Is the library the new public square?

Posted on March 22, 2016 by Sharon Lacey

David Adjaye and other experts explore the future of libraries

“The future happens unevenly. It already exists somewhere,” said Ginnie Cooper. “Some piece of it is already happening. Who can you learn from?,” she counseled at a panel discussion about the “Future of the Library,” where she, David Adjaye, Nader Tehrani, Jeffrey Schnapp and Chris Bourg shared their insights with the MIT Libraries Task Force and the broader community. Throughout the evening, these esteemed architects, librarians and scholars discussed precedents in their own work that hint at this elusive “piece” of the future that “already exists,” as well as the ambitious work ahead for libraries to realize their potential as spaces for engagement, creation, reflection or refuge.

“The stuff I do is as old as it gets. It’s still about weighty, heavy things that get put on top of each other to create funny things called enclosures. And we have these emotional relationships to these things…. My job is to put a spell on people to make them think that something is important, especially when I’m making cultural objects,” Adjaye stated. Since 2000, a number of libraries rank among Adjaye Associates’ global projects, including the Idea Stores in East London, the Gwangju River Reading Room in South Korea, and the Francis A. Gregory and William O. Lockridge/Bellevue branches of the District of Columbia Public Library in Washington, DC. In each of these projects, Adjaye says his investigation into the nature of the library led him to consider the notion of place-making and how spaces influence social behaviors.

Adjaye explained, “The library moves from just being a depository of public knowledge, [because] the Internet dissolves that archive, and it becomes a place of socializing to gain access to both knowledge and network space, and a place to re-imagine different parts of the city and how it contributes to our public and civic life.” Thinking about the city as a whole precedes his thinking about any specific library building, he said: “I think if you go straight into thinking about the library, you may miss the point of how the circuitry of the city works. As behavior and density changes—as we’ve densified from little hamlets to large, metropolitan conditions—we’ve devised ways of continually making facades and voids which allow us to create collective moments.” Most city dwellers, who suffer from poor development decisions and who live in cramped apartments, can attest to the importance of creating libraries that function as extensions of home, work and recreational spaces, as Adjaye’s designs thoughtfully do.  

The Gwangju River Reading Room is a human rights memorial pavilion that draws on Korean vernacular architecture. Adjaye worked with the writer Taiye Selasi to imagine the library as a public staircase that leads from the street to the river. In this rich culture of reading and literature, he sought to “dissolve the notion of building into a place that could activate engagement.” The concrete and timber structure provides a gathering place for people to access books on human rights, use the internet, archive, store, share and trade information. Its experimental design, with cast concrete sealed bookshelves indented into the base and a porous timber roof, allows the pavilion to flood in high tide.

With the Idea Store in Whitechapel—a culturally and linguistically diverse community—Adjaye set out to make a new kind of a library that would be environmentally conscious and would provide a different vantage point for Tower Hamlets’ residents to experience their neighborhood. The reading room along the perimeter of the building allows the patrons to face out to the active market street below, and the rooftop café has retractable skylights that create an outdoor courtyard. The building has a canopy that was devised to trap heat gain, but it also functions as a modern “public porch” that melds the building with the street.

In his two branches of the DCPL, Adjaye likewise aimed to merge the buildings with their surrounding landscape. He worked on these projects during Ginnie Cooper’s tenure as Chief Librarian, and both he and Cooper spoke about the social dimensions of these  libraries. Adjaye mentioned his goals to “create a sense of social pride in knowledge sharing” and to “empower the [multiple] generations in the community.” Cooper added, “The role that libraries play in local communities is really magic. For many people who are disconnected with the government that is in fact theirs, it is the way that that government says, this is what you are worth. This beautiful building, with all of these magic things inside, to open up the world to you… this is yours.”

Tehrani, Schnapp and Bourg built on this idea of libraries as places of engagement, as they focused their presentations on research libraries. All put the user experience squarely at the center of the conversation about physical space. Tehrani presented case studies of the university libraries at RISD and University of Melbourne, pointing out clever ways that spaces for scholarship dovetail with spaces for design in those buildings. While flexibility may be the reigning design principle in libraries, he pointed out, certain things are irreducible: “the scale of the individual, the scale of five people working together, the dark space, the light space, the acoustic space—one has to be mindful of those.”  

When asked why place remains essential when knowledge can be accessed from almost anywhere, Schnapp replied, “There are other senses involved when we actually are engaged in the process of training young people, of being a community of researchers and thinkers.” “Databases are not places,” he continued, “And I think the question about what a library could or should be today is a question about how databases intersect with local places and realities and stories.” To further this goal of sensory engagement, he suggested countering the ubiquitous hotspots with “cold spots,” or areas of disconnection from digital distractions. As substantial portions of libraries’ collections are born digital, Schnapp proposed using newly available storage spaces for curated content, perhaps from special collections. He also presented the provocative idea of “programmable stacks” that would facilitate the re-shuffling of collections to tell different stories.

Bourg said she envisions libraries as spaces “where people feel that they belong in the scholarly conversation.” She described her own amazement as a student at Duke University upon entering the library, encountering its awe-inspiring stacks and feeling that she was part of the scholarly community that these books represented. MIT Libraries are open to the public; students and non-students alike are granted access. Bourg cited the events of earlier in the day when scientists at MIT and CalTech announced the discovery of gravitational waves to demonstrate how MIT librarians work to ensure that everyone is connected to research: “About 20 minutes after the announcement came out, the website that hosts the article that describes the research behind this discovery was having some connection problems…. Librarians at MIT were scrambling to try and figure out how to make sure that folks everywhere could still have access to that research. And literally as I’m speaking, some of the rockstar librarians who work here are curating a collection of articles that are the foundational research that led up to this huge breakthrough in science. They’re curating a collection of articles that are available in D-space, which is our open-access repository.”

In Bourg’s view, “anyone who wants to understand this amazing breakthrough that happened here at MIT” should feel connected. Just as Adjaye said his job was to “put a spell on people” to convince them the architectural features are “important,” Bourg explained she wants libraries to be places where people know that they are important, and that they belong. “I want the libraries to be that space where the students and the community can feel that those riches— the science that happens here, the learning that happens here—that they are a part of that, the way that I felt a part of the announcement this morning.”

 

The “Future of the Library” was part of a series of events focusing on the work of 2016 McDermott Award Winner, architect David Adjaye, who will return to MIT throughout Spring 2016 as part of his McDermott Award Residency.

 

Panelists:

David Adjaye, OBE, architect and founder of Adjaye Associates

Chris Bourg, Director of the MIT libraries

Ginnie Cooper, retired Chief Librarian, the District of Columbia Public Library

Jeffrey Schnapp, Professor of Romance Languages and Literature and Comparative Literature, Harvard; teaching faculty in Department of Architecture at Harvard’s GSD; founder and faculty director of metaLAB, Harvard; faculty co-director, Berkman Center for Internet and Society  

Nader Tehrani, Dean of the Irwin C. Chanin School of Architecture at The Cooper Union