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Inside Annoyed Librarian

Nonexistent Wars for the Library’s Future

If there was a contest for the most confused article about libraries the competition would be stiff, but this article might be a strong contender.

According to the headline, it’s about a “culture war being fought over tomorrow’s libraries.”

“Tomorrow’s libraries” are apparently limited to the Schwarzman Building in New York, the Seattle Public Library’s main building, and that new library in China that has pictures of books on the wall instead of actual books.

The inclusion of the Chinese library is something of a puzzle since public libraries there have a shorter and different history than public libraries in the U.S. That, and almost no Americans will ever visit it.

According to the article, “as public knowledge–as gained by accessing information in books–became an important yardstick for a democratic society, public libraries flourished in the 19th century.” Not so much in China.

Supposedly, the Chinese library is an example of libraries “evolving with the digital era,” but it’s noteworthy only because of how different and inferior it is to real libraries, you know, the ones with actual books and not just trompe l’oeil ones. That’s probably true even in China.

This evolution is mentioned in the same article that reports the failed attempt to renovate the Schwarzman Building and move most of the books off site, a plan that failed because people protested losing access to the books, which were more important to them than “evolving with the digital era.”

Instead of a culture war for tomorrow’s libraries, it’s just as much about a war between libraries and architects.

The NYPL paid an architecture firm $9 million to come up with a plan that everyone who actually used the library hated. Another firm created the new Chinese library that seems borderline useless as a library.

Architects always want to design libraries that are different and new and can possibly win awards that nobody but architects care about, when the best model for library buildings is probably the big box store.

No windows to let in light or heat, easy to control the climate, open spaces that can be reconfigured at will, no odd angles or tight corners: an old Walmart would make as good a library building as anything, but that’s not going to win any architecture awards.

And then somehow the article moves from a culture war to a class war, although maybe those are the same thing. Supposedly, “by disproportionately investing in only two locations the NYPL is amplifying inequity rather than reducing it,” because all the other branches aren’t benefitting from that renovation.

Even the class war is a little confused, though. The article claims that “the main branch is indeed a’“a symbol of open and free access to information and opportunity’–as the NYPL states in its news release about the renovation–it’s just that, a symbol.”

That’s because, supposedly, “the real agents of information, whether printed or digital, are embedded in the neighborhoods.”

Well, sort of. The main branch is one of the top research libraries in the country. That’s not just a symbolic fact, that’s a real fact. Comparing it to a neighborhood public library is a bad comparison, because they’re just not the same sorts of things.

Neighborhood libraries could never and should never support the kind of research that the main branch is designed to support, and the main branch doesn’t function as a neighborhood library.

Although it’s a status symbol of sorts, the main branch isn’t a library for the rich. It’s a library that can support the intellectual ambitions of even the most intellectually ambitious New Yorkers in a way that very few public libraries can.

If you want a community center or a quiet place to study, you can go to most public libraries. If you want support for serious library research, after the Library of Congress there might be no better publicly accessible library than the NYPL research collection.

The article tries to prove that libraries are “a mirror of our culture [that] reflect not just the way we consume information (and architecture) through our phones today, but also the forces of that inequality.”

But they aren’t all mirrors of our culture. The NYPL research collection is about as far removed from the general culture as it’s possible to be.

“Our culture,” such as it is, doesn’t much value knowledge or learning. It values entertainment and easy consumption, like pop music and best selling novels, the kinds of desire neighborhood libraries are designed to satisfy.

If the NYPL mirrors inequality, it mirrors an inequality in intellectual seriousness and engagement by the public. Most library users are satisfied with the neighborhood library. Serious students of any subject won’t be.

That’s intellectual inequality, but not economic inequality, and, given that scholars rarely become rich, the two are unrelated.

In the end, all we can get from this is that architects don’t use the libraries they design and big, bold public library statements will get more attention than humdrum everyday libraries, but then again we already knew that.


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  1. “Trompe l’oeil”! Must #resist Trompe! #LibrariesRespond! #TheResistance

  2. Architects. interior designers and administrators are often cut from the same cloth and are often clueless about how people use a library. These days they are all about hiding all those dumpy old books and probably would redesign the librarians as well. They don’t often see the trees for the forest. When we opened a new library we had an interior designer who thought that bookends were the ugliest things on earth and didn’t want to see them on the shelves. We put up with her till she left town. I would growl each time I heard the books fall over and go plop. Two years later she contacted me and asked if I could take some pictures for her portfolio. I took loads of them with bookends visible .

  3. What?

  4. Dan your cogent points on some issues are undermined by your post on this topic.

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