Much is made of the grandeur and significance of many contemporary library buildings. Often stunning, these architectural statements are seen as an inspirational symbol of a city — landmarks that elevate the conversations about the importance of knowledge, the intellect and culture.
Beautiful as they are, these grand buildings would obviously look out of place in a smaller community or neighbourhood. Surrey’s celebrated new library would look ridiculously out of place in Nakusp, for example. Environmental and cultural context are everything.
So that’s why I took delight in reading an article, The Revolution at Your Community Library, written by Sarah Williams Goldhagen, a leading figure in the understanding and interpretation of modern and contemporary architecture. It’s in The New Republic magazine.
“Now that a digital copy of the Library of Congress’s entire book collection could fit in a single shoebox, the future of the contemporary library is up for grabs,” she says.
Looking beyond the grandeur of large city library projects, Goldhagen writes: “To find architects, librarians, and municipalities who have re-conceptualized the contemporary public library with a more nuanced and promising vision, we must turn our attentions away from noisy Seattle and other large projects toward the modest community library.”
Goldhagen makes the point that libraries have become heavily used, not-for-profit communal spaces that facilitate many and various kinds of informal social interactions and private uses:
“What differentiates today’s community library from its precedents is the variety of public goods that it contains, and the variety of ways those goods are used by people as individuals and collectives.
People today rely on their community library for so very many things! Books share space with DVDs, CDs, magazines, Internet-connected computers, lecture halls, classrooms, and more. The unemployed, under-employed, and self-employed frequent them. Immigrants attend English-as-a-second-language classes there. Homeless people park there. Caretakers and their young charges read, or just escape social isolation without paying for that right at the local mall. Working parents use them as free, safe depositories for untended offspring. Retirees get to the classics they have long deferred, work on their long-dreamed-of memoirs, dig into their family genealogies. Bootstrap community organizations stage art shows, concerts, performances, lectures.”
The community of Salt Spring Island is justifiably proud of its attractive new library, as I witnessed first-hand when I was invited to speak at the library’s recent AGM. Architecturally beautiful, yet modest in scale, it embodies the spirit of that vibrant artistic and ecologically-minded community.
People have a natural affinity with their local context. Whether a small community library, or a neighbourhood library in a big city, the smaller-scale structures can nurture the users’ sense of the library as an anchor and symbol of their commonality. As Goldhagen says:
“Individuals need places where they can engage with others like and unlike them, with whom they share an affiliation just by virtue of inhabiting a particular city, town, or neighborhood. Groups of people need places that can help constitute them into and symbolically represent their community. Everyone needs what the urban sociologist Ray Oldenberg calls third places — the first is home, the second is school or workplace.”
To read more, see Sarah Williams Goldhagen’s article, The Revolution at Your Community Library, in the March 9 issue of The New Republic.
It’s another reminder: As hubs of activity and knowledge, local libraries are well-positioned to support and strengthen their communities.