Standing in front of a bookcase, feeling baffled.

It would be fair to say that even amongst the librarians here there is a fair amount of amusement— or bewilderment— about the Norman D Stevens archive .  Stevens is the retired director of university libraries at the University of Connecticut and, the blog The Library History Buff  notes, “arguably the world’s greatest collector of librariana”. Librariana, for those that don’t know, are artifacts and memorabilia produced by libraries. The librarians’ bemusement is not based on why these objects – plates, tiepins, t-shirts – have been collected but why they have been produced in the first place. From the point of view of a British viewer, they are relics of a strange institution, which we are only beginning to understand the vital purpose of as it is gravely threatened.

There is something disquieting about looking at a series of plates with similar images of the Library of Congress in Washington DC on them. It is not altogether clear where they are simply mementoes purchased in a souvenir shop or if they are smaller limited editions, gifts to privileged users or friends of the library. Perhaps it was to make the former feel like the latter. Representative of the collection as a whole, the plates shown here depict the library in isolation, representing it in a time before neighboring buildings were built or simply blurring them out. In an attempt to help me explain them, the CCA’s Head of Collection Reference Renata Gutman found an essay by Dale Allen Gyure The Heart of the University: A History of the Library as an Architectural Symbol of American Higher Education Winterthur Portfolio 42 (Summer/Autumn 2008) on the role of the library in American campuses.

Allen Gyure’s thesis – which focuses mainly on university libraries – has strange implications for libraries in the electronic age. He describes the tertiary educational system in the USA in the early part of the 19th century as being emphatically based on learning by rote. Examining a Yale report of 1828, he writes: “implicit in the report was the remarkable reasoning that single text with recitations is superior to the use of the library.” Apart from one stunning exception at the University of Virginia, designed in part by Thomas Jefferson, university libraries at this time where above or adjacent to university chapels. They were infrequently open for lending and were usually small.

Gyure’s suggests that the turning point in the architecture of university libraries was when in 1882 the Harvard Board of Overseers changed the universities motto from Christo et Ecclesiae to Veritas. It is this moment when seeking rather than repeating becomes the dominant mode of learning. Expressed in architectural terms, Gyure says, from this date university libraries become central to campus planning, and finally, some years after Jefferson’s death , began to live up to his vision of learning by giving libraries central or dominating positions within campus plans.

Replacing chapels and central administration as the heart of the university, the library was elevated to a quasi-religious status. Today, in an era when the institutional parameters of a lending library are being questioned, this has a charge. Here is the library as temple, the library as a closed institution containing knowledge. And this is what makes these plates so strange and so powerful. Certainly, the Library of Congress has a specific power: founded as it is on Jefferson’s personal library, sold to the US government after the British destroyed the original library in 1812. But the sanctity of the institution typified a general feeling about libraries, while an image of it reproduced on a plate today prompts a sense of unease.

An essay by Karen Coyle explains the growing anxiety about electronic information and the library. She explains that:

“In the electronic age rather than owing a unit of information … the library typically leases access to information. The use of leased information is governed not by copyright law but by the contract with the individual information provider.”

The liberation of information from the physical realm creates an anxiety for the institution of the library. How does it monitor usage? Disseminate information? Is it in fact obsolete?

In the UK this sense of insecurity about libraries has been exacerbated by budgetary concerns. As local authorities in the UK are forced to contemplate library closures due to the cuts by a conservative-led government, we are trying to express exactly what it is that makes a library so special.

Alan Bennett writing in the LRB describes it thus:

“I have always been happy in libraries, though without ever being entirely at ease there. A scene that seems to crop up regularly in plays that I have written has a character, often a young man, standing in front of a bookcase feeling baffled.”

The library as repository of learning and literary success can be a daunting place for a young man. Bennett allows us to see how this relates to himself a working class boy at Oxford in the 1950s. He describes walking across a square which is surrounded by libraries and has one the Radcliffe Camera sitting in the middle: “crossing it on a moonlit winter’s night lifted the heart, though that was often the trouble with Oxford, the architecture out-soared one’s feelings.”

And yet a hard won familiarity with libraries – the blessings they offered – Bennett implies made him who he is. His chance to read Cyril Connolly’s Horizon magazine to find a place to study without being bothered in his small family home, permitted him to explore the libraries of his youth in the face of the frightening admonitions of the ex-World War one servicemen and the stifling air of reverence in these places, designed above all to speak of civic pride.

Philip Larkin, a writer with whom Alan Bennett shared a great deal though Larkin was a poet and Bennett a dramatist and short-fiction writer, shared an even more extreme ambivalence with libraries. In a recent essay, the British architecture critic Hugh Pearman notes that during Larkin’s most productive years he was, in fact, building two libraries as part of his position as chief librarian at Hull University. Pearman notes that Larkin felt resentful towards his day-job for interfering with his literary endeavors. “Why should I let the toad work / squat on my life?”  he had written in his poem, Toads in 1954

Yet as Pearman details in his excellent study, Larkin was a hard working, conscientious librarian, and by the end a standout client. Castle, Park, Dean and Hook, the firm of architects who built the second library, were impressed. According to Geoff Hook, who is quoted in a biography by Andrew Motion, Pearman was a perfect client representative:

“He was able to by-pass obstacles by operating person to person. He knew it was a seat of the pants job and therefore went straight to the heart of the matter, whatever it was. It was an extraordinary talent— if he’d been planning London Airport it would have been the same.”

What would a poet’s airport look like? Surprisingly prosaic I would imagine. According to Pearman, the second phase of Hull University – a poet’s library – is “a defiantly strange eight storey crinkle – cut tile and plate glass lump.” Larkin was apparently more interested in housing a million books and calculating student-to-seat ratios. He didn’t seem to mind the overt brutalism of Castle, Park, Dean and Hook’s design that proclaims in its own machine-age way the importance of reading.

But then a library isn’t the same as reading or writing. Whilst he spent 14 years planning and building libraries, Larkin was also working on his best poetry. As Pearman notes: “it seems that the years of overwork building his libraries, far from holding him back, gave him the necessary impetus to write what he had to write.”  We need to bear this in mind as we consider the new generation of libraries, which will be architecturally at least quite different, even from Larkin’s libraries in Hull. Perhaps rather inadvertently, buildings like these became monuments to reading as an act of intellectual production, daunting in its own way. In the haphazard plan of British universities, Brutalism provided a means for the library to become an institution, a great keep of learning.

Of course, the re-thinking of libraries is not simply spatial. The rethinking of copyright law is now fundamental to the existence of libraries. Coyle wonders whether libraries could print out copies to lend to users, thereby retaining physical ownership of the information rather than acting as kind of leasing agent to the reader. This she acknowledges would not work for high demand items or long reports: “It doesn’t make sense to return printing to a cottage industry, taking place in libraries and homes.”  I would say that just because mass dissemination has a local point of distribution this doesn’t mean it is a cottage industry. A post office – another institution under attack in the UK – may be a local facility, but it is also a place were sophisticated methods of international financial and information exchange finally meet the end user. These two institutions could become one.

I think that the death of print is greatly exaggerated and that libraries may become localized free-to-print points with an area for reading on-site. Old libraries will retain their use. Newer libraries will express their role as sites of exchange rather than temples of learning. This process is already underway and explains why even librarians are slightly bemused by the librariana of Norman D. Stevens. Although they are only a couple of decades old they already feel like relics from a more deferential era. Personally I can live with libraries taking another step away from their 19th century role as secular temples in order to become places were people gather information and in a room or two adjacent, quietly read. Were it not for their stupid name, the Idea Stores by David Adjaye in East London would be a good model. And indeed the Seattle Public Library is this on a grand urban scale married with a provision for much needed public space.

The stumbling block of course is copyright. Coyle’s other suggestion that copyright laws be developed in relation to the author rather than the publisher could radicalize the relationship between reader and writer, with libraries, if anything, gaining greater significance than they have now, becoming sites were books are printed not as a record of what has been published but what has been read. They will be staffed by those rare people who have the ability to help people find the information they want even if those people don’t know what they are looking for exactly.

Thanks to Renata Gutman for her help with this post. 


About cosmopolitanscum

Journalist, writer, commentator, blogging about architecture, urbanism and design from a humanist perspective.
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