A branch encounter

December 18, 2007

Years ago, there was an absent-minded Baltimorean who had a copy of Barcelona, by the art critic Robert Hughes, that he always meant to read. He had never been to Barcelona or even to Spain, but there was something about the book - just the look of it, plus that sibilant-sounding title - that made him want to know what was inside. But in one move or another, Barcelona was mislaid, like so many other good intentions.

Yesterday, the newly restored Roland Park branch of the Enoch Pratt Free Library reopened after a lengthy and pricey construction job. Contented patrons ambled about here and there, appraising the intermingled new and old, largely paid for by private donations raised in the surrounding well-to-do community. Striking etched glass panels, nine computer terminals, free Wi-Fi, machine-reader checkout, balloons, a skylight - but the main hall still much as it was when it was built in 1923. Solid and overdue, like a book that fell back of the radiator until finally it was fished out and dusted off.

Kids flowed in when the neighboring schools let out, and this was good. So much about libraries has changed, and for the better, and people still keep using them. The pleasure of a library, though, is still the same, and it comes from the books.

Turn a corner in nonfiction, up on the second floor, and there's Barcelona, right at eye level. Received APR 1992, the title page tells us. There are a thousand ways to buy Barcelona, but doing so requires the impulse to seek it out and a willingness to commit to a book that never quite got off the shelf before, plus you'd have to pay for it. Taking a flier on a library book is so low-risk that it's not even a failing if you don't get around to reading it. Barcelona is due back on Jan. 7. Having the book for only so long is an attraction; just the possession of it lends the borrower a sense of purpose, and restores his good intention.

If he falters - and how many times has he faltered before? - almost the worst that can happen is a wintry stroll back to the library, where some other unexpected title will leap to his eyes and rearrange his reading for the three weeks to come.

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