Is the Library Relevant?

“A public library is the most enduring of memorials, the trustiest monument for the preservation of an event or a name or an affection; for it, and it only, is respected by wars and revolutions, and survives them”

– Mark Twain

In a sidebar of the August Issue of Wired, the magazine poses the following question to three librarians: “Will the internet put public libraries out of business?” Michael Gorman, president elect of the American Library Association believes that computer access will always draw people into the library, and “once they’re inside… they end up checking out books.” Even though our existing punctuation leaves little room for interpretation, there seems to be an air of pessimism in his response. Blogger/Librarian Jessamyn West is a little more overt. “The people who can afford to buy computers and internet service often stay home to read and do their research, which means that libraries are increasingly becoming places where poor people go to use public services.” On a recent morning, here in New Orleans, a friend of mine was needed to get some information from the main library. He was a little early, and just decided to wait for the library to open. Over 20 homeless people had the exact same idea. This isn’t just happening in New Orleans. Libraries have always been a popular refuge, but problems begin to arise as “people who can afford to buy computers,” stop going to the library, and it becomes only a refuge. Ms. West continues to point out that as this trend increases, people will become more reluctant to fund a facility that, to them, has outlived its usefulness. So what is to become of the “trustiest monument?”

This article reminded me of of MVRDV’s proposal for the Libraries 2040 Exhibition, which assumed that by the year 2040, the traditional public library will cease to exist. MVDRV proposal was not merely a re-imaging of the library building, it was a proposition to re-define the information network of an entire province. Everything that we currently think of as a typical library function (ie book and media collection, computer access) would be housed in a sublime “meta-building,” whose entire archive would be digitized. Smaller, yet more exclusive collections will be incorporated into modern meeting places such as cafes, schools, waiting rooms and even gas stations. These remote locations will be connected to the central library network – which would, of course, also be accessible from personal computers. MVRDV envision a library that infiltrates the fabric of our social environment, becoming more accessible than ever, yet also much less important as a civic space.

With Media outlets and university libraries digitizing their archives, the idea of a fully virtual information resource is well within the realm of possibility. If libraries are going to retain their relevance, they’re going to have to develop as a social space, offering programs, services, and events that will lure people away from their monitors and the sanctity of their homes. The days of getting “shushed” are at an end.

In The Library of Babel, Borges describes an infinite Library – the very makeup of the Universe – that contains and orders all things known and unknown, wise and nonsensical. The infinite nature of their surroundings drive the curators into a self-destructive despair. His Distopic library parallels the potential of the internet – an infinitely vast collection of knowledge surpassed only by the amount useless gibberish and meaningless drivel. (re: blogs) If we lose the social and civic nature of our information resources, we too may get lost in our own infinite resources.

The (not so) very small home

This past Monday, my neighborhood bookstore hosted a lecture by new Orleans born architect Azby Brown. Brown now resides in Japan, where he is associate professor of architectural design at the Kanazawa Institute of Technology, and founder of the Future Design Insitute in Tokyo. He was discussing his new book, The Very Small Home-Japanese ideas for living well in limited space. The subject matter isn’t exactly foreign to Brown, whose previous books were Small Sapces, The Genius of Japanese Carpentry, and The Japanese dream home.

The title might be a bit of a misnomer. Flipping through the book prior to the lecture, I noticed that none of the represented homes are VERY small. I was expecting 500 sq ft or less but the total floor area for most of these residences was well above 1000sq ft. Personally, I also take issue with the word “home.” These spaces are extremely elegant and incredibly intelligent, but -speaking as someone born and raised in the American Midwest- they’re not exactly “home-y.” Nonetheless, Brown presents some extremely innovative space solutions by a variety of architects, including Tadao Ando and Shigeru Ban. I didn’t realize that the Japanese value light much more than area, and many of these buildings sacrificed a lot of potential space to get more light into a room or to avoid blocking their neighbor’s light.

Appropriate to the subject matter, almost a hundred people were crammed into the small bookstore and – this being new Orleans – they got a little rowdy. Although to be fair, their behavior might have been a result of the constant supply of wine. I have been to many a catered lecture, but never one where my wine glass was constantly kept full by one of the many tuxedoed servers quietly milling through the room. An hour into the lecture, the questions started, but there was no “does anyone have any questions,” or “now I’d like to take a few questions.” A woman interrupts loudly: (in my best John Kennedy Toole-like literary dialect) “Baby! I bin to Tok-yo, and d’ere were sooo many people, well I jes tought dey was havin’ Mardigras or somethin!” …No, no there’s no mardi gras in Japan, but the lively, uninhibited crowd added some excitement to the lecture, and it was a nice change from the stuffy, elitist crowd often present at the University Lectures.

The most interesting portions of the lecture, which unfortunately isn’t represented in the book, were the slides showing Japanese homes in the 1950’s. In these spaces, there is a clearly evident clash of cultures. The small ultra efficient, traditional, Japanese peasant homes that have a place for everything suddenly were forced to accommodate televisions, radios, and refrigerators. The resulting spaces looked more like a junk shop than a tea room.

(for great ideas on truly small spaces, see apartment therapy’s recent competition)