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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