The Library’s Future Is Not an Open Book

A look at how America’s central libraries are struggling to adapt their forms and functions to a rapidly changing world.

By Julie V. Iovine
Wall Street Journal
May 13, 2013

The St. Louis Public Library's new Locust Street Atrium.

The St. Louis Public Library’s new Locust Street Atrium.

Talk about imposing: the ceremonial stone stair leading to bronze gates and carved doors; the frieze of inspiring names and the vaulted hall that seems the very definition of hallowed. And the books, bound portals opening to anywhere imaginable, available to all comers.

In cities across the nation, the central public library came into being when the country was young and striving to impress. Charles F. McKim’s Italianate palazzo-style library opened on Boston’s Copley Plaza in 1895; in 1921, Renaissance austerity suited Detroit’s Main Library designed by Cass Gilbert, while architect Bertram Grosvenor Goodhue chose Egyptian Deco for Los Angeles’s downtown Central Library of 1926. Architecturally grand, the central library was both beacon and monumental tribute to learning and civic pride; a people’s palace with knowledge freely available to all. But, really, when was the last time you spent any time there?

For the first time since Henri Labrouste (1801-1875), currently the subject of an exhibition at the Museum of Modern Art, formulated the conception of the new, democratic library, the central library is fighting for survival. The relevance of these gloriously inflated book boxes is being questioned in an age that looks to the Internet for its intellectual resources.

Branch libraries have long served as community hubs offering book clubs and after-school story times. But central libraries, dedicated to the care and maintenance of weighty collections within ornately crafted and lofty spaces, are having to recast themselves. Thanks to the shift of emphasis to online resources over hard copies, the prevalence of mobile technologies and changing approaches to studying and learning, libraries have a different social purpose. “I used to be greeted by a sea of faces with questions like how to spell ‘Albuquerque,’” said Amy E. Ryan, a career librarian since the 1970s and now president of the Boston Public Library. “That’s all over. It’s now about providing an experience.”

The change in function has brought pressure to change libraries’ form. This can entail new, purpose-built structures that are more open and adaptable, such as Rem Koolhaas’s 2004 Seattle Public Library; or, more controversially, it can involve interventions in existing, often historic structures that are considered emotional touchstones in their communities.

The New York Public Library, for instance, has just announced it will go ahead with its plan to transform the 1911 Carrère and Hastings central library on Fifth Avenue into a combined circulating and research library. The plan, by British architect Norman Foster, is to remove the seven stories of book stacks directly below the Rose Reading Room and to decant into the vacated 78-foot-wide Bryant Park-facing space the contents and activities of two nearby circulating libraries. Those branches would be shuttered and their buildings sold. The renderings on the library’s website call this reconceived building “A Center of Inspiration for all New Yorkers.”

A related transformation is already under way at the Boston Public Library, the first large municipally funded library in the U.S. Decades ago, the administration responded to growing pains of the McKim building, lavished with marble ornament, John Singer Sargent murals and Augustus Saint-Gaudens sculptures, by moving all circulation services to an adjacent 1972 addition by Philip Johnson.

But last year, the Boston Public Library initiated a new strategic plan for making the central library a—dare one call it—happening place. Changes, however, will be focused on the Johnson building, a dour Brutalist affair that has neither aged well nor inspired much love. (Computers are kept in flip-top desks that lock down at night; a cassette player was chained to a desk; outlets at reading tables are capped, gouged or missing.) Plans by architect William Rawn Associates have not been completed yet, but the hope is to make the entrance more transparent and welcoming, to turn the colossal atrium into more of a “living room,” to add retail and to create a digitally interactive all-purpose space for teens that is the latest must-have for all public libraries. As for the McKim building, it’s untouchable. “It’s like the Vatican,” Ms. Ryan said. “Bostonians have a passionate, deep-seated affection for the place.”

Librarians themselves don’t talk about “books” much anymore. The library today, said Michael Colford, the director of library services in Boston, “is more of a platform launching you in all different directions.”

That shift is also much in evidence at the Seattle Public Library, a diamond-scaled stack of origami-folded glass boxes that opened to considerable acclaim almost a decade ago. It is the third central library on the same spot since 1906. At the opening bell, people start streaming in, heading straight for one of 400 public computers, most of them arrayed in rows in a vast, impersonal space called the Mixing Chamber. A conveyor book-drop system sorts 1,400 books per hour. Huge swatches of neon yellows, reds and lime-green swiped across every surface try to provide the color-coding necessary to find one’s way around within the vast black box. “Libraries have to be flexible, more like a shell, so that they can adapt to changes as they come along,” Marcellus Turner, the City Librarian, told me.

In St. Louis, you can get a preview of what the New York Public Library might look like if its plan is realized. The central library is a 1912 Beaux Arts stunner by Cass Gilbert, celebrated architect of New York’s Woolworth Building. It reopened in December after a 15-year, $68 million makeover that included the same surgical removal of a seven-story stack tower envisioned in New York. Now tiers of balconies, pressing almost right up to the narrow slot windows of the rear facade, hold desks loaded with computers. Bold graphics etched in glass or painted in red denote rooms dedicated to “Training” and “Meeting”—more like a corporate headquarters or community hall than a citadel of intellectual inquiry. Voices travel up from the ground floor in a smokestack effect and ricochet around the preserved glazed-white brick walls. (The “new” library prefers buzz over the code of silence of the old library.) How different from the older sections of the library where, for instance, one reading room has restored its carved plaster ceiling reproducing Michelangelo’s Laurentian Library in Florence.

In Indianapolis, the original 1917 Beaux Arts central library jettisoned its stacks in 2008 to make way for a six-story glass addition more than twice the size of the original building and connected by a soaring atrium. The addition, a nearly 170,000-square-foot space, includes recumbent rocking chaises for teens; seating pods for toddlers with attached touch screens; and the “Info Vortex,” an interactive projection display for digital exchanges between avatars created by young library users with the help of library staff.

But, as does St. Louis, Indianapolis keeps faith with the past. In the original building there are still comfy leather chairs in front of a flickering gas fire. “Right now we have to have a foot in both worlds,” said M. Jacqueline Nytes, CEO of the library, over breakfast in the atrium café—itself another feature of the “new” library. “It’s a sandwich-generation moment when all the traditional demands haven’t gone away, plus there are all the demands of new technology.”

Still, after surveying everything from the relentlessly high-tech library in Seattle to the mash-ups of history and contemporary event space in St. Louis and Indianapolis, one is left with the broad impression that it isn’t more space libraries need, but for the existing space to meet new needs. The problem is that those needs are changing almost as quickly as they can be expressed, and in unpredictable ways. After 20 years of installing and upgrading public computers in their institutions, libraries now report that the use of these computers is declining. The head librarians in Boston, St. Louis and Seattle all predict the arrival of the “portable librarian,” when all the information most people use is contained within their smartphones. We’re almost there now.

Which brings us back to the New York Public Library. What it has in mind is a high-risk venture. Joe Tortorella of Robert Silman Associates, the engineer hired to remove the stacks from under the Rose Reading Room while it’s still in use, has compared his task to cutting off the legs of a table while a banquet is taking place. And there are always surprises. In St. Louis, the new structural beams had to be passed in through the slot windows when hauling them through the historic building was deemed too dangerous. If New York has to do the same thing, there will be a problem: The tall windows on the Bryant Park side are much narrower.

But it’s the larger question that’s most troubling. Changing New York’s central library to make it more relevant for today’s users makes sense only if “relevance” weren’t such a moving target. Mr. Foster’s arid, corporate aesthetic is no match for the rich, human-scaled classical vocabulary of Carrère and Hastings. The Mid-Manhattan Library across the street would make a much better candidate to be the shell available for continuous makeovers as times and tastes change. Carrère and Hastings’s structure still serves the function for which it was created—to hold books—and inspires awe through the ideals expressed in its architecture and the intellectual resources housed within. It already offers an incomparable “experience,” with plenty of “Inspiration for all New Yorkers” to spare.

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