One of my interests vis à vis science and technology has to do with consequences, intended or otherwise. In this case, I”m considering the impact that the digital domain has had on one of my favourite analogue forms, books, more specifically, I’m interested in one of their homes, libraries.
It’s lovely being online and being able to access information and people in ways that were undreamed of even 20 years ago. There have also been some consequences as music, movies, books, etc. have entered the digital domain either directly or from their original analogue forms. Copyright law, access to science research papers, business models for writers, musicians, and other creative types, etc. have all been hugely affected by the advent of a digital domain enabled by the fields of computer science, mathematics, etc.
Before discussing the two library stories (Oxford and Vancouver), here’s a brief description of libraries from a Wikipedia essay on the topic (Note: Links have been removed),
A library (from French “librairie”; Latin “liber” = book) is an organized collection of information resources made accessible to a defined community for reference or borrowing. It provides physical or digital access to material, and may be a physical building or room, or a virtual space, or both. A library’s collection can include books, periodicals, newspapers, manuscripts, films, maps, prints, documents, microform, CDs, cassettes, videotapes, DVDs, Blu-ray Discs, e-books, audiobooks, databases, and other formats. Libraries range in size from a few shelves of books to several million items. In Latin and Greek, the idea of bookcase is represented by Bibliotheca and Bibliothēkē (Greek: βιβλιοθήκη): derivatives of these mean library in many modern languages, e.g. French bibliothèque.
The first libraries consisted of archives of the earliest form of writing—the clay tablets in cuneiform script discovered in Sumer, some dating back to 2600 BC …
Keeping that definition in mind, it’s fascinating to note that Oxford’s Bodleian Library has just announced a winner for its chair competition. From an Oct. 15, 2013 article by John Pavlus for Fast Company,
The Bodleian Libraries at the University of Oxford have housed precious literature and scholarly documents for the past 400 years. It’s a special place, with its own special chairs–and over those last four centuries, only three chair designs have graced the Bodleian’s halls. The latest, designed by Barber and Osgerby, beat out competing designs by Herman Miller and four other firms. So how do you create a chair for the ages–something that can fit into Oxford’s storied history while updating it at the same time?
Oliver Wainwright in his Sept. 13, 2013 article for the Guardian provides some context for the chairs and their role in the Bodleian library and others,
Founded in 1602, the Bodleian Library rooms were always furnished with either raised reading lecterns – to study manuscripts standing up – or low wooden benches fixed to the bookshelves, to which the precious volumes were chained. It was not until the mid-18th century that the radical idea of the chair was introduced.
Records show that in 1756, three dozen Windsor chairs were bought from a Mr Munday, for the princely sum of 8s 6d each (about £120 in today’s money) – beginning a story of scholarly sitting that reaches its latest chapter this week.
They are competing for a prestigious commission that was last awarded to Giles Gilbert Scott in 1936, when he designed two seats to furnish his New Bodleian Library building, in the form of heavy leather-clad bucket chairs to match his stripped stone fortress of books. The building is currently undergoing a £78m renovation by Wilkinson Eyre architects – due to open next year – as a home for special collections. And special collections clearly need a very special chair.
“We wanted something that would be iconic and representative of the library,” says the Bodleian’s estates manager, Toby Kirtley. “It should be contemporary in style, but not out of place in a heritage setting – innovative and original, without being too experimental and risky.”
“People are now used to reading all over the place on their iPhones, while waiting for the bus or on the train, so there is a renewed attraction to coming back to the sanctity of a specific, static space.”
Perhaps surprisingly, Fletcher [Chris Fletcher, keeper of special collections] has also seen the use of the special collections increase, despite the wide availability of much of the material online.
“As digital information becomes more accessible, so the importance of the analogue also surfaces. It’s like vinyl, or 35mm film: people are interested in objects and the innate quality of things.”
By contrast, Vancouver Public Library’s chief librarian, Sandra Singh, wants to embark on a different approach to the library experience (I will get back to the Bodleian library and the winning chair). From an Oct. 1, 2013 article by Cheryl Rossi for the Vancouver Courier,
Once a bastion of silence, the Vancouver Public Library wants to build a creative technology lab that includes a recording studio with sound mixing equipment.
Open to library patrons, the Inspiration Lab would include a recording studio, digital devices to preserve and share stories, video editing software and self-publishing tools that include software and hardware to produce print or eBooks.
“What our hope would be down the road is if they come in and record an oral history or create a movie or a new piece of music or something, that we can actually add it to our collection,” said chief librarian Sandra Singh. “As a community we’re enriched when we learn about each other, we learn about each others’ experiences, we learn how to see the world through each others eyes. It helps build connectivity, trust, empathy and a sense of belonging.”
The library anticipates needing up to $600,000 to create the 3,000-square-foot lab on the third floor of the Central Branch at 350 West Georgia St. The lab is slated to open in late 2014.
Interestingly, it seems that anyone with an objection to this grand plan is going to be called old (and presumably described as ‘out of touch’) as per Rod Mickleburgh’s Dec. 21, 2012 article about the ‘inspiration’ lab for the Globe & Mail,
Under the direction of its enthusiastic chief librarian, Sandra Singh – at 39, the youngest head of a major public library system in Canada – visits to the VPL are up, circulation is up, and wireless use in particular, not surprisingly, is skyrocketing. [emphasis mine]
“This is a very exciting time to be in libraries. We are being transformed,” Ms. Singh said. “When they think of libraries, many still have the old mental model of books on shelves. Well, we are books on shelves, no doubt about it. But we are so much more.” [emphasis mine]
The evidence was clear on a wet, miserable afternoon this week at the VPL’s multi-storey main branch downtown. The place was packed. Most were not borrowing books.
Teenager Jerrison Oracion excitedly checked out a couple of dance video games. “It’s the only place where you can get video games for free,” he said, with a big grin.
Up on the fifth floor, a group of community college students sat around a table, talking over their opened binders. “There’s peace and quiet here,” Jen Hall said. “If I go to Starbucks, I get nothing done.”
Nearby, long rows of computer stations were full up. “Just browsing,” said fashion designer Jewelz Mills, one of the users. “I try to come in here once a week.”
While insisting that the books are all right, with a long life ahead of them, Ms. Singh said the library is meeting the challenges of the digital age head-on.
The popularity of e-books, which can be downloaded directly from the VPL’s website, is on the rise. The cost of most Internet paywalls is absorbed by the library, and computer courses abound, ranging from basic skills for seniors to surfing the net beyond the obvious.
“What libraries are really about is learning. It’s not really about the format,” Ms. Singh said.
Where to start? The youngest chief librarian talks about old mental models followed by anecdotes about teenagers and college students who are at the library because it’s quiet (pause for an ironic moment) and breathless excitement over e-books and the digital domain.
Having visited the Vancouver Public Library (central branch and my neighbourhood branch), I can tell you there is significantly less product on the floor and by product I don’t mean just books. There’s less of everything. I guess they’re making room for the new studio. How many of us are going to fit into that studio which is located in the central branch only (discards going to the now ‘emptyish’ neighbouhood branches) ? Who’s going to get access? I’m also curious about intellectual property. For example, if I make a movie that spawns much money, do I owe the library anything? What about my self-published book? Or am I paying the library for the privilege of using the equipment after I’ve paid in taxes to have the studio built?
As for Singh’s contention that libraries are for learning, she and I have a significant difference of opinion. I think they’re chief function is access and a public library is supposed to ensure access for everyone.
I have some issues with this grand studio plan but no doubt Ms. Singh (and I have met and talked with her so I have no doubt) would ascribe my objections to my age rather than any reasonable objections based on a lack of data and information. What statistics or data to support this notion that the library should supply someone or other with an ‘inspiration’ lab? There are similar experiments in the US and elsewhere. Have these been successful and has anyone analyzed the reasons for success and/or failure?
Apparently, there was some sort of public consultation. According to Mickleburgh’s article,
An extensive series of Free For All sessions, seeking community opinion on what was wanted from their libraries, including the wishes of teens, produced more than 7,000 responses over 10 months. What emerged is that people still value the VPL’s extensive collections, and they treasure its space, a refuge from the density of modern living.
When and where? How were people notified and who was invited? Who crunched the data? Is it possible the data crunchers had an agenda (consciously or unconsciously)? The answer to that last question is yes and one always has to compensate for one’s own agenda.
Some of these questions could also be aimed at the Bodleian Library folks and this contention “As digital information becomes more accessible, so the importance of the analogue also surfaces. It’s like vinyl, or 35mm film: people are interested in objects and the innate quality of things.” Do you have data supporting your contention or is that what you want to believe?
Finally, here’s what Wainwright had to say about the winning design,
Finally we come to Barber Osgerby, working with classic English modernist manufacturer Isokon. Either the designers are fans of Christine de Pizan, or I have been looking at medieval illuminations for too long, but their chair has definite echoes of some of the low, round-backed seats the Renaissance feminist is depicted sitting in.
With a single straight spine that joins a continuous curving arm rest to a similarly-shaped rail on the floor, the form is also strongly reminiscent of Frank Lloyd Wright’s Barrel Chair, designed in 1937 for the Wingspread house in Wisconsin. Seen in a row from behind, as they will be installed in the library, they appear to form a line of little rooms around the readers, defining a series of individual territories from the floor to the desk.
As Barber Osgerby have cleverly done before with their Tip Ton school chair, the bottom rail is also angled to allow the chair to be subtly tilted forward, or leaned back to recline.
“That could be an important feature for the users of special collections,” says Fletcher. “You often want to get right in to see the variations in type, or annotations, or the chain lines in the paper.”
Sitting down, it appears to be the most comfortable, with broad armrests set at the right height; although, as I tilt forward – engrossed in the detail of a ligature – it feels like there might be a chance of being deposited head-first into the folio.
As a classic form that would sit at home in the Gilbert Scott interiors, yet which has its own distinctive identity as an elegant and ergonomic design, my money’s on Barber Osgerby.
You can see a photograph of the three finalist chairs and enjoy Wainwright’s full article here.