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.

your DIY library

In Do Open Academic Libraries Need Academic Librarians over at ACRLog, StevenB brings up MIT OpenCourseWare and its kin, notes the People’s Library set up outside the (closed past 8pm) CalState library by students who need a place to study (…ah, California, you were so hospitable to open-air spaces), and asks questions about what constitutes an academic library and what its OpenCourseWare equivalent would be.

Which makes me wonder — if you were to build your own library, from the ground up, without any need to defer to historical context or existing facilities, to serve….whatever needs you think a library does, or ought to, address…what would it look like? What is your library?

shared ownership, shared space: library reflections from school experiences

Was just reading whose space is it anyway, on what sort of behavior is & should be allowed in the library, and it dovetailed with another issue I’ve been thinking about.

So, I used to teach at a very traditional prep school (which was awesome in a lot of ways, very different from my own education, and I’m grateful to have had the opportunity). Now my daughter goes to a Montessori school. While both of these places provide excellent educations they have, of course, very different cultures.

In the traditional school environment, it was in many ways my responsibility, as the teacher, to set & enforce behavioral norms. This meant that it became my responsibility to monitor everyone’s behavior — and, perhaps, correspondingly less their responsibility to monitor their own. (I don’t think this is the goal of traditional school cultures, but I think it’s a structural effect.) Once you’ve set up that kind of power relationship, I think it becomes necessary for the students to look for ways to subvert it, to claim their own power (as a way to assert their own identities); when they look for ways to assert power outside the official structure, those often end up being ways to assert it against the official structure, which is to say, behavior that is often irresponsible, reckless, or at minimum annoying.

In the Montessori environment there’s a lot more freedom of choice for students as to what activities they’re involved in, which means correspondingly there’s a lot more responsibility for them to monitor their own behavior; it is simply impossible for the teachers to be channeling everyone’s behavior when there are substantially more activities going on than teachers. This means they invest a lot of time in teaching routines and building a particular kind of culture, so that they can wind up the students and let them go. This means that I’ve seen four-year-olds hard at work, in a room with no teacher, next to an open door. (In other words, yes, I’ve watched four-year-olds and gotten the distinct impression they were more mature than some of the twelve-year-olds I’ve taught. Maybe this is just the maelstrom of crazy that is early puberty? But I think it is, or at least is also, a cultural difference.)

There’s some real concepts of ownership here. My daughter is three, and she already feels, and is expected to feel, a shared stake in ownership of space at her school. It is her space, as much as anyone else’s. And I think the whose-space-is-it-anyway post is touching on these themes: is it our job, as librarians, to enforce certain notions of behavior in libraries — to set up that power dynamic? Or are we facilitators within a shared space, where we both give up control over the norms, and encourage people to feel ownership of their library?

Stated that way, of course the latter sounds more romantic. But it’s also problematic; my daughter’s teachers spent a lot of time developing those cultural norms. The first few months of the toddler program center around teaching these routines. You can do that when you’re dealing with a defined group that doesn’t change much, but library patrons don’t necessarily form such a group. How can shared ownership — including the level of shared responsibility necessary to escape that authority-relationship structure — be developed with a more transient population? Can it be? How?