library futures: Scandinavian edition

Via @ hmccormack, this Utne reader article with thumbnail sketches of some interesting libraries. The one that really grabbed me:

At the extreme end of this spectrum is an ambitious new library in the works in Aarhus, Denmark. This high-tech “urban mediaspace” is being designed to function as a city center: It will have books, but it will also house government-services offices, artist studios, start-up businesses, space for performances, a café, a tram station, and other 21st-century amenities.

Look, I don’t know what this is. Is it a library? If so, will it just be a library because (some part of) it is called that, or because some essential element of its function is identified, by its users, with libraryness?

The essential element that I see here — and love — is the facilitation of conversations. Give people diverse reasons to come together in a particular space — and not just as spectators, but as doers — and surely something collaborative and intriguing can happen. And I can see that element making this space a library — depending on the space planning — depending on how the ideas of conversation and collaboration are framed.

Or, heck, I can see it all being a big awkward mess, or a bunch of people scurrying around not talking to one another. But maybe I should go to Denmark one of these days, see how it works out.

Toward the end, the article also mentioned ways that various libraries are engaging with people’s drive to create, not just consume, content, now that the barriers to doing that are so low (“In Helsinki, Finland, patrons have access to guitars and keyboards from the central library and can book a small recording studio to produce a music video”; score two for Scandinavia).

OK, so I don’t know what The Future(s) of the Library look like more than anyone else, but public space, collaboration, and creation? I can go for those themes.

libraries as philosophical instances

OK, so Jens-Erik Mai is brilliant, and reading his stuff was one of the high points of LIS 419, but still, how is it that I have not before heard anyone theorize library 2.0/future of the library questions as an issue of postmodernism? He points out that the library as we know it is a quintessential creature of modernism and it is therefore wrecking itself on the decentralized shoals of our new world.

(Perhaps my favorite kind of idea: the kind that is utterly transparent once you see it, but you’d never come close to thinking of before.)

This also makes me wonder what the library-entity looks like when it is a reflection or distillation of some totally different philosophy or time…what’s the Enlightenment library, and how is it not the same as the library of modernism, for all that I expect we tend to conflate “Enlightenment” (or, at least, “enlightenment”) and libraries? Can you meaningfully discuss a Dadaist library?

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.

50 cent/robot/owl city/africa is the future

I promised a meatier post on Wayne Bivens-Tatum’s post, so here we go…

* I think Andy is very much right that people are the future. Surely one of the big lessons of the Internet in general and web 2.0 in particular is that people are the killer app — technology that lets us interact with data is great, but technology that lets us interact with data and people wins every time. And addicts us like nobody’s business. And pushes us over qualitative, emergent-behavior boundaries, where new ways to communicate mean newly organized patterns and possibilities of interaction.

* And I’m with @librarythingtim that libraries are and must be changing; “If libraries end up as a way for rich people to indulge children on a visit to a big city—what carriages mean today—well, crap! How did that happen?!” and I, too, “hope people use [Bivens-Tatum’s] essay as a way to “kick it up a notch” intellectually, get past the small stuff…”

The thing that works for me most (among many working things!) about Bivens-Tatum’s post is the point that it’s not about that small stuff. The Future of Libraries isn’t Facebook or SMS reference or what-have-you. The specific technology is, if you will, Plato’s shadows on the wall — specific manifestations of much larger ideas.

The Future represented by this technology, to me, isn’t any one platform; it’s big ideas like democratization of content creation, self-publishing and the attendant opportunity for important voices to come from unexpected and perhaps non-privileged corners, the possibility for people to connect across boundaries — geographic, political, social, corporate — and create their own dialogue that poses challenges to all those boundaries, long tails and finding your tribes far away (but maybe not nearby), remixes, reallocations of power, ubiquitous metadata.

There’s a value to ephemeral technology; we do need to be where our users are right now, and that can change. But there’s a long view here. How do our interactions with, our adoptions of, technology affect our ability to participate in a broadening discourse? to facilitate content creation and remixing? to give voice to the historically disempowered? to pose, and help others pose, questions about the validity and use of those boundaries? to accept that it’s harder and harder to be gatekeepers in a world of broadening access and increasing expectations of access (which I for one think is a good thing) and find ways to facilitate and guide (…while still remembering, and reminding, that there is information kept tightly behind gates, and sometimes it’s the information a discourse needs)?

Specific technologies are manifestations of the principles that guide an emerging future. Those principles are still being digested and determined by cultural mechanisms; cultures, like libraries, seldom change overnight. Me, right now? You can pry my WordPress and Twitter and Google from my cold dead hands — until, perhaps, you softly and gently supercede it, like Mosaic over Lynx, like web interfaces over scp and ftp, like, well, Google over Yahoo in a revelatory moment circa 1998; I’ll try to cling to principles.

[*] The title? From, of course, the top Google hits for “is the future”. I’m a fan of robots myself. (But not, you know, creepy sex robots. I vote against library adoption of this emerging technology. Thanks.)

brief take from a larval librarian

Am reading through Wayne Bivens-Tatum’s justly hyped post on the future of libraries and quoting it at everyone I know. The husband responds,

The future of libraries is as brain-slug repositories. I know; I’ve been there, I’ve heard the hungry mewling of their larvae, heavy with absorbed books, groping damply for unwary patrons. The future of libraries? They do not fear fire; bring a sword.

Man, there are reasons I love that guy.