reading room

Friday, April 17, 2009 |
Two summers ago (2007) I went to Santiago, Chile to do my master's thesis research.  I stayed two months, and visited either the Biblioteca Nacional (national library) or the Archivo Nacional (national archive) whenever they were open.  This is less than you would think, because of all of the 'holidays' on their calendar...including saint days, national/political holidays, and other religious observances. Anyway, I wrote emails back to friends and family every now and then, and this is one that I thought I'd share.  Reading it now I remember the room I was describing in such vivid terms...(that means the description is amazing, right?).  I don't have any photos (no cameras allowed, period!), but the following should give you a feel for the place.

In the national library you have to wait for about 10 or 15 minutes for your book to be brought from the stacks, and I just scribbled a little description of the reading room...thought I'd share it with you.
The reading room of the Biblioteca Nacional is called the sala Gabriela Mistral, after the second-most famous Chilean writer of all time.  It's a grand room done in neo-classical style, in a huge building that takes up a whole city block in downtown Santiago.  The first time I saw the building, I thought of the federal buildings in Washington, D.C., or maybe the old tobacco factory in Sevilla that now houses the University there.

Where I sit, the busts of Virgil, Montesquieu, and Napoleon rest on ledges up to my right, and there is light streaming through the high windows between them.  There are other busts farther along in the room, but I'm too far away to read their names.  The ceilings above me are at least three stories high, and on the other side of the room, the side without windows, there are giant murals within arches that reach the whole height of the room.

I sit at a long table covered in green felt, overlaid with glass, and there are reading lamps embedded in the tables every four feet or so.  Also bolted into the floor are the chairs: swiveling, wooden, with a single base, they remind me of pictures I've seen of the Roman senators' seats during the Republic.  The walls of the room are composed of huge arches, within which are either murals or windows, and gray stone Corinthian columns between.  Incongruously, there are security cameras attached to every pillar, watching us as we sit and read.  Above, in the ceiling, are huge sectioned skylights, clear, except for a yellow stained-glass border all around the edges.

On a clear day, the light makes visible rays as it enters the room.  On a smoggy or cloudy one, it is indirect, like there is a giant diffused lamp somewhere high above.

And who are the library patrons?  They are mostly school kids, probably doing history projects.  Yesterday I saw a nun bring in a class that must have been high school-age.  There are also university students: they don't wear the uniforms like the high schoolers, and are sort of shaggy and "cool"-looking.  Sprinkled throughout are a few gray heads, mostly men.  I can't guess what anyone is studying, but none of the books they have are as fat as mine. 

3 comments:

Ginny said...

i remember this description... did you send me something similar? or was it in email form?

Ginny said...

p.s. i liked it.

celi.a said...

yeah, i sent an email to you, mom, dad and aunt cynnie, i think...

everyone liked it, so i thought it was worth recycling.

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