Image of Karim Zohdy looking up in the stairwell of the Boston Public Library
Karim Zohdy ’25, who grew up in Canada, on the BPL’s grand staircase, which is lined by its famous Chavannes murals.Photo: David DelPoio
The Arts

Boston Public Library Love
Five minutes with Karim Zohdy ’25

By Andrew Sojka ’25 / April–May 2023
April 11th, 2023

With regard to the Boston Public Library, I didn’t know anything about it until last semester. I didn’t really think about the significance of public libraries before. I was brainstorming ideas for my final paper with my classics professor. The class was titled Revolutionary Classics. My teacher suggested that I go take a look at the Boston Public Library, specifically at the murals that decorate the grand staircase. They’re called the Chavannes murals and they depict classical scenes. And so I went on her
recommendation to take a look to see if I’d be interested. And I thought, wow, beautiful. I really wanna write about this. And then I went again. And then I was able to set up a meeting with a curator. [Since then] I’ve been, when I was going home, just stopping by.

It’s a really interesting piece of architecture, the first major example of a new kind of architecture called Beaux-Arts.

I feel like I notice little things now. There are so many architectural and artistic curiosities. Like, in one of these murals there is a telegraph pole, which is very interesting ’cause it’s this classical scene, but there’re, you know, electric cables hung between poles. It’s kind of subtle and you wouldn’t really notice it unless you read about it. I wrote about that in my paper—classical motifs being taken and reinterpreted. The argument that I made was that it was done to help establish a kind of character for American society, an independent identity.

Now I feel like I am able to pick up on little things, even when I’m not trying to like, analyze anything, which is really enjoyable. I appreciate it more now that I know its history. And I’ve just scratched the surface. I just like to sit there and think about what I’ve learned. And also I just—I use it like a library. I sit in the Bates Hall, the big reading room, and I study and whatnot. I just enjoy it.

“Free to All”

When I looked at the library the first time, there was a huge phrase written on the front. It’s their motto: “free to all.” The Boston Public Library was one of the first large municipal public libraries in America. They used to refer to the libraries as the People’s Palace, and that was the title of my final paper. People could read for free and books were expensive. I just felt like that was a really beautiful motto to have and it stuck with me.

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