Review:  ‘Improbable Libraries’ a fascinating trek among the stacks

In our technology-obsessed world, libraries provide tranquil sanctuaries for zoning out with physical books.

“Libraries have a long history of overcoming geographic, economic and political challenges to bring the written word to an audience,” writes Alex Johnson, a journalist at the U.K. newspaper the Independent, in the introduction to his fascinating new book, “Improbable Libraries.” Johnson should know — both of his parents are librarians. He spent the last few years documenting what he calls “the new library revolution.”

“Regardless of the ultimate fate of the printed book,” he writes, “reports of the imminent death of the library as a physical entity seem to have been greatly exaggerated.” True, but it is worth noting, for instance, that in Salinas, Calif., the hometown of John Steinbeck and the setting for most of his famous works, all three of its public libraries were at risk of being closed because of budget shortfalls only a decade ago. If not for the efforts of celebrity fundraising, they might have closed.

Johnson’s book is upbeat, however, and undeniably a passion project. He is primarily a journalist, and it shows in the range of locations and the breadth of the reporting he presents, which, along with the beautiful color photography abundant throughout the book, make it a valuable visual culture book that doubles as a travel resource.


“Improbable Libraries” is broken into seven chapters, including divisions for tiny, mobile and animal libraries. It also devotes space to postmodern makeshift library culture — art gallery-like pop-ups — dotted all over the globe. Some of them border on performance art or objets d’art. Johnson sees this as affirmation that “librarians will always be at odds to bring books to readers.” This book presents myriad solutions and innovations that overcome those odds.

A perfect square at 7 by 7 inches, the book acts as a digestible short visual history of libraries, going back hundreds of years. You’ll learn, for instance, that in 1996 Chile became the first country to establish a library service on its underground metro train network. You’ll also read about airport libraries, boat libraries, biblio taxis, booketerias, hotel libraries, and biblioburros (yes, a book-lending service on horseback).

Favorites of mine include Great Britain’s adopt-a-kiosk program, which recommissioned half of British Telecom’s 92,000 phone booths in the U.K. and turned them into mini lending libraries, and the “Community Bookshelf” project in Kansas City, Mo., where an entire city block downtown was transformed into an architectural bookshelf. The titles for the project were chosen by the city’s book-reading community — “Catch-22" by Joseph Heller, “Fahrenheit 451" by Ray Bradbury, “Silent Spring” by Rachel Carson and “Invisible Man” by Ralph Ellison to name a few.

The book’s bibliography is also a serious reminder that libraries everywhere are facing budget cuts, yet most are somehow surviving and — in many cases — thriving. Let’s not forget: Physical books, it was predicted, would be rendered obsolete in the age of tablet and smartphone. The difference is that technologies of all kinds — old and new — are being employed to make available tactile reading material for the masses. And that can be only a good thing for those who care deeply about the printed word.

Gabel is a writer and small publisher in Los Angeles.

Improbable Libraries
A Visual Journey to the World’s Most Unusual Libraries

By Alex Johnson
University of Chicago Press: 240 pp., $27.50