Learning from the Libraries

Bibliotheca Alexandria in Alexandria, Egypt designed by Snøhetta

Bibliotheca Alexandria in Alexandria, Egypt designed by Snøhetta

When recently pressed for their vision of the future of the museum, two totally unrelated people (albeit museum people) began talking in excitedly about libraries they had recently visited. One person noted that if you shuttered a local museum, people might hardly notice. And if you shuttered the local library there would be clamor and outrage. It is true that if given a choice both governments and foundations tend to favor the library. Perhaps there is something far more essential about a library than a museum.

The library is at least as old as the museum and likely precedes it by some degree. In fact many of our greatest museums began as new wings of college libraries that had expanded to include objects. These were the great ‘teaching museums’. Libraries are fundamentally akin to museums in that their missions include collecting and preserving knowledge and making that knowledge accessible to a defined end-user. Both provide access to knowledge through collections and use the exhibition as a means to make their holdings more visible. Similar to museums, the earliest libraries were created by and for privileged classes of society. But nowadays libraries are assumed to be integral to any society’s public educational infrastructure, freely accessible spaces of learning and study for everyone. In the developed world access to a good library is considered as fundamental a right as an education, a fair justice system or access to basic utilities such as water and electricity.

In the last decade we have seen great innovations in libraries around the world. The old form of the library as a vast repository of books is currently undergoing a renaissance with the rapid development of customizable digital catalogs, new media storage capabilities, the scanner, the web and other interfaces that supplement the physical book. While many prophesied that the Internet would kill the book (fatality still pending), the Net has with some irony made the library more essential as a socializing space where communities share the experience of accessing knowledge content across new mediums. No longer called Libraries, these spaces are now called Media Centers and Information Literacy Centers. The former emphasis on the book is replaced with a more all-encompassing media representing a spectrum of technologies that includes the books and other objects. These are multilingual, multi-modal, inclusive spaces of community engagement, storytelling, and even story-gathering as libraries add recording, broadcasting and distance learning capabilities that enable them not only to preserve content but also to produce and distribute it.

A few notable examples include:

Toyo Ito’s Sendai Mediatheque (opened 2001) was an inspiring model for what was to come in the next decade. Not a vision of a library based on the book, Ito’s library placed more emphasis on infrastructure, access and transparency. Also notable is that he decided to essentially build an open structural shell that could be transformed over time by generations of new media, new uses and forms of occupation. He even relinquished control of the interiors assigning each level to a different architect.

Snøhetta’s Bibliotheca Alexandrina in Egypt (opened 2002) is a resurrection of Alexander the Great’s iconic library of the same name and perhaps at least mythically, is the most famous library in the world.

Salt Lake City Library (opened 2004) designed by architect Moshe Safdie has become a major downtown destination  with is coffee and sandwich shops, open fire pits to warm your feet at while you browse half a million titles in their catalog.

Soon to follow was Rem Koolhaas’ Seattle Central Library (opened 2004) which has drawn record attendance and use by citizens of Seattle and design tourists. In the true spirit of a library as free source of information, Rem was kind enough to post his concept design brief online for us to review now ten years after he presented it to his visionary client.

The Aarhus Library in Jutland, Denmark by SHL Architects (to open 2009) definitely promises to break the out of the moldy, old, quiet, box full of books. “[This library] features an ‘info column,’ where people share digital news stories; an ‘info galleria’ where patrons explore digital maps layered with factoids; a digital floor that lets people immerse themselves in information; and RFID-tagged book phones that kids point at specific books to hear a story.” Sulter The Aarhus Library even created a design lab to research new approaches to library use and design. They made a video to explain their process.

Perhaps these library projects can shed some light on where museums need to go to be more effective in the future. Most museums are burdened with the preservation of vast collections of unique and rare items. Their charters often stipulate that if they cannot preserve their collections, then they have no business doing anything else. This includes engaging with the public with exhibitions, educational programs and new media experiences. It is likely that libraries  – whose collections typically only contain a small portion of un-reproducible, rare objects, books and documents – have had an easier time transforming themselves from the inside out.


9 responses to “Learning from the Libraries

  1. I think the fundamental difference between the library and the museum is that few people make the museum their own. Of course this is starting to change with many museums now having rotundas or atriums or sculpture gardens with spaces to relax in. For some reason, I think that people feel they need to act a certain way in a museum – it is a civilizing force. Libraries hold so many thousands of items, millions of items, that you can track down a particular book and lose yourself for hours. In libraries, everyone has their own route, while in museums, often the same path through the galleries is taken. Rarely do we lose ourselves for hours with one specific object at an art museum. Why is this?

  2. Something else to keep in mind is that many museums have libraries as part of their collections, such as MOMA, AMNH, Cooper-Hewitt, and many more. The reverse of that is that many libraries now host exhibits that include art, media, and artifacts. It is interesting the crossover that is happening between them.

    I do feel that the museum goals cannot only be to “reserve their collections”. The education that occurs in both museums and libraries needs to be realized. Both have community as a focus. For you could not have either one without a community to support it. I think the Salt Lake City Library seems to encompass this idea of community, as it is a destination with food, coffee, and their catalog. It would be truly great to see museums try to incorporate some of these ideas into their framework.

    Another element is the money. Most libraries do not charge an entrance fee, where as the majority of museums do. This greatly limits the audiences that are able to go the museum. I feel that there is a pressure because of this with museums. Once a visitor pays the money, I believe the majority feel compelled to see the whole museum at once, this can greatly take away from the experience.

  3. Another aspect to take into consideration is the broad information that one is able to find in a library while in the museum the experience is limited to a specific subject, science, design, art, nature, etc. Some people would never visit some kind of museums only because they are not interested in the type of material exhibited there, while the library usually offers something for everyone’s interest.
    Moreover in some places, mainly in developing countries, where a significant part of the population don’t even have the opportunity to finish high school; the role of the museum is not understood as a cultural and educational entity but as a luxury experience for those who can afford it.
    The classic form of the library as “a vast repository of books” which I would prefer to call “a magnificent collection of colors, textures, aromas and knowledge” it’s clearly an important socializing space for people; so are museums. They are also a place to escape from the harsh world of computers, web and technologies that are absorbing our lives. I am a lover of the use of senses, sight, touch, smell… Holding a book in your hands, understanding how much knowledge is in there because of its weight, feeling the texture of the paper in between your fingers, and smelling their pages to comprehend its age are sensations without equal. Why though deny this experience to people, to future generations, by transforming these sanctuaries into “Media Centers”?
    I agree technology can support libraries and museums by giving people all over the world, people who can’t go to these physical sites, the opportunity to access their books and collections. I also agree Media Centers should be an important and complementary part of the museum and the library. But books cannot vanish from the libraries; they are the main character in this experience.

  4. My first thought when I read this was something that Miranda remarked as well, that museums usually charge entry fees, while libraries do not. With the exception of a few Smithsonian museums, in North America we seem to accept this as the rule, as natural. In England, though, major museums offer free admission. Also, libraries not only let you in for free, but by taking a couple minutes to sign up for a library card, you immediately become a member of a larger system that gives you access to more that one collection. You become invested in the library right away, whereas museums seem to cultivate a certain distance with their visitor. When I go to a library, I feel like it’s my library. When I go to a museum, I rarely feel like it’s my museum.

  5. When meeting with Eric Siegel, a curator at the New York Hall of Science, this too seemed to be his biggest challenge/goal of the future. His ideas of incorporating museum and library were interesting and I think would provide a somewhat solution to the feeling of belonging vs. feeling of alienation that one feels entering a museum. His idea was very community based- the museum’s library (specifically a science collection) would be open during the day when children were out of school yet parents were still at work. Free access would (eventually) be provided and children could borrow books. I think the mix of museum and library could provide an extremely forward way of study. Although most museums do already have libraries focusing on their own collections, they are rarely inviting to the typical visitor. If library/museum interaction was improved I think, like Jenny mentioned, the museum would have a better chance of become a personal space.

  6. I think part of the challenge of libraries is that there are a lot of people that do not know how to use a library. There is somewhat of an intimidating aspect to entering a library if one does not even know how to find a book that they might be looking for. Moreover, I think there is a changing aspect to libraries, and that is the internet access some of them provide. The NYPL’s computers are always full with lines at times waiting to use them. Thus the personal space that the above comments discuss is defined once again–the computer becomes that user’s personal space for the time he/she uses it and then also becomes an access to the world.

    Do libraries have a new role in providing the public with access to not only information in books, but also all information accessible via the internet?

  7. I agree that libraries and museums are deeply parallel institutions, but it is also true that there are some major differences. For example, the entirety of a library’s collections are open to the public for access, if not even to take home with them. Anyone, not just scholars, can study from the materials. Because of this, and the fact that I don’t know of a library that you must pay in order to use….the library seems a much more democratic institution than the Museum…and resultingly, probably sees a much more diverse audience. Perhaps this is why they are considered more important not only to the public, but to government funding (Sen. Coburn’s grouping of Museums in with casinoes, etc.) Maybe the key here is that Museums could learn a thing or two from libraries……not to make individual objects so precious, provide access to more of the collection, etc.

  8. I love visiting libraries I have to say so found your article very interesting.

  9. Hehe am I really the first reply to this amazing read?

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