You might not think of walking into a library when you’re traveling, and it used to be that I didn’t either. I think it was stumbling on the Biblioteca Nacional del Perú that changed it for me.
I don’t remember what it was that afternoon during our (otherwise awesome) 2005 Peru trip that had gotten us down. Just that Lima’s big city, horn-honking, rumbling-diesel, street vendors/restauranteurs/bus drivers-shouting-for-customers cacophony had suddenly overwhelmed us, when we realized we were standing in front of Peru’s National Library. It wasn’t on the agenda, but we decided to duck in.
In stark contrast to the noisy streets, it was so quiet I was worried about the sound of my shoes on the marble floors. We took a few random turns and found ourselves in this beautifully serene garden courtyard, separated from the city by a two-story wall but feeling miles away.
We practically collapsed onto one of the benches. It was just the respite we needed at that moment. By the time we returned inside, we were composed enough to want to look around. In the center of the cavernous main room, there was this amazing Don Quijote exhibit with rare books, sketches and sculpture.
Since Phillip and I love books and art and the comically (tragically?) romantic Quijote, this made our day. I wouldn’t have thought there would be anything for non-locals at a library, but we came away from the experience with souls nourished – and with a deeper respect for libraries as places with something to offer everyone, not just cardholders.
I remembered this when I was visiting a library closer to home a few weeks ago and saw Scottsdale Public Library’s new gallery for art exhibitions. It’s currently devoted to a pretty fabulous Steampunk display (through Saturday 1/25). You don’t have to be into the steampunk scene to appreciate the artistry of the handmade costumes and props.
My own city of Tempe’s library displays art on a single wall near their cafe. They don’t list exhibitions on their site, so discovering great work from local artists John Nelson and Troy Mark Moody during a recent visit was an unexpected bonus with my coffee.
I started thinking about other libraries I’ve happened to visit when traveling and whether they put art on display.
The Library of Congress, which is kind of our own U.S. national library, has several art exhibits at any given time. Currently, they are displaying photos from the March on Washington, pre-columbian ceramics from the Americas, and cartoons (in at least two galleries).
Lots of college campus libraries display art, as well.
We noticed a small gallery in a corner during a tour of Fuller Theological Seminary’s main campus in Pasadena, California, and I found that their David Allan Hubbard Library regularly exhibits artistic and historical collections from its archives.
How do you find out about art on display at libraries? It’s not always publicized. Your best bet is to look for an “exhibitions” link on the library’s site, but they may not even mention them. If you’re exploring a new city and pass by the library, I’d recommend stopping in. You might be pleasantly surprised at what you find.
A library can be both a respite for the weary and a window into the community. They’re open spaces you can visit without making a reservation or paying admission. In addition to art, libraries may exhibit artifacts or rare books or local projects. The Ouray Public Library has a whole display case of geodes, fitting for an area where geology is so important.
While reading too many stories of knights and giants may drive you mad, visiting libraries can put you on more solid footing.
Although I didn’t go to any libraries when I was on the man of La Mancha’s home turf, I felt I owed it to him to check in on what’s happening at the Biblioteca de Castilla-La Mancha now. I found something you rarely see in library reading rooms: performance art. Specifically, an exuberant (dare I say quixotic?) flash-mob style celebration of its 15th anniversary.
Libraries are full of art – and surprises.