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March 6, 2008

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What's a Library For?

This Slate piece was apparently precision-engineered to appeal to me: Witold Rybczynski on public libraries in the age of Google, set to pictures of some new-ish American Alexandrias.

Some of the spaces are very appealing — the new Denver Public Library and, of course, the Seattle Public Library — but I wonder if anyone has tried a more distributed approach? I think of all the branches of the San Francisco Public Library scattered throughout the city — most are pretty lame and outdated at this point. But they could become an archipelago of coolness with the right kind of design and attention.

I almost think the public library of the future has more in common with Starbucks than the stately fortresses of old: comfortable, accessible, intimate, omnipresent.

And of course, there is coffee and free wifi.

(Via the excellent Design Observer.)

P.S. As an aside — and I might have mentioned this before — librarians were the single group most fervently interested in sharing EPIC with their colleagues and talking about its implications. This is a group of people that’s actually thinking hard about their — and our — future.

Posted March 6, 2008 at 10:10 | Comments (2) | Permasnark
File under: Books, Writing & Such, Briefly Noted


There's a lot to be said for the hub-and-spokes model of city libraries. The Free Library system of Philadelphia works something like this -- ultimately neighborhoods and the downtown have different needs, but all can pool the same resources (especially electronic ones, but any that can properly be placed along some network of circulation). But for neighborhood libraries to really morph into full-public Starbucks, they need to open themselves up more to casual vistors, especially out-of-towners. Have you ever tried to get on an internet-equipped computer at a library where you weren't a resident? Miserable.

Ultimately, the dematerialization of a library's resources takes some of the 19th-century raison d'etre of the large central library -- unless you have an honest-to-goodness rare books collection, you just don't need a single place to find a massive repository of books in the same way. Yet I still think that there is a lot to be said for these great monuments.

First, there will always be civic boondoggles. They could be convention centers or sports stadia. Why not libraries?

Second -- and in keeping with my theme of opening up of libraries to one and all -- libraries are uniquely positioned, both by virtue of real estate and their conspicuousness, to serve a vast array of new functions. Libraries can and should be our cultural city halls, where anyone can connect to a network of learning opportunities, whether those are driven by a text, an event, a meeting, or a virtual experience.

In depths of this cold and icy winter, you've warmed every millimeter of this librarian's heart.

Posted by: Lisa on March 10, 2008 at 10:47 AM
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