by Michael R. Allen
Walk into the main hall of the St. Louis Central Library these days, and you will notice a cluttered appearance. The once-grand space was originally the main reading room, a place that delicately balanced the public purpose of the library and the private sphere of reading. Nowadays, the hall is chock full of computers, kiosks of videos and other intrusions. There are even books on shelves lining the grey marble walls. This has been the case for a long time, but the situation has been worsened recently by the library’s decision to close the periodical room and move the periodicals and the legions of periodical readers into the already-overcrowded main hall.
The reason behind this decision was the creation of a “reception room” for special events and lectures that raise money for the library’s capital campaign. Thus the drive to build money for what could be an architectural travesty — a plan is afoot to remove the original glass-floors book stacks system on the north side — has led to a momentary loss of one of the many ornate and supposedly public spaces of the library.
One of the wonderful things about the downtown library is that no matter how prosaic a reader’s purpose may be, her reading experience will take place amid the visually stimulating opulence of Cass Gilbert’s Italian Renaissance design. The periodicals room was a hopeful sight — students, travelers, homeless people and downtown workers all getting their news under a finely-detailed painted and coffered ceiling. The scene was prosaic itself — perhaps too much so. However, the periodical room and its use illustrated exactly why a city would have a public library at all.
Now, the periodicals room sits empty, dark and locked off during the day. Pass through the lobby and you get a glimpse through the bars that keep readers out of this reading room. An empty podium stands where the reference desk once was. Meanwhile, across 14th Street, the library’s annex building (formerly the Farm & Home Credit Bank) sits underutilized, with large expanses of empty space. The first floor features a wide-open and unfinished space; many of the offices located there provide ridiculously generous space for their occupants.
The Central Library will necessarily make big changes in the coming years to adapt to changes in use, and the capital campaign is an essential component of the changes. However, some parts of the library are working fine — like the periodicals room. Obviously, raising money for routine and functioning parts of the library is not easy. Donors are probably more attracted to buzzwords related to new technology and big changes. However, many people come to a library to handle a newspaper or book in the company of others. Print itself is a technology, but one that tends to reinforce socialization far more than the visual-centric technologies with which our libraries flirt nowadays. Hopefully, in the end, Central Library will still have a periodicals room.