The Word On The Street

The BPL pioneered the children’s reading room. The BPL pioneered the children’s reading room. (Catherine J. Willis)
By Jan Gardner
August 21, 2011

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In an era when libraries are suffering an identity crisis, it’s worth remembering that books once existed only as physical objects. The new pictorial history “Boston Public Library’’ (Arcadia) by the BPL’s Catherine J. Willis shows how much labor was once required to get books into the hands of readers.

You’ll find pictures of conveyer belts and the large wooden Indicator Board that in 1867 told library patrons at a glance which novels were in and which had been checked out. Willis traces the succession of buildings that have housed the library as well as a number of reading rooms and delivery stations scattered throughout the city. And she takes note of the BPL’s role in pioneering the notion of branch libraries and a room reserved for children’s books.

French ventriloquist Alexandre Vattemare is credited with being the first to propose establishing a library in Boston, and he donated 96 books to get it started. When the BPL opened in 1854, borrowers were required to be over the age of 16 and “of respectable character.’’ The limit was one book at a time.

By 1900, the BPL subscribed to 378 newspapers, which were secured on long poles displayed on wooden racks. Fourteen years later, the BPL’s bindery employed 29 people. They mounted photographs and engravings, repaired books, stitched periodicals, and bound about 30,000 volumes a year.

Today the library has made available online almost that many books. The magnitude of activity online dwarfs what happens on the ground in Copley Square. Yet the BPL itself remains a special place.

Reimagining history on stage Playwright Marcus Gardley brings history to life, infusing it with myth, folklore, and music, and inviting the audience to look at the past with fresh eyes. “This World in a Woman’s Hands’’ focuses on female laborers in Bay Area shipyards during World War II. The Mississippi flood of 1927 inspired “Hell in High Water,’’ being staged at the University of Massachusetts Amherst in November. “Every Tongue Confess,’’ which premiered in Washington, D.C., last year, looks at the burning of hundreds of black churches in the South during the 1990s.

Gardley, a native of Oakland, Calif., now teaching playwriting at Brown University, has been honored by PEN American Center with its annual award to a midcareer playwright. He measures his own success by his ability to engage an audience. In an e-mail, he summed up his work: “I write plays to inspire dialogue.’’

Coming out

■“Redeemers: Ideas and Power in Latin America’’ by Enrique Krauze (Harper)

■“Manufacturing Hysteria: A History of Scapegoating, Surveillance, and Secrecy in Modern America’’ by Jay Feldman (Pantheon)

■“Patriot Acts: Narratives of Post-9/11 Injustice’’ edited and compiled by Alia Malek (McSweeney’s)

Pick of the Week Kenny Brechner of Devaney, Doak & Garrett Booksellers in Farmington, Maine, recommends “The Magician King’’ by Lev Grossman (Viking): “What a pleasure it is to find characters immersed in dangerous certainty and to be filled with uncertainty and mistakenness as a reader. One would have to search across many dimensions to find a book at once so philosophically challenging, emotionally astute, and flat out fun as this one. As intricate and engaging as anything you’ll read, this follow-up to ‘The Magicians’ presents a new set of compelling characters whose heartbreaking combination of intellectual curiosity, worldliness, and naiveté lingers long after the last page has been turned.’’

Jan Gardner can be reached at