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The 10 Most Beautiful Libraries in the United States

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We already looked at libraries in all the major continents, but there were so many great ones in the United States that the article featuring libraries in North America had to leave many beautiful buildings out. Now’s the time to share some of the stunning libraries that might not make it in the top 10 of North America, but definitely deserve your attention.

1. The Armstrong-Browning Library at Baylor University, Texas

Image courtesy of Texas Tongs' Flickr stream.

This building is absolutely stunning, and with good reason—Dr. A.J. Armstrong wanted to create the “most beautiful building in Texas.”

Baylor University president Pat N. Neff offered him $100,000 towards the construction of a library, as long as Armstrong matched the donation. The end result was a 3-story, Italian Reniassance-styled masterpiece adorned with 62 stained glass windows, massive marble columns, intricate ceiling designs and other wonderful details. The philanthropist was able to justify every bit of the expense by pointing out that the “compelling beauty” of the building might be able to inspire someone enough that "if we by that means give the world another Dante, another Shakespeare, another Browning, we shall count the cost a bargain."

2. Morgan Library, New York

Image courtesy of Rob Shenk's Flickr stream.
Constructed in 1906, this amazing New York landmark was originally built as the personal library and museum space for financier Pierpont Morgan’s impressive collection of rare books, manuscripts, drawings, artifacts and prints. After Pierpont’s death, his grandson, J.P. Morgan, Jr., opened the library to the public in 1924.

Since the original donation to the city, the library has expanded greatly, and now the three different buildings that make up the library take up half of a New York city block.

3. Boston Public Library, Massachusetts


Image courtesy of koalie's Flickr stream.

Talk about old school: The Boston Public library, established in 1848, was the first municipal library in all of the U.S. Its first location was a small schoolhouse, but it had to expand almost immediately. In 1895, the current building, called a “palace for the people” by architect Charles Follen McKim, was completed in Copley Square. In 1972, the building was expanded, and it now contains over 8.9 million books, a number of rare manuscripts, maps, musical scores, and prints. It even has first edition folios from Shakespeare and original music scores by Mozart.

The building was declared a National Historic Landmark on the grounds that it was “the first outstanding example of Renaissance Beaux-Arts Classicism in America.”

4. Braddock Carnegie Library, Pennsylvania

Image courtesy of macwagen's Flickr stream.

The first Carnegie library in the U.S., this library was designed in an eclectic medieval style by Wiliam Halsey Wood and opened in 1889. Only 5 years later, it received a Romanesque-styled addition, doubling the size of the building. When it was first constructed, it featured a variety of entertainment options, including billiards tables on the first floor, a music hall, a gymnasium, and a swimming pool. Additionally, it held a bathhouse in the basement so mill workers could take a shower before accessing the facilities. These days, the bathhouse is now a pottery studio, but the tiled floors and walls remain.

Amazingly, this gorgeous landmark was almost demolished in the late seventies. The building was added to the National Register of Historic Places in 1973, but was closed in 1974 because it desperately needed repairs, particularly on the roof. Fortunately, a group of library lovers stepped forward to protect and repair the building; later, it was named a Historic Landmark.

5. Indianapolis Public Library, Indiana

Image courtesy of sergemelki's Flickr stream.

This library manages to balance old and new influences in a refreshingly unique manner. The original building, completed in 1917, is located in the front of the complex, while a massive, modernized addition from 2007 sits in the background. The first building was designed in the Greek Doric style and is often called one of the most outstanding architectural libraries in the U.S. The addition is just about as modern as can be, with glass and wood paneling throughout the building. More importantly, the 6-story, 293,000 square foot tower provides even more space for books and reading rooms!

6. Los Angeles Central Library, California


Image courtesy of hollywoodsmile78's Flickr stream.

Like the Indianapolis Public Library, the Central library of Los Angeles features a striking balance between old and new architecture. The original library building was completed in 1926 and featured influences from ancient Egyptian and Mediterranean Revival architecture, including pyramids and mosaics. Unfortunately, two successive fires in 1986 left the building in desperate need of a renovation.

During the renovation, a new wing was added with Modernest and Beaux-Arts influences. The addition, completed in 1993 added an eight story aitrium and more storage space for the museum’s ever growing collection. These days, the library is the third largest public library in the U.S. and is listed on the National Register of Historic Places.

7. Hearst Castle Gothic Study, California


Image courtesy of Stuck in Customs' Flickr stream.

Hearst Castle is one of the most famous buildings in California, but most tour groups miss the opportunity to explore the second story of the building, which includes a massive guest library and a cozier gothic library and study. This room also played a vital role in Hearst’s life, as this was where the mogul preferred to do business whenever possible, which is why the room also served as his executive board room.

8. Skywalker Ranch Library, California


Image courtesy of Michael Heilemann's Flickr stream.

If you ever happen to get access to Skywalker Ranch, make sure you get a chance to look at the library, which is crowned with a 40-foot stained glass dome that allows employees and guests of Lucas Studios to enjoy their reading in natural light.

9. Suzzallo Library of the University of Washington, Washington

Image courtesy of Curtis Cronn's Flickr stream.

This Collegiate Gothic building was completed in 1923 and among its many impressive details are 18 terra-cotta figures set atop the buttresses featuring academic heroes such as Louis Pasteur, Dante, Shakespeare, Plato, Benjamin Franklin, Sir Isaac Newton, Leonardo da Vinci, Galileo, Gutenberg, Beethoven, Darwin, and more. Inside, a series of shields depict the coat of arms from many top universities around the world, including Yale, Oxford, Stanford and Uppsala. All of these details were included to help the library meet university president Henry Suzzallo’s vision that the building become “the soul of the university.”

While the library is home to many rare volumes, the most famous item in its collection is one of the world’s largest, a photo book of Bhutan by Michael Hawley. Library staff turn the pages about once a month so interested viewers can slowly enjoy the entire work from front to back—assuming they visit regularly.

10. Fisher Fine Arts Library of the University of Pennsylvania, Pennsylvania


Image courtesy of jeffhartge's Flickr stream.

In 1888, most architects were focused on Romanesque styles built with marble and granite. But this library’s architect, Frank Furness, wanted the building to reflect the architectural style of Philadelphia’s many red brick factories.

The library was already too small for the school’s increasing collection within only a few decades of its opening, so it received a number of additions and alterations throughout the next 30 years. Finally, in 1962, most of the school’s collection was moved to a new location and the former main building became the home to the fine arts library. In 1972, the building was added to the National Register of Historic Places and by 1985, it was named a National Historic Landmark.

Of course, with all the thousands of libraries in the U.S., this list of beautiful American libraries still leaves out plenty of gorgeous architectural marvels, so if you feel your favorite library was left out, feel free to tell everyone about it in the comments.

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iStock // Ekaterina Minaeva
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Man Buys Two Metric Tons of LEGO Bricks; Sorts Them Via Machine Learning
May 21, 2017
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iStock // Ekaterina Minaeva

Jacques Mattheij made a small, but awesome, mistake. He went on eBay one evening and bid on a bunch of bulk LEGO brick auctions, then went to sleep. Upon waking, he discovered that he was the high bidder on many, and was now the proud owner of two tons of LEGO bricks. (This is about 4400 pounds.) He wrote, "[L]esson 1: if you win almost all bids you are bidding too high."

Mattheij had noticed that bulk, unsorted bricks sell for something like €10/kilogram, whereas sets are roughly €40/kg and rare parts go for up to €100/kg. Much of the value of the bricks is in their sorting. If he could reduce the entropy of these bins of unsorted bricks, he could make a tidy profit. While many people do this work by hand, the problem is enormous—just the kind of challenge for a computer. Mattheij writes:

There are 38000+ shapes and there are 100+ possible shades of color (you can roughly tell how old someone is by asking them what lego colors they remember from their youth).

In the following months, Mattheij built a proof-of-concept sorting system using, of course, LEGO. He broke the problem down into a series of sub-problems (including "feeding LEGO reliably from a hopper is surprisingly hard," one of those facts of nature that will stymie even the best system design). After tinkering with the prototype at length, he expanded the system to a surprisingly complex system of conveyer belts (powered by a home treadmill), various pieces of cabinetry, and "copious quantities of crazy glue."

Here's a video showing the current system running at low speed:

The key part of the system was running the bricks past a camera paired with a computer running a neural net-based image classifier. That allows the computer (when sufficiently trained on brick images) to recognize bricks and thus categorize them by color, shape, or other parameters. Remember that as bricks pass by, they can be in any orientation, can be dirty, can even be stuck to other pieces. So having a flexible software system is key to recognizing—in a fraction of a second—what a given brick is, in order to sort it out. When a match is found, a jet of compressed air pops the piece off the conveyer belt and into a waiting bin.

After much experimentation, Mattheij rewrote the software (several times in fact) to accomplish a variety of basic tasks. At its core, the system takes images from a webcam and feeds them to a neural network to do the classification. Of course, the neural net needs to be "trained" by showing it lots of images, and telling it what those images represent. Mattheij's breakthrough was allowing the machine to effectively train itself, with guidance: Running pieces through allows the system to take its own photos, make a guess, and build on that guess. As long as Mattheij corrects the incorrect guesses, he ends up with a decent (and self-reinforcing) corpus of training data. As the machine continues running, it can rack up more training, allowing it to recognize a broad variety of pieces on the fly.

Here's another video, focusing on how the pieces move on conveyer belts (running at slow speed so puny humans can follow). You can also see the air jets in action:

In an email interview, Mattheij told Mental Floss that the system currently sorts LEGO bricks into more than 50 categories. It can also be run in a color-sorting mode to bin the parts across 12 color groups. (Thus at present you'd likely do a two-pass sort on the bricks: once for shape, then a separate pass for color.) He continues to refine the system, with a focus on making its recognition abilities faster. At some point down the line, he plans to make the software portion open source. You're on your own as far as building conveyer belts, bins, and so forth.

Check out Mattheij's writeup in two parts for more information. It starts with an overview of the story, followed up with a deep dive on the software. He's also tweeting about the project (among other things). And if you look around a bit, you'll find bulk LEGO brick auctions online—it's definitely a thing!

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8 Common Dog Behaviors, Decoded
May 25, 2017
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Dogs are a lot more complicated than we give them credit for. As a result, sometimes things get lost in translation. We’ve yet to invent a dog-to-English translator, but there are certain behaviors you can learn to read in order to better understand what your dog is trying to tell you. The more tuned-in you are to your dog’s emotions, the better you’ll be able to respond—whether that means giving her some space or welcoming a wet, slobbery kiss. 

1. What you’ll see: Your dog is standing with his legs and body relaxed and tail low. His ears are up, but not pointed forward. His mouth is slightly open, he’s panting lightly, and his tongue is loose. His eyes? Soft or maybe slightly squinty from getting his smile on.

What it means: “Hey there, friend!” Your pup is in a calm, relaxed state. He’s open to mingling, which means you can feel comfortable letting friends say hi.

2. What you’ll see: Your dog is standing with her body leaning forward. Her ears are erect and angled forward—or have at least perked up if they’re floppy—and her mouth is closed. Her tail might be sticking out horizontally or sticking straight up and wagging slightly.

What it means: “Hark! Who goes there?!” Something caught your pup’s attention and now she’s on high alert, trying to discern whether or not the person, animal, or situation is a threat. She’ll likely stay on guard until she feels safe or becomes distracted.

3. What you’ll see: Your dog is standing, leaning slightly forward. His body and legs are tense, and his hackles—those hairs along his back and neck—are raised. His tail is stiff and twitching, not swooping playfully. His mouth is open, teeth are exposed, and he may be snarling, snapping, or barking excessively.

What it means: “Don’t mess with me!” This dog is asserting his social dominance and letting others know that he might attack if they don’t defer accordingly. A dog in this stance could be either offensively aggressive or defensively aggressive. If you encounter a dog in this state, play it safe and back away slowly without making eye contact.

4. What you’ll see: As another dog approaches, your dog lies down on his back with his tail tucked in between his legs. His paws are tucked in too, his ears are flat, and he isn’t making direct eye contact with the other dog standing over him.

What it means: “I come in peace!” Your pooch is displaying signs of submission to a more dominant dog, conveying total surrender to avoid physical confrontation. Other, less obvious, signs of submission include ears that are flattened back against the head, an avoidance of eye contact, a tongue flick, and bared teeth. Yup—a dog might bare his teeth while still being submissive, but they’ll likely be clenched together, the lips opened horizontally rather than curled up to show the front canines. A submissive dog will also slink backward or inward rather than forward, which would indicate more aggressive behavior.

5. What you’ll see: Your dog is crouching with her back hunched, tail tucked, and the corner of her mouth pulled back with lips slightly curled. Her shoulders, or hackles, are raised and her ears are flattened. She’s avoiding eye contact.

What it means: “I’m scared, but will fight you if I have to.” This dog’s fight or flight instincts have been activated. It’s best to keep your distance from a dog in this emotional state because she could attack if she feels cornered.

6. What you’ll see: You’re staring at your dog, holding eye contact. Your dog looks away from you, tentatively looks back, then looks away again. After some time, he licks his chops and yawns.

What it means: “I don’t know what’s going on and it’s weirding me out.” Your dog doesn’t know what to make of the situation, but rather than nipping or barking, he’ll stick to behaviors he knows are OK, like yawning, licking his chops, or shaking as if he’s wet. You’ll want to intervene by removing whatever it is causing him discomfort—such as an overly grabby child—and giving him some space to relax.

7. What you’ll see: Your dog has her front paws bent and lowered onto the ground with her rear in the air. Her body is relaxed, loose, and wiggly, and her tail is up and wagging from side to side. She might also let out a high-pitched or impatient bark.

What it means: “What’s the hold up? Let’s play!” This classic stance, known to dog trainers and behaviorists as “the play bow,” is a sign she’s ready to let the good times roll. Get ready for a round of fetch or tug of war, or for a good long outing at the dog park.

8. What you’ll see: You’ve just gotten home from work and your dog rushes over. He can’t stop wiggling his backside, and he may even lower himself into a giant stretch, like he’s doing yoga.

What it means: “OhmygoshImsohappytoseeyou I love you so much you’re my best friend foreverandeverandever!!!!” This one’s easy: Your pup is overjoyed his BFF is back. That big stretch is something dogs don’t pull out for just anyone; they save that for the people they truly love. Show him you feel the same way with a good belly rub and a handful of his favorite treats.

The best way to say “I love you” in dog? A monthly subscription to BarkBox. Your favorite pup will get a package filled with treats, toys, and other good stuff (and in return, you’ll probably get lots of sloppy kisses). Visit BarkBox to learn more.

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