25 Amazing Facts About Libraries

iStock.com/Jacob Ammentorp Lund
iStock.com/Jacob Ammentorp Lund

There may be no greater repository of analog information than the library, a glorious assembly of printed pages that can take us on adventures, educate us, and fill our days and nights with details of worlds beyond our own—all free of charge. Today, there are roughly 116,867 public and academic libraries dotting the country. To celebrate National Library Week, we've rounded up 25 fascinating facts about these irreplaceable institutions.

  1. One of the oldest public libraries in the country opened in 1790 in Franklin, Massachusetts, where residents circulated books donated by Benjamin Franklin. The Founding Father once started his own lending library in 1731 in Philadelphia called the Library Company, but it required a subscription fee of 40 shillings.
  1. Philanthropist Andrew Carnegie was a one-man library-funding machine. The wealthy industrialist donated $55 million—or $1.6 billion in today’s dollars—between 1886 and 1919 to open an astonishing 2509 libraries worldwide, including 1679 in the United States.
  1. Carnegie funded several New York City libraries, and those buildings were often constructed with apartments on the top floor. The idea was that the library’s custodians would have living quarters so that they could keep shoveling coal into furnaces at all hours of the day and night.
  1. Librarians used to have to adopt a particular style of handwriting known as “librarian hand.” The practice was prevalent in the late 1800s, when library pioneer Melvil Dewey—of the Dewey Decimal System fame—and other curators of early collections believed that legible handwriting was a must for card catalogs. The practice faded as typewriters grew in popularity.
  1. The world’s biggest library in terms of catalog depth is the Library of Congress (LOC), which has 168 million items. That record is a rebound from a calamity in 1814, when the then-14-year-old collection of 3000 volumes was destroyed after British troops burned the Capitol building.
  1. The LOC is so devoted to making knowledge available to everyone that it pays to reproduce popular magazines in Braille. In 1985, an irate senator from Ohio named Chalmers Wylie lobbied to get them to stop publishing a Braille version of Playboy. It was reinstated after protests and continues to be published to this day.
  1. You don’t necessarily need to head to the Library of Congress to feel overwhelmed by the written word. The McAllen Public Library in McAllen, Texas, is housed in a converted Walmart location and might be the largest single-story library location in the country. The 123,000-square foot space has a computer lab, a cafe, and an 180-seat auditorium.
  1. The Haskell Free Library and Opera House sits directly on the border between the United States and Canada. You can walk in from Stanstead, Quebec, and walk out into Derby Line, Vermont. You don’t need a passport to cross the (literal) line running through the building, but you do have to return to your country of origin or risk fines.
  1. The Joanina Library at the University of Coimbra in Portugal has a number of bats in residency, but no one is calling for an exterminator as the bats prey on insects that could damage book pages. Staff drape tables with coverings overnight and clean up the guano in the morning.
  1. Among the more popular genres in prison libraries: paranormal romance, young adult titles, and the Left Behind series.
  1. Not all libraries expect publishers to do the heavy lifting. The Bethlehem Area Public Library in Bethlehem, Pennsylvania, has a publishing arm that released two books in 2018: Home At My Typewriter: Selected Poems by Bob Cohen and A Journey by Matt Wolf. Library staff helped to design and edit the titles.
  1. If you’re wondering how dirty library books can become after passing through many hands, the answer is: pretty dirty. Everything from traces of cocaine to the herpes virus to bed bugs have been found on sampled pages, but don’t worry: There’s never been a documented case of anyone catching anything from a library book.
  1. The only danger of a dirty book is to the book itself, as dust can trap moisture that can damage pages. That’s why the Boston Public Library has a machine dubbed the Depulvera that acts like a miniature car wash for books, using a conveyor system to blast dirt from volumes.
  1. Those late fees for unreturned items can add up. Libraries in larger cities can accrue millions in unpaid penalties. In 2016, the San Jose Public Library reported $6.8 million in delinquent fees, with 39 percent of members owing money. Some places will refer debts to collection agencies if a patron exceeds $10 in charges. Other institutions, like Queens Library in New York, will apply credit to fines if patrons come in for “reading time.” Sitting in the library with a book earns credit toward the amount owed.
  1. It’s never too late to return a book. In 2015, a former student at Wakefield High School Library in Wakefield, Virginia, named Eleanor Reed sent back a copy of The Underside of the Leaf. It was borrowed in 1981 and accidentally mixed in with the student’s family collection. In 2016, the granddaughter of a man who had taken out The Microscope and Its Revelations from Hereford Cathedral School in the UK returned the title 120 years after it had been “borrowed.”
  1. Some libraries went to extraordinary lengths to make sure their titles remained on shelves. At Marsh’s Library in Dublin, Ireland, visitors hoping to peruse rare books in the 1800s were locked in cages until they were done reading.
  1. Not all libraries require silence. The Tikkurila Library in Vantaa, Finland, has a karaoke room with thousands of songs for guests to perform. (Finland is home to a lot of karaoke-loving citizens.) Fortunately, all that warbling doesn’t rise to the level of a disruption: The room is soundproof.
  1. The New York Public Library offers up more than just books: Members can borrow accessories like neckties and briefcases for people looking to complete an ensemble for a job interview.
  1. If you’re in the mood to peruse those ties, you’ll pass by Patience and Fortitude, the two lions flanking the main entrance to the New York Public Library. The sculptures went up in 1911 and were originally named Leo Astor and Leo Lenox after the library’s co-founders, John Astor and James Lenox. They were later “anointed” as Lady Astor and Lord Lenox before getting their current names in the 1930s.
  1. Patrons of the Alaska Resources Library and Information Services in Anchorage can borrow from their collection of taxidermy items, including animals, bones, and furs. Bear and wolf fur are among the more popular requests because they’re often used in Boy Scout promotional ceremonies; Harry Potter fans opt for snowy owl mounts. Borrowers are asked not to remove specimens from their glass containers.
  1. If you’re in the mood for something a little livelier, the Lillian Goldman Law Library at Yale University allows patrons to check out General Montgomery, a.k.a. Monty, a border terrier mix and certified therapy dog, for 30 minutes of companionship.
  1. Many libraries offer free music that’s yours to keep. A service called Freegal allows patrons to download songs from a library of over 15 million tracks. Ask your local library if they participate.
  1. In addition to meeting rooms, book sales, and research assistance, many libraries also offer passport application services that might help you avoid lengthy post office lines.
  1. The most-borrowed fiction book of 2018 was Little Fires Everywhere by Celeste Ng. For nonfiction, it was Fire and Fury: Inside the Trump White House by Michael Wolff.
  1. As of 2017, there were 194,000 librarians, 40,000 library technicians, and 96,000 library assistants working in the United States.

10 Products for a Better Night's Sleep

Amazon/Comfort Spaces
Amazon/Comfort Spaces

Getting a full eight hours of sleep can be tough these days. If you’re having trouble catching enough Zzzs, consider giving these highly rated and recommended products a try.

1. Everlasting Comfort Pure Memory Foam Knee Pillow; $25

Everlasting Comfort Knee Pillow
Everlasting Comfort/Amazon

For side sleepers, keeping the spine, hips, and legs aligned is key to a good night’s rest—and a pain-free morning after. Everlasting Comfort’s memory foam knee pillow is ergonomically designed to fit between the knees or thighs to ensure proper alignment. One simple but game-changing feature is the removable strap, which you can fasten around one leg; this keeps the pillow in place even as you roll at night, meaning you don’t have to wake up to adjust it (or pick it up from your floor). Reviewers call the pillow “life-changing” and “the best knee pillow I’ve found.” Plus, it comes with two pairs of ear plugs.

Buy it: Amazon

2. Letsfit White Noise Machine; $21

Letsfit White Noise Machine
Letsfit/Amazon

White noise machines: They’re not just for babies! This Letsfit model—which is rated 4.7 out of five with nearly 3500 reviews—has 14 potential sleep soundtracks, including three white noise tracks, to better block out everything from sirens to birds that chirp enthusiastically at dawn (although there’s also a birds track, if that’s your thing). It also has a timer function and a night light.

Buy it: Amazon

3. ECLIPSE Blackout Curtains; $16

Eclipse Black Out Curtains
Eclipse/Amazon

According to the National Sleep Foundation, too much light in a room when you’re trying to snooze is a recipe for sleep disaster. These understated polyester curtains from ECLIPSE block 99 percent of light and reduce noise—plus, they’ll help you save on energy costs. "Our neighbor leaves their backyard light on all night with what I can only guess is the same kind of bulb they use on a train headlight. It shines across their yard, through ours, straight at our bedroom window," one Amazon reviewer who purchased the curtains in black wrote. "These drapes block the light completely."

Buy it: Amazon

4. JALL Wake Up Light Sunrise Alarm Clock; $38

JALL Wake Up Light Sunrise Alarm Clock
JALL/Amazon

Being jarred awake by a blaring alarm clock can set the wrong mood for the rest of your day. Wake up in a more pleasant way with this clock, which gradually lights up between 10 percent and 100 percent in the 30 minutes before your alarm. You can choose between seven different colors and several natural sounds as well as a regular alarm beep, but why would you ever use that? “Since getting this clock my sleep has been much better,” one reviewer reported. “I wake up not feeling tired but refreshed.”

Buy it: Amazon

5. Philips SmartSleep Wake-Up Light; $200

Philips SmartSleep Wake-Up Light
Philips/Amazon

If you’re looking for an alarm clock with even more features, Philips’s SmartSleep Wake-Up Light is smartphone-enabled and equipped with an AmbiTrack sensor, which tracks things like bedroom temperature, humidity, and light levels, then gives recommendations for how you can get a better night’s rest.

Buy it: Amazon

6. Slumber Cloud Stratus Sheet Set; $159

Stratus sheets from Slumber Cloud.
Slumber Cloud

Being too hot or too cold can kill a good night’s sleep. The Good Housekeeping Institute rated these sheets—which are made with Outlast fibers engineered by NASA—as 2020’s best temperature-regulating sheets.

Buy it: SlumberCloud

7. Comfort Space Coolmax Sheet Set; $29-$40

Comfort Spaces Coolmax Sheets
Comfort Spaces/Amazon

If $159 sheets are out of your price range, the GHI recommends these sheets from Comfort Spaces, which are made with moisture-wicking Coolmax microfiber. Depending on the size you need, they range in price from $29 to $40.

Buy it: Amazon

8. Coop Home Goods Eden Memory Foam Pillow; $80

Coop Eden Pillow
Coop Home Goods/Amazon

This pillow—which has a 4.5-star rating on Amazon—is filled with memory foam scraps and microfiber, and comes with an extra half-pound of fill so you can add, or subtract, the amount in the pillow for ultimate comfort. As a bonus, the pillows are hypoallergenic, mite-resistant, and washable.

Buy it: Amazon

9. Baloo Weighted Blanket; $149-$169

Baloo Weighted Blanket
Baloo/Amazon

Though the science is still out on weighted blankets, some people swear by them. Wirecutter named this Baloo blanket the best, not in small part because, unlike many weighted blankets, it’s machine-washable and -dryable. It’s currently available in 12-pound ($149) twin size and 20-pound ($169) queen size. It’s rated 4.7 out of five stars on Amazon, with one reviewer reporting that “when it's spread out over you it just feels like a comfy, snuggly hug for your whole body … I've found it super relaxing for falling asleep the last few nights, and it looks nice on the end of the bed, too.” 

Buy it: Amazon 

10. Philips Smartsleep Snoring Relief Band; $200

Philips SmartSleep Snoring Relief Band
Philips/Amazon

Few things can disturb your slumber—and that of the ones you love—like loudly sawing logs. Philips’s Smartsleep Snoring Relief Band is designed for people who snore when they’re sleeping on their backs, and according to the company, 86 percent of people who used the band reported reduced snoring after a month. The device wraps around the torso and is equipped with a sensor that delivers vibrations if it detects you moving to sleep on your back; those vibrations stop when you roll onto your side. The next day, you can see how many hours you spent in bed, how many of those hours you spent on your back, and your response rate to the vibrations. The sensor has an algorithm that notes your response rate and tweaks the intensity of vibrations based on that. “This device works exactly as advertised,” one Amazon reviewer wrote. “I’d say it’s perfect.”

Buy it: Amazon

This article contains affiliate links to products selected by our editors. Mental Floss may receive a commission for purchases made through these links.

8 Facts About David Bowie's 'Space Oddity'

Express/Express/Getty Images
Express/Express/Getty Images

On July 20, 1969, astronauts walked on the Moon for the first time. Just a few weeks earlier, another space-age event had rocked the world: David Bowie’s single “Space Oddity” hit airwaves. The song, whose lyrics tell the story of an astronaut’s doomed journey into space, helped propel the artist to icon status, and five decades later, it’s still one of his most popular works. 

1. "Space Oddity" was inspired by 2001: A Space Odyssey.

Many listeners assumed that "Space Oddity" was riffing on the Apollo 11 Moon landing of 1969, but it was actually inspired by a Stanley Kubrick film released a year earlier. Bowie watched 2001: A Space Odyssey multiple times when it premiered in theaters in 1968. “It was the sense of isolation I related to,” Bowie told Classic Rock in 2012. “I found the whole thing amazing. I was out of my gourd, very stoned when I went to see it—several times—and it was really a revelation to me. It got the song flowing.”

2. "Space Oddity" was also inspired by heartbreak.

The track was also partly inspired by the more universal experience of heartbreak. Bowie wrote the song after ending his relationship with actress Hermione Farthingale. The break inspired several songs, including “Letter to Hermione” and “Life on Mars,” and in “Space Oddity,” Bowie’s post-breakup loneliness and melancholy is especially apparent.

3. "Space Oddity" helped him sign a record deal.

In 1969, a few years into David Bowie’s career, the musician recorded a demo tape with plans to use it to land a deal with Mercury Records. That tape featured an early iteration of “Space Oddity,” and based on the demo, Mercury signed him for a one-album deal. But the song failed to win over one producer. Tony Visconti, who produced Bowie’s self-titled 1969 album, thought the song was a cheap attempt to cash in on the Apollo 11 mission, and he tapped someone else to produce that particular single.

4. The BBC played "Space Oddity" during the Moon landing.

"Space Oddity" was released on July 11, 1969—just five days before NASA launched Apollo 11. The song doesn’t exactly sound like promotional material for the mission. It ends on a somber note, with Major Tom "floating in a tin can" through space. But the timing and general subject matter were too perfect for the BBC to resist. The network played the track over footage of the Moon landing. Bowie later remarked upon the situation, saying, "Obviously, some BBC official said, 'Oh, right then, that space song, Major Tom, blah blah blah, that’ll be great. 'Um, but he gets stranded in space, sir.' Nobody had the heart to tell the producer that."

5. David Bowie recorded an Italian version of "Space Oddity."

The same year "Space Oddity" was released, a different version David Bowie recorded with Italian lyrics was played by radio stations in Italy. Instead of directly translating the English words, the Italian songwriter Mogul was hired to write new lyrics practically from scratch. "Ragazzo Solo, Ragazza Sola" ("Lonely Boy, Lonely Girl") is a straightforward love song, and Major Tom is never mentioned.

6. Major Tom appeared in future songs.

Major Tom, the fictional astronaut at the center of "Space Oddity," is one of the most iconic characters invented for a pop song. It took a decade for him to resurface in David Bowie’s discography. In his 1980 single "Ashes to Ashes," the artists presents a different version of the character, singing: "We know Major Tom's a junkie/Strung out in heaven's high/Hitting an all-time low." Bowie also references Major Tom in "Hallo Spaceboy" from the 1995 album Outside.

7. "Space Oddity" is featured in Chris Hadfield's ISS music video.

When choosing a song for the first music filmed in space, Canadian astronaut Chris Hadfield naturally went with David Bowie’s out-of-this-world anthem. The video above was recorded on the International Space Station in 2013, with Hadfield playing guitar and singing from space and other performers providing musical accompaniment from Earth. Some lyrics were tweaked for the cover. Hadfield mentions the "Soyuz hatch" of the capsule that would eventually shuttle him to Earth.

8. "Space Oddity" played on the Tesla that Elon Musk sent to space.

Dummy in Tesla roadster in space with Earth in background.
SpaceX via Getty Images

In 2018, Elon Musk used SpaceX's Falcon Heavy rocket to launch his Tesla Roadster into space. The car was decked out with pop culture Easter eggs—according to Musk, "Space Oddity" was playing over the car’s radio system during the historic journey. The dummy’s name, Starman, is the name of another space-themed song on Bowie's 1972 masterpiece The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders from Mars.