Report published by the Trustees of the Boston Public Library, he wrote a letter to the Mayor of the City of Boston offering to donate the sum of $50,000 for the purpose of purchasing books for the new library. The only condition was that “the building shall be such as to be an ornament to the City, that there shall be a room for one hundred to one hundred and fifty persons to sit at reading tables, and that it be perfectly free to all.”

How can one not be inspired by such a tale of altruism and benevolence?!  Reflecting back through history, we are indebted to so many forward-thinking people such as Mr. Bates, who shared a portion of his wealth to invest in the greater good and future of his community.  In the words of Andrew Carnegie, a man who most people would agree left the legacy of the public library system in small cities and towns throughout the United States:

“A library outranks any other one thing a community can do to benefit its people. It is a never failing spring in the desert.”

Boston Public Library's Bates Hall
Boston Public Library’s Bates Hall

The stunning interior of the Boston Public Library did not end with its reading room.  The Sargent Gallery featured a mural painted by John Singer Sargent, titled Triumph of Religion.  It is a rather imposing work, reflecting the development of world religions.

Boston Public Library's Sargent Gallery

Boston Public Library's Sargent Gallery

As we descended from the Sargent Gallery on the 3rd floor, I enjoyed the views of the interior courtyard.  I am certain that on a warm, sunny day this peaceful courtyard practically insists that one sit and enjoy a book along its graceful perimeter.

The interior courtyard at the Boston Public Library

The interior courtyard at the Boston Public Library

Later that evening, as First Night activities continued throughout the city, the Public Library was the stage and backdrop for a festive light show, with snowflakes dancing on the exterior walls while colorful lights showcased the ice sculptures elsewhere in Copley Square.

Boston Public Library during "First Night" activities

The Boston Public Library is located in the Back Bay neighborhood of Boston, on Copley Square, convenient to many other popular Boston sights.  It may not be an attraction that is on the tourist’s radar screen, but for anyone interested in art and architecture, or the historical significance of the country’s first major public library, the Boston Public Library is a worthwhile stop.

Ciao! ~ Kat

New York’s Public Library as a Travel Destination

Given the interest in the New York City Public Library’s Rose Reading Room (see response to the Weekly Photo Challenge “Illumination” theme), I thought you might enjoy a further look at what this building has to offer the traveler.

Stephen A. Schwarzman Building
New York Public Library’s Stephen A. Schwarzman Building

While the building with the stone lions gracing its entry at 5th Avenue and 42nd Street may be the most renowned, the New York Public Library is a vast system of over 80 research and branch libraries scattered throughout Manhattan, the Bronx and Staten Island.  The history of the Stephen A. Schwarzman Building itself is fascinating beyond the history of which the building has been a part throughout the years, from the cornerstone laying in 1902 to the formal dedication in 1911, to the treasures it has collected over time, this building has stories to tell.

New York Public Library

The library is a stunning example of Beaux-Arts architecture, and when we visited over the Christmas holiday, its beauty was accentuated and enhanced by all of the seasonal decorations.

New York Public Library's Christmas Tree (2012)

As you walk up the grand marble staircase to the second floor, interesting historical exhibits line the hallway.  But, the real works of art are one more flight up.  Looking up toward the third floor while you climb the steps, your eyes meet a spectacular, gilded, arched ceiling, framing a mural of the Greek myth of Prometheus.

Stairway leading to the McGraw Rotunda ~ New York Public Library New York Public Library ~ McGraw Rotunda

Looking into the McGraw Rotunda ~ New York Public Library

McGraw Rotunda ceiling mural depicting the Greek myth of Prometheus

Various painted panels on the walls surrounding the McGraw Rotunda depict the history of the written word.

McGraw Rotunda ~ Wall murals depicting the history of the written word McGraw Rotunda ~ Wall murals depicting the history of the written word

The Bill Blass Public Catalog Room is off of the Rotunda, and I found it almost as stunning as the Rose Main Reading Room.  As we stood looking upward, probably with mouths agape, taking in the splendor of it all, the security guard standing off to the side said, “You haven’t seen anything yet, just wait.”

Bill Blass Public Catalog Room ~ New York Public Library
Bill Blass Public Catalog Room ~ New York Public Library

Ceiling of the Bill Blass Public Catalog Room ~ New York Public Library

“A good Booke is the precious lifeblood of a master spirit, imbalm’d and treasur’d up on purposes to a life beyond life.” ~ Quote written on the doorway leading to the Rose Main Reading Room

Doorway leading from the Bill Blass Public Catalog Room to the Rose Main Reading Room
Doorway leading from the Bill Blass Public Catalog Room to the Rose Main Reading Room

The ethereal ceiling mural is glimpsed through the glass above the door leading to the Main Reading Room, but is not appreciated until you are standing underneath it.

Ceiling mural in the Rose Main Reading Room ~ New York Public Library

New York Public Library's Rose Main Reading Room
New York Public Library’s Rose Main Reading Room (featured in the Weekly Photo Challenge: Illumination” post)

One of my favorite treasures contained in the New York Public Library required walking back down the three flights of stairs, and descending to the ground floor level where the Children’s Center is located.  Safely protected in a glass case are the original inspirations for A. A. Milne’s Winne-the-Pooh stories!  Well-worn and much-loved by the author’s son, Pooh Bear is kept company by Piglet, Tigger, Eeyore and Kanga.

New York Public Library's Winnie-the-Pooh CollectionThe Original Winnie-the-Pooh at the New York Public LibraryThe Original Tigger, Kanga, Piglet and Eeyore at the New York Public Library

We have found public libraries to often reflect classic architecture, and to contain works of art and treasures comparable to a museum, or hidden gems like Pooh Bear and friends!  Do you have a favorite library that you have explored while traveling?

Ciao! ~ Kat

Weekly Photo Challenge: Illumination

Merriam-Webster’s online dictionary defines “illumination” as “the action of illuminating or state of being illuminated,” going on to provide several additional examples of this definition:

a : spiritual or intellectual enlightenment

b (1) : a lighting up (2) : decorative lighting or lighting effects

c : decoration by the art of illuminating


A library is a classic example of a resource for intellectual enlightenment, and the Rose Reading Room’s decorative lighting at the New York City Public Library is not so shabby, either!

New York City Public Library ~ Rose Main Reading Room
New York City Public Library ~ Rose Main Reading Room

The American Library Association has created a “Library Bill of Rights” affirming public libraries as important protectors of intellectual freedom and enlightenment.

Library Bill of Rights

The American Library Association affirms that all libraries are forums for information and ideas, and that the following basic policies should guide their services.
I. Books and other library resources should be provided for the interest, information, and enlightenment of all people of the community the library serves. Materials should not be excluded because of the origin, background, or views of those contributing to their creation.
II. Libraries should provide materials and information presenting all points of view on current and historical issues. Materials should not be proscribed or removed because of partisan or doctrinal disapproval.
III. Libraries should challenge censorship in the fulfillment of their responsibility to provide information and enlightenment.
IV. Libraries should cooperate with all persons and groups concerned with resisting abridgment of free expression and free access to ideas.
V. A person’s right to use a library should not be denied or abridged because of origin, age, background, or views.
VI. Libraries that make exhibit spaces and meeting rooms available to the public they serve should make such facilities available on an equitable basis, regardless of the beliefs or affiliations of individuals or groups requesting their use.

Adopted June 19, 1939, by the ALA Council; amended October 14, 1944; June 18, 1948; February 2, 1961; June 27, 1967; January 23, 1980; inclusion of “age” reaffirmed January 23, 1996.

Even as computers and internet access seem to often displace the paper versions of books and research guides, libraries have kept pace with the times, provide critical public access to computers, adding electronic books for e-readers to their collection, and offering free seminars and discussion groups on both educational and entertaining topics.  In a time of increasing concern over the “haves” and “have nots” in the United States, the public library continues to act as a free, nondiscriminatory, open resource for all.

“There is not such a cradle of democracy upon the Earth as the Free Public Library — this republic of letters, where neither rank, office, nor wealth receives the slightest consideration.” ~ Andrew Carnegie

Have you visited or supported your local public library lately?  If not, perhaps pay it a visit and drop a donation to your library’s foundation sometime in 2013!  It is an important community asset and resource that must be maintained.

For more information on the history of the “Library Bill of Rights” and other resources from the American Library Association, click here.

Ciao! ~ Kat

This post was in response to the Daily Post’s Weekly Photo Challenge.  “Illumination” was this week’s theme.  Everyone is welcome to join in the Challenge; further details on how to participate and links to others’ responses are found here.