Books and buildings

In the age of the download, libraries are fighting for their place. Some have been reinvented as learning and resource centres. Others have closed, falling victim to changing habits and spending cuts.

“This is a digital futures campus. It is not a place you come to read books. It is a place to do real work on real-time digital platforms. You are not messing around – you are in the real world,” said Jon Corner, Director for MediacityUK at the University of Salford in an Independent feature

Leaving aside the suggestion that reading books is somehow an “unreal” activity, compared to working online, Corner’s comment encapsulates shifts in education – from physical to virtual and from “academic” to commercial.

Salford spent £22m fitting out and equipping the digital facility. As the Indy article comments: “It is a campus bristling with HD TV studios, digital media labs and post-production facilities that would put the state broadcasters of some small European nations to shame.” That technology will need to be kept up to date, at a considerable cost.

When most information can be delivered down a wire to your home or your phone, do we need specialist buildings as repositories or even conduits of knowledge and entertainment? Well, they can play an important role in community cohesion. Witness the success of Peckham Library in London and of course there are some things that cannot easily be digitised.

In the US, the debate around books and buildings is exemplified by plans for one of the country’s most distinguished institutions, the 1911 New York Public Library. If you haven’t visited it you might have seen Jake Gyllenhaal and other survivors of catastrophic climate change sheltering there in the 2004 science-fiction disaster film The Day After Tomorrow!

The NYPL is not facing Armageddon on quite that scale but the proposal to move up to 3 million books offsite has prompted complaints from academics and researchers. One report says the library is “endangering its claim to be one of the world’s pre-eminent public resources for the study of human thought.”

The proposal is part of a $300m makeover. Removing book stacks will allow British architect Norman Foster to create a new public space a quarter of a block wide by two blocks long and eight storeys high. The project is itself part of a $1.2 billion plan for the city’s library system.

For some users the plans will mean a longer wait for books which will have to be retrieved from a site across the street or a new facility in suburban New Jersey. Is this a fair trade off? Should a prime site in the centre of one of the world’s most expensive cities continue to be used as essentially a storage facility?

Computers will be a feature of the new space of course but there will also be a lending library, the first on the site in two generations. Putting computers in one place to access digitised information may eventually come to be seen as an odd decision.

Explaining the plans in an article for the Huffington Post, NYPL chief executive Anthony Marx says: “The ground under all libraries is shifting. From financial uncertainties to the challenges of guaranteeing digital access for all, the country’s largest circulating library has no choice but to change. We must also preserve our position as one of the world’s great research libraries.”

Salford’s MediaCity and the debate over the plans for the NYPL echo many other discussions about the role of place in learning and knowledge exchange. My hunch is that the advantages offered by the concentration of people and resources in a physical location will ensure that libraries (of one sort or another) will be around long after the day after tomorrow.