Library in Muyinga, Burundi
There’s just something about a library -- its well-thumbed, plastic-sheathed bestsellers and dusty shelves of obscure treasures, all just waiting to be picked up and enjoyed by you. And then someone else, someone you may never meet. A library brings readers together into one space to share, exchange, and unlock the secrets of books. Oh, and it’s absolutely free to use.
The Sir Duncan Rice Library at the University of Aberdeen
Alex Johnson, a journalist for the U.K.’s Independent and the author of Improbable Libraries, agrees. But he’s also noticed that libraries don’t just operate out of drab brick municipal buildings or aged edifices with Gothic arches.
“There have always been entrepreneurial librarians,” he noted in an email to The Huffington Post, “such as those who ran circulating libraries in small crates for lighthouses in the 19th century or who used pack horses to carry books in the early 20th century -- but more recently the idea that the library can come to the reader ... seems to have become more pronounced.”
William Hakewill's traveling library
Improbable Libraries, which documents unusual and visually striking libraries from across the globe, was Johnson’s shot at bringing “the fun and entertaining side” of libraries back into a conversation that’s become dominated by doom and gloom about their finances. “Both my parents are librarians,” he explained, “so it’s always been at the back of my mind.” And despite the rise of eBooks, he believes that "in a world which is becoming gradually more virtual, physicality will become increasingly valued.”
Libraries also featured in another aspect of his family life. He met his wife while at Oxford. "We often worked together in the Radcliffe Camera,” he remembered. “It has very fond memories for me.” That and: “Before they give you a card there as a student, you have to promise not to kindle flame inside it, which is also rather endearing.” A practical measure, perhaps, but also the sort of charming institutional quirk that belongs to the world of libraries, rather than e-readers.
Improbable Libraries documents libraries carried on camelback, dangling from trees and in good old-fashioned buildings; Little Free Libraries and libraries built for one. There are libraries designed to overcome a lack of infrastructure and governmental support, and libraries designed to capture readers easily distracted by their smartphones and Kindles. Whether it's a bicycle delivering books or a serene literary retreat, these institutions remind us of the ineffable power of holding a book in your hands and seeing the signs left by previous attentive readers -- a power digital texts can never replicate.
The photos in Improbable Libraries give a glimpse at a present, and hopefully a future, in which libraries remain at the heart of our shared literary culture.
Soneva Kiri resort children's library, Thailand
The inner dome of the Soneva Kiri library, constructed from bamboo
The Bookbike of Tucson, Arizona
A Little Free Library in New York City
Dangling book homes at the Librairie Urbaine in Lyon, France
A popup library on Bondi Beach in Australia, courtesy of IKEA
The Children's Mobile Library of Mongolia, operated by author Jambyn Dashdondog
Marta Wengorovius' One, Two, Many library/art project fits just one reader
Raul Lemesoff's Weapon of Mass Instruction looks like a tank, but only delivers free books in Buenos Aires, Argentina
The Kansas City Public Library, Central Branch, in Kansas City, Missouri
The People's Library of the Occupy Wall Street protests, New York City