The refurbished library has reopened and it holds fewer volumes and more computers than before. One vast, light-filled room, once occupied by shelves, is filled with dozens of computers, and is as crowded and noisy as a newspaper city room at deadline. I walked the aisles, peering inconspicuously, I trust, over shoulders, and saw mostly games, from solitaire to rather violent-looking cartoons. One woman was tuned to a recognizable news site, and another seemed to be buying something with a credit card. I saw no one writing. All this furious activity, probably representative of the nation’s online behavior (save for pornography, assuming the library’s filters are working), is paid for with tax dollars. The principle function of the central library in the nation’s fourth-largest city is mindless, citizen-subsidized recreation.
When Henry James returned to the United States in 1904 for the first time in twenty years, among his stops was Boston. Three years later, in The American Scene, his account of the journey, he describes a visit to the city’s new public library, “the Florentine palace by Copley Square,” built in 1895:
“The Boston institution then is a great and complete institution, with this reserve of its striking the restored absentee as practically without penetralia. A library without penetralia may affect him but as a temple without altars; it will at any rate exemplify the distinction between a benefit given and a benefit taken, a borrowed, a lent, and an owned, an appropriated convenience.”
Penetralia refers to the innermost, secret or hidden parts of a building, in particular a shrine or sanctuary within a temple. The library has no altar, at least not one for believers.