A crazy idea: traveling with two young children on a lightning tour around the world to visit great libraries. I’m not sure what my wife, Fiona, and I were thinking. But, like modern-day “grand tourists,” we set out. And we pulled it off.
Our plans were clear. From our home base of Melbourne, Australia, we would build the trip around highlights. In Switzerland: Zurich’s Bibliothek and the wonderful 18th-century Abbey Library of St. Gall. In London: the British Library and Lambeth Palace. At Oxford, the Bodleian. In the U.S., the Morgan, the Folger, the Houghton, the Smithsonian, plus the great public libraries of New York and Boston, and the “head office” of them all: the Library of Congress.
We would call on these and other great libraries, some of them, like the British Museum Reading Room, pungent with history, and some of them, such as the Law Library at Zurich University, and the refurbished Weston Library at Oxford, oozing modernist style.
And we would do it all with Thea, aged 5, and Charlotte, aged only 1. Neither of our daughters had left Australia before. Neither had spent more than an hour in an airplane. This would be a life-changing experience.
Fiona and I were determined to make the trip work for our girls as well as ourselves. Thea would have to miss some school, but we hoped the trip would be worth it.
In the U.S., the Northeastern cities are especially well serviced by libraries that cater to children. The great public libraries all have dedicated children’s zones that are well funded and well conceived. America’s foremost libraries have embraced the need to cater for young readers and pre-readers.
Arriving in the U.S., the whole family looked somewhat disheveled. After the physical effort of traveling with children through Asia and Europe, we needed more sleep and more baths. We reached Washington, D.C., the day after FBI Director James Comey’s dismissal. The city was on edge.
Outside the Capitol building, we asked for directions to the Folger. Charlotte was barefoot—no matter how hard we tried, she refused to keep her socks on—and Fiona was pushing a disposable stroller we’d bought in London days earlier. The locals were skeptical.
But the librarians greeted us with genuine friendliness and enthusiasm. Thea was presented with souvenirs and was led away to a menu of delights. In the Folger’s long gallery, the librarians encouraged her to raid the costumes box for Elizabethan collars and Jacobean capes. A Shakespearean fashion parade followed.
The pattern of welcome and delight continued at other nearby libraries. At the Smithsonian, Thea and Charlotte rode the carousel and joined the eager school tours. At the Library of Congress, Thea and another girl performed a puppet show and played a game of chess—more or less following the certified rules.
At the New York Public Library, we all marveled at the original plush toy animals that inspired the Winnie the Pooh stories. At the Boston Athenaeum we rested and read in cozy corners on cushions and padded seats.
Even libraries without dedicated children’s spaces were welcoming. At the Houghton Library, the elegant home of Harvard’s spectacular collection of rare books, Thea was encouraged to enter and explore. Invited to handle a first edition inscribed by Shelley to Keats, she did so very, very carefully while her father stood by, heart in mouth.
Behind the welcome was an important truth: Children are our future scholars, and the future lovers of libraries. Even today, it is children who are keeping many libraries viable and many publishers afloat.
Libraries, parents, and grandparents are still buying printed picture books in large numbers. The market for young adult fiction is also buoyant. Most of the biggest book-world successes of the past few decades have been children’s books, broadly defined. Think Graeme Base, Shaun Tan, Brian Selznick, and of course J.K. Rowling. Earlier this year, the British Library hosted a highly successful Harry Potter exhibition.
Children’s libraries sit at the intersection of two four-letter trends in culture and education: GLAM (galleries, libraries, archives, and museums), and STEM (science, technology, engineering, and math). By the end of our trip, Thea had absorbed a thousand cultural and educational gifts. She is now a perceptive appraiser of libraries and museums—and of airports, hotels, Wi-Fi, and street food.
When we returned home to Melbourne, Fiona and I had to write a letter to Thea’s school setting out why she’d been away and what she’d done for her education during her absence from classes. Harvard, Oxford, the British Library. The Smithsonian, the Morgan, the Folger, and St. Gall. We wrote the letter with immense satisfaction, and not a small amount of hope.
Ours was very much a “first world” library tour, but there are wonderful libraries in developing countries, too, like the Muyinga Library in Burundi, and the new Library of Alexandria in Egypt. These would have to wait for another circling of the globe.
What other destinations should be on the library tourist’s list? There is a lot to be said for thematic tours, such as the quest to visit the 11 surviving copies of the Bay Psalm Book, or the largest holdings of Shakespeare’s First Folio (one such holding, the second largest in the world, is at Meisei University in Tokyo).
There is much to be said, too, in favor of touring heretical and scandalous libraries, such as the Bibliothèque Nationale’s Enfer collection, the British Museum’s “Secretum” of naughty books, and the library at San Francisco’s Institute for the Advanced Study of Human Sexuality.
That tour would, of course, be adults only.
Stuart Kells is the author of The Library: A Catalogue of Wonders, out now from Counterpoint Press.