The vanishing world of library books

The main San Antonio Public Library is hard to miss even among the mid- and high-rise buildings sprouting downtown.

This striking building, built in 1995, is visible from one of the expressways that slice and dice San Antonio’s downtown and it first strikes you as a not particularly welcoming concrete box.

But despite being squat, the library stands out among the traditional buildings in San Antonio’s center which includes some really elegant Art Deco confections, I surmise from the 1920s and 1930s, and many more contemporary, mostly forgettable, office buildings and hotels.

The central library stuck me as a brutalist design, even if its boxy, windowless expanses are not bare cement but a salmon shade of red, favored by modern Mexican architects. Locals call the color “enchilada red.”

Exterior of the building. To the left is a parking lot. The squiggly arrow on the
 lower left-hand corner marks the approximate location of the entrance. 
A group of blue pillars
Terraces (unused) with random fountains

Concrete spheres (lower right) climbing up a ramp

Breaking up the stark exterior is a huge window on one side, plus concrete balls and blue pillars here, triangular shapes there, and a few fountains lazily gurgling in unexpected places.

It was designed by the Mexico City architectural firm of Ricardo Legorreta, which created the iconic Camino Real Hotel in the capital, and a dormitory at the University of Chicago, among other buildings.

What this library lacks is the grand exterior entrance you’d expect in a public building, such as a post office, museum or library, welcoming visitors with open arms. Nothing like the front stairs and lions that greet you at the Art Institute of Chicago, or the New York Public Library on Fifth Avenue.

Perhaps reflecting San Antonio’s dependence on cars, you enter the San Antonio Public Library through a porte cochere connected to a large and free parking lot next door to the complex.

I‘m no architecture critic or design maven but a devoted sucker for creative designs, with quirky twists and turns, and I really enjoyed this building.

I also must confess a visceral reaction against the neoclassical this-and-that that popped up in so many buildings in the U.S. during the 1990s.

Yukky and very expensive. 

The worst of that latter wave is the Chicago Public Library, built in 1991, at great expense, crammed in the middle of the Loop, and festooned with giant owls on the corners (they signify wisdom, get it?) and assorted other crap. A shame for a city that is a living museum of the best of modern American architecture.

Oddly missing in San Antonio’s library were  shelves and carts everywhere, crammed with hardcover books, protected by plastic covers, Dewey Decimal System stickers on their spines, or newspapers and magazines secured by wooden rods so they wouldn’t walk out of the premises.

Or people hunched over long tables—some reading intently, some dozing—and the hush, and the musty smell of thousands of printed pages clamoring for your attention. These are things Stew and I expected when we’d visit high school, college or public libraries, to prepare term papers or merely to look at glossy picture books we couldn’t afford to buy.

A quiet corner of my own. 

The San Antonio library was eerily empty, but that may have been because we stopped by on weekday morning. In fact, officials reported that book circulation more than doubled after the new facility opened.

Of course, Stew’s and my recollection of libraries is anchored some 50 years ago, during the ink-and-paper age of books, circa the Paleolithic Epoch, and before the internet. That’s how old we are.

At the San Antonio library, many of the customers stared instead at cell phones and laptops, maybe with a notebook nearby to jot down some salient factoid. I wondered why one would come to a library to stare at a cell phone or tablet, except as an escape from the oppressive Texas heat or to use the free Wi-Fi.

Or perhaps to enjoy the lofty ambiance of some of the grand interior spaces of this building, particularly the main room, with light-orange walls of different shapes and a giant hanging glass sculpture by Dale Chihuly bathed by spotlights, or the private nooks and crannies, even if, alas, some of the nearby shelves are empty.

The main hall of the central San Antonio Public Library

The central library reportedly has a collection of nearly 600,000 books, probably many of them historical records, and the library system has 29 branches and still issues library cards, so book reading hasn’t totally vanished in this rapidly expanding city.

Most telling though is that the three newest branches are Biblio Techs (I imagine a riff on “bibliotecas,” or libraries in Spanish) where you can borrow e-readers and load them with up to five books. The first of these branches opened in 2013 and they all offer access to various databases.

Just don’t go to them looking for actual books. 

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