My parents and two older brothers arrived in Queens from Cuba in 1967, squeezing into a one-bedroom apartment that got even more cramped when I showed up two years later. Suspicious of everyone and unable to communicate in English, my parents weren’t about to let their kids roam unsupervised in the streets of their graffiti-strewn city. And since they both worked, we boys spent a lot of time at home making the best of our crowded quarters. School provided a welcome change of scenery, but that, too, was a somewhat constricting environment in which I was relegated to an uncomfortable chair in an overcrowded room for hours at a time.
The main public library on Merrick Boulevard was the first place I was allowed to visit on my own. I started going when I was 8. Everything I needed was located on what seemed to me an endless single floor. Wandering around that building aimlessly on a Saturday afternoon offered a sense of freedom I’d never experienced before.
Once my father dropped me off, it didn’t really matter what I did so long as I could explore. I find it interesting that people today say that libraries are no longer about books; they weren’t really about books for me back in the 1970s, either. It was more about being around other people who looked like they were being productive — flipping pages, scrolling through microfilm, making copies, impatiently waiting for items. All this was fascinating to me.
I felt a certain level of dignity and self-respect at the library. I’d wonder how others perceived me, and at some point it dawned upon me that no one ever looked at me twice. They must have thought that I, too, was being productive. Why else would I be there? What a great feeling! I was no more and no less important than anyone in that building. That didn’t seem to be true anywhere else.
I didn’t borrow many books from the library despite spending practically every Saturday of my childhood there. I certainly browsed through hundreds and hundreds of them during my walks around the building — sports, reptiles and the solar system were my favorite sections of the stacks. But I felt no great need to bring books home. We had no room for books in our apartment anyway. I felt like a poor kid when I read books at home. I felt like everyone else when I read books at the library.
I came to Washington from Brooklyn a little more than two months ago. I was drawn by a number of reasons, but the most important was the opportunity to participate in the redesign of the Martin Luther King Jr. Memorial Library. This landmark — the only public library, and only building in Washington, designed by Ludwig Mies van der Rohe — has fallen into disrepair and desperately needs modernization.
We recognize today that the focus of excellent library design should be to delight users, not to warehouse objects. This simple guiding principle creates boundless opportunities for architects and librarians to create inspirational centers of learning. In addition to providing shelves of books, libraries today must, at a minimum, provide those catalysts of curiosity that engage the mind and uplift the spirit: natural light, ubiquitous but largely invisible technology and a variety of spaces flexibly designed for independent study or collaboration.
The renovated library will certainly represent the most important civic structure in the District designed primarily for the use and enjoyment of residents. Certainly it will attract its share of visitors to the nation’s capital as well. Regardless of who enters the new building, whether it be a retired tourist from Iowa or the son of poor immigrants from Cuba, we will ensure that it provides optimism, possibility, hope and, ultimately, happiness. Is there a better investment we can make in our city?
The writer is executive director of the D.C. Public Library.