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Carla Leitao


Libraries: Information and Knowledge Spaces II

Posted: 09/27/11 01:20 PM ET

This article develops the theme of designing future library spaces, originally initiated in a previous article.

Libraries are located at a unique intersection of spatial design. They are spaces that store, articulate and distribute formats (media), which are vessels of information. As archives, libraries are spatial structures that both organize the content they contain, while also acting as a device for discovery and distribution. Marshall McLuhan's famous "The Medium is the Message/The Medium is the Massage" points to the difficult distinction between the content of a message and its delivery method, which is a valid consideration in relation to libraries given their multiple use requirements. Also, looking at the origin of the word "Archive" one finds both figures of "the origin" (source) as well as "commandment" (which roughly can be understood as an armature of deployment, or action of deployment, of an order or ordering system).

Archives and Libraries are uniquely challenging programs for Architecture because of their connection to the fluctuation of the materiality of media to message (object), as they both change over time. Nowadays, we easily see this in the explosion of the archive typology and its architectural host brought by digital media and distributive devices such as e-readers. We can gain some perspective on this theme by looking into some emblematic past precedents, to the different forces that have shaped these spaces across different cultural landscapes in history, and how common their constant and extreme reshaping tends to be. The programmatic requirement of libraries to play the roles of centers of information storage and knowledge distribution has bound them to political power and further has associated them with broader questions of geographic cultural and political issues.

Reinventing Knowledge: From Alexandria to the Internet by Ian F. McNeely and Lisa Wolverton presents a broad view of some historically different typologies regarding knowledge production, storage and distribution, which provides key insights into their connective networks and contextualization. This is aptly done by using 'knowledge' as a relational condition between information and its value within a cultural landscape. For our purposes, I would like to mention few different types of library spaces crystallized in history (western) that reflect different political and cultural landscapes.

Imperial Libraries are common examples of spaces that contain both objects and practices that are used as cultural and political warfare: power through owning knowledge. In this case, libraries and their contents are accompanied by an active infrastructure that supports additional uses, such as reproduction, translation and acquisition or production of new knowledge. An emblematic example is the Ancient Library of Alexandria from the Ptolemaic era (aprox. 300-30 BC), which was not only an archive, but also a center of power -- accumulating efforts of translation and education (the active human activators) which were extremely relevant for the growth and development of the city (city-state).

Alexandria's (ancient) Library example reminds us of the value of intellectual capital and its contemporary linking to commerce exchange in a strong Mediterranean, multi-language merchant culture: the library not only stored documents from diverse proveniences, but was also the preferred place to produce new ones, and, furthermore, to educate translators which, in turn, create value for exchange based on their translation capabilities. This intellectual capital and its centralization of commercial and informational exchange empowered the central figure of the governing entity and the spread of his rule and culture.

Monasteries (1-12th Cent.) were once main structures of knowledge distribution set as independent structures from (decaying) cities, as well as becoming nodes of larger networks -- though fragmented and often non-cohesive -- which linked populations in a eroding and fragmented Roman Empire, withdrawing from the violent political powers of the urban centers and their constant invasions. The seclusion of the monastery produced time narratives and rhythms of engagement with the stored contents, actively reproducing, restoring and translating manuscripts. The libraries of these Monasteries were initially relatively small rooms to the sides of main circulation paths -- their spaces present as slots in the time of the carefully choreographed daily rhythms. Monasteries created the first portable books ('codex'), an outcome from the needed portability of content to allow for its insertion into prayers, meals and other reunions.

Universities' urban character in Europe originates in spontaneous networks of students and teachers in cities (first universities in 12 and 13th Cent. are in Paris and Bologna). American universities were often privately founded, retained the name of the founder, and were located in rural settings. In Europe, these centers of education were either Cathedral Schools -- coming from monastical orders and the study of Theology -- or academic schools of specialties of 'faculties' such as Law and Medicine. This educational drive mainly derived from growing cities (and schools) and their administrative needs. Something already present prior to these examples in Ancient Greece was the 'Trivium' (grammar and diction, persuasive rhetoric, dialectic), which was taught to elite youth who would come to occupy places in law courts and other administrative activities which required public reputation: the shaping of the future in an eminently new humanist drive.

Universities' libraries were a measure of prestige; neatly organized through disciplinary taxonomies, separate shelving and reading areas, and untouched book contents (unlike in the monasteries where often reading also meant writing, interpreting and translating). Some universities quarters were almost independent city-states through their occupation of a recognized territory within a city and their claim of specific rules, practices and independence from the host city's authority (students for instance could not be imprisoned, they were clerics). Universities were the birthplace of salaried teachers and course structures, and of sherry-hour and its often-accompanying violent events.

Letters are everyone's obvious reference to the e-mail, but even more so in the Republic of Letters (16th-19th Cent.), a wide and prolific network of correspondents that linked people across a Europe fragmented by multiple wars. This system created a new post-empire continuity in a partitioned new territory. It was an expansive club, counting many illustrious thinkers (among them Erasmus, Galileo, Descartes, Newton), integrated women as members (Margaret Cavendish, Anna Maria von Schurman), and created new channels for newscasts and scientific and philosophical discourse. In this context, personal letters had a highly public character and respective formal practice, and were often used as validating documents for travel or work reference when needed.

Here we seem far from Socrates' fear of the written word and firm belief in the cultivation of memory as key in the formation of character in publicly honorable men. Maybe, in our time, this will change as we engage digital contents that explode spatial, place-bound archives and create more fluid libraries that move across landscapes attached to users and actors while helping to create new modes of binding logics to context and exchange.

In the next article I will discuss the linking of information to contemporary identities and their place (private, public, personal, collective) within the framework of pervasive digital libraries and remote communication, questions of property, shared authorship, responsibility and validation in order to contrast them to predictions, futurisms, and the expectations of this theme and its shifting landscapes.

Carla Leitão is an architect, designer and writer currently living, working and teaching Architecture in New York. Practice and academic works interests in ubiquity and intersection of new media and architecture.
Research Assistant: Benjamin Rice