When people can access the news from their phones, read the latest New York Times bestsellers on Kindle, and look everything up on Google and Wikipedia, it’s no surprise that libraries are less sought out as centers for information as they once were. Yet visiting a library offers a palpable personal experience that cannot be replaced by virtual apps. Founded in 1875, Providence Public Library (PPL) offers free access to educational programs, digital collections, expert staff, and books! The historic building is also home to rare Rhode Island collections, inspiring artifacts and thought provoking exhibits.
At first sight, the façade of the building from Washington Street gave a grandiose impression with its Classical Revival style entrance and elevated double stairways. The Empire Street entrance is much its opposite, a simple, modernist addition leading to a space full of books and bustling librarians. Tonia Mason, the marketing director of the library, greeted me warmly as she led me upstairs into an ornate hall with some of the library’s key special collection rooms. The library keeps several special collections, including rare collections on printing, whaling logs, as well as the Civil War and slavery.
The Updike Room, a neat special collections room on printing, displays printing presses and metal type in a chamber filled to the ceiling with valuable books. It turned out my speculation had been wrong; the room was named not after the writer John Updike, but Daniel Berkeley Updike, a printer and historian on typography. Jordan Goffin, the library’s head curator of collections, showed me a copy of one of the type specimens, a catalogue of fonts, logos, and colored blocks that dated back to the 19th century. The room also preserves special editions used for research, as well as copies that are treasured for their scarcity.
Stepping out of the Updike Room, I was further struck by the dazzling beaux-arts design of the hall. The building was completed in 1900 and has elaborate details typical of the time; the marble staircase and Corinthian columns are reminiscent of classical architecture and Renaissance Venice, while the sleek banister, bearing calligraphic initials of the library, features the embellishment of Art Nouveau.
The building is rich with symbolism of the values that the library originally represented. The egg and dart motif, carved into coffered ceilings and along columns, symbolizes life and death, while engravings of pine cones represent Human Enlightenment. Every nook and cranny retains a story of the library’s history and its dedication to the public; it’s the stories behind the small things that give the library a distinctive vitality. Tonia, whose affection for the library was evident, pointed out murals of classic children’s stories, a wooden bench where people used to sit down to wait in the circulation room, and photographs depicting the building’s past hanging on the walls. In the short period I visited the library, I learned to see some of its many layers, thick with 117 years of history.
The Providence Public Library remains open to the public with a wide range of books, quiet work space, as well as a number of tours and programs. In addition to collecting and preserving historical resources, the library is accommodating modern changes. Plans are underway for a major renovation to make the building more accessible and easy to navigate, replacing walls with glass divisions, and adding more welcoming spaces for all, including a new teen room. The newly improved library will not only offer various information resources and digital media, but also a tangible experience in a historic place in the heart of downtown.
by Jane Kim
Site: Providence Public Library, Address: 150 Empire Street, Providence, RI