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Nathan Bierma

Future Bound

The greatly exaggerated demise of an American institution

As you walk down Seattle's Fourth Avenue, the new Central Library jumps out at youliterally; its third-story jaw juts out over a ground-level plaza. Encamped amid nondescript beige and black boxy buildings, this gangly greenhouse, designed by Dutch architect Rem Koolhaas and opened last May, grabs the gaze of passersby from all of its many angles. On the outside, its polygonal form, cloaked in aqua glass, is arresting. Inside, the sights are just as striking: neon yellow escalators, video art installations behind glass, potted plants dotting spacious reading areas with foam chairs. When Seattle does see the sunshine, as it did on the summer day I visited, the building yanks in the surrounding rays and chases away all the dreariness usually associated with both the city of Seattle and the institution of the public library.

According to reviewsincluding Paul Goldberger's in The New Yorker, which called the building "the most important new library to be built in a generation, and the most exhilarating"Koolhaas designed the Central Library to be both more inviting and more logical than the usual library building.1 His unorthodox design achieves both goals. The soaring, see-through walls make the building enticing, in contrast with the stuffy, sarcophagal structures of the mid-20th century. Meanwhile, the floors that hold the library's collection are set on alternating inclines, each floor rising to meet the next, zig-zagging their way to the top and allowing the collection to continue unbroken from beginning to end. You can thus walk the length of the entire Dewey Decimal System without setting foot on a stair. (For the sake of your calves, start in the 900s with history and travel and work your way down to computers and reference in the 000s.) "It's a hard building to map," apologizes an attendant at the information desk.

The cynical take on Koolhaas' architectural feat is that it is a desperate attempt to sell the idea of books and reading to a hopelessly distracted culture. The optimistic view is that the Seattle Central Library is a triumphal statement about the relevance of books in a digital age, not a tombstone but a keystone of a new information era. The library did, after all, open ten years after the publication of Sven Birkerts' The Gutenberg Elegies: The Fate of Reading in an Electronic Age, when the future of text printed on paper was considered to be in doubt. The day was surely soon to come when anyone at a computer could pull up any text they wished, and a building filled with shelves of books would stand unoccupied and obsolete. Libraries found themselves, Geoffrey Nunberg wrote, approaching the end of "a century in which the institution has more or less languished in the public consciousness, and at a moment when many people think the library has no future at all in the age of the Internet."2

Instead, libraries are "busier than ever," Wheaton [Ill.] Public Library director Sarah Meisels told me last year, as she stood surveying the scene in her bustling building.3 Visits to public libraries doubled in the 1990s, according to the American Library Association, up to over 1.1 billion in 2001, while the number of items checked out rose from about 1.4 billion to about 1.8 billion. And despite the dominance of diet fads and other fatuities on the bestseller listsand despite a much-ballyhooed National Endowment for the Arts study this summer called "Reading At Risk," which found that Americans are reading less fiction than they were 20 years agothe fact remains: we are a culture that still loves our books.

Still, libraries have stayed alive in part by reinventing themselves as multipurpose, multimedia information centers, whose art galleries, audio and video materials, auditoriums, coffee shops, gift shops, and, of course, Internet terminals are becoming as essential to their purpose as books are. Who would have thought that it would be the audio book that would come of age in the 1990s, while the much-hyped e-book went down in flames? The Wheaton Public Library expanded its book holdings from 40,000 to 55,000 books from 1978 to 2002; during the same period, it increased its audio-visual holdings from 5,000 to 45,000.

The act of eating would earn you a scolding in the library of yesteryear; now, more and more, you can buy a scone and latte. The library used to feel like a museum; today it feels more like a mall. The circulation desk on the ground floor of the Seattle Central Library resembles the check-out counter of an Old Navy. There's a Microsoft Auditorium and a Starbucks Teen Center. The Seattle Post-Intelligencer raved that the library "is going to be a huge hit with the mass audience that is its principal customer."4

If that kind of talk is a departure from the public library's august heritage, the idealismPlace of Learning, Place of Dreams is the title of a book about the new Seattle library in the gift shopis not. Although the public library system, like the interstate highway system, is, when you think about it, one of the most socialist operations this nation maintains, it continues to be associated with our noblest civic principles. Conceived in the late 19th century in a fit of optimism about the plausibility of social progress through public discourse and mass literacy, public libraries appeared by the thousands across America by the turn of the 20th century.

Their proliferation owed a great deal to the philanthropy of Andrew Carnegie, who pronounced that the library "outranks any other one thing that a community can do to help its people." While the role of the library has changedit is no longer the sole ambassador of books to the public, but butts heads with bookstore chains and online retailersits reason for being, in the eyes of librarians, remains the same. "I think of libraries as the cornerstone of democracy," Carol Brey-Casiano, director of the El Paso Public Library and president of the American Library Association, told me. "You can't have an informed citizenry without access to the information that is available in the library." If Brey-Casiano is guilty of hyperbole, than so was T.S. Eliot. "The very existence of libraries," he once said, "affords the best evidence that we may yet have hope for man."

Part of Brey-Casiano's job as ALA president, which she began last July, is convincing legislators of Eliot's belief at a time when many state and local governments are running budget deficits. An ALA report released in April 2004 found that 41 states had cut their library budgets over the past year, and over 600 staffers had been laid off. Many libraries were reducing hours, trimming programs, buying fewer new books, and relying more on "Friends of the Library" fundraising for operating expenses.5 Seattle's new library will be an achievement not only for its architecture but also by simply staying open year-round; in the past few years, Seattle saved nearly $1 million a year (and the jobs of over 20 people) by closing all city libraries for a week at a time, twice a year.6

The saddest symbol of the nation's library crisis may have been the public library in Franklin, Mass., founded by Benjamin Franklin in 1790 and touted by the town as the nation's oldest. Last year the town made national news by threatening to close the library for lack of funding, before it received a new infusion of state aid and was saved.7 (The situation is worse in Britain, where, in contrast to the United States, library visits are lagging. A publishing analysis firm called Libri has predicted all of Britain's public libraries could close by the year 2020.8) Although the latest news is encouragingCongress appears ready to increase federal library funding for its 2005 budgetBrey-Casiano has launched a "Save America's Libraries" campaign through ALA, distributing promotional materials on its web site that read, "The future is at your library, so make sure your library has a future."

The sales pitch for libraries in the age of Amazon.com and Google is twofold: technology may provide information, but libraries provide people and they provide places. The first message is, don't give up on the value of the reference librarian. Students who are lazily content to search Google while writing a paper are shut out from the so-called "deep web": the private databases and catalogs of libraries and colleges that restrict remote access.9 Meanwhile, they are flooded with thousands of search results, some of them irrelevant and many of them unreliable. "While you can go on Google and find a ton of stuff, the question is how efficient have you been, and how thorough have you been," Gordon Welles, director of the Glen Ellyn [Ill.] Public Library, told me. "The issue for libraries at this point in our evolution is to help people separate out what's useful and what isn't." He added: "We have to integrate the old technology and the new and recognize there are places for both." Although the computer terminals tend to be the busiest area in the library these daysand remain the only place where people who do not have internet access at home, which includes half of all households in Brey-Casiano's district, can use the internet for freelibrarians maintain that the internet should supplement, not supplant, traditional sources.

The second message is delivered by the fantastical face of the new Seattle Central Library. The building makes a bold statement that libraries can be dynamic public places. As Goldberger wrote in The New Yorker, "the building conveys a sense of the possibility, even the urgency, of public space in the center of a city." Just across the Canadian border, the downtown library in Vancouver makes this point even more emphatically; its dramatic emulation of the Roman Colosseum, collared by a public plaza and a row of food shops, subtly merges indoor and outdoor space. Brey-Casiano says the endurance of public libraries proves that people still value civic places. She cites John Naisbitt and Patricia Aburdene's 1982 book Megatrends, which predicted that as technology isolated people they would crave connectedness all the more. Welles, who oversees a magnificent new building designed in the English Tudor style, a trademark of the village of Glen Ellyn, says one of his biggest tasks is divvying up the library's public meeting rooms for group gatherings.

Just as electronic reading will never replace the paper kind, it seems the personal computer will never replace the public library. "I value the state a book puts me in more than I value the specific contents," Birkerts wrote in The Gutenberg Elegies; so too, we may value the state a library puts us in as much as what it contains. Among the shelves and study carrels, you can hear yourself think, clearing out the mental clutter of the frenetic Internet experience, with its instantaneous tangents of the constantly clicking mouse. As Matthew Battles writes in Library: An Unquiet History, libraries are where we enjoy both "the sacrosanct space of inner thought" and "the dusty physicality of books," in contrast to "evanescent digital media." They are also where we experience the grand moment of the serendipitous, stumbled-upon discovery, the treasure you weren't looking for. The difference may come down to this: at the computer, you grab a mouse. The books in a libraryand these days, the buildings themselvesgrab you.

Nathan Bierma is an editorial assistant at Books & Culture. He writes the weekly "On Language" column for the Chicago Tribune.

1. Paul Goldberger, "High-tech Bibliophilia," The New Yorker, May 24, 2004.

2. Geoffrey Nunberg, "Will Libraries Survive?", The American Prospect, November/December 1998. Also see Nunberg, ed., The Future of the Book (Univ. of California Press, 1996).

3 Nathan Bierma, "A tale of two busyvery busylibraries," Chicago Tribune, August 20, 2003.

4. Regina Hackett, "With its glass skin and odd angles, Koolhaas' design is fun on a grand scale," Seattle Post-Intelligencer, May 20, 2004.

5 American Library Association, "National study finds library funding cuts in 41 states." Press release, April 19, 2004. www.ala.org/ala/pr2004/april2004/funding.htm

6. Stuart Eskenazi, "U.S. libraries in a squeeze between budgets, needs," Seattle Times, February 25, 2004.

7. Elizabeth Mehren, "They Need More Ben Franklins Now," Los Angeles Times, April 27, 2003.

8. John Ezard, "British libraries could shut by 2020," The Guardian, April 28, 2004.

9. Kate Hafner, "Old Search Engine, the Library, Tries to Fit into a Google World," New York Times, June 21, 2004.

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