Myra here.

For our #metareading until end of October, I made sure to look for nonfiction books that also feature unique types of libraries around the world. This is one title that I chanced upon our library’s shelves as I was browsing for books that fit our reading theme.

Improbable Libraries: A Visual Journey To The World’s Most Unusual Libraries

Written by: Alex Johnson
Published by: The University of Chicago Press, 2015
ISBN-10: 022626369X
ISBN-13: 9780226263694
Borrowed from the Jurong West Public Library. Book photos taken by me.

I was riveted by this little but thick book. True to its title, the entire book featured “improbable libraries” which featured what the author calls a “new library revolution, along with the work of many architects, designers, educators, artists and activists who are breaking the mould to bring the written word to people everywhere.”

It is also filled with actual images from libraries from different parts of the globe, remaining true to its intention of serving as a “visual journey” to these unique book places. The fact that the narrative started off with this place from the Philippines, my country of birth, already made me pay attention to where Alex Johnson will lead me.

The entire book is divided into seven sections. The first one features Libraries On The Move. This section went as far back as the early 16th century when King Henry VIII apparently would travel with chests of books. In the early 17th century, a legal antiquarian and MP William Hakewill would bring his travel library that he personally commissioned to serve as gifts for friends and patrons. Boy, would I love to be a friend of his – look at this beauty arranged in three categories: theology/philosophy, history, and poetry.

It also featured libraries in train stations, airports, subways, even taxis! This section also included hotel or resort libraries that cater to business travelers, adventurers, wayfarers – there is a library for you, folks. Here are my favourite places from Libraries on the Move:

The above image is a BiblioMetro in Madrid.

The image on the left is said to be inspired by the library projects on Dutch Beaches. The virtual library hotspot on the right, is found at the Philadelphia International Airport, serving as a “passport to literacy, learning, and inspiration.”

Apparently, the above image is from the Soneva Kiri Resort in Koh Kood, Thailand. The library consists of a suspended pod, a net for lounging, and comfortable pillows. I am now thinking that this could be our December holiday trip.

The second section features Animal Libraries which naturally started off with the Biblioburro, Luis Soriano from Colombia.

While I know about donkey and horse library carts, I did not know about camels being used for the Mongolian Children’s Mobile Library which brings books to nomadic herding communities of the Gobi Desert:

Even more amazing, though are the elephant libraries in Laos. Meet Boom-Boom the Elephant, the star of the Big Brother Mouse publishing and library services in Laos.

If we find ourselves taking our community libraries for granted, this book will serve to put things in perspective in such a visceral manner.

The third section features Tiny Libraries. Here, one can see how libraries can be found in a telephone box or phone booths. I like how unique the entire system is, relying on the honesty of people who would leave a book as they take one from these ubiquitous libraries around town. Here are a few of my favourites:

The Little Free Libraries happen to be the most popular initiative under this category. The photo on the left is from a friendly robot in Houston, Texas; while the image on the right is from Ghana.

While I have visited Berlin twice now, I did not chance upon this Bücherwald miniature library that looks like a book forest dream.

The fourth section of the book features Big Libraries. I was hoping that Johnson would feature the International Youth Library in Munich which houses the largest international children’s collection in the Blutenburg Castle, but no go. He missed out on that one. But he did feature quite a few too that caught my eye, such as this “library of the future” in South Korea. How cool is this one:

And finally, Singapore with its gorgeous My Tree House is featured – but it did not do the entire space justice, however. But I am deeply happy that it was mentioned.

The fifth section has to do with Home Libraries that are truly drool-worthy. Such gorgeous spaces. While I love my own personal library at home, these are wondrous architectural feats. Here are two of my favourites:

Imagine having a harness in your own home to reach topmost areas of your bookshelf. I think I need that in my life.

This is a description of how this “temple of books” was conceptualized: “The original idea I had was to put the books that meant the most to him over his head at all times, floating, above and in his head as his own, very personal lyric.” This dome-shaped structure is meant to resemble that of a pregnant woman’s womb according to the designer Travis Price.

Sixth section constitutes Mobile Libraries. I see some overlaps between this and the first section, Libraries on the Move. This one, however, seems reserved for boats, ships, book bicycles, and a moving book truck illuminated from the inside. Here are a few of my faves:

The image above is a library boat for Lao children.

This mobile art library reminded me just a tad of Audrey Niffeneger’s graphic novel, The Night Bookmobile. Quite the strange tale, that one.

The last section is known as Not Libraries. These are “collections of reading material lent from spaces that primarily serve another purpose: shops, parks, pubs or cafés – even prisons.” I found a few that caught my eye as well. Here they are:

I have been seeing this photo around in the net. Apparently this is meant to be a celebration of the 30th anniversary of Ikea’s “Billy Bookcase,” and this was set up on Bondi Beach near Sydney. The idea is for visitors to exchange their own book for one of the 6,000 found on the shelves. I would have loved to see this for myself.

If you love libraries and books, this is a must-find for your collection.

Myra is a Teacher Educator and a registered clinical psychologist based in Singapore. She has edited five books on rediscovering children’s literature in Asia (with a focus on the Philippines, Malaysia, India, China, Japan) as part of the proceedings for the Asian Festival of Children’s Content where she serves as the Chair of the Programme Committee for the Asian Children’s Writers and Illustrators Conference. While she is an academic by day, she is a closet poet and a book hunter at heart. When she is not reading or writing about books or planning her next reads or meeting up with her book club friends, she is smashing that shuttlecock to smithereens because Badminton Is Life.

2 comments on “Alex Johnson’s Tribute to “Improbable Libraries”

  1. That’s an incredibly detailed and generous review of my book – large thanks, I’m glad you enjoyed it so much.


  2. This is absolutely amazing! 🙂


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