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.”
Continue reading “The Library’s Future is Not an Open Book,” by Julie V. Iovine, Wall Street Journal, May 13, 2013