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The Public Library in Utopia

From: Libraries & the Cultural Record
Volume 45, Number 3, 2010
pp. 333-349 | 10.1353/lac.2010.0004

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The Public Library in Utopia

Transported to the ideal future, Julian West, the narrator-protagonist of Edward Bellamy's Looking Backward: 2000-1887 (1888), enjoyed numerous opportunities for reading in utopian Boston. Dr. Leete, his host, had a fine residential library and a good public library within walking distance. One night the doctor and his family escorted Julian to the public library, an experience Bellamy described in some detail. Like Bellamy, many other utopian novelists in American literature put public libraries in the ideal future, devoting considerable thought to what they would be like. But these imaginary libraries differed significantly from their real-life counterparts. They were comfortable and more convenient. They allowed library patrons easy access to collections. And they organized and managed the books to prevent them from intimidating or overwhelming library patrons. Besides reflecting trends in librarianship, turn-of-the-century utopian novels also indicated the reading public's general dissatisfaction with the way contemporary libraries worked.

It was raining the night Julian first visited the public library, but he and the Leetes stayed dry because awnings automatically covered the sidewalks during inclement weather. Their walk brought them to "the Elephant," the massive structure that housed private dining rooms and other communal facilities for their city ward.1 Whereas some utopian novelists imagined communal facilities for eating, reading, and sleeping all under one roof, Bellamy envisioned both the private and the communal. Separate residences gave families privacy, while communal dining facilities freed them from kitchen drudgery.2

Bellamy's vision of both private and communal extended to libraries. Though the Leetes had a home library, they also took advantage of the public library. Touring the recreational and cultural facilities inside the Elephant after dinner, they ultimately reached the library. Julian explained: "We succumbed to the temptation of the luxurious leather chairs with which it was furnished, and sat down in one of the book-lined alcoves to rest and chat awhile."3 A footnote compared the [End Page 333] public libraries of the ideal future with those in Bellamy's time. Maintaining the story's fiction, Bellamy kept the footnote in Julian's voice: "I cannot sufficiently celebrate the glorious liberty that reigns in the public libraries of the twentieth century as compared with the intolerable management of those of the nineteenth century, in which the books were jealously railed away from the people, and obtainable only at an expenditure of time and red tape calculated to discourage any ordinary taste for literature."4 The most important features of an ideal public library, Bellamy implied, are convenience, comfort, and access to collections—attributes other utopian novelists emphasized as well. Though the libraries that other authors imagined differed somewhat from the public library in Looking Backward, their libraries of the future also maximized convenience and comfort and made books more accessible. Many utopian novelists also addressed the issue of how to cope with the proliferation of the printed word in the future.

Convenience, Comfort, and the Public Library

Following Bellamy, Charles Caryl described a utopian community in New Era (1897), which linked the public library with other recreational facilities. Caryl's model city included an "Artists' park" containing "the finest art galleries, museums, libraries, gymnasiums, bath palaces and select hotels in the world, connected with glass-covered arcades, as are all the other public buildings in the centre of the city."5 Placing libraries near cultural institutions, Caryl stressed the relationship between art, literature, and history. Situating them near gymnasiums and swimming pools, he emphasized the interdependence of mental well-being and physical fitness. Putting libraries near fine hotels, he associated them with class and elegance. Connecting the various facilities together with arcades, Caryl reinforced their interrelationship and made them easier to use.

Caryl's arcades functioned similarly to the retractable awnings in Looking Backward; moreover, both symbolized the benevolence of the utopian government, which guarded its citizens from socioeconomic hardship as well as from the hardships of climate. Caryl's arcades—both literally and metaphorically—connected the various aspects of culture that museums, libraries, and other institutions represent. Walter Benjamin, for whom the arcades of Paris provided an appropriate metaphor for his overarching...