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.
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).
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.
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.
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.
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.