Fantasy Library contest

As I said yesterday, this was no easy contest to judge.  I hope you’ve looked at my top ten submissions, which I chose in part with an eye to having some of each kind.  (The only things we didn’t get were audio or video submissions.  Or baked goods, none of those so far have arrived.)  A few of the really interesting ones were simply too long for the purpose—I’m trying to think how we can make use of those.  Oh, and this one:

The Perfect (Purrfect?) Library

by E. W. Woods

Some readers were concerned with the building itself, others with the organization of the books and the layout of  chairs and tables.  Others were more concerned with the sensory presence of their library.  And some people dedicated themselves to the purest definition of fantasy, with sea-going bookmobiles, buildings with the World Tree at their core, or helmets that transport the reader in all his senses.

Looking at my ten favorites, a common theme is the library as a space of transformation: changing kids in the inner city, sailing to distant lands to take the revelation of a library.  Yes, a library is a space for books, but it is also a place to learn, grow, dream, make lifelong contacts: transform.

Which is, in the end, why I chose the short song of praise written by Amber G, because it embraced the fantasy of a library whose sole purpose is to support all people by providing what each needs.

Amber G.’s prose poem to libraries:

Everyone is born here.  It’s warm and safe, a good place to be born.  It’s a place full of stories.  The stories are from every language and dialect, recorded in every form.  They are accessible to every person.  No impairment keeps anyone from experiencing the stories in this place.  This place is magic.

After being born, everyone leaves to go home and takes with them two things.  The first is a loving caregiver.  The second is the most enticing book in the world.  This book is fragrant, beautiful, nice-to-touch, satisfying-in-sound and tasty.  It withstands wetting, biting, hurling, kicking and all other physical stresses.  Everyone, in their infancy, plays with the book.

Everyone returns to the place they were born, leaving this time with more books and a patient teacher.  Everyone listens to and tells stories with their teacher and caregiver.  Everyone plays with language.  In the books, everyone notices the connection between sounds and symbols.  They are exposed to alphabet letters and vocabulary.  They find print all over the world.  Then with the help of their teacher, everyone learns to read.

The next time they visit this place, everyone takes home with them the book in which they find themselves.  They are the protagonist.  As the pages go by, they face challenges, gain insights and embrace new ideas.  The ideas become part of who they are.  Everyone is connected to others who read the book and share the ideas.  Because of this connection, everyone enjoys reading.

Outside this place, everyone is safer and happier because they read.  They teach and care for others.  They make the world better.  Yet in this place, literacy is inconsequential.  This place houses, not only books, but stories.  Stories are in the air here.  Everyone lives in the stories, and even after they’re dead, everyone is alive in them.  Everyone is alive in this place.  This place is magic.

If you are interested in what was written, and dreamed, about libraries, read on:

(The image of a fantasy reading spot thanks to Marina S.)

The majority of readers sent descriptions of public rather than private libraries, with a strong concern for the library as a social center and place to nurture emotional well-being.  Physical descriptions underscored this: very few people went for the modernistic, clean, efficient lines that one in fact often sees in modern libraries, and instead drew up visions of wood and art and the human spirit.

I’ve pulled some quotes out of the essays, to give an idea of what the fantasy library of one of my readers is—I find the make for some interesting patterns.  In alphabetical order:

ART: “All of the walls in the library have murals depicting scenes from stories that have entrances readers for decades—or for generations.”  (Betty C.)  “The carpets are deep, the walls covered with bright prints—Van Gogh, Chagall, Audobon’s birds.” (Mary D.) “In between the windows would be wall space for pictures.  Most pictures would be old.  I would have quite a few Maxfield Parrish pictures.” (Linda G.)  “The enclosed areas are courtyards with outdoor sculptures by local artists, and tables for lunching outdoors.” (Pamela G.)

CARD CATALOGUES: “There Must. Be. Card. Catalogues. Extensive.  This is non-negotiable.  Card catalogues are irreplaceable.” (Laraine C.) “As a back up, there is a storage room just to the left of the main entrance that holds an old style card catalogue.” (Jennifer J.) And, “In the ideal library you can make notes to the exact page or sentence of the book, not on its pages but in the special pages of the library’s site, alongside with other people’s notes to the same bits of the story.”  (Lamilla) [I took this to be a description of what, in fact, the card catalogue once was, with generations of librarians annotating and cross-referencing the books.  An art that is, alas, dead.]

CARPETING: Nearly half of those writing in found carpeting important enough to mention it—sometimes Oriental, sometimes dark, but generally specifying that it has to be thick enough to sit on.

COMPUTERS: Mixed feelings here, with books primary, although “Internet is, of course, present.) (Jason F.)

FIREPLACES were mentioned several times.  “The tower is kept warm by the constant fire in the massive fireplace.” (Pkelsey) “On one wall, instead of shelving, there is a fireplace, not overstated, but mild and contained, there for the effect of light and the warmth in the winter.” (Danielle N.) “I would leave the fourth wall open and build in a large fireplace.” (Melinda S.) “…a fireplace for dreaming by in the winter.” (Cecilia & Ana C.) “One wall would have a fireplace with an antique mantel which would be about 6 feet tall and 5 feet wide.  It would be very specially made so the smoke would not hurt the books.” (Linda G.)

FOOD AND DRINK: There was some division here.  A very few felt that their library would be no place for food and drink: “There are no coffee machines, and the drink machine is only in the public gathering room.” (Stuckinhazmat)   On the other hand, many insisted on it, with a surprising number making a bid for hot cocoa: “There would be a snack bar with wonder coffee and teas, cookies and sandwiches; all kinds of good things to eat.” (Susan M.)  “There is always room for a cup of tea.” (Jaym G.) “The large back room holds a small espresso and tea stand, with a few crumby and butter-filled treats available.  These are ordered with a slightly guilty look toward the front, and each served with a copious linen napkin: the librarian is very strict about greasy fingerprints on her books.  Patrons may bear their mugs upstairs and are careful not to spill.” (Mary D.) “ A hot drink and a good book go together like jam and scones.” (Sapphire T.) “On occasion tantalizing smells of coffee, hot chocolate, or freshly baked treats drift through the door as someone gives in to the temptation.”  (Carolyn P.)

FURNITURE: Comfortable furniture to snuggle into was a common theme.  “There will be a variety of seating options available, from the relaxing over-stuffed cough to a writing desk with table lamp.” (Sarah S.)  “Next to each window is a rocking chair, sturdy and wooden.” (Ahmed B.) “A window seat, piled high with cushions and pillows.” (Susan M.)  “The chairs are ergonomically delightful, always vacant when you need one, and they don’t cut across your kidney area.” (Pamela G.)

LIBRARIANS: “A helpful, knowledgeable librarian (me), usually herself curled up with a book and knowledgeable about every nook and cranny of her beloved shrine to reading, will tell you, in riddles and allusions, where to find what you seek.” (Ana K.) “Friendly, helpful, and lots of fun.” (Alia W.)

LIGHT & AIR: “One part is a screened in porch, with a porch swing and armchair; a cool, breezy place to sit in summer.” (Cecilia & Ana C.) “The lights would all be Art Deco stained glass or other unique antique ones.” (Linda G.) “As far as lighting goes, old ships’ lanterns will ever have my heart: their light is warm and their light is merry, and in their shadows there are stories lurking.” (Amanda R.)  “The lighting would be at the perfect angle for reading, plus there would be a lot of natural light.  Plants, of course.”  (Susan M.)

PERSONALITY: “It would have one of those doors that had shelves built into it so that when it was closed the door virtually disappeared and you would feel like you were in a  world made of books.” (Willow T.)  “A good sturdy castle structure (good quality stone work and masonry with fabulous architecture and a good bonus would be to have secret passages, though they are not 100% necessary.)” (Ali G.) “A beautiful old brick building that brings to mind revolutionary times.” (Gail L.)  “It was a cozy, orderly place.” (Ellen K.)

PLACE: “My fantasy library would take up residence in [one of the many churches being closed,] beautiful late 19th and early 20th century ornate stone structures…I can’t imagine anything more spiritually uplifting than sinking into an old, comfy sofa with a good book, sunlight filtered through a hundred-year-old stained glass window shining down upon me.  The horror and fantasy section would be shelved in the dark, cool catacombs beneath the church.” (David S.)  Interestingly, some went high—“In an attic, for I have had a long love affair with attics.” (Amanda R.)—while others went low: “I’d prefer if it were not all grand and inclusive, but more like a catacomb of individual spaces, each leading into another, unexpected and distinct.” (J. S.)

THE SCENT: “Let the scent of old, yellowing pages wash over you, let it hit the roof of you mouth and consume you… That delicious mouthwatering scent of knowledge and anticipation.” (Ivey W.) “The library would smell like a mixture of old and new books.  The scent that only comes from pages being flipped through.”  (Stuckinhazmat)  “Each space would ply the senses with delightful textures, odors, flavors, and the sounds and sights of other, better worlds—although not in such a way as to deny or avoid the harsh, the fetid, the bitter, the grating, or the unlovely experiences that make up experience in its totality.” (J.S.) .) “Like MrsPiggle Wiggle, the library always smells like fresh-baked cookies.” (Betty C.) “…tables and chairs smelling of lemon oil greet you.” (Carolyn P.)

WOOD: Natural elements were in high demand, stone and brick but primarily wood.  The visual images submitted often had wood in them. (Dorian W.)  “Wood, always wood.” (Sheri K.)“The wood on which [the books] rest has darkened and softened with the centuries to a velvety smoothness.” (Ruth N.) “This corridor is little more than a deep doorway, but contains alcoves of hand-crafted hardwood, stained a rich brown.” (Dave B.) “All the wood in the room would be a deep dark rich mahogany or rosewood stained just so the beautiful grains of the wood would show through.” (Linda G.)

And an interesting common image was a tree.  Several of those who talked about the outside of their library or the view through the windows mentioned trees,  but more than mere landscaping was the tree-as-library: “The most important (and likely, impossible) part of our library is that there is a tree in the middle.  A huge Neverlandish tree, that grows up through the roof.  There are several purposes for this tree.  With the addition of cushions, the nooks and crannies in the roots are perfect places for curling up with a book. And on nice days, in warm weather, there is a rope ladder to climb and a trapdoor in the roof that will take you up into the branches, where you can also read.” (Cecilia & Ana C.) “But it’s the center of the room that really draws you.  This room has been built around a very large, old tree, in such a way that both tree and books are unharmed.  The tree lends a certain old green-ness to the otherwise bookish-teaish smell of the room.  The ceiling is full of skylights, so that you can look up and see the boughs of the tree stretching above you.” (Pkelsey)

In all, what readers want in a library is a space they can use and in which they can be comfortable.  Some people mentioned public use rooms and classes, others requested computers (and several specified that the computers always be able to locate and provide the books requested, and never give problems—this is fantasy, remember?)  This is what readers wanted their libraries to be:

“Homey, relaxed, and whimsical.” (Melinda S.)

“It is a place to stay and read as well as a place to find books, a place where children accustomed to living mostly in their heads meet others who do the same.  Kinships are discovered, alliances forged.” (Mary D.)

“The library offers space for both the solitary and the gregarious, and especially space for those who can’t quite commit themselves to one category or the other.” (Cindy S.)

And as Mary D fantasized: “Occasionally a student will pause in the midst of wrestling with a tough paper and, staring out of the window, wonder idly about the library’s mysteries…Where does the faint smell of lavender that permeates the building come from?  How can the coffee be so reliably excellent, the scones so fresh?  Who is the librarian?  And, just how far up does that staircase go?”

Ah: indeed…

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  1. Lesley on April 15, 2010 at 2:15 am

    My favourite library would be made up of all the Art Deco books in my selections on my site – Decolish – for fans and collectors of Art Deco. Plus of course, lots of genuine Art Deco posters!

  2. Laraine on April 15, 2010 at 7:35 am

    Laurie, what a lovely post. I just had a notion of all the folks who sent in their ideas for the ideal, gathered in a composite of their treasured library environment, many sharing a cup of something hot and good and a bit of delicious snack and animatedly discussing how to bring more money to support all the local libraries than any politician has ever spent on her/his campaign for any office.

  3. Em on April 15, 2010 at 10:56 am

    As a library science student, I really enjoyed this entry, but I just have to say…a card catalog? Really? I mean, I understand the desire for something kind of archaic-feeling, but they are much less useful for actually finding books. What would really be *useful* would be a computer catalog with extensive subject-indexing to allow better collocation of books and other materials. We don’t have to live in a world where technology is “sterile” and older devices are “homey” – can’t the computers and the fireplaces coexist?

  4. strawberry curls on April 15, 2010 at 1:18 pm

    Some of us have fond childhood memories of perusing the card catalogue EM. I found the answer to so many things, counted the number of books left in a series that I loved so I could ration them and not be done too quickly. I know you can find out anything on a computer, you can answer most questions by using a search engine, but some of the homey, fun sense of discovery and the need to use your mind to ferret out the right book to find the right information is lost somehow. Just the feel of thumbing though the cards gave my young self a sense of power, it was tangible, it was real and that drawer was all mine for the time I was going through its cards. Somehow the computer just isn’t the same.

    As far as fantasy libraries go, I would most definitely want a card catalogue, and keep the computers in some separate and…yes, sterile environment. They are a necessary part of a library today, but as this is a fantasy, they would be hidden and not encroach on my memories of times past and glories revealed in the card catalogue. IMHO

  5. Charles Shene on April 15, 2010 at 3:44 pm

    I am thankful that you spend time with us; that you reach out and engage us with your novels, blogs and face book page. I enjoyed the fantasy library contest. It was a nice break away from my other tasks.I wish that I could have spent more time on them.
    Besides being fun, the reason I submitted an attempt is that, i’m told that i don’t verbally tell stories very well. I thought that if I wrote a short story it might help me. I have come to think that writing a story won’t help me so tell a verbal story so much. I the two methods of story telling require different skills. I think i like the writing process better and I’m glad I had an enjoyable excuse to try it. Thank you.
    If you could, would you comment on each of the stories; maybe one strong point and one or two weaknesses?
    sincerely, Charlie

  6. Kathy on April 15, 2010 at 8:38 pm

    I want the “library” in Doctor Who (cleaned of vermin) a vast, vast library of every culture and every place, but with the architecture and ambiance of an old Carnagie building..along with the slightly musty smell.

  7. Caitlin k on April 18, 2010 at 5:46 am

    What is a library?

    A library to me is an ideal place where you can change the time period you are in. Yes, that is satisfactory, it’s a time machine. I prefer the libraries without computers ( Though there re rarely any ) and search extensivly by myself. I have always preferred the suspenseful fantasy books and fiction, I put the skills I learn from them to good use.

    When I walk into a library I immediatly go to my favorite shelf. The minute I’m there I’m on Baker Street. Just wandering around without a care in the world. Suddenly, I am tugged off the street by two men, both wearing dark clothing that is usually worn this time of year. Apparently, I was about to be hit by a horse drawn carriage filled with troublesome words such as: betrayal, traitor, evil, and death. I thank these men, and to my horror I realize I am facing Sherlock Holmes and Watson. They decide to bring me in for tea and I am thrust, yet again, into another adventure with Sherlock Holmes and Dr.Watson. I become a character in their stories, someone to bounce ideas off of and yet, I am still sitting on the floor in the library, not listening anymore to the outside world. Oh, I hear them, but no I am not listening.

    I have gone on several adventures with the famous duo, but mostly it’s just with Holmes. Sometimes I’ll have trouble in math and he will start advising me from his books that I have shelved in my mind. Other times, usually when I’m in the school library, he will ask me a few questions about his latest case.

    Even if you aren’t in a library, or if you aren’t even reading a book, the characters from every single book you’ve read will stay with you. They leave the safe haven of the pages and travel to our world, just because you read about them. When you are alone, turn to books for comfort, because they will help you. They understand your problems, the characters help you through. Sometimes you even start to act like them. That happens all the time with me.

    So my ideal place to read? Anywhere as long as I have my books with me.

    – Caitlin K., age 13

  8. Linda B on April 22, 2010 at 10:46 am


  9. Frances Droste on April 23, 2010 at 1:02 pm

    What a pleasure to become reaquainted with you and so much more on this website. I fell in love with your Mary Russell series about 15 years ago and lost touch with them about 10 years ago. Really enjoyed the fantasy libraries I just read. My fantasy when I was a bookmobile librarian in 70’s was when the world was in trouble and we lost our modern conveniences (electricity etc) I would stock a bookmobile with all kinds of how to books like the Foxfire books(gardening, how to make bread, can food, make tools etc) and drive around helping people learn how to survive. Don’t know how I was going to make it go, but a minor detail. Now I’ve retired and find my home is my fantasy library. I do have a “library” with walls of bookcases like I have always dreamed. It also has desk, computer, files and I am trying to make space for the comfortable chair/table/lamp/blanket. I always want a comfortable seat where I can put my feet up, good light, a table for my book, drink, cigarettes, snacks and room for the dogs at my side. I do have those in several other places to fit the mood. On the patio, in the screened porch/garden room for spring reading. The sunroom with windows, skylights and a fire when its cool and storming and a sitting room when it cold. Life is good.

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