Library as Town Square
I’m sitting in my local public library.
Someone in a suit, presumably a corporate executive-type on their lunch break, is skimming a newspaper. Someone who may have spent the night in a nearby shelter is reclining in a chair with a magazine. Others quietly walk past my desk, in the direction of a language class. Small groups of students are scattered around the building, hunched over their homework. A private tutor floats between the desks of their pupils. A young parent, toddler in tow, selects some new bedtime reading materials. A traveler with a suitcase — perhaps an out-of-town visitor just recently arrived via the nearby train-station — makes a brisk inquiry at a librarian’s desk.
This is only an anecdotal observation, but I suspect that the library is one of the most heterogeneous places in the city. Just look at the age demographics for start: everyone, from very young children and their caregivers, to adolescents and older adults alike, all have meaningful reasons to be here. Concurrently, it is a remarkable intersection of cultural diversity: longtime local residents look up old city archival records alongside new immigrants taking a tour of the facility for the first time.
The objective of the last two paragraphs is to try to elucidate a very simple observation: everyone belongs at the library. Irrespective of their many visible differences, all these unique groups and individuals, including myself, are perfectly at home here. Name me another institution in society where all the usual and pervasive conventions of economic capacity, cultural identification, personal identity, and the legalities of age categorization allow for this degree of plurality. Where else in the city would you be able to find all of us, all in the same place?
Libraries are, in effect, becoming the ‘town squares’ of our times. Libraries are institutions where everyone’s presence is equally legitimate. Parks, parades, and public festivals share this commonality to some degree, yes — but the doors of the library are open every day, not just for special occasions or weather permitting. No purchase necessary. The library is where we are all allowed to converge simultaneously — not merely the terminals and sidewalks where we pass each other on the way to other destinations.
Knowledge Needs Place
Humans are innate archivists. One generation after another makes sense of its present by responding and reacting to its past — and then scrambling to inform their descendants of their insights. Literacy was truly a breakthrough for our species not only because it enabled us to transmit messages across great distances in text, but also because it enabled us to better transfer knowledge and ideas in time between generations. Therefore, literacy has, and always will, depend on physical media.
To suppose that the digitization of information has somehow disembodied knowledge from physical media is patently false: data centres are no different than papyrus scrolls in that they are constituted of molecules — faster, more quickly reproducible, and more easily searchable, yes, but still made with good ‘ol atomic matter. As counter-intuitive as it may seem in the era of the smartphone, data always lives somewhere. Knowledge needs place. Digital technology has not displaced the necessity of bricks and mortar — it has only made our collective knowledge archives more dependent on server coolant systems, backup generators, ocean bed cables, and satellite orbits.
This raises an interesting question: where does the knowledge of your city ‘live’? And who holds the keys? We might say that libraries — to the extent they are owned by the communities and municipalities that utilize and support them — are virtually self-hosted knowledge banks. The curators’ value judgments are local, not principally algorithmic. Libraries, in a very real sense, represent localized iterations of the broader mass culture. (See glocalization, à la Chanchal Kumar Sharma.)
How will communities organize, preserve, and make knowledge accessible in the future? This is a question that will only become increasingly critical as we trudge towards the theoretical ‘peak ubiquity’ of the Internet itself. For in an imaginary future where virtually everything and everyone is networked together, the physical question, “Where does knowledge live?” is no less legitimate. In fact, it arguably becomes even more important. It becomes a question that probes to the heart of our individual and collective identity.
To live in a community with no ‘town square’ and no ‘place of knowledge’ is to not really live in much of a community at all, is it? But even if such a place could be defined as a ‘community’, I suspect it would not represent a very democratic space.
This leads to a very important point. Libraries are not charities. They are public institutions. They exist because we collectively pool our resources to make them available, and they are important precisely because their existence is not beholden to ‘market pressures’. They are the consequence of a choice made by us, the citizens. They are our place to gather, our place to preserve and access knowledge. Libraries represent something fundamental about the nature of democracy itself: they are the physical manifestation of our collective answer to the question, “What does every person, regardless of economic class or social rank, deserve to have access to?”
The Original Coworking Space
Start-up incubators, shared office spaces, and innovation hubs are extremely popular right now. It is encouraging to see many sectors recognizing that the built environment, social interaction, and productive innovation — the ‘triad’ of workspace — are all interconnected. At the same time, the known value of proximal working environments is as old as the public library itself. Long before ‘synergistic’ and ‘collaborative’ became buzz words, libraries served as spaces for both the tenured professor and the entrepreneur — a shared work space for artists, academics, activists, and recreationists alike. ‘Cross-pollination’ (to utilize some more contemporary lingo) has been happening at libraries for centuries — in both intellectual and relational terms.
If you conceive of the public library as a ‘town square’ and ‘knowledge place’ of democratic society, it increasingly becomes a valuable and important place to reside. In spite of some great coworking spaces in my city, I continue to patronize the public library and utilize it as a frequent working space. The library enables me to truly live and work in my community. Here my ‘office mates’ are made up of an incredibly diverse cross-section of residents, and this variable routinely smashes my presuppositions and recalibrates my paradigms on the work that I do.
Yes, to some degree we all live and work in our own bubbles. But the library is a veritable kaleidoscope of bubbles. Working here encourages the diversity of my city to inform and infect my thinking — in a way that no social media feed could ever achieve. Just as the stacks and material collections represent so many variant ideas and conceptions of the world, working among and alongside all these different people keeps my own little universe of projects, contracts, and deadlines in dynamic perspective.
The library is the polar opposite of a cubicle.
In recent years, we have reawakened to the fact that libraries are fundamentally about people – how they learn, how they use information and how they participate in the life of a learning community. As a result, we are beginning to design libraries that seek to restore parts of the library’s historic role as an institution of learning, culture and intellectual community. (Sam Demas)
I suspect that physical book collections will continue to be inseparable from our definition of ‘library’, even moving ahead into a future of increasing digitization, and even in spite of our increasing ‘cloud storage attitude’ towards data. Libraries give the diversity of human thought more than just shelf space to metaphorically coexist, they give diversity of thought itself a place to abide. And, especially in a democracy, diversity of thought in the town square is vital for everyone.
If we value the concept of a fixed geographic location in our community that affords all citizens access to knowledge and a space to learn, we need more than a big empty room: we need something more like a temple. (I don’t mean ‘temple’ in a religious sense, of course, but in the deeply archaic sense of a place that is ‘cut off’ or ‘separated’ from the mainstream ambitions of commerce and entertainment; in the sense that contemplation involves the notion of momentary disengagement from one’s usual daily concerns.) I am fascinated at the way that physical books create such learning environments, and this leads me to my final thesis: one of the primary reasons that libraries are vital today is precisely because of the physical ink and paper collections they contain.
The library is an exteriorization of the bookshelves it contains: “All these ideas deserve to be considered–at minimum they are available to inform your thought,” it says. A physical space for the combinatorial and intersectional mingling of cultures, backgrounds, and beliefs is an interesting design problem, but one that the archival and preservatory nature of libraries effortlessly embodies. A library without books would be not be able to serve the social, civic, and educational purposes of a library, even if we all had Internet search engines embedded in our skulls.
In a sense, I think a library without books would be like a museum without exhibits: it would just be a room that claims to exist for a function that it cannot aesthetically, structurally, or practically serve. What is a museum without artifacts from the past? What is a library without text? Imagine a community centre that looks like an Apple store, think: aisle after aisle of tablets and touchscreens. In terms of creating a space to learn, work, and discover, I suspect we’d be duly unimpressed with the outcome.
Before you write me off as a cranky, nostalgic curmudgeon, consider a quick thought experiment: suppose that all of Wikipedia lived in a single, massive building. It’s Wikipedia at ‘human scale’. Instead of interacting with Wikipedia through a search bar or browsing hyperlinks, imagine physically walking through Wikipedia as a habitable space. At every moment, you can see more than just a set of ‘related links’ to the article you are holding, but you can also see stacks and shelves across the room. To physically get to the next article you need to ride an elevator or escalator, and by doing so you pass by several more floors packed with more shelves.
Needless to say, your experience of ‘life size’ Wikipedia would be vastly different than browsing Wikipedia articles on a screen while sitting on your couch. Not necessarily better or worse, but different. But let’s take it one step further: imagine being in Wikipedia with another person, versus just sitting beside them at computers. I think we would have to agree that the space itself would indelibly inform your dialogue, what you learn, and what you discover. In turn, it changes what you will hear and comprehend about your friend’s thinking and observations along the way, too.
This illustration, for me, highlights the importance of library space: the presence of a massive ‘analogue’ text collection enables us to interact with knowledge in three-dimensional space. I’m not arguing that visiting an imaginary physical Wikipedia library would be superior to visiting wikipedia.org, but I am proposing that it would demonstrate some of the acute limitations that digitized libraries imposes on our cognitive, intellectual, and emotional relationship with text. (And, obviously, there would be moments when roaming through level after level of articles that I, too, would desperately plead for the convenience of querying a keyword and receiving an instant result! Point being: there would be unique value and benefits in both experiences.)
Standing in a big library is about as close as you can come to standing inside Wikipedia. And it is a place with room for many others to stand — where they too can find a spot to be surrounded by their own worldviews, hobbies, and histories. A good library is a place where everyone, from every corner and cross-section of the community, can find themselves and, in doing so, discover one another along the way. The download-on-demand world of the Internet does not replace the role of the library’s shelves, spines, and ink for creating democratic and accessible learning environments — it simply augments it in new and valuable ways.
The library, says Alberto Manguel, serves an “exemplary role” in society by creating spaces that “teach us what books can do: show us our responsibilities toward one another, help us question our values and undermine our prejudices, lend us courage and ingenuity to continue to live together, and give us illuminating words that might allow us to imagine better times.” I reckon that row after row of touchscreen devices, as useful as they are, are not as conducive to creating such environments as shelf after shelf of book titles. A world of ebooks and online archives does not make our physical, public community spaces for books obsolete — perhaps it makes their existence all the more important.