Something feels a bit different when you step into a library these days. The first thing you notice is that these great places of wisdom have ceased to be the meeting places of yesteryears. These days the level of activity within these ancient temples can be best described as a trickle. Long gone are the days when the library was central to our thirst for knowledge, or to our social lives. The Internet and the digital revolution rendered them pretty much irrelevant for most people, and it all happened seemingly at the speed of light. The digitization of knowledge meant that we no longer had to physically travel to find it. Rather, knowledge would now come to us through a few, simple strokes on a keyboard. Ditto for our social interaction. Handshakes? That’s so yesterday. Today we just click on a “like” and be done with it. Catching a potential partner’s eye across the library table? You kidding? Just make sure your online dating profile is up to snuff and that your photoshopped photo looks great on the dating site. Click. Send. Done.
But no matter how much some of us appear to be grieving for the passing of the old-fashioned library, I still think that its total demise remains a thing of the future. Sure, the books in those buildings appear to be more decoration than references (when I visited not one person had a book in front of them, but everyone was at a computer terminal or sitting with a laptop), but some of the traditional attributes of libraries remain as needed today as they were decades ago when we all used to hang out around such places. Quiet. Silence. Solitude. A sense of space. A time for introspection and learning ( and yes, on account of propriety I’m leaving out some of the shenanigans that made libraries famous for different reasons way back then). Today, there are simply not too many places available in cities and communities for people to enjoy those somewhat passive pursuits. Noise pollution and endless visual demands have taken a serious toll on all of us. But in a library, the moment people set foot in them, silence and quiet take over just like magic, and a sense of “do-not-disturb” immediately becomes the norm, rather than the exception. Social detox at its best. Bastions of peace and quiet in a world bent on denying us those simple pleasures. And while such musings could easily be interpreted as excessive nostalgia or some equally forlorn feeling, I can only hope that such places never cease to exist, even if the betting is heavily stacked against them.
Here is yet another one of those “hiding in plain sight” stories. Ever heard of the Dumbarton House in Georgetown, DC? Well, neither had I. That is, until the last 48 hours or so. In fact, I wasn’t even looking for it, as I was driving along Georgetown’s Q Street on my way to the eccentricities of Dupont Circle, my photography destination for the day. Considering how enchanting this Dumbarton House is, I am kind of glad that I never made it to Dupont that morning, even if my discovery soon led to disappointment when I discovered that the House itself did not open its doors until 11:00 AM for inside-the-house tours. Thus, the early bird did not catch the proverbial worm this particular morning.
Like other houses built around 1800 in the area (almost all of them private properties closed to the general public), the simple elegance of the mansion bespeaks to a world that is almost unimaginable by today’s standards. It is described as a fine example of Federal Period architecture of the type that began dotting the Washington area during the early days of the capital. And while the attached East Park and Herb Garden are beautifully serene, the gem of the outdoors has to be the section right behind the house itself, were blooming flowers perfume the morning air with the soft embrace of a morning sun. A quiet, little-known hamlet surrounded by busy streets and busy people, and a reminder of how rewarding it can be to take a detour from our charted journeys in order to see where our tired, wandering feet will take us.
I’m always amazed at how much I have yet to see in this world. Sure, I move around a lot and seem to suffer from some incurable travel compulsion, but no matter how much I experience through travel, there always seems to be much more out there to see and photograph. What’s more, even the places I’ve visited so many times in the past seem to have a surprising way of revealing something new all the time. Case in point: the historic Christ Church in Old Town Alexandria, Virginia. I couldn’t begin to tell you how many times I have walked these grounds with my camera, but I hate to admit that until a few days ago, I had never gone inside the Church itself. This was not because of a lack of curiosity, mind you. In fact, the more I walked by, the more I kept telling myself that I had to try to sneak in with my camera someday. Little did I know that when services are not being conducted, everyone is more than welcomed to come in and take as many photographs as your memory cards can hold.
But what makes a visit to Christ Church even more rewarding is the incredible historical information provided to visitors by local volunteers. Walk in when there are no other visitors around and you may catch one of these volunteer quietly sitting in President George Washington’s family box pew waiting to enlighten you about the history of this magnificent building. And yes, just like the local historian, you too will be able to spend some time inside the Church’s two most famous pews: the one used by President’s Washington’s family and the one used by Robert E. Lee’s family many years later. And just in case you begin to wonder about your exact geographical location, the local guide will be nice enough to remind you that your feet are now well planted in “the south.” I guess it is always important not to miss any of those significant historical details. After about twenty minutes, myself and the visitors from Siberia wrapped up our visit. Not sure where they went, but my compass unmistakably showed I was headed to “the north.” And that was OK with me.