A Little History Lesson

By Lauren Stara, MBLC Library Building Specialist

The Library: a World History came out a few years ago and I did a blog post to the short-lived MBLC Construction Blog in January of 2014. I wanted to share it here because it was such a great read.

The book was written by James W.P. Campbell, with photographs by Will Pryce. I saw the review and it sounded interesting, but to be honest I thought I’d ooh and aah over the photos and put it on the shelf.

Au contraire. I started reading the introduction and I realized that this was not just a doorstop with pretty pictures. I’m about half-way through and I have learned about form and design in the library building type from ancient Sumer to the late nineteenth century. I’ve gleaned some great cocktail party conversation starters. For example, did you know that most of the knowledge we have about the earliest libraries is because of fire? Clay tablets, usually just baked in the sun, were “fired” when their building burned. These hardened tablets are the ones that have survived, in contrast to the total destruction of papyrus, vellum and paper in fires. Later libraries were entirely lit by daylight until the advent of electricity, since the potential destruction by lamps or torches was so great.

As the format and production of books evolved, so did the spaces and shelving styles that house them: from lecterns to alcoves to perimeter shelving; from chained books to grillwork cabinets to open shelves. We think we have it bad now, with collections growing out of the available space – imagine the poor librarians right after the printing press was invented! Collections, literacy rates and the services required grew exponentially.

The 21st century is the first time since Gutenberg that the shape of libraries has been determined by something other than printed books. People are using public libraries in unprecedented numbers. They want access to collections, sure, but they also want internet via library stations and wi-fi, programs and activities, and just a place to hang out. Libraries have become the de facto community center in many places, and people take up more space than books do.

We’re in a period of great flux now, and it’s harder than ever to answer the question “what will libraries be like in 20 years?” Over the last several decades, librarians have proven to be masters of resilience and flexibility; our buildings must reflect that flexibility. Mobile technology, furniture and shelving with a welcoming atmosphere and a philosophy of service is the model that seems to be working. We have to be ready for anything.

Postscript: this fabulous quote from the book shows that some things never change:

“The results of Beaux-Arts planning were all too often libraries in which librarians worked in increasingly impractical layouts, designed to look good on plan rather than function well in reality. This was the tyranny of the symmetrical plan.” –p. 225

We have this book in the MBLC professional collection, available through NOBLE or the Commonwealth Catalog.

 

Revolutionary History at a Massachusetts Library

A photograph and a replica of the flag sit outside the room where the original is stored.

By Outreach Coordinator Matthew Perry

On April 18, 1775, Paul Revere took his famous ride through Middlesex County warning the residents that British troops were marching west towards Lexington and Concord. The following day, the American Revolution began with battles fought in those two towns. We remember that famous date and year on the 3rd Monday of April, now known as “Patriots Day”. Although it may be better known today as “Marathon Monday”, Patriots Day is still marked with parades and reenactments in both Lexington and Concord, as well as a reenactment of Paul Revere’s ride in Boston’s North End.

You don’t have to settle for just a reenactment however, because at the Bedford Free Public Library, there is a piece of history that links back to that day sitting upstairs. As Minutemen from the surrounding towns gathered to help in the fight against the British, Bedford’s Nathaniel Page took what is now known as “the Bedford Flag” with him to the Old North Bridge in Concord. According to the library’s website, it “is the oldest complete flag known to exist in the United States.” The exact origins of the flag are unknown, but it is believed to be a cavalry flag produced in Massachusetts sometime in the early 1700s.

The library’s website elaborates on what the flag looks like:

The flag is a piece of crimson silk damask measuring about 27” long by 29” wide.  This small square shape indicates that it was a cavalry flag.  Into the rich red damask is woven a pattern of pomegranates, grapes, and leaves.  The design is painted on both sides of the flag, mainly in silver and gold.  The emblem consists of a mailed arm emerging from clouds and grasping a sword.  Three cannonballs hang in the air.  Encircling the arm is a gold ribbon on which the Latin words “VINCE AUT MORIRE” (Conquer or Die) are painted. On the reverse of the flag, the design is slightly different: the sword extends in front of the ribbon instead of behind; it is held left-handed; and the motto is read from bottom to top instead of top to bottom.

The library has been in possession of the flag since the late 1800s. In 1998, it was taken to the Textile Conservation Center in Lowell Massachusetts to be restored and preserved for future generations to enjoy.

“Bedford is very proud of the Flag” says library director Richard Callaghan, adding “when the Library addition was completed in 2000, funds were donated to display the flag properly, so now it has its own climate controlled, secure room.”

Any visitor to the library is allowed to view the flag in its secure room during the library’s normal hours. In order to see it, stop by the main desk and in exchange for your ID, you are given a magnetic key card to the room where the flag is held. Only five people can be in the room at a time, and no flash photography is allowed.

This year, as you’re getting ready to celebrate our Country’s push for independence, consider stopping by the Bedford library and seeing a flag that was there to witness it all first hand. The Bedford Flag is one of many great treasures found in Massachusetts Libraries. For more information about the flag, and the Bedford Library’s hours, visit their website at http://www.bedfordlibrary.net/.