The Purpose of Libraries

March 24, 2010 at 7:16 pm Leave a comment

Journalist Martha Nichols blogs at about the newly-renovated Cambridge Main Library in Massachusetts (the city where Harvard University is located), and remarks on how it begins to look less like a library and more like a bookstore:

It’s a po-mo watering hole, complete with dark pink walls and stairways. But I wonder who this design is supposed to attract. If you’re not middle-class, college-educated, and adorned with an iPhone or laptop—or, more to the funding point, a potential donor—I have my doubts about how inviting this is.

I also question all the open space in the entrance area. I question the unspoken belief that the books are a design element, like potted plants. When the building first opened last fall, the glowing review in the Boston Globe noted that library director Susan Flannery “wanted to create a ‘hybrid’ that would mix the qualities of a library and a retail bookstore.”

A retail bookstore? With all its emphasis on market share? I feel the cold hand of commerce squeezing my lefty heart.

In a town of bookish big mouths, revamping the main library was political and emotional; a twenty-year resident of Cambridge, I remember it well. Local press has since been enthusiastic. But although the old building needed lots of fixing, I’m now reevaluating my own opinion of whether the City should have spent $91 million on this architectural marvel.

I think architectural openness in libraries is a good thing; clutter engenders claustrophobia, which, naturally, is a turn off for some people. As much as I loved D.H. Hill Library at my alma mater, North Carolina State University, the closeness of the bookshelves in the stacks did not encourage me to stay there and explore. Instead, I would do a card catalogue search (what a concept!), or, later, a database search on the books I wanted, go find them, and then leave. Which is a pity, as the few times that I lingered in the stacks and browsed the shelves, I came across some wonderful accidental finds.

But at the same time, treating books like “a design element” and making space for people to use their laptops rather than using the space for more books, is worrying. A library is not (and should not be) a bookstore or a cafe, where commerce and profit are key, but instead is a treasure house of the written word. Libraries serve a social function, not a commercial one, and yet, to justify the library’s existence, one must still have patrons.

It’s an interesting conundrum. What do y’all think?


Entry filed under: Public Libraries, Recreational Reading.

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