Libraries, architecture, ancient treasures and secret societies. 

Musings on the first public library.

Did Ben Franklin really create the first public library in America?

Yes. We probably all heard something about that in school. On July 1, 1731, Franklin and members of a group called Junto, a philosophical association, drew up “Articles of Agreement” to form a library. The group was interested in a wide range of ideas, from economics to solving social woes to politics to science. Fifty subscribers invested 40 shillings each. But this is what is not as well known: they choose as their motto a Latin phrase, roughly translated to English:  To support the common good is divine.

Spartak believes the motto, if applied before his own time, might have changed the world that exists in 2115.  He is a big fan of libraries.  Me too.

The young athlete finds the library at Ogden Academy, a school library, to be a sanctuary, a place to disappear with his friends, surrounded by books, away from the difficult world in which they live. He loves the outrageous, incongruous, unique, maybe ridiculous building, blending architecture of the 22nd century with that of the 19th.


Spartak’s library in San Francisco is called the Burning Bush, in honor of the religious sensibilities of the age.  Above is a popular piece of iconic art, there are thousands like it, depicting the story about Moses. Imagine this clad in swirling, twisting columns of titanium seven stories high.


The inside is inspired by the 18th century Bibliotheque Nationale in Paris, the national library, one of my favorite places. On a tour with architects designing San Francisco’s New Main Library, I once got to leaf through (with appropriate supervision in a special room) two 15th century manuscripts. Unforgettable.


This is unforgettable too, a library Spartak wants to visit and left me in awe when I was there some years ago. This is the Philosophical Hall, Strahov Abbey, in Prague, Czech Republic. It was built in 1797 and shown here on the cover of a fine book, The Library:  A World History, the photo is by Will Pryce.

Musings on books and a Secret Society of Librarians.

In Spartak’s time, carrying a book is seen as a sign of someone well educated, sophisticated and refined. The elite particularly value leather-bound volumes. Students often carry them to class, chicer than a Gucci purse and better for the brain. Over the decades, educational retention testing showed greater comprehension with real books. E-books are useful and tolerated but mostly reserved for the unsophisticated and lower class. Owners of iPads, hand-held or implanted, may think this seems counter intuitive, but consider what we do for fashion today.

But here is the clincher, the other reason Spartak finds libraries irresistible, particular at Ogden Academy: Librarians have formed a kind of clandestine society, making sure smart lower class scholarship kids get to read versions of American history and politics not taught in the classrooms. The books are kept hidden, not part of any electronic card catalog, and slipped to them in secret. In 2115, truth is often in riddles and librarians know how to decode. He doesn’t understand the extent of the network at first but supports its work.

Maybe a partnership in Book 2?  What do you think?

Musings on my favorite:   San Francisco Main Public Library.

I can’t muse about libraries without talking about my favorite, one Spartak may visit in his future time and designed for use by his great, great, great grandparents.

I have been a fan of libraries since high school. We didn’t have a school library worthy of the name, just a small room in a small town. Instead I used the county library nearby. In college, the library was a respectable three-story building. I liked to read while sitting on the second floor, over the entry, watching people go in and out, many carrying books.



Above are two photos: the top is a side view of San Francisco’s old Main Library, opened in 1917, and now the home of the Asian Art Museum. Below it is the New Main. It opened in 1996 on the 90th anniversary of the Great Earthquake. Some years before, Mayor Art Agnos asked me to serve as President of the Library Commission to work with architects, city departments and community leaders to design and build a new home, a magical place, for a great city’s House of Books, as Thomas Jefferson described libraries.  Mayor Agnos said it would be a once in a lifetime project and it was. I was a lucky guy. Thank you, Mayor Agnos.  You are a very special man–bravo for all you have done and are doing for The City.

Spartak’s ancestors are enjoying the library every day as well as thousands of others.

Below are two photos, the first is the entrance to the James C. Hormel LGBTQ Center, the first of its kind in a public library.  The second photo is part of the domed ceiling depicting LGBTQ people through history, entitled Into the Light, painted by muralists Charlie Brown and Mark Evans.



In designing the New Main Library, there was a desire to include constituencies that might not feel ownership of the institution as it then existed, communities that have important history and literature that are not receiving the attention they should.  The LGBT community rallied to the cause and the Library now has one of the most significant collections of LGBT literature, history and archival material in the country.  Other special sections include:  Children Center, African American Center, Chinese America Center, the Stegner Environmental Center, Latino/Hispanic Room, Filipino American Center, Stern Rare Books Room, San Francisco History Center, a Teen Center and others.

Below are several photos of the library.

I love this external view looking toward City Hall.  San Francisco’s Main Public Library is in Civic Center and was built partially on the site of the old City Hall that was destroyed in the Great Earthquake and Fire of 1906.  The library was inside.  In excavating the site, workers dug through remnants of the old City Jail.


Here are two shots of the atrium with the nautilus inspired glass ceiling.  The reading room extends out into the space.  Bringing in natural light was important to the design team and lead architects James Ingo Freed and Cathy Simon were extraordinary in reaching that goal.  I like the idea of a library as a beacon, full of light, a resource for the mind, a repository of human creativity, open to everyone.  There is a vast open space and numerous pedestrian brides so you can go from one collection to another, as if on a journey, looking down and up at the history of the world.  It is a very cool space.  I hope you visit often.



This is a bust of the late San Francisco Supervisor Harvey Milk in the Hormel Center.


Do you have a favorite library?

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