Monday, April 28, 2014


Not so many years ago, that is, in the grand scheme of things, the people of my library community decided to throw twenty million dollars or so into building a new library to replace our old one. Technically speaking it was a remodel, but one so dramatic that it is fair to look at it as a new building.

I had something close to a front row seat at the design of our new library. Watching all the interesting ideas, the fancy ideas, and the Very Useful But Expensive ideas get cut away left me initially feeling that our new library, with a 50 percent increase or so in budget, could have really been something.

But it couldn't. It wouldn't. It wasn't.

First of all, money is always like that, it always says that the next level, the next add on, the next amount spent is what it takes to get that which is really desirable. And there is always another level.

Second of all, we were building a generic, of its time, cookie cutter, modern, medium-large library. That might make it sound worse than it is. And it is and it isn't worse than it is. When my new library was built it looked fresh and slick, modern and inventive. Indeed, it's still new enough that it still does look that way. It's white and minimal, clean and faintly techno. Its pallet is formed by accent colors that are bravely contemporary, that is, if corporate design and the color of Target store products can be said to be contemporary, which, sadly, I suppose they can. In five years it will look dated. Maybe in ten we can paint it over to chase past glories. It is also a library profoundly similar to every library of its type across the country. It's as if hundreds of architectural firms are pretending to diligently and inventively work on all these exciting new library projects, only to secretly send off the basic parameters to one wildly overworked and unhealthy architect working in a basement somewhere in Toledo, Ohio who draws up the same basic plan for every single one of these libraries.

And everyone is happy. Sort of.

The more I looked at libraries across North America the more I saw of this not entirely unpleasing slavish conformity, but it was an encounter with a beautiful coffee table book of great libraries of the world that really brought it all home to me.

I think the book is called The Library: A World History, and I saw it come through new when I was processing requested items. I immediately ceased all my work in order to familiarize myself with this new book, feeling, as I do, that it is very, very, very important that I know what's on every last page of every book in our library. Just, you know, in case it comes up with the patrons. The book is basically made of beautiful photo essays of some of the most glorious and grand libraries in the world, old (mostly) and new (an equally interesting few). So, anyway, I am paging through this book, enchanted, when suddenly, there, in a giant two-page spread, is a picture of my library!

My jaw dropped.

No, really, it did. I gaped. Of course, it took only a second or two to see that it wasn't really my library. The scale was wrong. The library in the picture was twice as big as my library. And, naturally then, it was full of minor differences; shelving, content, placement, thousands of details. Yes, actually it was very different, but the basic design, layout, and aesthetic were amazingly similar. My library, or rather its prototype, its platonic ideal, it turns out, is in Berlin, Germany! It was built in 1979, thirty five years ago! My super up to date contemporary library is practically plagiarized from a 35 year old building.

I am not in the place to floridly expand today's post into a vast essay on the nature of architecture, culture, genius, and provincial but not too provincial libraries. For my own happiness I strive to keep things here in appetizer sized portions, joke size, poetry size, rock song size, Mona Lisa size.

So I will cut to the chase.

You have heard the rhetoric about creativity, its celebration, its advocates, the grand tales of its history. We tell our collective story as a story of creativity. But that's just dreaming. Down here on the ground we are in love with conformity. It rules everything we see and touch and do. It is the roast and the potatoes, the mead and the vegetables, the bread and the cheese, everything laid out at the banquet.

Creativity is just a spice.


  1. Wow! Yikes! Have you ever seen the library at UMASS Amherst? It's very tall and towerish and made of brick. From what I recall, they forgot to take into account the weight of the books (books are heavy!) and unfortunately when the books were shelved bricks starting popping out here and there. Hence, a protective scaffolding at the entrance and a roped-off perimeter. I wonder if that library was in your book. I mean, it's original, right? To have bricks popping out?

    I feel very much the same about the place where I work, where the bond money was delivered and, probably to save money, the place became another with tall buildings and rather strangely Orwellian and cramped but technologically efficient quarters.

    1. Have I seen the W. E. B. Dubois library? Naturally, as I have the Internet! But, alas, no, not in person. While distinct, what with the bricks popping out, it did not make the book. In Venice they had a brick tower rather like that that started shedding bricks and whatnot and then just collapsed all of the sudden about a hundred years ago, but it was not a library, so I don't know what made me mention it. I went to the place you work once or twice because I know you and when I try to remember it I can only picture the middle school I went to. You went to it too. But any stray readers poking around in the comments might not have been to either of them. To them (you) I'll say if you haven't seen either of these you might want to check out the baroque architecture of Rome first, and then work your way down the quality architecture list for awhile before going to see either GA's workplace or our Middle School. I will say though that the two of them are probably not all that similar in reality and are just a weird accidental juxtaposition in my head, whereas the Umass Library and that tower in Venice are practically twins!

      That's about all from here. Thank you for your comment. As you know comments are so treasured around here that they elicit free bonus blogposts as replies. But then, of course, if you write a nice comment about brick popping libraries it's a bonus guest blog post to begin with, so really there are two bonus blog posts out of the whole process.

      I bet everyone, though edified, must be exhausted now.


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