Strange, weird, and wonderful: Libraries across the world and right here

Posted on February 7, 2018 at 6:00 am

Photo credit: Author for Hyperallergic, Jillian Steinhauer

by Nathaniel Youmans

Welcome to the weird world of libraries. What’s the strangest library you’ve never heard of? Let’s find out!

At the Folger Shakespeare Library in Washington, D.C., you can “check out” (though not to remove from library premises!) wool shawls and sweaters hand-knitted by the librarians to keep patrons warm in the library’s drafty reading room.

The Puppet Library of Boston has in circulation a 40-year-old pair of giant penguins, also the oldest item in the collection.

Stranger still is the Toronto Public Library and its special collection of nearly 75,000 science fiction, speculative fiction, fantasy, and all manner of parapsychology and fringe science topics (fiction, nonfiction, or “other”) to browse for research purposes. Sorry, these books on telekinesis, quantum tunneling, and colonizing the center of the earth can’t be checked out. This collection is for research only.

The strangest library you’ve never heard of could be the Library of Water in the tiny town of Stykkishólmur in Iceland. You can walk over a squishy, foam floor (with shoes off) and browse through numerous gigantic columns filled from floor to ceiling with melted ice from glaciers all around the country. The books are in another building, and the reading room today doubles as a chess lounge and a writer’s residency. First built in the 1840s and subsequently renovated, the building that houses the Library of Water originally served as the first weather station in Iceland, and overlooks a scenic, beautiful fjord.

Also in Europe is the 22-story National Library of Belarus, with its 4,000 glittering LED panels on the outside, which may be the only building in the world shaped like a rhombicuboctahedron. If you’re not sure what a rhombicuboctahedron is, don’t worry. I didn’t know either before reading about this library. And it may be comforting to know that there is an enormous flashing library shaped like one that lights up the night sky of Belarus’s capital city of Minsk.

The Boston Public Library has a “car wash” for dirty books and had, until April 2017, three obscure 600-year-old, medieval Italian manuscripts that were probably never meant to end up in North America.

Learning this prompted me to track down some of the oldest items in Spokane County Library District’s collection. Published over a century ago, we have an illustrated atlas of Spokane County from 1912, the same year the Titanic sank. In the collection is The Story of King Arthur and his Knights first published in 1903, as well as an early instructional book on how to engrave metals, published in 1901. But most astonishing of all is an autobiography called Wife No. 19, published in 1876, which tells the story of Ann Young, a Mormon woman who left her former life of polygamy to promote women’s rights and self-reliance.

Fast forward 140 years to the present and to the newest library in the District: The BookEnd, and you may ask the question, “What happens when you put a library in a very non-library-ish setting?” The BookEnd, located inside the Spokane Valley Mall, features many of the District’s newest and most popular books and movies in the collection (here’s a recent article about the collection at The BookEnd from The Spokesman-Review).

Our customers at The BookEnd have marveled about this lending treasure nestled in its retail environment. And that they look forward to visiting and finding the hot, new books that they would usually have to wait for on our holds list, or have to buy if they absolutely couldn’t wait because it is, after all, the mall. A library in a retail setting is one of the many ways—some weird, some resourceful, and most highly innovative—that libraries are constantly evolving to suit the needs of the communities they serve.

For some communities, the ongoing evolution of libraries in the 20th and 21st century has been subtle and not necessarily as weird or bizarre as some of these examples. As public institutions, libraries are both constantly adapting to the current times and trends, and innovating how to preserve and maintain all this great knowledge from the past (which may have been the present not too long ago!).

As the speed of information and technology continue to increase by exponential leaps and bounds, you can expect libraries to keep up by changing the way they offer services, their collections, or simply by providing specific, unique, and, yes, sometimes delightfully weird collections.

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