By BARBARA BRYANT
"I was a quarry ready to be charmed," wrote Diane Asséo Griliches, explaining in her preface to Library: The Drama Within why she decided to publish a collection of photographs of libraries and the people who use them.
"The path was opened by my love of books and my great fondness for libraries," she continued, "one of the very few institutions on earth where any soul may walk through its doors free and depart enriched."
A professional photographer, Ms. Griliches said her aim was to capture the architectural grandeur of older libraries.
"In contrast to many recently built ones, most libraries built in years past had artistic significance," she wrote. "They were symbols of optimism and civic pride. Though many newer libraries may have a more 'democratic' look, they are often plainly utilitarian, and one learns less from them about beauty."
The result is a thought-provoking and at times wistful tour of libraries and literacy centers in the United States and abroad, some of which no longer exist except in these pages. Ms. Griliches wrote explanatory text for each of the 60 black-and-white photographs in the book, which was published last year by the University of New Mexico Press in association with the Library's Center for the Book.
Twenty-six of the photographs are now on display in an exhibition at the Library. Tara Holland, Miss America 1997 and literacy advocate, visited the Library on March 21 to kick off the opening of the exhibition, which will run through May 31 (see story this issue).
In her captions for each photograph, Ms. Griliches describes both the room or scene and the library's location and unique significance. She has also embellished each photograph with a quotation by a famous writer or staunch library patron.
"Why is there not a Majesty's Library in every county town? There is a Majesty's gaol and gallows in every one," wrote Thomas Carlyle. His words might well have inspired the citizens of Macon, Miss., who turned a local jail that was built in 1907 and closed in the 1970s into a library. Ms. Griliches' photograph offers a nice view of book-lined shelves glimpsed through prison bars. In her explanatory text she saluted Macon's citizens -- who, despite many obstacles, raised the necessary funds. "They were also determined to preserve its unique 'decor,'" Ms. Griliches wrote. "Along with the barred cells, a rope hook and trap door for the gallows were left on the third floor."
Each turn of the page brings the story of another library to life. The three-room Hungarian Library in Jerusalem is a haven for its readers, many of them immigrants from Budapest who had learned little or no Hebrew and sought out childhood favorites and other titles in their native language. Under the photograph of two elderly readers backed by rows of well-used books, a quote from Bel Kaufman: "This was merchandise to be handled. If the pages were worn and dog-eared, if the card tucked into its paper pocket inside the cover was stamped with lots of dates, I knew I had a winner!"
Forty-eight institutions, including the Library of Congress, are represented; among them, the Biblioteca Marucelliana in Florence, Italy, the Bibliothèque Nationale, in Paris, the two-room Biblioteka Ivan Pastric in Split, Croatia, and the Tulkarm Arab Orphanage Library, in Tulkarm, Israel. One also catches glimpses of the Massachusetts Correctional Institution Law Library in Norfolk, the Perkins School for the Blind Library in Watertown, Mass., and the Folger Shakespeare Library in Washington, among others.
Library: The Drama Within contains both an introduction by John Y. Cole, director of the Center for the Book, and Librarian of Congress Emeritus Daniel J. Boorstin's celebratory essay on the book, "A Design for an Anytime Do-It-Yourself, Energy-Free Communication Device."
Ms. Griliches first learned about the possibility of collaborating with the Library on this book from Jeanne Guillemin, a former member of the Board of Trustees of the Library's American Folklife Center and a professor of sociology at Boston College. The photos were previously exhibited at the Widener Library at Harvard University in 1993 and at the Boston Public Library in 1993 and 1996. In 1993 Ms. Griliches wrote to Carl Fleischhauer, who was then serving as the Folklife Center's coordinator of media documentation, to gauge the Library's interest in publishing or exhibiting her work. "When I saw Diane's photographs, I remembered a wonderful amateur photograph contest the Center for the Book was holding at the time, inviting children to submit photos they had taken of people reading books," Mr. Fleischhauer recalled. "I believed John Cole would take a real interest in the work a professional photographer had produced on the same theme."
He was right. In addition to providing financial support for publication of Ms. Griliches' book, Dr. Cole worked with the Library's Interpretive Programs Office to develop the current exhibition. Martha Hopkins served as exhibit director, and the design is by James Symons and Sheila Harrington of Studio Five in Washington. Mr. Cole is also discussing the possibility of co-sponsoring a traveling exhibit with the American Library Association. Following the exhibition, the photographs will become part of the collection of the Library's Prints and Photographs Division.
"The exhibition depicts libraries and their inhabitants in all kinds of wonderful, often poignant ways," Mr. Cole said. "In fact, we're using it as the premiere event in the Center for the Book's national reading promotion campaign, 'Building a Nation of Readers,' which will run through the year 2000. Libraries are at the heart of the reading enterprise and Diane's photographs illustrate and celebrate that fact. Through her work we encounter research libraries, busy public libraries and local literacy centers, scholars, citizens, students and curious readers and learners of all ages."
Mr. Cole also pointed out that the center's participation in publishing Library helps to spread the word about the Library of Congress's literacy-promotion efforts to an increasingly broad audience. "The book is receiving attention from research, university and trade audiences, sectors of the reading public that we don't normally reach," he noted. "We're very grateful for the opportunity her work has given us to inform more people about the Center for the Book's reading and library promotion activities. "
Some readers may be surprised, however, by photographs of the ruined National and University Library of Bosnia and Herzogovina in Sarajevo. In the text accompanying before-and-after photographs of the library, which was ravaged by shellfire in August 1992, Ms. Griliches quoted a wartime survivor's chilling description of a legacy lost. Enes Kujundzic, the library's current director, said that "this was an extremely reading-oriented population and the Bosnian Serb forces knew that if they wanted to destroy this multiethnic society, they would have to destroy the library."
Such reminders of destruction and loss are leavened by other pages filled with promise, such as the sight of children grinning as they peer into a computer screen at the Monroeville County Library in Alabama. Another memorable shot captures a woman, flanked by her Seeing Eye dog, reading a book in Braille in the stacks of the Perkins School for the Blind Library in Watertown, Mass.
A dozen or so pages along the way, a cheerful young boy pops up, balancing a book on his head outside a bookmobile in Shrewsbury, Mass.
The sense of wonder many readers find in books may be best summed up in the words of author Rita Mae Brown, who wrote, "When I got my library card, that's when my life began."
Barbara Bryant is a writer-editor in the Development Office.