shearing layers of the hundred-year library

Over at In the Library with the Lead Pipe, the ever-brilliant Brett Bonfield, speculating on the library in a hundred years, asks:

Think about the area where you live. There’s probably an area nearby with really pretty, really old houses? About how old are those houses?

Well, as it happens, my house was built in 1900, and it is still a perfectly good house. Indeed, circa 1900 I think they built this house, once, and then copy/pasted it a few thousand times to make Somerville, and in the intervening years they’ve been widely renovated but rarely torn down. It’s a good house. Why is it a good house?

[iframe src=”” width=”152″ height=”325″ frameborder=”0″ style=”float:left”] I think it comes down to what Stewart Brand said in How Buildings Learn (if you have not read that go do so posthaste). It is a good, solid, low-road building. It’s made of simple rectangles, nothing optimized or purpose-built: blank stages that can fit just about anything people want to put into them as they live their human-scale lives, even as the details of those lives change (sometimes radically) with time. It’s got some space rattling about in the walls — unused, un-optimized, corners unaccounted-for — so that when the residents of 2012 need to fish an extra circuit up from the basement to power the window air conditioners that didn’t exist in 1900, we can repurpose some space and do that. The basement doesn’t leak. A simple, solid, non-prescriptive house.

Even more: the layers are separated. Brand talks about the shearing layers of buildings, moving smoothly past one another on the time axis: site, structure, skin, services, space plan, stuff. There are two key things about these layers. One, they move on different timescales — in our non-disaster-prone area, the geography underneath the house doesn’t change fast, but decor can change in an instant. Two, faster layers are well-separated from slower ones. I can’t change the slower ones without enormous implications for everything built on top — major structural renovations affect plumbing and decoration — but I can hang a new painting on the walls without implications for the pipes or structural integrity or landscape. (In fact, the alternative is horrifying.)

Which gets me thinking, how does this apply to organizations and institutions? How should it?

I think institutions have layers that move at different speeds. The parts of ALA working on the budget are generally contemplating different time scales than the interest groups, say. And clearly the fast-moving interest groups depend on the more deliberate strategic planning and budget work. But proper shearing layers need to avoid too many kinds of dependencies — to hang a painting I need to have a wall, but I shouldn’t have to change the wall, or even think too much about it. The layers need to have obvious affordances at their interfaces — which, in turn, means having interfaces at all. I don’t understand ALA well enough to flesh out this metaphor (comments welcome!), but my intuition is that the interfaces are often not well-defined, and the affordances not at all obvious; the picture-hangers too often have to change the wall. What would it look like if they didn’t?

the lighting at Appfest was not like this at all
I think, in the case of a library, at least, it would look a bit like the 4th floor of the Chattanooga Public Library. For thirty years it was nothing but the oubliette for unused things. Now it’s a gigantic windowless room with most (not all) of the unused things moved out, no carpet, indifferent paint, occasional furniture, and new assistant director Nate Hill (about whom enough good things cannot be said) gets to fill it with…whatever. Which is apparently the local Linux users’ group, and DPLA’s Appfest (I got to go!), and a pitch day for local startups (with crazy awesome lighting. and fish).

In other words, because the room is so blank, so underutilized, so still-waiting-to-learn-what-it-can-become, it can be filled with anything. And he’s filling it with community and creativity and energy and partnerships, and seeing what happens.

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