November 20, 2015

On Libraries

The Place of a Library
If you think that a library is merely a place to store and share books then you've settled on the wrong word. The word you're looking for is "book warehouse." A library is a space to use and a place to be, in short, a reader. It takes more than a stack of books to accomplish this. It takes a special kind of place designed and maintained with purpose. It takes a library in the fullest sense of the word.

One thing I need in a library is ambiance. Living in Belgium has made me appreciate the style of American libraries. Here in Belgium, libraries tend to be massive closets filled with thousands of books. There are large tables for groups of people to sit around. Reading at a library table here makes me feel like a cow feeding at a trough with hundreds of other cattle jostling for a place to feed. Then there's the decoration and lighting: if it had a little more warmth it would have the charm of an operating room.

In contrast, the kind of library I love is an idyllic example of easy, quiet ambiance. Warm lighting, comfortable reading chairs, and personal desks secreted away into cornersa labyrinthine design goes a long way. The decorative style of a library should cultivate a relaxed, intellectual mood through tacit cues and subtly impressed symbols. Personally I like maps and classic physical models, small geological or biological exhibitshints of a museum. What is perhaps most important to me is that I can easily find a nook to myself.

But a library is not just a solitary place, any more then reading is a solitary activity. Libraries are first and foremost interpersonal and communitarian. I can construct a study at home, but I need other people to make a library. Even the atmosphere is improved with other people around. A library connects people with each other, but it also connects a local community with the world at large. It brings the knowledge of the world to a single place, but it can also exhibit the relationship that a place has to the rest of the world. Still more, it provides a place to exhibit local knowledge including the history, ecology, and artistic culture of a community. True learning begins at home, or as we've said since Classical Greece: know thyself. Everything about a library from it's architecture, decoration, and design can explore a local place and its relationship to the entire world of knowledge.

Doubtless it's been the growth of the internetebooks and Wikipediathat's diminished the storage and lending function of a library. But with the waning of one function comes the waxing of another: more then ever a library is a community's place of study, and that function needs to be written into its design.