The Reading Room

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The iron tracery of the library windows outline stained glass depictions of campus heraldry beside scenes of history’s most famous writers and scholars. As the summer haze seeped into the reading room, its dark wood-paneled walls somehow grew more oppressive. The haze was once much thicker though, and had carried with it the scents of Connecticut tobacco, back when the room was used as the library’s smoking parlor. But those halcyon days are long gone. The reading room has long since been scrubbed clean and its walls are now lined with travel writings and medieval texts. Now, people come here to escape –into descriptions of distant cities or into the records of another time– but at that moment, Walter Field felt more like a prisoner.
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David Adjaye’s Whitechapel Idea Store

As an unabashed fan of David Adjaye’s work, I was very much looking forward to visiting his Whitechapel Idea Store during my recent visit to London. My expectations were high, and I’m glad to say that the building most definitely did not disappoint.

The Idea Store – Adjaye’s work in general, really – show’s an incredible awareness of context. Although not as subtle as much of his work, the use of colored glass, drawn from vendor’s tents of the adjacent market, not only animates the exterior of the building, but also casts brilliant dynamic shadows on the interior.

The entrance to the building – or what should be the entrance to the building – projects out prominently over the sidewalk; further integrating the building within the neighborhood. An entry escalator slips between the sidewalk and the building – a liminal threshold from interior to exterior, that was closed, I was told, for “safety reasons.” No further explanations were offered.

Ample space is provided for the classrooms, studios, and workshops, but each programatic component isn’t necessarily relegated to a separate part of the building. Successfully integrating program elements in this manner seems like it will ensure that all floors are used, while prevent the manifestation of dead spaces.

Shelves and desks are integrated into the the building’s structural system and facade. Every component of the building seems to be supporting another. There is a definite sense of cohesion and coherence within the Whitechapel Idea Store that unfortunately, this seems to be lacking all to often in contemporary architecture.

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.