Designing Library Spaces

Glorious day: I finally got my hands on a copy of The New Downtown Library: Designing With Communities by
Shannon Mattern (University of Minnesota Press, 2007). Mattern, a media scholar interested in libraries, archives, and urban spaces, wrote her dissertation on the Seattle Central Library and, several years later, published this broad study of 25 large public libraries in American cities. Given the promise of its title and the level of access and depth of source material, the book leaves a lot on the table. Its arguments are conversation openers, making it an excellent candidate for a teaching text in a course on libraries as spaces.

Mattern begins with the political, financial, and infrastructural requirements for designing and building a large, urban public library. Who are the stakeholders in such a project? How does the distribution of power and decision-making match up with the intended benefits of a new or renovated building in a specific urban context? As with many capital projects, mistakes are made in the planning and design of libraries. Sadly, insufficient or misguided consultation with various communities of users (library patrons and library workers among them) are often the cause. Dig deep enough — and Mattern barely needs to — and you’ll find evidence of all kinds of miscommunication.

Seattle Central Library

View from an upper level of the Seattle Central Library (Source: Santhosh Rajangam
/ santhosh on Flickr, CC-BY)

Mattern traces the emergence of several broad but distinct types of library buildings. There are “Carnegie libraries,” influenced by Carnegie funding and ideas, rectilinear buildings with standard spaces for standard services laid out in a standard way in Beaux-Arts-inspired envelopes. There are modularly designed “modern libraries” of the 1960s, also rectilinear. More recently, Mattern writes, libraries reflect “the influence of commercial and corporate architecture” (p. 4) and some feature vaguely delineated spaces for a suite of vaguely described purposes, often lumped together in laughably broad categories like “multimedia.”

Politics, media, history, and ideology all influence what is meant by libraries and their design. What libraries are and do has always been understood in multiple ways, Mattern argues:

“The lack of consistency in library mission and ideology is reflected in the diversity in library programming. From the athenaeums of the nineteenth century, with their lectures and dances, to the Carnegie libraries of the early twentieth century, with their bowling alleys and music halls, to the modular libraries of the mid-twentieth century, libraries have been many things to many people.” (p. 5)

Additional ideas about what libraries can or should be emerge from architecture studios. Some of these perceptions of libraries speak to the pervasive influence of the Carnegie library and the multimedia space. But one of Mattern’s major points is that, for better or worse, architects often bring different preconceived notions than the rest of us when it comes to (re)imagining libraries. She traces how these atypical notions are expressed in the relationships between buildings and their contexts (plazas, streetscapes, and more), building envelopes, spatial organizations, programming, and furniture. The Office for Metropolitan Architecture’s Seattle Public Library comes in for a great deal of praise, even as architect Rem Koolhaas betrays some dissonance with community attitudes about libraries.

Mattern’s progressively detailed examinations reveal that, while architects may think differently from other people about libraries, they often think the same way about libraries as they do about other buildings. Furthermore, Mattern suspects several prominent architects of lumping all large, urban libraries together, a dangerous tendency to her mind and one that strays from — yes — designing with communities.

Phoenix Public Library, Will Bruder, Phoenix AZ

The reading room in the Burton Barr Central Library (Phoenix, Ariz.) (Source: Marc Teer / marcteer on Flickr)

Mattern’s premise is strong, and I have great respect for her continuing work on libraries, archives, preservation, and the organization of information. (Recently, she’s been part of an effort called Re-Envisioning New York’s Branch Libraries. Learn more here.) However, I can’t help but feel that this book represents a lost opportunity to bring her strengths as a media scholar to bear on the topic of library architecture. Obviously a great deal of research was required for the writing: site visits, interviews, combing through records. And it’s interesting to read a media scholar writing about architecture and libraries in the language of architects and librarians. But couldn’t the tools and language of media studies have enriched the analysis?

Her concluding chapter hints at promising applications for an interface metaphor in library architecture, but never defines or engages this particular kind of “interface architecture” in a satisfying way. Whether the imagined reader is an architect, librarian, fellow media expert, or anyone who uses the new downtown public library, there are missing piece preventing each of them from fully engaging this interesting book.

Still, I would love to see the book as the centerpiece of a studio course on library design. Supplemented with interview transcripts, photographs, video, site visits, drawings, and other documentation, the book’s underlying structure could double as the spine of a semester-long immersion in libraries as architecture. Students might spend a month or two exploring the urban context of a proposed library site and drawing (sorry) their conclusions about how a library building and its programs could relate to national, regional, and hyperlocal systems. They might spend another month studying the details of a specific library function or program and design outward from its spatial needs.

Architecture students are some of the most productive people in the world; they might burn through six iterations of a library in a couple of weeks and be ready for more. But part of the benefit of a studio on libraries would be the need to understand the daily pace of library life, which can be slow and mundane as well as dynamic.

One of Mattern’s illuminating framing concepts is what we can learn from failure:

“At the same time, it is a physical space, a spatial organization, that makes many of these things possible. It is a physical structure that codifies these ideas and values and makes them apparent. Occasionally, as in some of the dysfunctional buildings we have addressed, it is the absence of particular features or the failure of a building to perform a function or to uphold an ideal that brings that function or ideal to consciousness.” (p. 145)

Designing — and failing at the design of — large, downtown public libraries is a crucible for interrogating library functions and ideas about libraries. Librarians participating in a design course may find this to be the most rewarding part of the process.

While the book alone has some gaps from a reader’s perspective, the very gaps are opportunities to build on Mattern’s work, answer the questions she leaves unanswered, and seek out additional scholarship that picks up on the connections she leaves open. The New Downtown Library demands active use by anyone interested in the relationship between libraries and space.

Two views of the Seattle Public Library's Book Spiral

Two views of the Seattle Public Library’s Book Spiral (Source: coolmel on Flickr, CC-BY-NC-SA. Left / Right)

I’ve looked high and low for a graduate course description or syllabus on library design, and pickings are slim. My school appears to have nothing of the kind — a promising studio to design a digital curation lab seems to have wandered a bit from its original intent. A “Library Buildings” class at UIUC, which Nicole wrote about last March, seems to be one of the few out there.

What kind of training does your school offer in this area? Lesley’s thoughtful post — Hack Your Image of Libraries As Place — reinforces the responsibility we have to consider libraries as physical spaces, not just for users but for our own sanity. As library school students and once-and-future librarians, what do you think a library design course for librarians should be sure to include?

— Amy Wickner (@amelish)

6 replies

  1. Thanks very much for this thoughtful and thorough review, Amy! I’m so glad to hear that, even though the book was written over a decade ago, it still has some utility! I’m grateful, too, for your cogent critiques; you’re certainly right that I missed some opportunities to bring the frameworks and methods of my own field, media studies, to bear on the topic.

    That said, perhaps it’s useful to know that, back in the early aughts, when I was writing, hardly anyone in my field (I wouldn’t consider myself a *new* media scholar, by the way; while I have written about digital technologies in very recent years, I had no training in this area) examined architecture or urban planning as a medium. For years after the publication of the book (including in my pre-tenure and tenure reviews) I had to go to great lengths to explain how libraries were an appropriate topic of study for media studies! And, as I remember it, most of the folks who were writing about new media in these early start-up days were still in either “breathless”-futurist or fatalist-death-of-space mode (of course there are exceptions!) — and I found this work to be of little use.

    But yes, if I had it to do all over again, I’d *certainly* be a bit less insistent on demonstrating my “chops” in planning and architecture and policy — fields in which I feared I’d be taken as a poseur! — and I’d have more faith in my own disciplinary knowledge. There’s been a great deal of spatially-oriented — and more measured and materialist — media theory generated in recent years, too, that would’ve been great to apply in this project. Alas. As you suggest, those who come after me can fill in some of the gaps in my own contribution. I’d like to think that some of my more recent articles help to address these shortcomings. And yes, I’d love to see more interdisciplinary studios with planners, architects, media theorists and makers, policy folks, etc., working together — as a community! — to address these rich challenges of library design. Let’s hope lots of folks take up your challenge!

    Again, thank you!


    • Shannon, thanks so much for your comment — and for reading this post, holy hell.

      I’ve betrayed my lack of familiarity with media studies here and appreciate your filling out the context a bit. It’s likely that, coming to an older title for the first time, I take for granted certain ways of writing and thinking made possible by your having written this book and argued, over and over, for its validity. The confluence of libraries, media studies and architecture makes so much sense (personally and at this moment in time) that I never considered the possibility of resistance to writing about it. An oversight, for sure!

      And much respect for writing in a way that’s accessible to both architects and librarians, even if it came (in part) from a place of mild imposter syndrome. I hope it’s clear that I’m not finding fault with interdisciplinarity — quite the opposite.

      My apologies for tacking on a “new” to “media” where it doesn’t really belong — that’s now corrected above.


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