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The Boston Public Library’s central branch in Copley Square was designed by Charles Follen McKim as a “palace for the people.” Original sections of the library, which opened in 1895, include a grand marble staircase presided over by twin statues of reposing lions and paintings depicting the Muses of Inspiration; Bates Hall, a Hogwarts-esque room whose barrel-arched ceiling soars over countless rows of study desks; and an open courtyard ringed by Spanish columned walkways. In July 2016, the BPL unveiled the renovated Johnson Building, which substitutes marble and granite for glass, wood, and carpet. The Johnson wing’s walls are entirely glass, letting all the light of Boylston Street wash over the modern café, new bookshelves, and computer labs inside. Bostonians of all stripes frequent this beautiful place, far more of them than you might expect given the collective impression that anything associated with books is dead or dying.
Our own Widener is exclusive by nature and necessity. I can’t honestly complain: I don’t want to try studying while tourists mill around. But even for a registered Harvard student, Widener—like, let’s be fair, a lot of our institution—captures a certain restrictive ethos. You mostly go to Widener to do work that leads to your “qualification” in some set of skills. You use its resources in pursuit of knowledge that, even if that specific assignment is not intended to be groundbreaking, trains you in the tradition whose goal it is to produce original scholarship. In Widener and on campus in general, one cannot escape the sense of being educated, and that our learning methodically and relentlessly hones us toward a purposed specialization. Something would be wrong if we were to attend university and not feel that we were being educated. But I am wary of the sensation that our minds are being poured into channels through which they rush forward. Some narrow and accelerate to achieve laser-like breadth and power; some significantly shape the earth around them.
For me, this paradoxically engenders a certain helplessness regarding knowledge. Especially at Harvard, where so many people seem to be zooming at terminal velocity toward exact and long-established goals, it seems futile or even dangerous to stray out of your path. If I am not highly competent and unbearably passionate about a field, our learning (and comp) culture seems to convey, I might as well not spend any time on it at all. We should be experts, or we should be crushingly well-rounded, or we should be doing X-Y-Z with our education—we do it for a degree, or because it might lead to our being able to improve mankind, or because it might bring us wealth or power. Imperatives of every kind propel, direct, and restrict us. Oftentimes, they even ricochet us in contradictory directions, but they all demand motion and intent: all of it should be going toward something.
Life undeniably requires direction and action. There is, especially, a call more urgent than ever to retake knowledge and learning, to wield them with strong intent, and to concentrate our efforts where we can make the biggest impact. We must and should do this, especially when we have the fortune to be at a place like Harvard. Whenever I approach Widener or the Boston Public Library, I am always humbled and grateful to see them standing as physical bastions against what feels like an increasingly unintelligible world.
But McKim’s conception of the Boston Public Library serves as an important reminder that we can also relate to learning the way we relate to activities saved for after a long reading or a grueling problem set: not vocationally or authoritatively, without any sense of exclusion or obligation, simply as an open point of joy. Such a mindset is comforting for us to remember while caught in education’s logistical chaos, where it’s easy to establish a more jaded, harsher dichotomy between our vocational learning and recreational Snapchat, binge drinking, or whatever it is we feel the need to escape learning into. This spirit is also one of the most valuable things that we, as those with access to an intense learning environment and its expansive troves of knowledge, can diffuse within ourselves and among others.
You might ask, “Is this all a really long and pretentious way of saying we should read more? Are we supposed to spend every free moment with The New York Times or in a museum? Really?” But there’s no “should”—maybe only a hope that we can remove “should” from learning and knowledge more often and allow it a sense of luxury again.
Not everyone in the Boston Public Library is there to check out a book or furiously read. Some use the Internet on one of the new desktop computers, or talk over coffee. The library is a place of learning, a publicly funded and designated physical structure, that does not demand anything beyond its existence as that. Learning can be a space without expectation or connotation. Knowledge is power and responsibility, knowledge can be a means to an end, but knowledge is also McKim’s proverbial palace. We enter a palace and, if we can relinquish aspirations and burdens of mastery for a moment, feel pleasure surrounded by its steady joy and nobility.
Emily Zhao ’19, a former Crimson arts executive, lives in Cabot House. Her column appears on alternate Fridays.
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