Near Death or Born Again? The American Library Artistically Considered / by Johnson Favaro

 
 RIVERSIDE MAIN LIBRARY The city’s original mission style Carnegie library (above) was built in 1903, torn down and replaced by a new library in 1964. The 1964 library will now be replaced on a different site downtown by a new library (below). The new library while much larger has more in common with the Carnegie library than the mid-century one.

RIVERSIDE MAIN LIBRARY The city’s original mission style Carnegie library (above) was built in 1903, torn down and replaced by a new library in 1964. The 1964 library will now be replaced on a different site downtown by a new library (below). The new library while much larger has more in common with the Carnegie library than the mid-century one.

About twenty years ago it was easy to imagine that public libraries in America might die out. The old (and by now somewhat tiresome) truism was that the world wide web where we could buy books at Amazon and find information at Google would kill them off. Even before the advent of the internet public libraries had experienced a half century of decline. This probably had something to do with the ubiquity of the inexpensive paperback which enabled a lot of people (though not all) to get their books at bookstores instead of libraries.  As big box and chain bookstores flourished, the library’s role in the daily lives of most Americans became less necessary, the stature with which libraries were once held diminished. 

 RIVERSIDE MAIN LIBRARY The new library sits above street level for a variety of reasons—stature, view, relationships with the neighborhood—and this has afforded lots of opportunities for ground floor community-oriented facilities: the city archive and bookstore (top), a large covered plaza for events of all kinds, all hours of the day, all year round (middle) and a community meeting room (bottom).

RIVERSIDE MAIN LIBRARY The new library sits above street level for a variety of reasons—stature, view, relationships with the neighborhood—and this has afforded lots of opportunities for ground floor community-oriented facilities: the city archive and bookstore (top), a large covered plaza for events of all kinds, all hours of the day, all year round (middle) and a community meeting room (bottom).

Once the symbol of the vitality and dignity of democracy in America (the very manifestation of the Jeffersonian idea that democracy could not exist without an educated people) libraries had seemingly been reduced to dispensing books to those who could not afford to buy them, babysitting children, comforting the elderly and sheltering the homeless. The ability to bypass the library to get your hands on a book was perhaps just one more step (cause or symptom?) on the American road toward the atomization of society and the dissolution of socially binding institutions so much talked about in the last half century (See: Joan Didion’s Slouching Toward Bethlehem or Robert Putnam’s Bowling Alone or anything by David Brooks recently).

 RIVERSIDE MAIN LIBRARY At the second floor of the building, a terrace overlooks the San Gabriel and San Bernardino mountains to the north and across downtown to Mt. Rubidoux to the west. A flex space opens out onto the terrace which together can be used in conjunction with library events or independently.

RIVERSIDE MAIN LIBRARY At the second floor of the building, a terrace overlooks the San Gabriel and San Bernardino mountains to the north and across downtown to Mt. Rubidoux to the west. A flex space opens out onto the terrace which together can be used in conjunction with library events or independently.

 RIVERSIDE MAIN LIBRARY The third-floor reading room (above) looks out in all directions over the magnificent geographic setting of the city. The children’s library (below) looks out over the Fox Theater, the Mission Inn and downtown Riverside.

RIVERSIDE MAIN LIBRARY The third-floor reading room (above) looks out in all directions over the magnificent geographic setting of the city. The children’s library (below) looks out over the Fox Theater, the Mission Inn and downtown Riverside.

Librarians, though, are a certain kind of person. Both inwardly focused and social, disciplined and generous, so dedicated to the idea that everyone deserves access to all that a civilized, educated society has to offer they will constantly invent new ways to engage their community.  Librarians never saw themselves as merely custodians of books and once partly relieved of that duty they were more than happy to focus on their true vocation by enhancing old ways and creating new ones to share knowledge. Faced with the availability of cheap books and the proliferation of bookstores librarians turned what might have seemed like a threat into an opportunity.  They evolved the purposes of the library. When the internet arrived the big box and chain bookstores failed, libraries survived.

 MIDCENTURY LIBRARY The 1960s era Riverside main library has no windows and no relationship with its neighbors (one of which is the historic Mission Inn across the street) nor the rest of downtown.

MIDCENTURY LIBRARY The 1960s era Riverside main library has no windows and no relationship with its neighbors (one of which is the historic Mission Inn across the street) nor the rest of downtown.

 MIDCENTURY LIBRARY The 1970s era Manhattan Beach library had one window and no relationship with its setting which includes the city’s civic center, the commercial core of downtown Manhattan Beach and to the west the Santa Monica bay and Pacific Ocean.

MIDCENTURY LIBRARY The 1970s era Manhattan Beach library had one window and no relationship with its setting which includes the city’s civic center, the commercial core of downtown Manhattan Beach and to the west the Santa Monica bay and Pacific Ocean.

 MIDCENTURY LIBRARY The 1950s era West Hollywood library had one room, no windows, no relationship to the park within which it sat and a total floor area of 5,000 SF to serve a population of almost 40,000. (The new library was built at over six times that size.)

MIDCENTURY LIBRARY The 1950s era West Hollywood library had one room, no windows, no relationship to the park within which it sat and a total floor area of 5,000 SF to serve a population of almost 40,000. (The new library was built at over six times that size.)

But by the end of the last century and well into this one, libraries faced another challenge: poor architecture. By the middle of the 20th century communities were only half-heartedly building libraries (often destroying beautiful old ones in the process), pretty much going through the motions perhaps only because they felt obligated not necessarily invested.  Until recently most of the pre-WWII buildings felt half abandoned while the post war buildings might as well have been abandoned, designed as they were as faceless boxes with no windows conceived mostly as a place to warehouse books.  It’s no wonder people stopped going, they’re mostly awful places.

 MANHATTAN BEACH LIBRARY The new library is designed for maximum transparency at street level and views out across Santa Monica bay and the city at the upper level. This creates a building at once friendly and accessible as well as intimately connected to its geographic setting and climate.

MANHATTAN BEACH LIBRARY The new library is designed for maximum transparency at street level and views out across Santa Monica bay and the city at the upper level. This creates a building at once friendly and accessible as well as intimately connected to its geographic setting and climate.

 MANHATTAN BEACH LIBRARY READING ROOM The main reading room is simple modest and warm, with a fireplace for chilly foggy days beach side, and expansive glass for views out across the Santa Monica bay spanning from Malibu in the north to Santa Catalina island in the south.

MANHATTAN BEACH LIBRARY READING ROOM The main reading room is simple modest and warm, with a fireplace for chilly foggy days beach side, and expansive glass for views out across the Santa Monica bay spanning from Malibu in the north to Santa Catalina island in the south.

This was not always the case.  Before 1945 libraries were among the most refined and magnificent buildings in town. Modeled on temples, churches and palaces they were dignified, sometimes one of the biggest buildings in town, always pleasant even uplifting and inspiring places to be. It was a place from which to borrow books, but a lot of people stayed to read those books or the newspaper or to study or conduct research. It wasn’t just the book club or the speaker series that kept them there it was the place itself and the company of others. The library had stature and was often one of the only places in town to experience the rewards of good, sometimes great architecture.

 WEST HOLLYOOD LIBRARY READING ROOM The main reading room models the great reading rooms of the American tradition inaugurated by Boston and New York in the 19th century and emulated across the country until 1945.

WEST HOLLYOOD LIBRARY READING ROOM The main reading room models the great reading rooms of the American tradition inaugurated by Boston and New York in the 19th century and emulated across the country until 1945.

 WEST HOLLYOOD LIBRARY READING ROOM The main reading room inverts the traditional America model by placing windows at floor level (instead of up high) for maximum daylight and view. No artificial lighting is required in this room during most hours of operation most times of the year.

WEST HOLLYOOD LIBRARY READING ROOM The main reading room inverts the traditional America model by placing windows at floor level (instead of up high) for maximum daylight and view. No artificial lighting is required in this room during most hours of operation most times of the year.

Library buildings are no longer obligated to model temples, churches or palaces.  They can be grand in other ways. Of these street friendly configurations, gracious circulation, generously high ceilings, abundant daylight and generous views are paramount.  No longer inwardly focused (beautifully in the pre-war era, brutally in the post-war era) libraries can with advances in glass technologies embrace their settings, receive the light of the sun throughout the hours of the day and connect better with their neighborhoods. Gracious rooms which are both places to be and places to congregate afford the kind of individual and societal cultivation that the American library has always sought. Artistically considered the possibilities are many, the future wide open as we continue to give new life to the beautiful and uniquely American tradition that is the public library.