Over the past thirty years, libraries have changed enormously due architectural fashions and technology. In the United States, Nicholson Baker has documented and denounced the impact of technology on the artefacts held in libraries, the books and newspapers replaced by microfilm and microfiche. This is not a reiteration of his plea, which I support, but a parallel argument about the similar destruction of the buildings that hold books and journals and newspapers.
There is a direct parallel between the materials held in the library, and the building itself. One can draw a parallel between the feel of a fine book, bound in leather, with beautiful typography, and the feel of being in a fine old library, or even a fine new library, compared to a cheap paperback book and some of the libraries built recently that have focused almost exclusively on efficiency.
My favourite library in the United States, the Boston Public Library, is now completely dominated by Phillip Johnson’s so-called ‘sensitive’ addition. Where I once walked past the John Singer Sargent murals on the way to the art and architecture section of the library, the addition offers no such transition from the outside active world to the inside, contemplative world. I find myself in ‘just another building.’ Efficient maybe, but not inspiring.
Libraries do not exist without books, books which libraries make available for consultation to a wide number of people. Without public, national or institution libraries, books and related graphic materials would exist only in the hands of individuals. The history of graphic communication would be barely possible without libraries, and Gutenberg Bibles would all disappear or be owned by Bill Gates. Without libraries, many people without access to a personal computer would not have access to current digital technology.
Libraries are very much a part of the creation of an egalitarian democracy. Before the existence of public libraries there was an elite class, members of which, in Britain, studied at Oxford or Cambridge and owned their own personal libraries, and those who were cut off from the information and ideas held in these institutions. The library, with its holdings of a wide range of books, journals and newspapers created the world in which we now live, where farm boys can imagine a life beyond milking cows.
Libraries are a great equaliser. And this equalisation is not only about providing access to information or to historical texts - some of these are widely available commercially, for example anybody can buy a five pound paperback George Eliot novel from a bookshop (I have many). It’s something else altogether to go to a library and dig up a very old copy, on fine paper, with a beautiful 19th century binding, and a publication date that transports you back to the time and place and feelings intended by the author. The room you read this in matters as much. Middlemarch read in the clatter of a bad 1970s building just doesn’t work.
Graphic communication is central to our intellectual history - more than central - essential. So are libraries. Libraries, the buildings, are central to the collective experience of our relationship to print culture. What is important is that the space in which we experience the printed word or picture supports a certain reverence for the artefact.
There is more to a library than the records it keeps, even if these are its heart and soul. A library is a place, one that technology threatens to, if not destroy, make so insignificant that the quality of the space becomes as washed out as the microfilmed copies of old illustrated newspapers. In 1830, Victor Hugo predicted that ‘the book will kill the building.’ But the building flourished after 1830. It is not the book that will kill the building, but the computer is already destroying both.
A library used to be a sanctuary where one did not just ‘do’ research but entered an altered state of quiet reflection, of deep thought, of tactile relationships with books. Old libraries smell like libraries, look like libraries, feel like libraries. The old British Library reading room was not only woven into our research patterns, but held the ghosts of all who had gone before, and quietly inspired us. Because of the architecture of the room - not just the dome, but the tables, the lighting, the cumbersome and hand annotated volumes of its holdings. Older libraries support a communication between the user, the space, and the materials.
This has now been lost amidst the fluorescent lights, industrial carpeting, individualized carrels, and the clatter of computer terminals. I have never heard a librarian tell students in our little design library to ‘ssshhhh’. Why bother with all the noise generated by technology? Why bother when the ambience of the room does not support contemplation inb any case? In his 1994 apologia for the new British Library in St Pancras, Sir Anthony Kenny barely mentions the ambience of the British Reading room or of the new library. He talks about almost nothing but efficiency, central cataloguing, the central lending and photocopying service, and the greater number of reader seats accomplished by bringing all decentralised libraries under one roof. In Lynne Brindley’s speech to the Culture Club at the Laser Annual Event of 2000, she waxes poetic about the regeneration of the Kings Cross area, extolling the building as an ‘architectural exemplar [of] a new venue for creative and cultural activities…the entrance hall provided the spectacular setting for the premier of Stephen Koplowitz’s dance piece, Babel Index.’ I find this an ironically appropriate comparison, as the Tower of Babel was the end of the Adamic language that held civilizations together. I love art as much as the next person, and public exhibitions, and amusement, and spectacles. But not when I go to the library.
When I arrived in Britain to attend the St Bride’s conference, I forced myself immediately to head out to both the British Museum and the new British library. I figured I had better treat this like taking off a bandage -do it quickly and get it over with. At the British Museum, I headed directly to the new great court where I found the old reading room safely encapsulated like a museum specimen - well, now it is a museum specimen. What was once a space that breathed history is now a diorama. The new great court skylight completely overwhelms the old reading room. When Panizzi had the room built it was huge, 125 feet across (more or less), but in an odd way, intimate. Full of books, and wooden tables illuminated with task lighting, it was a place in which to focus on one’s work and then find relief in the soaring domed ceiling. But the expanded great court is now just a vast, largely uninteresting space full of cheap cafeteria tables and confusingly disparate gift shops. There is no reason to be in the room, unless you are trying to find your way to the toilet, or are looking for a postcard. I did find a postcard, an aerial shot of the old dome popping though the new skylight. The old dome now looks as though it functions like the lantern on Florence Cathedral - as a weight to keep the new skylight from splaying open.
While the architectural dwarfing is irritating to the architectural historian, the new courtyard similarly dwarfs the entire cultural and intellectual history of the old library. What used to be the centre of the British Museum, the intellectual storage house that explicated and illuminated its artefacts, is now a vast empty space with no raison d'etre. It needed a band, or string quartet, some clowns, or other entertainment. Since the only response was to cry, I left, paid homage to the stolen chunks of the Parthenon friezes and my favorite Layard booty, and headed towards St Pancras.
Crossing the huge plaza I began to get a feel for what was wrong in both places. My initial reaction to the building was based on the over-scaled, three-part asphalt shingle roof. Then I became increasingly aware of the
reiteration of the British Museum plaza, only now cleaned up (it seems the pigeons were left in Bloomsbury). Going inside, there was more vast, empty space, a gift shop, and a snazzy ceiling (making necessary the beautiful asphalt shingle roof). Then it hit me: it was all about scale in the first place, and entertainment in the second. Once again the new has taken the best of the old and caged it - in the centre of the building all the books once lining the dark halls around the old North Library (the inner sanctum) are now permanently encased in plexi-glass, ranging to the top of the building like a giant central column of books, or a true Tower of Babel, symbol of a permanent loss of cultural heritage.
Dr Cymbre Raub is an associate professor in design at North Carolina State University