The Unexpected Renaissance of the Public Library

A funny thing happened on the way to its predicted obsolescence.
The library became more popular than ever.

Sometime last year, the New York Public Library (NYPL) retired its pneumatic-tube system, which had been used to request books for more than a century. This change was made without ceremony or fanfare; I learned of it unexpectedly, when I walked into the catalog room prepared to deliver a call slip to a clerk behind a large wooden desk, only to find a notice directing me elsewhere. For a few moments, I stood there, unmoored, before moving along as instructed. That pneumatic call system had changed little since the library’s open-ing in 1911. You still filled out a slip, and you still turned that slip over to a clerk, who would load it into a metal cartridge. With a slurpy shoomp, the cartridge would be driven by air pressure to a station down in the stacks, where another clerk would retrieve your book, which was then sent back up to the call desk by a dumbwaiter. In recent years, this procedure would take about 20 minutes. In decades past, I’m told, it was closer to five.

The passing of a steampunk relic might occasion a fit of nostalgia and no more—in New York, the cycle of life is accelerated, which is perhaps why we are so attentive to our history—but in this case, something greater seemed to be at stake. One could hardly contrive a more blatant metaphor for the uneasy shift, in the world of letters, from the physical to the digital. The very future of the book, and the printed word in general, is uncertain. We’re at a moment of profound change in the way we consume information, and that change is shaping the kinds of information we value. It is also shaping the spaces in which we consume information. How does one even begin to think about designing libraries in a time of rapidly developing technologies and shifting programs?

“A lot of basic assumptions about what a library is and should be are on the table in a way that they haven’t been since the industrialization of printing,” says Jeffrey T. Schnapp, faculty director of metaLAB at Harvard and a professor of romance languages at the university’s Graduate School of Design. “There’s a shift of their core identity, away from places where documents are housed, to physical structures that can serve as nodes that add value to the act of consultation.”

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To put things a bit more simply, the book—the object that, for so long, defined the library—is no longer its primary focus. Indeed, as content is increasingly digitized, one might ask whether the library is even a viable building type for the future. “My guess is that most libraries will cease to exist,” says David Bell, a professor at Princeton’s Department of History who writes on the subject. “People who love the physical book will see this as one of the great moments of barbarism in history.” Most susceptible are smaller libraries—in high schools, for example—that might easily be replaced by electronic workstations. Library space may be hard to justify when the content of a quarter of a million books fits onto a chip that you can slip into your pocket.

But for all their supposed obsolescence, libraries remain vital places, and many of them are more crowded than ever. Printed material, however, is not always the primary draw. “Increasingly, people can use that material anywhere that they want to, which means they come to the library for other needs,” says Jim Neal, the vice president for information services and university librarian at Columbia University. “They come to study. They come to work together. They come to use technology they can’t carry around. They come here to consult with experts, with librarians.”

The pressure to accommodate “other needs” is especially strong at public libraries, which are increasingly taking on civic functions that far exceed the historical mission of serving books to readers. “Libraries are the new cathedrals of our society. They’re very important sanctuaries,” says the architect Bing Thom, whose new public library in Surrey, British Columbia, a suburb of Vancouver, was designed as a space of communal engagement. “People are living in smaller and smaller spaces, so the library becomes the place you escape to for socialization, for solitude, to take a breath. It’s the last space in society that’s free. Even for the homeless. There is a sense of democracy; it is a common space we all share.”

No recent library has captured more attention than the Seattle Central Library, which was designed by a team led by Rem Koolhaas, and which, in Schnapp’s words, offers “a more user-centered and less storage-centered model.” One can see a similar emphasis on public amenities in libraries as diverse as Massachusetts’s Cambridge Public Library, designed by William Rawn Architects, which opens onto a city park, and Germany’s Stuttgart City Library, designed by Eun Young Yi, a futuristic white cube where patrons can even borrow artwork. With so much of libraries’ programming in flux, flexible spaces have become ever more important.

Libraries were not always such egalitarian spaces. The Greeks may have given us democracy, but their libraries were understood to be both wellsprings and extensions of political power. The first public libraries were built by the Romans, who introduced the form of the modern reading room; each Roman library had two of them, one for works in Greek and the other for works in Latin, all written on paper scrolls and stored in niches, or “armories,” along the walls. The codex, or bound book, didn’t come along until the Christian era, and it remained an exceedingly rare object until well past the age of Gutenberg. As Matthew Battles writes in his wonderful survey, Library: An Unquiet History, Harvard’s library was endowed, in 1638, with the bequest of a mere 260 books.

The great public research library as we know it today was born in France in the late nineteenth century. Industrialized book production demanded facilities for storage and reading, and Henri Labrouste built two in Paris, the Bibliothèque St. Geneviève and the Bibliothèque Nationale, with light-filled reading rooms that celebrated new construction technologies. An American, Melvil Dewey, brought the library fully into the modern era. A wizard of efficiency, he was not content simply to impose his eponymous organ-izational system, but instead reframed the entire physical environment in which the book was stored and read. His company, Library Bureau, sold everything required to furnish the spaces where books resided, from shelves to chairs to specially designed date-stamp pencils.

After a century, the buildings and technologies that were once cutting-edge now seem altogether antiquated. This dilemma is nowhere better illustrated than in the fight over the future of the NYPL, whose main research building was so sophisticated when it opened that it appeared on the cover of Scientific American. The changes planned by the library’s administration extend well beyond the retirement of its pneumatic call system. After several years of delay due to the poor economy, the library recently embarked on a plan to clear some two to three million books from its stacks. These books will be shifted to off-site storage, making way for a new lending library, designed by Norman Foster, with considerably expanded digital services. The Central Library Plan, as it is known, has engendered considerable alarm in the literary and scholarly world and drawn protests from the likes of Salman Rushdie, Mario Vargas Llosa, Morris Dickstein, and Rosalind Krauss.

The library’s president, Anthony Marx, has presented numerous arguments for the plan, ranging from its necessity as a cost-saving maneuver (consolidation is expected to free up funds for acquisition), to the obsolescence of the current stack environment, to the finite nature of the space available on Fifth Avenue. At a private meeting with several concerned writers last month, Marx offered assurances that the library “is not getting out of the book business,” and that books stored off-site would be available within 24 hours.

Those assurances have not alleviated concerns that the library is compromising its core research mission. For writers and scholars, the idea of a library without books, however inevitable it may appear, is something more than an inconvenience. “It’s a disaster for research,” according to Andrew Abbott, a sociologist at the University of Chicago who has studied library use. “You can’t do really cutting-edge research when, a dozen times a day, you’re going to have to wait until tomorrow to get something. It’s like apes swinging through trees. When you’re swinging from vine to vine, and you reach out for the next branch and there’s no vine there, you just fall. That’s what off-site storage is like.
You can’t do research that way.”

For Abbott, who chaired a committee tasked with expanding the capacity of the University of Chicago’s Joseph Regenstein Library, an early 1970s concrete fortress designed by SOM’s Walter Netsch, this was more than an academic problem. After analyzing eight years of circulation statistics, Abbott was able to show that rare and unusual research materials—precisely the items that many universities would have moved into storage—had, in fact, accounted for half of the circulation from the Regenstein’s 4.5-million-item collection, averaging between 100 and 150 items called per day. Those calculations square with Columbia University’s experience; after moving nearly half of its collections to remote storage, the university now receives upward of 200 requests per day, each of which must be satisfied within two business days. (“I think people were concerned when we implemented this, but we live in Manhattan, so space is limited,” Neal says.) Though comparable statistics are not available for the NYPL, which is proposing a larger move and serves far more users, one can presume the effect would be considerably more drastic.

At the University of Chicago, the solution was the Mansueto Library, designed by Helmut Jahn. From the exterior, it appears to be nothing more than a glass-and-steel bubble—a stark contrast to its concrete neighbor. The light-suffused space beneath Mansueto’s domed roof is a reading room of generous proportions, but what is most interesting happens below grade, where books are stored in high density, like goods in an automated-fulfillment warehouse.When a book is called, a crane retrieves the designated pallet and delivers it to a station where a librarian can quickly pull the correct item. The entire process takes roughly five minutes, which is far less time than it would for the researcher to physically perform the same operation in the stacks.

Mansueto will cover Chicago’s capacity requirements for the next generation, by which time Abbott expects there will be a broader consensus on new technologies, and better ideas about how libraries can manage the balance between digital and physical resources. “At the moment, the theories are just kind of nonsense,” Abbott says. “What is better knowledge? What kind of knowledge should we have? It’s not at all obvious that the wonders of the digital world are that wondrous, because we haven’t had time to theorize them.”

Anthony Grafton, who teaches history at Princeton and also serves on the school’s steering committee for library renovation, has similar apprehensions. “My feeling is that we’re at a moment of rapid change, and it’s hard to predict how things are going to come out in twenty or forty years.” Among his chief concerns are widespread misperceptions about the perceived death of the book—even as their demise is proclaimed ad nauseam, publishers continue to print books in enormous quantities—and the inaccurate belief that most twentieth-century literature is now, or soon will be, readily available online, through the auspices of, say, Google. It’s not, and there’s no sign that’s about to change. Copyright restrictions have left millions of the books produced over the last century in legal purgatory, and even if those books become available, there will always be a considerable number that elude the scanner (to say nothing of the problem of lousy scanning).

The movement toward a digitized knowledge base is almost invariably described as “democratic,” but it would be wise to consider just what that means. The ancient Greeks, who understood the library as an instrument of power, were not fools. It is impossible to argue against the universal accessibility of information, but it is, conversely, imperative to know precisely who owns and controls its flow. Google is a highly secretive private corporation. As a recent expose in the literary journal n+1 demonstrated, the current plans to reinvent the NYPL have been driven by board members of immense private wealth, who relied on strategic studies by financial-management consultants.

It was just a few years ago, in the wake of the destruction of the World Trade Center, that theorists told us that the skyscraper was obsolete, and that the future would bring a decentralized workplace and the decline of the city. That hasn’t happened. We still live in cities, and we’re building more tall buildings than ever. It’s hard to predict technology, or to know what we’re going to know or how we’re going to live in the years to come. Library administrators have a particularly spotty record when it comes to investing in technologies, as everyone who has tried to use microfilm can surely attest.

The NYPL’s pneumatic-tube system may have been well past the age of retirement when it was finally put to rest last year, but it’s worth keeping in mind that, even on its last day, after a hundred years of service, it still got you the book you called in 20 minutes. If administrators have their way, the library’s new, high-tech delivery system will accomplish that same task, and do so without the need for old-fashioned call slips or antiquated metal tubing. It just might take 20 hours.

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