a rant about library architecture

This death of the library post bewails…well, a lot of things, really. The makeover of traditional monumental/civic spaces into more modern, minimalist/cafe spaces, along with some associated concept that everything we ever know and love and value about libraries is going away.

It seems to me there are three separate threads in this article, and I’m not sure the author clearly separates them even though they are quite different:

1. Real, problematic change. The author’s favorite librarians are gone; she can no longer have the kinds of interactions that require them. That’s a real problem that substantially diminishes the value of the library (at least, for certain patrons; it’s irrelevant to some use cases).

2. Some kind of Leave-it-to-Beaver nostagia:

In short — much like the post office — we seem to be losing these iconic communal institutions of our youth. And when we do keep them around, we repackage them along commercial lines as if that’s the only way to make them palatable to the public. I took a walking tour around East London a month or so ago and happened upon a bright orange, modern structure with the word “idea store” spelled out in a colorful lowercase font across the entrance. “What’s that?” I asked. “Oh, that’s the local public library,” the tour guide answered.

Look, I loved the post office back when I was a 14-year-old in a long distance relationship with the boy in New Jersey. It did me wonderful service. But these days my major use of the post office is throwing away all the publisher junk mail I started getting once I joined ALA, and my life is not actually worse, nor is it harder to communicate with distant friends. If libraries can’t rebrand themselves lest they jar with someone’s childhood memories they will end up as nothing but museum pieces, preserved behind glass to keep the dust from accumulating, perhaps revered, but not used.

3. The implicit argument that newfangled spaces can’t provide important (or traditional) services. Yes, if her branch has axed its librarians, that’s going to prevent service. But to graft the article’s end (about valuable services libraries provide) onto its beginning (about the cognitive dissonance the author feels in more experimental library spaces) suggests that there’s a conflict between the two, when there really is not. You can’t teach information literacy or answer reference questions without librarians, but you can do that in a bookstore-inspired space, or something named Anythink.

In buttressing her case, the author links to the Salon review of the new Cambridge, MA library space that got passed around so much a few months back. This reviewer also did not like the wood-and-glass, space-and-air, cafe-and-laptops feel of the new place. Me, I live one town over from Cambridge, so of course I checked it out. And…

I think the new space is grafted incongruously onto the old, which is a beautiful, traditional stone building (with a gorgeous Dewey decimal system painting on the reading room ceiling; keep an eye out for it). And the new space is certainly spacious and has lots of sightlines which are not jammed with books. Which makes it, frankly, an excellent space for the way I, as a laptop-toting yuppie, frequently use the library.

But…but it also has the second floor, branded — brilliantly, in my opinion — “Research Services”. This is actually the stacks of books old enough to no longer be in the first-floor rotation, but instead of labeling it “stacks” or “old books” or whatever, they’ve given it a label which tells you that it’s a place for Serious Thinking. The kind of place you might do independent scholarship, write a book. And it’s a place where there might be, well, services available to help you out with that work (in fact, the desk and librarian are intelligently positioned in that space). The second floor is quiet, and much more traditional, and probably much more to the liking of the Salon writer (who barely mentions it).

And the third floor, the children’s area, is something of a wonderland. It’s colorful without being an assault on the senses, it gives the sensation of being in a jungle (a jungle! almost as if reading is a mechanism for transporting yourself to new places!), it has this wooden chair which I saw from the other side of the room and HAD to sit in, it has both a ton of books and space to move, it has a community bulletin board, it’s fully separated from the other areas so kids can be kids and not disturb people who come to the library for quiet. It’s great, and she was on that floor, and she doesn’t mention it.

I get that architecture makes statements about who the intended users of a space are, and that can be exclusionary, particularly if you see yourself as a user of that kind of space but the architecture does not agree. But I don’t see a reason that library architecture has to proclaim the same things that it always has about who those users are. I think there’s a good argument to be made that library architecture must make new statements, to build a greater constituency for libraries. Will some of those statements be wrong? Well, sure. And, as is the nature of architecture, expensively and sometimes spectacularly wrong. But Cambridge — for all that Stone and Glass are, really, painfully incongruous together — does a wonderful job of having its architecture make statements welcoming different communities. The people most at home on the first, second, and third floors are not the same — and that’s a good thing; it means they’re all welcome somewhere.

Nostalgic, monumental, and civic really only welcomes the people who were on the inside all along.

5 thoughts on “a rant about library architecture

  1. When you said, “museum pieces, preserved behind glass”, I just knew you were going to talk about the Cambridge library.

    I think a lot of the original post’s author’s dudgeon is really about how the uses her cultural faction prefers are presented less prominently than the uses that other cultural factions prefer — to be on the second floor rather than the first is an appalling demotion in the social ladder.

    (Of course it doesn’t help that in the Cambridge library the newly dominant social faction is Surly Youths and Uncouth Teenagers from the high school located about eight yards away. The old, teenager-repelling form of the library was a very clear statement of who was socially dominant; the new teenager-friendly version looks like surrender.)

    This is exactly why I headed my guest post with a “librarians should not take this advice” disclaimer. “Who is culturally ascendant where” is a silly, juvenile game and should all know better.


  2. I absolutely love the new Cambridge library. As a laptop-toting yuppie, it makes a great space for me to work (after all, I work from home) and to pick up the latest books I’ve ordered from Minuteman (oh man did I love Grant’s guestblog; I’ve had so many of those thoughts myself). I think the Salon writer had it really wrong: yes, bookstores compete for market-share, but in doing so they have to figure out how to make a space that people want to be in and that will attract them to books. This is a classic case where capitalism works to find good solutions! (Well, not that good, since bookstores are kind-of dying.)

    I admit that I’m not entirely sure what I think the purpose of a library is today. I think you have to ask it from the perspective of a government official making a funding decision as well as from the perspective of those of us who love libraries. I’ve been thinking about this independently of your writing, and seem to have come to the following conclusions:

    1) To improve community literacy.

    2) To provide a community space. (Something the new Cambridge library does fabulously.)

    3) To provide a shared space for resources such as books and Internet access that community members might not be able to provide on their own.

    I tend to think that these tie together; you improve literacy by providing a beacon for the resources you offer, drawing people in by creating a community space, etc. I also tend to think that (3) is to some degree getting more outdated: in all honesty, I’m not sure how much longer we’ll really be reading physical books and so storing them is likely to be of decreased value.

    When you talk about librarians as useful for doing research… well, I’m sure they are, but I’ve never found myself in need of that. I know how to find virtually every piece of information that I need relatively quickly, and when I don’t, I tend to opt for asking an expert in the field (I have a wide net of contacts) rather than asking a librarian, who is certain to have ideas but unlikely to have detailed knowledge of the field. (Exception: at Illinois, the librarians in the Education library were outstanding… but they were, after all, in a library specialized to a particular area of knowledge.)

    On the other hand, I know that this isn’t universally true. I realize that someone can walk into the library needing something and not have any idea how to get it or who to ask. It’s just different from how I tend to think myself.

    Somehow, though, I’m still not satisfied with my answers above; I intuitively feel the need for libraries but am still working on the intellectual justification.


    1. I think part of the problem is people tend to talk about “the purpose of libraries” or “the future of libraries” when, in fact, it needs to be purposeS and futureS. It’s a question that doesn’t make sense independent of the characteristics of the patrons being served.


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