Some notes on the State Library of Queensland (SLQ) in Brisbane, designed by Donovan Hill / Peddle Thorp (2007), on top of the original scheme by Robin Gibson (1988). The best public library I’ve seen anywhere. Certainly superior to the Bibliothèque National de France, far superior to the British Library, and superior even to the otherwise peerless Seattle Public Library, to name but three I’ve studied in person. And despite having a fraction of their budget, I’d guess. More on other contemporary libraries later, but here are some observations from the numerous times I’ve visited the SLQ, alongside other notes and references.
The key feature that everyone immediately picks up about the State Library of Queensland (SLQ hereafter) is its openness. It’s a cliché, almost, particularly in Queensland architecture, to talk about ‘inside:outside’ spaces. So let’s not dwell on that too much. Suffice to say, the building has is open all the way through, on a central axis with another entrance at a perpendicular leading to the bus-stop (which, by the way, is a cracking bus-stop) and to the central concourse through the South Bank cultural precinct. So this central space – known as the ‘Knowledge Walk’ – of the library is entirely open 24/7 and whatever the weather (though it has to be said, the weather in Brisbane is often “beautiful one day, perfect the next” as the old TV advert had it.) It’s a generous building in that respect, and whether afforded by the climate or not, that’s a wonderful civic gesture to the city.
At the same time, as many have surmised, it’s a ‘Queenslander’ too, a version of the vernacular domestic architecture unique to this part of the world, which shares the same open axes – to encourage cooling air flow – overhanging roof elements, verandahs and always hoisted high off the ground on stilts. Many of these features appear in the SLQ, and these fluid, easy shifts between ‘grand, civic’ and ‘intimate, domestic’ are the key to the whole building.
The other side of the library almost touches the Brisbane River, hovering over a boardwalk along the river bank. There are a number of wonderful informal spaces here. Two are tucked in almost under the eaves of the spaces above, decking jutting out towards the river. They’re somehow thrust out of the library whilst still enclosed in its form, nestling in the sub-tropical foliage and working effectively as a verandah. One box looks across to the sweeping curves of the Riverside Expressway across the slow-moving brown river, the other is darker and surrounded by trees. Both are wonderful places for reflection, the ambient hum of the city opposite just discernible over the river.
Above the ‘verandah’, which incidentally is smartly hoisted up on poles, again presumably in reference to Queenslanders, sits another unique space, the Red Box. This green-tinted glass cube is left open to possibilities, usually containing a few students and a few chairs and little else. Again, a rather special place to sit or stand and watch the CityCats glide by.
The building is home to significant documentary heritage collections, which are apparently stored on top of the library building (given the proximity of the river it was too risky to store documents in basements.) This in fact indicates the key shift in the library – from an archive-centric facility to an open, interactive public building. It might explain the relatively low-key presence of books themselves (see later) but nonetheless this represents an extraordinary transformation in terms of accessibility.
Gibson’s original library can be perceived under the Donovan Hill / Peddle Thorpe reworking, and was clearly a fine bit of work in its own right, and part of the wider complex known as the Queensland Cultural Centre along the South Bank (also including the performing arts centre, museum and art gallery.) That scheme looks a little older than a late-80s job, modernist in essence and almost brutalist-lite, and showing none of the self-conscious signs of then in-vogue post-modernism.
Photographer Peter Liddy documented the new building’s construction in a fine little book called ‘New Ground’ (after an exhibition), which also includes a useful essay on the site and context: ‘South Bank and the Queensland Cultural Centre: Constructing a Visual History’ by Dr. Geoff Ginn of the University of Queensland.
This explores the significance of this site, Kurilpa Point, a perfect bend in the river angled away from the sun at its fiercest. Ginn’s essay concentrates mainly on the history post-European settlement – perhaps unlike the contemporary library’s careful appreciation of the various indigenous peoples’ form of ownership of the site – and particularly the shift in the convict settlement across the north side of the river. Even from these early days, from the 1830s to the 1840s, the south side was essentially left undeveloped, almost left as a reminder of the fecund sub-tropical lushness of the native Queensland.
“The settlement looked over the river at the raw, sparsely timbered opposite bank. Much had been cleared by 1829, including parts of the thick rainforest scrub – ‘a tangled mass of trees, vines, flowering creepers, staghorns, elkhorns, towering scrub palms, giant ferns … beautiful and rare orchids, and the wild passion-flower’ – that hugged the river edge from Kurilpa Point around to Hill End. Cereal crops were grown in the cleared areas. A low-lying creek meandered through swampy ground around modern Glenelg Street to the river.” [Ginn, New Ground]
Brisbane’s penal colony was finally shut down in the early 1840s, and on the opposite north bank the city started to spring up in earnest. Yet South Brisbane’s townscape “consisted entirely of a single ferryman’s hut, a rough humpy store and a slab dormitory for travellers.” And there was little change over that decade, with allotments and randomly-sited cottages popping up here and there. Here it is in 1870:
So from these early days, South Brisbane was seen as having little to offer in comparison to the increasingly grand north bank. By the 1880s, the south side has developed wharves and hotels amongst the cottages, beginning to develop an industrial character, again in fairly stark contrast to the civic buildings opposite. This ‘View to South Brisbane’ from 1893 indicates the area now almost covered with industry. And that was the character of the area for the next 90 years.
The way my mother-in-law talks about it suggests that it was not a place that Brisbane’s middle-class engaged with all that frequently, a place of hotels (pubs) of little repute, servicing the grimy shipyards and warehouses. Sitting directly opposite Brisbane’s seats-of-power, it was the workshop for the city opposite, the equivalent of many a northern hemisphere city’s east end. As with many such cities, however, South Brisbane’s river-based industry dried up over the latter part of the late-20th century. And so decision time, as Ginn reports:
“It is little surprise, then, that the official gaze rested on South Brisbane when a sustained program of government-funded capital investment in the arts took shape in the 1970s and 1980s. The wharves had been demolished, many businesses had closed or moved elsewhere, and the scattered light industry ad vacant lots that remained seemed ready for redevelopment. The new arts precinct commenced with the design competition for the Queensland Art Gallery on Melbourne Street in 1973; this was won by Robin Gibson and Partners, who proceeded to develop a conceptual design for the entire Cultural Centre precinct in the course of documentation and construction of the Gallery (completed 1982). The masterplan resulted in the Queensland Performing Arts Centre (1984), the Queensland Museum (1986) and the State Library of Queensland (1987), by which time the remainder of South Brisbane’s river frontage had been levelled for Expo 88.” [Ginn, New Ground]
This last event, Expo 88, shaped not only the south bank, but also a new Brisbane, emerging from the darkness of the Bjelke-Petersen years. Little or nothing was left of the previous South Brisbane, but the new cultural precinct was a high quality intervention, Gibson’s scheme possessing “a remarkable coherence on an impressive scale” according to Ginn. This photograph, taken from New Ground, is of an architectural model indicating the development in 1985.
It indicates the walkways and boardwalks threading through the four main institutions, all buildings sharing a consistent visual language. The finish is excellent close-up too – the Queensland Art Gallery in particular has some fantastic spaces.
“The Cultural Centre precinct echoes an historical patterns first laid down in the 1820s by addressing the river directly, emphasising the visual connections from the precinct across the river and vice versa. Its riverside walkways, landscaped terraces, pools and fountains underline this formal embrace of the river.” [Ginn, New Ground]
Gibson said of his plan:
“In the design it was considered desirable to screen a hostile urban fabric of roofs and railways lines, which occurs at the rear of the site, and to create a building which, when viewed from the city, will be a series of heavily landscaped terraces which step up from the river edge and culminate in the environmental garden of the museum six stories above Grey Street. The buildings will be kept low so that, in terms of the townscape, the complex, when viewed from the city, will maintain the profile of the mountain ranges and not interfere with the glorious silhouettes produced by the natural environment and the afternoon sunsets.” [Robin Gibson, quoted in New Ground]
The model also indicates what a sharply intelligent piece of work Donovan Hill’s intervention is, managing to keep the essence of the Gibson library’s mass, low terraced form, orientation and a good deal of the exterior finish, thus retaining its civic grandeur and connection to its family of buildings, but also radically reworking most of it, creating a new diversity of spaces – intimate, approachable and exciting.
A large number of Liddy’s photographs in ‘New Ground’ focus on the construction workers (as with several of Max Creasy’s photographs in the supreme recent book on John Wardle Architects, Volume, interestingly enough) but also the significant level of reconstruction that enabled the new State Library of Queensland.
Marcus Trimble did a very smart review of the SLQ a few months ago, using Carlo Scapa’s work at Castelvecchio as a reference point. We’d discussed this over coffee, but the reference made more sense to me when I saw images later. We’d also discussed that the one odd thing about the SLQ is that the presence of books isn’t that obvious. For a library, that is. They’re there, no doubt, and indeed if you go up to the 2nd and 3rd levels you begin to be immersed in shelves and tomes, but as opposed to Seattle Public Library’s very literal diagram of a building, in which the Dewey classification system is literally woven through the architecture, the books float free of the space at the SLQ. Not exactly something to worry about, as the library clearly functions on all fronts and indeed the broader informational aspects in general – exhibitions, wi-fi/PCs, and reception staff as the embodiment of the information architecture – are certainly to the fore either way. Again, it is almost certainly to do with the original DNA of the library being skewed towards archive collections and documentary research rather than lending.
Marcus goes on to write:
“At the RAIA Conference two years ago, Timothy Hill described in his elliptical way, the difficulties his practice was having in realising this project. Having seen it now complete, it is easy to see why a public client and large construction company may have had a tough time with this project. It is a public building detailed – in parts – like residential project. That this is part of its charm should be no suprise; how often do you walk through the public domain of a building, out onto a finely crafted timber balcony? Or handrail fixings that are made of seven interlocking components?” [Marcus Trimble]
Donovan Hill’s expertise at the residential scale – as with John Wardle Architects, perhaps the other preeminent firm in Australia at the moment – is quite evident here. It’s “a building of rooms”, as the judges at last year's RAIA awards said, when awarding the building the Zelman Cowen Award for Public Architecture (and the Emil Sodersten Award for Interior Architecture for good measure.) By which they mean that there are simply a panoply of diverse interior spaces contained within the building’s porous shell, and crucially, leaving aside spaces like the Red Box, that the detailing of many of the rooms is domestic in reference.
Ornamentation is a particularly strong feature, often providing a enjoyable counterpoint to the exterior spaces. Corridors of flock wallpaper, long lengths of brass handrails, dark wooden beams and softly lit corners soften the concrete, glass and steel of the core structure. These nods to domestic interiors engender an intimacy and wit often lacking in civic buildings such as these, and are brave bold flourishes, given the confident restraint of the original scheme delivered by Gibson. Similarly, concrete is painted green – or washed green perhaps – throughout the interior/exterior spaces. This causes a raised eyebrow initially, but it’s wearing in interesting ways, developing a delicate patina and fading in the harsh Queensland sun. It does a great deal to soften the edges of the building (and there are numerous edges and screens) given the lush green setting of the Brisbane riverbank.
Incredibly, one wing of the library features a stone fire pit, leading out of the indigenous knowledge centre. Quite how they got a working open fire pit through in a public building I don’t know, but I’m impressed and heartened that they did. This area in turn leads to a lawn leading to the new Gallery of Modern Art opposite (also not a bad building, though unfortunately comes off looking uninspired next to the torrent of ideas in the SLQ. Photos here of GOMA, but see also the intriguing losing scheme by Durbach Block that indicates what it could’ve been – thanks to Marcus for the heads-up on that.)
The opposite side of the SLQ to the river features a gigantic patterned screen – known as ‘the shower curtain’ by library staff – pinned in front of the building, whilst an even larger screen of textured metal strips is hinged over the walls and roof, extruding the form of the library upwards and outwards. Again, pattern is used here to break up the shapes, almost dazzle-ship style, although the more likely reference might be the wooden batons that are near-ubiquitous in contemporary Queensland architecture.
The front of the library – although all 4 sides offer enough access to be described as fronts, essentially – integrates transit with the aforementioned bus-stop (and with a car-park tucked neatly underneath, suitably out of sight given the congestion infesting central Brisbane) but also features a deliberately unkempt patch of grasses, which provides a nice organic counterpoint to the tidy landscaping elsewhere.
The other main attraction for me is the extraordinarily successful integration of free public wi-fi into the ground floor area. Although centred on a dedicated Infozone, which features standalone PCs for hire and custom-built furniture for those turning up with their own laptops, the leaky nature of wireless signals actually maps beautifully onto the informality of the library’s spaces. So we see kids with their laptops tucked into corners outside the Infozone, sitting on the concrete ‘benches’ lining the entrances, pulling up a couple of chairs in the atrium space, all accessing the building’s wi-fi. The primary area for wi-fi access, the Infozone, is actually carefully designed too, and from my observations every few months or so, the service is incredibly well-used. This is exactly how libraries should be reacting to the internet – they can actually reinforce their significance by becoming a physical manifestation of the information age. I note also they’re smart enough to have their own Flickr stream, used for photos of the building as well as exhibits and events.
[More on the wi-fi service at the SLQ in a subsequent entry]
Everything here is about right. The kids’ area looks great, a good bookshop, the café sits snugly under a cantilevered staircase above, sheltered from the rain but again, entirely open to the other elements, there are numerous small rooms for small exhibitions, the wayfinding is professional and discreet. The informational shadow cast by the building – the presence of the library on the internet and then drawing that back into the physical fabric – could use a little work, but that soft infrastructure is easier to fold in over time. Most of all, the building manages to feel coherent and organised yet open to numerous possibilities.
Moving on to other views, here’s the full citation from the RAIA judges, worth repeating as it captures the essence of the building:
“This project well expresses its vast ambition to demand and excite public engagement. Culturally and climatically a “Queenslander”, it promotes contact with information as a sequence of local experiences, each with a defined social prerogative. Initially planned as an extension to the storage capacity of the original library building, the scheme developed by the architects opens up the existing structure to present a clear diagram of the library’s function. The linear causeway of the Knowledge Walk provides an open, always accessible public centre that brushes past the major elements of the building’s program. New areas align with this axis and unfurl exuberantly outward, stopping only as dramatic landscape gestures against the walls of the surrounding gallery buildings, roadway and river. A green pigment applied to much of the concrete surface suggests a fascination with landscape and makes ambiguous our understanding of the status of new and old. The seductive qualities of the building’s architecture and its invention of programmatic elements will draw a broader demographic to this public place. Part grand public library and part community hall (or many halls), the building evokes quite literal “knock about” democratic principals. The contrasting treatment of each of the different rooms – for this is a building of rooms – suggests a code of behaviour for the building’s vast population. The rooms are defined by engaging thresholds that tell something of the process of their making – the Poinciana Desk, the Red Room, the Balcony, the Place for Indigenous Fire Setting. They then open like the chapters of a good book, which can be experienced in differing sequences depending on the journey taken. The architects have created a very public library for Queensland. New opportunities for accessing information in many forms will certainly encourage a wider audience to engage with the culture of this institution. The fact that this has been achieved with such intelligence, creative rigor and good humour under the strictures of a novated engagement process extends our appreciation.” [RAIA citation for SLQ]
Similarly, here’s a series of quotes from principal architect Timothy Hill, from the SLQ website:
“‘The design is all about creating an open space which, unlike many public buildings of the past, is neither intimidating nor conventional. I want visitors to be able to look inside without having to go in. People are more comfortable if they can visit a few times and see what’s there without having to actually go in.’
“Hill says that the biggest compliment that could be made about his building is if people feel that it’s the kind of place they could meet for a date."
‘The new State Library is deliberately ambiguous so that people can find in it something that they can recognise from their point of view. I didn’t want to make an icon. An icon is just a symbol. I hope that people can know before they come here that they are welcome, and that it is open-ended about what you do there. That will be the best way for it to become a favourite. Libraries are social, community and meeting places, as well as learning centres. I think we have achieved all this and more.’” [Timothy Hill, Donovan Hill]
I think so too. Apparently, the CEO of the SLQ, Lea Giles-Peters, and Timothy Hill embarked on an extensive tour of libraries overseas, returning to Brisbane most impressed by the Seattle Public Library (SPL) designed by OMA.
The Seattle Public Library has been well covered on- and offline – perhaps more than any other library? – so there’s no particular need to explain its many attributes here. I’ve been fortunate enough to have visited a couple of times, and wandered around delighted and fascinated (a particularly enjoyable exploration with Jake Barton and Andrew Otwell once.) OMA’s original proposals for the library are online at the SPL site, indicating that ‘building as diagram’ approach (it’s great to see these plans; more buildings should do this) and numerous other insights into their fantastically informed design for the building. It's a pleasure to read this material, it really is.
Like the SLQ, the SPL is a fabulous building, open to the public spatially and informationally, but also a muscular presence on the street, where the downtown environment is quite different to the SLQ's setting. The harlequin surface of glass over the 4th Avenue entrance beautifully reflects the traffic flowing alongside.
It immediately concerns itself with conveying the presence of books, not simply through their physical presence within the open-plan building – installations such as ‘Making Visible The Invisible’ by George LeGrady are something the SLQ could also look to develop over time. These screen-based installations sit over the building's counters aggregate and visualise, in near-real-time (delayed to preserve privacy), the flows of books in and out of the library.
It's an excellent, gently intriguing intervention (I borrowed the idea for 'The Street As Platform', actually) though could be extended in interesting ways. (As it can be correlated to borrower information, we could see the book data broken down by neighbourhood, giving a sense of what Seattle is reading; equally RSS feeds for this data published online would enable rich seams of analysis of the city’s reading habits, suitably anonymised of course. An API would enable creative interaction with the data. And so on.) There is free wi-fi in the SPL too, alongside newspapers, cafés and the other necessary amenities.
The Bruce Mau-designed super-graphics adorning walls and desks don’t work so well, despite their conceptual appeal, simply as they’re often hidden by people standing in front of them when the library is more than half-busy. On the two occasions I’ve been, I walked away thinking that this seemed an unconscionable mistake. Arcade, the excellent journal of architecture in the north west, published one of the better expositions of the situation in the library post-opening, when hastily-scrawled signs were taped up by staff to make up for the lack of signs. That article, and this by the AIGA, also indicates that a second phase of the wayfinding scheme was to be implemented, based on the designers' observations of how the space was used. This is a brave and enlightened design process, if true, and one I applaud entirely (although this could've been communicated a little more clearly beforehand.) I'd love to know how the second wave of wayfinding was implemented.
There is one fundamental area where the SPL just cannot compete with the State Library of Queensland is that the latter is so much more open. This is simply down to climate, I'd guess, and the skill of the architects in interpreting the possibilities afforded by it. The SPL, despite its often transparent façade and porous sheltered walkways, can only feel closed in comparison.
Generally, though, the library is supremely confident, highly intelligent and successful, as you’d expect from OMA/Arup, with a wild variety of spaces and materials.
Incidentally, the library appears briefly in Jonathan Raban's novel Surveillance as the main protagonist Lucy works in the writers’ room. (Actually what seems to be Raban appears briefly, in self-deprecating fashion, at the same time – “another writer, a dishevelled-looking, spindle-shouldered older guy in a pink baseball cap that was too young for him.”)
“Seeing her disengaged from her books, the other writer said, “Isn’t this a weird place? It’s like living inside one of those trick architectural drawings by M. C. Escher.” He had an accent – Australian or British. Escher was right: from the writers’ room, Rem Koolhaas’s many-angled lozenges of glass and steel looked like an insoluble puzzle of colliding perspectives.
“Yes it is isn’t it?” she said, looking up, dazzled by the diaphanous zigging and zagging of the library roof.” [Surveillance, Jonathan Raban, 2006]
Both the State Library of Queensland and the Seattle Public Library indicate how successful contemporary libraries can be, incorporating new informational function and reinvigorating public space without disregarding their traditional role. And most recent data suggests that libraries are indeed doing well worldwide now. I read recently of US public library figures heading steadily upward over the last decade (I can’t find the citation; if anyone can, please add below). Looking at last year’s data alone indicates an interesting correlation between library use and internet use:
“Of the 53 percent of U.S. adults who said they visited a library in 2007, the biggest users were young adults aged 18 to 30 in the tech-loving group known as Generation Y, the survey by the Pew Internet & American Life Project said. "These findings turn our thinking about libraries upside down," said Leigh Estabrook, a professor emerita at the University of Illinois and co-author of a report on the survey results. "Internet use seems to create an information hunger and it is information-savvy young people who are most likely to visit libraries," she said. Internet users were more than twice as likely to patronize libraries as non-Internet users, according to the survey.” [Reuters]
The pattern is similar in Canada:
“Many Canadian libraries are reporting increased patrons and higher lending figures. While there are no national statistics, the Canadian Urban Libraries Council, which represents public libraries in cities with more than 100,000 people, says circulation increased more than 25 per cent between 1996 and 2005. Visits also went up by more than 20 per cent in the same period. Urban libraries' renaissance in the Internet age is partly because of a more service-oriented culture, argued Linda Cook, director of the Edmonton Public Library and president of the Canadian Library Association.” [Globe and Mail]
This relationship between internet users and library users suggests possibilities in binding these activities together. Jon Udell has thought a fair bit about this, developing the great LibraryLookup web service. He also sees the library’s value as an excellent for creative co-working, which has huge potential:
“The patrons of that library, like the patrons of all libraries, are in transition. For a couple of generations, they've been mainly consumers of information. Now, on the two-way web, they're becoming producers too. Modes of production that have been dormant since the dawn of television — like storytelling, and letter-writing — are becoming active again. I hope we'll see the libraries of 2020 functioning not only as centers of consumption, but also as centers of production. “ [Jon Udell]
Back to the building though, and numerous other progressive projects worldwide indicate the vitality possible in the library. There’s Helsinki’s proposed new city library by Anttinen Oiva Architects,
Zürich University’s library by Santiago Calatrava:
Image via Purple Cloud (Flickr)
David Adjaye’s Ideas Stores in London:
Giancarlo Mazzanti’s extraordinary Biblioteca Parque Espana in Columbia:
And Archea Associati’s equally extraordinary library at Nembro, near Bergamo, with a façade of glazed terracotta ‘books’:
These images really only concentrate on form – hardly surprisingly given Mazzanti's and Archea's work – whereas we're interested in how these buildings function. I include them here to indicate how library's are often seen as a site of experimentation.
Yet Witold Rybczynski’s photo essay for Slate from February 2008 – entitled “How do you build a public library in the age of Google?” – is pervaded with a pessimistic, or fatalistic view of libraries which is entirely out of step with these numbers, and the vitality present in buildings like the State Library of Queensland and Seattle Public Library. It’s entirely US-based – without stating that, frustratingly – which is part of the problem.
Sadly, reading Rybczynski’s article – and yes, looking at the pictures – you’d get the sense that the ideas manifest in America’s libraries are incredibly dated (with the exception of Seattle). San Francisco, Chicago, Nashville, Denver are buildings that earnestly beat the visitor/user/reader over the head with the idea that libraries are important civic buildings. It speaks of a huge sense of insecurity more than anything. It’s akin to the paucity of imagination and ambition in Chicago’s Olympic bid particularly when compared to the current events in Beijing.
Rybczynski doesn’t state it directly, but reading between the lines he too perceives this insecurity:
“While Graves' slightly cartoonish, stripped Classicism lacks the self-conscious gravitas of Stern's design, it sends a similar message: Knowledge Is Important. Like the other new downtown libraries, the Denver Public Library sends another message: We Are Still Here.“ [Rybczynski. Slate]
That ‘safety in classicism’ is the giveaway, and so absent in the SLQ/SPL. Rybczynski notes that "Retro ballparks have enjoyed success with the public, but I'm not sure that trying to re-create the library-as-monument has an equal appeal." Quite so.
Salt Lake City even brings the mall into the library, which is not a great idea. The mall should be a model on its way out of the urban environment, rather than re-introduced as a parasite on a new host organism. Attempting to hoodwink the public into the library by dressing it up as a mall, at a time when the mall is itself under threat? Again, smacks of desperation. (There do appear to be some ideas on the US around libraries outside of the Seattle job – for instance, Cesar Pelli’s Minneapolis Public Library looks interesting, but isn’t present here. And Moshe Safdie's scheme for Salt Lake City may have some merit, in the urban mixing chamber approach. Just a shame it apparently has to be predicated on a mall.)
But essentially, it’s back to the Seattle Public Library, as here Rybczynski recognises there is an alternative to the other 8 libraries on display in his slideshow:
"Seattle's new library, for example, doesn't have a reading room at all. Instead, Rem Koolhaas and Joshua Prince-Ramus of the Office for Metropolitan Architecture have designed a single, freewheeling space inside a giant, multilevel greenhouse. This is the library conceived as a drop-in center, filled with computer terminals, magazine and newspaper racks, lots of comfortable seats, and, yes, even bookshelves. Like most modern libraries—and unlike most traditional libraries—the stacks are open to the public, although as books become digitized, this part of the building is likely to shrink. The Seattle Public Library has the rough urban chic of a converted loft. When I visited, the users were a mix of students, tourists, and street people—many reading newspapers, even more using the computer consoles, very few in the stacks." [Rybczynski. Slate]
It’s actually not really a converted loft at all. It’s far more sophisticated than that. The book areas are quiet, admittedly – arguably they should be. But you get the sense that Rybczynski is gloomy about those book stacks in general.
"Ross Dawson, a business consultant who tracks different customs, devices, and institutions on what he calls an Extinction Timeline, predicts that libraries will disappear in 2019. He's probably right as far as the function of the library as a civic monument, or as a public repository for books, is concerned. On the other hand, in its mutating role as urban hangout, meeting place, and arbiter of information, the public library seems far from spent. This has less to do with the digital world—or the digital word—than with the age-old need for human contact."
Indeed. Although here Rybczynski makes a common mistake in opposing the digital world and physical contact. The digital world (if we must call it that) is being used as a dashboard for life, if anything. It doesn’t replace ‘life’, and face-to-face contact, but enable it. Social software increases physical interaction. Today's urban computing is increasingly manifest in physical spaces and objects. This technology is gloriously, defiantly urban and thus accentuates urbanity.
But I also don't buy the unspoken premise that books are inexorably to be digitised as a replacement for the physical object. A digital copy of a book augments the physical object, as with a digital model of a building. (For instance, Amazon should let you search, browse, access and quote from digital copies of physical books you've bought from them, and so on. Kindle might have a future for containing a convenient cross-referenced succubus of books you already own. Physicality has value. As with the ‘dashboard for life’ comment above, digital information complements physical information. In effect, Kindle becomes a dashboard for the physical book.) A few months ago, a new survey revealed that of all the media technologies available, “we are most attached to the humble book."
With those library figures quoted above, however, it is visits that are up, with little data on how many books are being borrowed. Or indeed, the kind of books. The SLQ, with its origins primarily in archive rather than lending, seems actually well-poised as a result, having shifted from a base for document storage to a kind of open source platform for urban interaction, whilst starting to fold in the lending of books (and other informational products). It emerges from that evolution rather well-balanced. But books are still there.
As Rybczynski notes, "This raises an interesting question: What sort of public library does the "digital world" of Google, Wikipedia, and Kindle require?" Looking at the State Library of Queensland and the Seattle Public Library, it turns out that it’s simply a better version of the existing model, in which some core messages are reinforced – openness, service culture, quality design, public space, and yes, books – and enhanced with contemporary information and communication technologies. But at heart it’s still a library. As OMA spotted in 1999, the library, as an idea, has had to fluidly incorporate numerous new social roles over time, and their SPL was a fundamental reconsideration of this. The State Library of Queensland is a sub-tropical Australian response to that opening gambit, 8 years on.
Yet to answer Rybczynski we can actually come back to that Seattle Public Library proposal from OMA, even though it was submitted in 1999, before most of the purported threats listed by Rybczynsk existed.
"Our ambition is to redefine / reinvent the Library as an institution no longer exclusively dedicated to the book, but as an information store, where all media – new and old – are presented under a regime of new equalities. In an age where information can be accessed anywhere, it is the simultaneity of all media and the professionalism of their presentation and interaction, that will make the Library new. Technology is not a threat, but it enables the realization of ancient ambitions – totality, completeness, dissemination, accessibility. In any case, the anticipation of a looming conflict between the real and the virtual is moot at the moment where the two can be made to coincide, become each other's mirror image. The virtual can become the distributed presence of the new Seattle Public Library that users find confirmed in its actual site in the city." [From OMA proposal for SPL]
Taken with the ambitions outlined in Timothy Hill's words above – and his understanding that "libraries are social, community and meeting places, as well as learning centres" – and reflecting upon how well they've been achieved at both buildings featured here, unlike Rybczynski I feel entirely positive about the future of public libraries.
State Library of Queensland website
Photo set of the State Library of Queensland [Flickr]
Seattle Public Library website
Original proposal to Seattle Public Library by OMA
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