I borrowed a pencil from the librarian; it just as easily could have been an electric guitar, any season of Game of Thrones on Blu-ray, or one of the city’s 22 copies of Thomas the Tank’s breakout The Adventure Begins – all available at the city’s Central Branch. These are items for checkout; they don’t include items marked library-use-only: internet access, printing machines, handwritten manuscripts from Oscar Wilde and Mark Twain. Access to each of these is free for any Philadelphian. In a shared, not-really sort of way, all Philadelphians own a pencil, a printer, the used scrap paper of Wilde and Twain. I only needed the pencil today. They lent me their best #2.
I didn’t realize just how souped-up Philadelphia’s public libraries are until I ended my WeWork membership and setup shop on the shared tables of the Central Branch. I’ve worked from the library for several months. I’m working here right now: somebody’s cracked into the cassettes, their headphones are leaking Billy Joel; the blood donation table has a visitor; four guys over there are huddled around the outlets; the security guards are enjoying their conversation and I’m writing this from a lone leather chair in the corner of it all. The Wild West of co-working. Most days here are a lot like this.
On the surface, the library is as you might imagine. If I wanted to see our libraries as they’re often portrayed – book storage facilities with emergency services – I wouldn’t have to strain. From the outside and most of the inside, libraries look pretty library-y. Out front is a chess board with baby-sized pieces and a monument from the Shakespeare Society inscribed with his line, “All the world’s a stage and all the women merely players.” Around that is a small, newly installed park – concrete, benches, and some large slabs of grass. Inside is a massive entrance hall that leads to a wide marble staircase. Beyond the first flight, a statue of the library’s founder, William Pepper, is seated and positioned much like President Lincoln at his own memorial. And then there are about a dozen halls on two floors packed with all the usual suspects: half a million physical books, internet access, dozens of computers, artifacts, new releases, and helpful staff in every room to help you find your way. The windows are huge, the place is bright on sunlight alone, but the chandeliers are epic anyway. The 3rd floor is reserved for rare books – Wilde and Twain are encased in glass here. At first glance, it does look like a book storage facility with emergency services.
But, because of my decision to make an office of the space, I’ve had the privilege of seeing it as it really is: not a building, but a network. The library is online and in the streets – being transported from off-site locations or transferred from one branch to another. Somebody’s eBook rental just expired in Spring Garden and was auto-delivered to the next-in-line, a Kindle in Old City. What you see on the shelves is only a shell of what the network provides. Still, a growing set of four million physical books is nothing to shrug at. A while back I bought a business book from Barnes & Noble. A man at the register asked why I chose that book, and not one of the many classics. I didn’t have an answer then, but now that I think about it it’s clear: all the classics are free at the libraries.
All this is to say: don’t sleep on libraries. Consider the library for all your media/netflix/offline needs.
Search the Library’s Electric Guitar Catalogue
Borrow a book that the library borrowed from the library