Open to All: Monumentalizing Cultural Spaces

Witold Rybczynski’s “Borrowed Time,” an interesting photo-essay published at Slate today, considers the architecture, purpose, and meaning of libraries in the “”digital world” of Google, Wikipedia, and Kindle.” Rybczynski’s essay is typical Slate writing–it picks at its topic a little bit, rifles through a few examples, and ends with an empty platitude.

The article cites Jacksonville’s own new downtown branch among several examples of a new direction in library building, arguing that the “library building boom of the last two decades is closely tied to efforts to rejuvenate downtowns. Cities can’t re-create the department stores, movie palaces, and manufacturing lofts that once made downtowns the vital centers of American metropolitan life, so they build convention centers, ballparks, museums, and concert halls instead.” Rybczynski concedes that “Retro ballparks have enjoyed success with the public,” but insists that the days of “library-as-monument” are over. Instead, he sees the library of the future as more of a social meeting place, a community center with internet access, coffee shops, and magazines–with less and less room for books.

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Jacksonville’s new Main Library (Downtown)

Although the trend that Rybczynski points out does evince a change in both the architecture and organization of the library–a trend that does reflect (relatively) recent changes in technology–I just don’t see the library losing its monumental status. Rather, I think that 21st-century notions, concepts, and constructions of what exactly a society should monumentalize, and how that culture should monumentalize whatever it decides it should monumentalize (whether it’s a sports arena, a church, a library, or a shopping mall) are changing. The purpose of a library–extending all the way back to the Library at Alexandria–is akin to (and yet, of course, different from) the purposes of churches and art and science museums: libraries serve as a nexus of a culture’s collected knowledge, and as a point of access to that knowledge. This is why the concept of a public library is extremely important, indeed vital, to a free and democratic society. Just because greater access to technology holds the possibility of displacing books does not mean that books will disappear forever and that museums will have to suddenly become glorified Starbucks. Change is normal, and a library that fails to reflect the zeitgeist of its age would cease to become a library (it would be a history museum). And yet the core mission of public libraries will (and should) remain as long as people endeavor to enter the epochs-old conversation that is human culture.

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Improbably, Rybczynski cites the “Extinction Timeline” created last year by What’s Next and Future Exploration Network as evidence that the library will certainly disappear (in 2019). While this type of thinking is fun–and I certainly get a kick out of the “Extinction Timeline”–it belongs to the realm of science fiction, not cultural criticism. Although much of what the Extinction Timeline predicts will almost certainly come about (how much longer can printed telephone directories last?) I suspect that more than half of it is tongue-in-cheek. Will “Childhood” really disappear in 2030? Will “Sit down breakfasts” become insignificant? Can “Natural Childbirth” really go away by 2038? If these guys are serious, this is teleological thinking at its worst. But perhaps I’m ludicrously old fashioned. After all, I still think that “Mending Things” (“Existence insignificant” as of 2009) is both important and worthwhile, and, in a more abstract sense, both healthy and good for people. And I’ll be mending things in 2009.

If our libraries need to be mended, or amended, rather, let’s change them in ways that suitably monumentalize and grant access to our culture. I think that the Jacksonville library alluded to in Rybczynski’s article monumentalizes the best aspects of human culture and technology, and is more than just, as Rybczynski suggests, an “urban hangout” or mere “arbiter of information.” And even if, like the Seattle Public Library, the Jacksonville Public Library is full of “street people” (Rybczynski’s contemptuous term), significantly, it is, as its stairwell mural proudly declares, “OPEN TO ALL”–a monument to democratic and egalitarian access to information.

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10 thoughts on “Open to All: Monumentalizing Cultural Spaces”

  1. Thanks for chiming in/clarifying Ross. And I really do love the Timeline by the way. My whole issue/the reason I brought it up had to do with the Slate article citing a piece that is essentially intended as “a bit of fun” as (illogical) evidence about the (inevitable) death of the library (hence Rybczynski’s title, “Borrowed Time”).

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  2. The Slate article seems silly. There are two different issues going on, and neither of them are fleshed out very well. And ultimately, what does architecture have to do with the functionality of the library in the digital age?

    The library is not ignorant of the changes in technology and the way people access information. Libraries are fully aware that their role is changing, and that they must keep up with the expectations of their users. That’s why they don’t just do books anymore. And by that I don’t mean they are becoming coffee shops or museums. They have digital libraries of content that is not accessible anywhere else. They subscribe to databases that allow users to do full text searches of scanned and born-digital scholarly journals in any language. They allow access to hi-res audiovisual content that is encumbered by rights restrictions and cannot be accessed freely anywhere except in the library. And of course major libraries (including downtown public libraries) have unique invaluable special collections of important papers, books, documents, photographs and artifacts. And they do all this in a way that allows patrons not to have to do much more than utilize their Google skills.

    I work in a library, granted not a public library, but a major university library. This library is packed 24/7. Even still, I don’t know if most of the patrons here fully realize everything the library has to offer. I think the major challenge of the library now is not keeping up with technological changes and users expectations, because they are doing that very well. But making patrons aware of the services and collections that they have is another challenge. Everyone knows you can go to the library and check out a book, but do they know that the Jacksonville public library has a Holocaust collection and one of the largest collections on Florida history, economics, and government? Do students at my university know that they can access 16,000 recordings of early African American music online. Probably not — I work here, and I don’t know about most of the things they have.

    Build the new beautiful library, attract people to it, build resources and collections, and improve education of library services. When all of these things happen together, the library remains an invaluable service to the community.

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  3. Excellent point Kara (as usual). A+. I remember being shocked half way through my freshman year at UF to discover Turlington library’s fantastic film collection (all VHS at the time!)…My head was spinning. I spent the next four years checking out at least one movie a week: it was a beautiful education. I would never have known about the film collection, but a thoughtful professor told me.
    Since then, I’ve always tried to figure out what libraries can offer; I think that Jacksonville libraries are fantastic (I don’t know why anyone would get movies from Blockbuster); I frequently request that the libraries buy materials and they do. Excellent collection of books on CD. And, going back to my post, I think that access to information and culture *does* serve as a monument to our culture.

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  4. What? Turlington had a film collection?

    This is getting off topic a little, but I’d like to say that University of Florida professors are probably just as guilty as the librarians at not educating students on the collections of the library. Also, one the thing that urks me to this day about faculty at UF was that they NEVER emphasized primary source research. I didn’t even know what a primary source was until I got to grad school. It seems like the whole English department’s philosophy was to teach students to read secondary sources and base their papers on reinterpreting those texts. Never did they say — go back and read the letters of this or that filmmaker, go and read newspaper articles from the time the book was written. At least, that was my experience. Granted, these things are easier to do today than they were when we were undergrads now that so much of it is scanned and online (even though the vast majority of it still is not, make no mistake). I wonder if they have improved on this at all.

    You are lucky you had a good professor who told you about the film collection.

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  5. And: I agree that access to information absolutely serves as a monument to our culture. If you can’t access it, what’s the point.

    And And: I love the extinction timeline.

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  6. Not Turlington, sorry. Library West, by the Plaza of the Americas. That’s what I meant. Jeez, it’s been almost a decade…anyway, they had the most fantastic collection of films…like all the French New Wave films, every Herzog film, tons of old weird sci-fi, cult-classics, Kurosawa films, stuff like that.
    I agree w/ you: as an undergrad I had to do very little primary-source research, especially in my English classes (my anthropology and linguistics courses, on the other hand, required a lot more primary source stuff). I find that in my grad program now, many of my peers cram their analyses with critical citations, as opposed to close readings of the original works they’re writing about.

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  7. Speaking from the architecture side, not as an expert but rather as a fan and subscriber of Dwell, I feel like the design of Jacksonville Main Library is very muted and too, to coin a phrase, blendy.

    It’s just not that exciting from a design standpoint. I think it actually looks like more of a courthouse than a library.

    One of the great things about large scale public institution architecture projects is that they can engage imaginative architects and designers that are, like, looking into the future as opposed to building a plain box monolithic structure with the materials of the day. The Haydon Burns Main Library, Jacksonville’s former main branch, is an local example of taking a chance and doing something out of the ordinary with a public space.

    Next Art Walk (March 5), I highly recommend taking a stroll through the old library and look around. I am in awe of that building’s relevance and timeliness (though not timelessness). The Brady Bunchesque color palette notwithstanding it is really wonderfully designed and modern enough to stand with current “modern” architecture.

    Please note that I’m not slagging off the new library as an institution. Actually I think the second (or third?) floor terrace is a beautiful idea and excellent implementation.

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  8. I also was totally thinking Library West when you wrote Turlington. At least we are on the same wavelength. Right place, wrong name.

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  9. Not on topic at all, but isn’t Damon’s phrase “blendy” co-opted from a Taco Bell commercial. Isn’t blendy one of the new four food categorizations? Along with cheesy, crunchy, and spicy?

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