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.