Libraries: Information And Knowledge Spaces

06/23/2011 05:17 am ET Updated Aug 22, 2011

This is the opening article of a series of articles (3), which aim to look at libraries and the landscapes they are a part of and help build. Though archives are the mother concept of libraries and include many other typologies such as museums, this series will focus more specifically on libraries while creating occasionally necessary bridges -- when relevant -- to moments of conceptual overlap with those other spaces. It is understood that a totally different and relevant angle would easily be to have an entire discussion on the contemporary dissolution of these categories.

Starting with few examples of the widening public space of public and private libraries in the end of the 20th century and beginning of 21st and reflecting on library spaces as they are being designed now, the second article will discuss relevant relationships between historical precedents and contemporary examples of libraries from a production of knowledge angle -- and their morphological variations vis-à-vis their differentiated cultural role and of their processes. In the 3rd article, I will discuss the larger or meta function of the library as an archive typology and its possible futures. The influence of the concept of Web 2.0 (and 3.0) in libraries situates the right context to make new questions for design, namely how it engages different points of contact between information, content, knowledge, the body and the built environment: imagining the near and speculative future of library/archive spaces.

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Library 21: Part I, Contemporary Library Design


Library and Archives

At a central moment in Vernor Vinge's sci-fi novel "Rainbows End" (2006) the Geisel Library (1970) at UC San Diego experiences a paradigm shift as its contents undergo a dramatic program of digitization: an automated process that involves destroying the source books themselves. This implies that the state of affairs in this near future has evolved into prioritizing the preservation of the content of each of the books at the library to such a degree that only an extremely excessive automated and machine-based scrutiny -- scrutiny with intrinsic destruction of source -- can render maximum fidelity -- minimum error or lapse -- of the material to be preserved.

The spaces of libraries lend themselves well to being representations of either the mind or the universe, as in the case of the emblematic "The Library of Babel" (1941) by Jorge Luis Borges, where a conceptualized library space displays a high degree of cohesion between the books' meanings as collective and individual artifacts, to the geometric logic of the layout of space and its relationship to narrative, as well as the absorption of content and life cycle and, well... the very idea of infinitude that the library's image of language easily suggests.

Libraries have been fundamentally associated with the reception and tending of the past in the multiple forms its recording entails, and the different paradigms of preservation that pass through them across time. A great and varied history of library spaces as places of representation, cultural safe-keeping, hub/connection-making, study and research, religious observance and study, and other behaviors provides examples of often clear differentiations: between Western and Eastern civilizations (so strangely and roughly defined), the so-called developed and developing world, active and dead archives, and other dichotomies.

Parallel to the discussions internal to library and information sciences that tend to focus on content, format, preservation and use, it is important, specifically for architects and designers, to understand the formulation of library spaces as an interface: a place where different media -- and their implied gestures of interaction -- cohabitate and are juxtaposed, compared, remembered, reconstituted and, finally, become part of future constructions of knowledge and actions.

A New Type of Public Space

When OMA designed the Seattle Public Library (2004) they made a clear statement about the new condition of public space that could be found in libraries at the turn of the century (20th to 21st). The concept drawings and schemes, tools to politically negotiate the interiority of this new library and rethink the modes by which themes were encountered, thus restructured how gestures of search and formation could take place. When thematic becomes complex and format becomes both more uniform (digital content) and multifaceted (multiplicity of access space and protocol, proximity and remoteness of content engaged) the typological library space necessarily encounters questions of adjacency between user-derived space as well as those of the new building with other public spaces in the city. The substitution of certain narratives that were founded on the interaction with particular media (particularly, books) give way to the focus on the gesture of production of public space once again(cultural production and preservation/distribution of knowledge).

Several contemporary takes on the library typology -- see examples in gallery -- mainly engage in the celebration of this new public space for its promise of being non prescribed by commercial protocols or agencies. Moreover, the widening public space of individual customization inside libraries seems to begin to engage a potential un-linking of its use from institutional agencies as well. The reverse side of this is of course, the evermore insidious ways in which these system dispositions -- commercial, institutional -- try to make their way back into undefined territory.

Internal Body Shifts and their New Spaces: Media and Scale

Several contemporary libraries -- built or in the making -- have in common a few key attitudes and spaces that today we inevitably see formalized into the brief of any near future library.
These points signal a final shift of libraries from the long incubation period of scholastic studies, into active knowledge production support centers, community centers, workplaces and social incubators. Social and Web media are impacting or being reabsorbed into discourses that deal with navigation and space at varying scales of experience that create many new gradients within the private and the public. The inevitable attention to the concept of Web 2.0 -- where information sharing, collaboration and participation are key concepts -- creates the desire for new models for these spaces to become focused on the users' various navigation, input, feedback and co-operation behaviors.

Themes of contemporary discourse in the disciplines of new media and information and library science will further their presence in architecture, urban design and planning discourse through the increasing inclusion of communication technologies in the very materials with which buildings, cities, infrastructure and landscape are negotiated, articulate, re-imagined, and finally built.

The main features of contemporary library typologies in the developed western world are subject to the digital revolution, and the pervasiveness of information and communication technologies. The following conditions influence the current mode by which libraries operate with the growing tendency of users to transition from information consumers to knowledge producers and libraries from information hubs to cultural production centers:

1. Multimedia: an increasing presence of media content and spaces and features that allow access and interaction with content. Flexible modus operandi is needed to accompany the changing technologies and skills of users and evolutions of their ambitions -- individual and collective. Different media however require different protocols for engagement therefore generating specific needs that have spatial implications, as well as changes in the ways in which structural organization of taxonomies takes place.

2. Production place:
the library is a production space where meetings, sharing and collaboration happen. This naturally accompanies what already happens in virtual social, cultural and work networks, where tools for production of information proliferate to provide services to different types of communities, expertise and exchange protocols. Isolation and concentration spaces now become fragments or rhythms situated across a diverse landscape of adjacencies. However, libraries have been concerned with production in several moments of their history and their character as a place of consumption has a particular time frame (I will discuss this in the next article).

3. Social Conviviality and Intersection of live/work modalities: libraries propose ever more comfortable spaces to study/work, offering different platforms of mediation for working and socializing (some libraries even host massage sessions and dance classes). General libraries tune up their facilities with coffee shops, hosting lectures and cultural events, and diversify spaces to allow the cohabitation of different groups of people as well as different modalities of use by each user. Libraries also propose themselves as a node with a wider reach than their apparent body suggests, allowing users to tap into their remote resources Research libraries will often have spaces that can be temporarily customized, as in the case of some university libraries that allow researchers to temporarily build a "station", or a second-home, within the public space of the private library.

4. Interconnectivity: the library is a hub to reach other networks and materials. Additionally to the commonly known interlibrary loan systems, libraries increasingly belong to consortiums which allow them to expand their -- mainly digital -- collections and increasingly these include periodicals and access to diverse digital databases. This means that their spaces expand their condition of hubs to a widening circle of reach by communities, potentially acquiring new value as nodes and centers of cultural connection and production.

5. Educational Events: libraries hold the materials that educational institutions distribute. With a new density and character of learning and exchange spaces in libraries, the distance between archives and their unpacking is bridged creating a new opportunity for the rethinking of education and its rhythms or cycles and information collection and preservation and its value systems. As well, there are far more offers of media to produce and exchange information across users, which can be done outside of institutions, greatly modifying the role these have over the production of educational events. The difference between information, formation and knowledge can become more visible again.

It is not often yet that an Architect will be asked to design the particular way in which digital database is accessed or the ways their visualizations or interactivity can happen. Instead, many of the points above, when distilled into a spatial design strategy tend to deal with the physical space elements as operators of the large ensemble. For this reason, the common contemporary synthesis that responds to the typological shifts above is not proportional, as seen below:

1. Miniaturization of program: Though several programs can be found in the library they partake with the other programs and spaces so that they more easily cater to their function of providing to the real main typological space -- a public space.
Libraries are less public plazas than they are miniature cities. Having several units of the same program -- in frank market competition -- seems key to making the library space a second home: several cafes, reading rooms, relaxation rooms, lecture rooms, game areas.

2. Customization:
after what could have become an inflated tendency to bring the public realm within the private, libraries clearly have private living rooms within their public space. The strong focus on a new furniture politics, its diversity, modularity and reconfigurability are evidence of a by now long standing use of libraries as a second home. The emphasis on generic comfort and "lounging" equipment as well as on open rooms for playing Wii -- with top sound equipment -- both refer back to a portable sphere of individuality, intimacy and domesticity which travels comfortably in what was formerly called collective public space.

3. Production areas: Individual or collective, production areas demand both miniaturization and customization because they are places where synthesis happens. Folksonomic systems are not news anymore and they refer to a collaboration that can happen both in co-present work meetings but as well in the "privacy" of networked individual, multi-valent, library "stations" or rooms.
Shifts also include differentiation of spaces for diverse behavior required by media or content (ex. Demographic) -- audio, image, objects, classes, interactive, games. As well, it means provision of plug-in flexibility, that is, spaces have receptors of devices brought by users -- laptops, smartphones, reading devices, mini-projection areas, etc.

4. Interiority outside: The contemporary library space engages other public spaces in the landscape it belongs to by expanding its interior outwards. Again, this seems to be a clear argument already in the Seattle Library by OMA, where a (proportionally) thin transparent mesh wraps around the interiority of the program within and its spatial play.
It seems as if architects would do away with this last barrier if possible and would directly connect these new educational centers - central for a continuing education future society - to the surrounding landscape (whatever that may become...).
This interiority is also two-fold

5. Outside outside: In a truly overlayed and overlaying society (West, developed) networked content is essential to navigate. Libraries become the possible spaces to be in the truly outside. For this reason, they tend to incorporate an exterior space within. Or multiple. Simple exterior and green spaces are now too local to be neutral. Or private. The learned, second-skin, prescribed space of the library lends more outsides to the possible exterior than the non-prescribed exterior can do now.

Information or Culture Production Center?

Historically, the archive has been defined by its content, meaning, and its cultural difference or range of cultural differences. But one could argue that if museums are more associated with the preservation of the past, libraries seem to constantly give away a society's dreams and/or preoccupations with its future. The perseverance of the library typology to pop up as counter-actors in economically harsh environments seems to be clear evidence of this.

The added value that libraries gain by sheer numbers -- diversity and quantity of materials and remote locations accessed - might continue to shift their role into cultural hubs -- literally becoming large living rooms - therefore creating new modalities of collective work-live-study spaces and the landscapes they can form. The future of libraries will perhaps be inextricably linked to a new mode of reification of locality to be produced.

The difference between public and private libraries is very relevant to this discussion and can be furthermore discussed in the context of the influence that open source and copy-left movements have had in the realm of publications and copy-right law at large. The problem of private vs. public access is never to be dismissed in design culture but is often difficult to engage directly. An addition to these transformations will be the shifting role of the librarian(s) as libraries strengthen their character as production centers.

The examples provided in the photo gallery are characteristic of this particular transition period where a merging of library spaces with their twins -- educational institutions -- creates hybrid institutions with diverse focus points on how they define their own locality.

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