Library Models in Time and Space

On June 13, 1894, J.W. Clark, then Registrary of Cambridge University, delivered a lecture titled “Libraries in the Medieval and Renaissance Periods.” He wanted to give his audience “some idea of the surroundings in which our forefathers read and wrote.” Clark exhorted his audience to rise above the disdain, typical of the period, of “ancient” modes of thought. “The more we study what they did,” he said, “the more we shall realise how laborious, how artistic, how conscientious they were; and amid all the developments of the nineteenth century, we shall gratefully confess that the Middle Ages rocked the cradle of our knowledge.”

Clark posited to his Cambridge audience two library models: The Workshop and The Museum.

The first, commending itself to “the practical turn of mind characteristic of the present day,” emphasizes the efficiency and speed of learning: “from this point of view a library may be described as a gigantic mincing-machine, into which the labours of the past are flung, to be turned out again in a slightly altered form as the literature of the present.”

The second model, that of a temple for the Muses, facilitates learning as much as the first model. But it also evokes history, specifically the history of libraries and their organization, and makes it a part of the present: “Modern literature is fully represented, but the men of past days are not thrust out of sight; their footsteps seem to linger in the rooms where once they walked–their shades seem to protect the books they once handled.”

Clark was obviously a product of his age, letting his own “practical turn of mind” focus on the specific tools used by librarians throughout the ages for storing, protecting, preserving, and providing access to their treasures. He was particularly interested in the spaces libraries occupied. Still, he valiantly defended the spirit(s) of the past to his present-minded contemporaries.

In an article in the New York Review of Books (June 2008), Robert Darnton, the Librarian of Harvard University, contrasted two other library models, for our times: The Citadel and the Open Space.

The library as citadel was the prevalent model in the near-past: “To students in the 1950s, libraries looked like citadels of learning. Knowledge came packaged between hard covers, and a great library seemed to contain all of it. To climb the steps of the New York Public Library, past the stone lions guarding its entrance and into the monumental reading room on the third floor, was to enter a world that included everything known. The knowledge came ordered into standard categories which could be pursued through a card catalog and into the pages of the books. In colleges everywhere the library stood at the center of the campus. It was the most important building, a temple set off by classical columns, where one read in silence: no noise, no food, no disturbances beyond a furtive glance at a potential date bent over a book in quiet contemplation.”

The library as open space is the model of the present, and possibly, the future: “Students today still respect their libraries, but reading rooms are nearly empty on some campuses. In order to entice the students back, some librarians offer them armchairs for lounging and chatting, even drinks and snacks, never mind about the crumbs. Modern or postmodern students do most of their research at computers in their rooms. To them, knowledge comes online, not in libraries. They know that libraries could never contain it all within their walls, because information is endless, extending everywhere on the Internet, and to find it one needs a search engine, not a card catalog.“

Still, Darnton advanced 8 arguments to support his assertion that Google Book Search, or the digitization of books in general, will not make libraries obsolete, from the impossibility of putting all books online to legal issues to inadequate tools (e.g., the rapid obsolescence of digital technologies) to the special smell and feel of old books.

He concluded by predicting the survival of the model of the library as citadel, albeit expanded to include the new tools for organizing and finding information: “…long live Google, but don’t count on it living long enough to replace that venerable building with the Corinthian columns. As a citadel of learning and as a platform for adventure on the Internet, the research library still deserves to stand at the center of the campus, preserving the past and accumulating energy for the future.”

Ignoring Darnton’s observations, Princeton University announced later in 2008 that it takes “open space” very literally. It opened a new, bookless (except for a “high-density storage space in the basement”) “library.” Bloomberg reported at the time that Princeton and architect Frank Gehry have “embarked on a difficult task: to reinvent the library for an age when information largely takes on electronic rather than print form.”

It seems that entrusting the design of this mislabeled space to a renowned architect was an important part of reinventing the library. Just like Clark’s contemporaries believed in the machine, we believe in the visual. If it looks leading-edge, it must be the future model of a library. And the chief task of this newly reinvented library, we are told, is providing students with a somewhat less distracting place than their dorms, where they can “access data,” maybe study a bit, but also have a “social space,” without which, it is assumed, no learning can take place today.

Even further progress was reported today in the Wall Street Journal (“New Library Technologies Dispense with Librarians”). We are now emptying libraries not just of books, but also of librarians: “The library Express is a stack of metal lockers outside city hall. When patrons want a book or DVD, they order it online and pick it up from a digitally locked, glove-compartment-sized cubby a few days later. It’s a library as conceived by the generation.”

In 1279 B.C.E., Ramses II ascended the throne and during his long reign assembled a library which bore the inscription “medicine for the soul.” That was the library model more than 3000 years ago.

I guess our civilization hasn’t made much progress since the time of Ramses. Or maybe I just don’t get the educational value of an empty library?

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1 Response to Library Models in Time and Space

  1. Pingback: Libraries without Books? | The Story of Information

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