Palatial-ness of the Providence Public Library

At first I was surprised when I heard that the class would be touring the Providence Public Library; I thought, what in there could possibly have relevance to palace architecture? But once I got there I discovered that my conception of libraries, which largely stems from the dainty brick one in my small town, was not universally correct. Instead I saw what is probably one of the most intricately and assiduously designed and constructed building in all of Providence.

As you can see, the library featured decorated columns, arches and chandeliers. And when I call the decorations intricate, I am not just referring to the level of visual detail that is present, which by itself is quite remarkable. I am also referring to the subtle and meaningful presence of various symbols used for decoration. For instance you can see in the picture below that the top of the columns have a book, symbolizing knowledge. Above that you can find three eggs, which in the Egyptian tradition are symbols of life. The final, and my favorite detail, which I did not see until the tour guide brought it to our attention, is a small pineapple at the very top, perched above the central egg. This pineapple, for reasons that I cannot explain, is also meaningful: it is a symbol that says “welcome.”
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Another interesting feature of the library that is rather palace-like is its large central grand hall that greets the subject on their way in. In fact the space that the stairs lead to is almost like its own mini central court within the larger one. In this way it is very similar to the atrium of the state capital building. In fact their similarities go further and more abstract than that; in my post about the capital building I talked about how contradictory in a sense it was that the building that represents democracy was actually extremely palatial. I contend that public libraries share a similar relationship to the notion of democracy, particularly with the notion of freedom of knowledge, and that it is once again noteworthy how opulent and palatial the space is. Almost universally, central spaces such as this are “the most obvious pre-established attributes of royal residences” (Vidale, 59). Perhaps if an archaeologist were to find this entrance, he would draw the same conclusions that Vidale does about Mohenjo-Daro, that “the spaciousness of its courts and general massiveness of construction suggest that this building [was] a large elite dwelling” (Vidale, 61).

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In fact this view of Mohenjo-Daro makes it seem like that depressed area below the stairs in the Grand Hall of the library was based on this building. But I don’t think that the library taking inspiration, inadvertently or not, from palace architecture is a bad thing. Perhaps its trying to bill itself as a palace of knowledge.

Works cited:

Vidale, M. (2010) “Aspects of Palace Life at Mohenjo‐Daro,” South Asian Studies 26.1: 59–76

-Noah Rubin