Our maiden voyage: Walnut Street West Library

“The United Nations Library”

Welcome sign hanging in atrium
Welcome to the library!

The Walnut Street West branch quietly stands on the southeast corner of 40th and Walnut. It’s a beautiful building, yet it’s easy to walk right by. It sits on the edge of the University of Pennsylvania’s campus, blending in with academic buildings. The librarian we spoke with told us that he had been unable to find any other public library on a college campus, which makes it particularly stealthy. My friend Marta, who joined me on this outing, hadn’t even noticed it before.

I had never step foot inside. The building looks pretty tall from the outside — 3 stories at least — so the lowish ceilings on the first floor were a surprise. When we arrived, an enthusiastic host was welcoming teens for their regular sci-fi role playing game. The entrance is cozy, with a circulation desk and a few meeting rooms. When we looked up from the desk, we realized we were standing in an atrium.

The tour

The books and movies are all upstairs. Pass the copy equipment and step into an open, airy space. It was cold and dark at 5:30pm (thanks, winter), but it felt like a warm day outside in this branch. The yellow paint, the high, open rafters, and the cascading plants on the shelves combined for an other-seasonly experience.

Image of a library aisle shows the very high ceilings, open rafters, and plants on tops of shelves
So spacious and airy (photo by Marta Rusek)

When we asked a librarian for his favorite part about the branch, he first said the ceilings. Then he paused, and clarified that his real favorite part was how many international visitors come to the library. Partly because of the neighborhood and partly because of the university, library patrons come from all over the world. He referred to the Walnut Street West branch as the “United Nations library”. It’s not a huge branch, but it has a large foreign film section, a whole aisle of books in languages other than English, and an extensive language learning collection. This branch also hosts conversation groups for people learning English as a Second Language. 

CDs labeled in a variety of languages
Look at all the languages to learn!

The Walnut Street West branch has quite the delightful children’s section. It’s vibrant and inviting. I would have loved this space as a kid. Plus, there’s a tiny mailbox up front for kids to suggest books! 

This branch also has more nooks than I expected. There’s even a bean bag chair hiding in a corner.

Branch facts

The swag

When I told my friend Rana about my library adventures, she jokingly asked if the library had given me any swag. We laughed about t-shirts & bottle openers. Then I realized that the library gives me swag all the time. BOOK SWAG.

Covers of The Only Harmless Great Thing and What It Means When a Man Falls From the Sky
Walnut Street West book swag

I tried to keep my selections reasonable since I already had 9 books checked out. I picked up Lesley Nneka Arimah’s collection of stories first. It looked so inviting in the new fiction section. Plus the jacket says the author “was born in the UK and grew up in Nigeria and wherever else her father was stationed for work,” which went nicely with the United Nations Library theme. Then I noticed Brooke Bolander’s 89-page alternate history, and it was too weird to leave behind.

The summary

This is a great library for kids, people who want to learn new languages, and anyone looking to squash those winter blues.

Official JOTR Rating:

Have you visited the Walnut Street West branch? What’s your favorite thing about it? Let me know in the comments!

11 thoughts on “Our maiden voyage: Walnut Street West Library

  1. You’re right – I have absolutely walked by this branch a thousand times and never noticed it. Thanks for the tip, it looks gorgeous and worth visiting in person!

    My partner absolutely loved “What It Means…” – he found it through LeVar Burton Reads. I hope you enjoy it as much as he did!

  2. Love this idea! No, I don’t live in Philly, though I will read about this because growing up I visited the city a lot (my mother, once a Philly girl always a Philly girl).

  3. What a delightful way to shine a light on libraries! Most people don’t know the rich programs they provide or their individual character. Love this idea!

    1. Thank you, Laura! I’m regularly surprised and delighted to find out about new offerings at the library. I’m excited to share what I learn.

  4. I love this blog idea! I travel clear across the city and out to the suburbs on my commute and I’m always on the lookout for a new branch to stop by. Your friendly, informative writing style and the tons of photos make me feel like I’m walking through the library myself. Love. It.

    If you’re open to suggestions, would you consider putting each branch on a map as you visit? I don’t think they have a map option on the Philadelphia Free Library site or, if they do, I have yet to find it.

    Regardless, thank you for this virtual tour. I look forward to your next post.

    1. Thanks, Shannon! What wonderful feedback. I love the map idea. That would even help me make sure I spread my travels out around the city as I go. I’ll look into it.

  5. I felt like I was right next to you as you ventured through this wonderful historic library. Your love for books and the building that protects them is heartwarming. A library is an exciting and welcoming place! Looking forward to reading about your next journey.

  6. Briana, loved your post! Our branch libraries have so much to offer, and we love them all. I’d like to personally invite you to the Torresdale Branch (3079 Holme Avé., 315-685-0494) for a visit—join us for lunch or dinner!

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