by Stan Cutler

I’ve been to the new central libraries in Seattle and Austin. The experience of traveling on the escalators in those buildings got me thinking about our work as library volunteers. Those libraries are gorgeous public places that proclaim the culture of those cities. I believe Philadelphia should emulate them.

Our culture is rapidly evolving, adapting to cyber media. Most people nowadays use personal devices to experience a joy that was once unique to libraries – the opportunity to browse, to wander through a collection, to freely pick something to read. A kid with a smartphone can tap a finger and access millions of books and articles. As we knew them, libraries are obsolete. I want to build something new. My focus has shifted from preservation to creation.

Nostalgia is one of the reasons people become library volunteers. We love our old buildings, even Central, our white elephant on The Parkway. In our neighborhood, Chestnut Hill, we have a fine old Carnegie building with tall Palladian windows, lovely wooden tables, shelves of books, each spine an invitation. Certainly, we want to preserve them and improve them. But we mistake our purpose if preservation is our primary goal.

We believe in the lofty mission of the Free Library of Philadelphia, “to advance literacy, guide learning, and inspire curiosity. Its vision is to build an enlightened community devoted to lifelong learning.” How can we succeed with such a grand mission? I don’t think we can unless we think big, unless our aspirations are as grand as the goals.

Our vision must not be limited to libraries we know. Rather, we should be inspired by the challenge of building the greatest public media system in the world. At its center should be a beautiful building that reminds us of Enlightenment values – a building that glorifies our desire for knowledge, truth and wisdom. Before seeing the great libraries of Austin and Seattle, I was thinking too small.

One of the things I noticed in those wonderful buildings was how many young people were patronizing them. The children’s sections, with kiddy workstations on every table, had almost as many moms and dads as kids. The parents were switching off, allowing first one, then the other, to leave for their favorite places in the library, to look for the latest books on their passions. Multilayered, open architecture, light-filled and adorned with great art, is an invitation to investigate, to discover and to enjoy our minds. If we want young people in our community to join us in our struggle to extend the Enlightenment into the 21st century, we need to give them a goal – not a memory.

What if we sought enormous contributions, great sums, hundreds of millions of dollars, to build a great library? What if we gave famous architects a chance to offer masterpiece proposals? What if we enlisted every man, woman and child in our great city to participate in the project? Let us be like the people of old Chartres, inspired to spend a generation creating a cathedral. We can do it if we want to.

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