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Cedar Rapids’ Carnegie Library was one for the books

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Carnegie Library — Illustration by Blair Gauntt

My wife believes there are too many books in our house. I, on the other hand, am quite sure there are not enough.

When I imagine what “enough” might look like, I call to mind the first floor of the Carnegie Library in Cedar Rapids — my first library and the place, it seemed to me as a small child, where all the books in the world were housed.

The shelves towered over me, towered over everyone in my memory, and were filled to bursting with all the stories and all the knowledge that could be accessed by a child in the mid-to-late 1970s. I couldn’t read it all — heck, I couldn’t reach it all — but it was comforting to know it was all there on the corner of 3rd Avenue and 1st Street across from Greene Square Park.

I’ll admit, my memories of the place are a bit hazy. Did one go upstairs or downstairs to find the children’s collection (up, I think)? Where was the card catalog in relation to the front desk? What did my first library card look like?

What I remember best is the smell. It was a variation on that scent we associate with old books. Less moldy. Devoid of the cat hair that adds to the olfactory experience of many a used bookstore. Stately, somehow. An odor of importance. When I stood on the cool floor, surrounded by architectural ornament that stood in contrast to the straightforwardness of the shelves, I breathed air filled with an emanation that I now associate with a story well told, a mystery solved by scientist or detective (real or imagined), a history unfurled and so much more.

It’s an odor that didn’t make the move to the Cedar Rapids Public Library’s new home in 1985. That structure, on the riverfront and destined to be partially submerged during the catastrophic flood of 2008, was, by and large, a warehouse that happened to include a brutalist take on a spiral staircase leading to an oddly shaped and under-utilized second floor. Sure, the children’s library was up there and was probably the most engagingly arranged portion of the collection, but the empty expanse outside the kids’ area always struck me as melancholy.

And what of the Carnegie Library after the move? Well, in 1989, it reopened as half of the architectural mash-up that is the Cedar Rapids Museum of Art. For years, I resisted entering the museum (my resolve made easier in the short term by my leaving for college). When I did finally go inside, I avoided the library portion of the facility, afraid to have my memories disturbed.

To be sure, I still find that space — home to the Museum Store and administrative offices as well as the auditorium that was part of the structure originally — disconcerting to enter, particularly on the first floor. It doesn’t look right without the rows and rows of books curtailing one’s view of the space as a whole. And it doesn’t smell right, either. The smell, of course, was in the books, not in the building, and those books are gone.

The latest Cedar Rapids Public Library building stands immediately across Greene Square from the Carnegie Library. It’s a nifty bit of unification, drawing a straight line between libraries old and new (and leaving the 1985 library to its new incarnation as the home of an insurance and financial services firm).

The Cedar Rapids Public Library — Jav Ducker/Little Village

The current library is undeniably lovely. It’s airy and spacious and welcoming. It has a coffee shop, a strikingly beautiful auditorium and a roof garden. But to my way of thinking, the books — the objects, I would argue, that make a library a library — aren’t allowed to assert themselves as the primary, essential, irreplaceable asset.

Whether it’s a trick of perspective, a failure of memory, a more efficient use of space or a simple numbers game, the collection in the current library doesn’t seem as weighty or as important as the collection I grew up among did. I don’t necessarily mean that the content of the books is less valuable or impressive; I mean the books themselves do not occupy pride of place in the space. I suspect, for this reason, they don’t hold pride of place in the minds of the young people who enter that space.

This is not a criticism, exactly. After all, I’m well aware that all of the books in the old Carnegie Library — indeed, truly all of the books in the world — can now be stored as data in the cloud and accessed via the device in my pocket. The sheer physicality of books, their tactile pleasures and, yes, their distinctive, collective smell — those characteristics are not valued to the same degree they once were. I’m nostalgic for the overcrowded, overwhelming collection that still resides in my mind, but I’m not making a case for yesterday’s library in today’s world.

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I’m just revisiting a space as sacred to me as any house of worship. A space where fiction and nonfiction and the sometimes blurred boundaries between them take on a collective physical form at once impressive, inspiring and deeply comforting.

The comfort I find in the presence of books, whether read or unread, is certainly central to my friendly disagreement with my wife’s assessment of my personal collection. Too many books in our house? Not a chance. I think we can squeeze another shelf in right over there. Now, take a deep breath.

Rob Cline loves libraries but is not generous about loaning out his own books. He buys extra copies of his favorites to give away. His wife, you will not be surprised to learn, does not approve of this approach. This article was originally published in Little Village issue 268.


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