Librarians on a rampage

seattle library.jpg

Call it malevolent meccano. The new Seattle Public Library by Rem Koolhaas looks menacing in an innocent sort of way, like a children’s toy working up the courage to consume the city. Not too big, not too small, Seattle, you can hear it thinking, would make a nice light snack.

Apparently, the frightening half of the message was deliberate. “I thought it was important that you have a sense of awe when you come into a public building, especially a library.” So says Deborah Jacobs, Seattle’s chief librarian.

How really sad. Jacobs is charged with getting people into libraries. Her institution is surrounded by formidable distractions: Hollywood, television, sports, theatre, blogging. She is also up against new competitors: especially Google which now serves each of us daily as a librarian without precedent or parallel.

Is awe really the way to make the Seattle Public Library more accessible? Clearly not. Awe will make this institution less accessible.

So what was Jacobs doing? I have an uneasy feeling that this is self aggrandizement. I think Jacobs figures that if the library is a thing of awe, she must be the keeper of awe. Koolhaas’ building has the effect of making her awesome.

I can’t tell you the number of times I have seen this sort of thing in the museum world. (Yes, I can: 47 times.) We don’t pay museum professionals very well. We don’t hold their institutions in very high esteem. And at the very moment, museologists and librarians should be struggling to return themselves to usefulness, they are inclined to find someway to dress themselves up in grandeur or, in Jacobs’ case, intimidation.

Well, bad luck on Jacobs. The Seattle Library ends up being intimidation lite. Whether this is incompetence or mischief on Koolhaas’ part, we can never know. I am betting it’s the latter, and his idea of truth in packaging.

Libraries truly are over. (Why they spend all this money on the Seattle one is a mystery. This would have bought a lot of public access for the digitally disadvantaged.) Once gateways to knowledge, the library is now an archeological remainder.

The librarian responds by protesting the institution’s majesty. Koolhaas may be making a somewhat different point, that the institutions that sprang from paper-based knowledge are, and must be made to look, rather less intimidating in the coming era of ubiquitous and instantaneous digital access.


Goldberger, Paul. 2004. High-Tech Bibliophilia. The New Yorker. May 24, 2004, pp. 90-92.

Last note: this is the 200th entry of this blog. Trade your ticket stubs for the beverage on your choice (small) in the lobby!

9 thoughts on “Librarians on a rampage

  1. fouroboros

    Thanks Grant, I’ll have a steamin hot up o’ Drano®.

    You obviously haven’t read enough of Koolhaas’ and Ramus’ rationales for the Lunar Module from Hell:

    “…a song of light that changes with each cloud, sun angle and surrounding shadow.

    ..integrates detailed functionality with an ever-changing symphony of color, line and form.”

    “A truly rational building will not look rational,” Ramus [one of the building’s architects] says. Seattle’s library “is large but not monumental,” he goes on. “The spaces are designed not to intimidate but to accommodate.”

    Oyy. Politcs, business, architecture, establishment media–the fruits of turbocharged entropy are like a hailstorm.

    About that cup o’ Drano®… Make it a double.

  2. Tom Guarriello

    Oh Grant, I wager this business about libraries being “over” is going to touch a sacreligious nerve for many of us mid-20th-century-reared academillectuals. I think I’m a representative case (who doesn’t think they are?) and I was raised to honor the sacred nature of the library space and its contents. (“Shh, quiet, you’re in a [church] [library]).” Similar to a church being the, “house of God.”

    But, what was being honored was the book as repository of humanity’s collective intellectual quest, with the library as its abode. Where else could we go to gain access to that glorious history?

    Today, I’m finding books themselves increasingly hard to use after getting used to the Google-hubbed electroinfosphere. I keep looking for the “search” box and the hyperlinks. I find myself resisting a sequential reading of a text from beginning to end, instead looking for ways to get to “the good parts” (whatever they may be for this particular reading, at this moment) fast. That impatience is a bit disquieting.

  3. Andrew

    If you’re looking for the social rationale behind the new SPL’s design, the librarian is probably the wrong source. Try the archetect, whose view are quite different:

    “‘This is an uncomfortable era in architecture,’ Koolhaas explained during one of his monthly visits from Rotterdam. ‘To be monumental rather than used seems to be the fashion….’ Seattle’s library ‘is large but not monumental,’ he goes on. ‘The spaces are designed not to intimidate but to accommodate.’

    It appears the conclusion that “[a]pparently, the frightening half of the message was deliberate” doesn’t follow at all — unless you assume the librarian did the design, or that the architect’s statements about his view on the achitecture misrepresent his true views.

    Which would be silly.

  4. Grant

    Fouroboros: A song of light? I feel a terrible bout of synthesia (sp?) coming on. Make that a couple of aspirins with my Drano, please.

    Tom, well said, post-Google, every trip to the library feels like a visit to the 20th century. Books are just the strangest books of knowledge, aren’t they?

    Andrew, I was relying on the New Yorker story, which makes it sound like K. was following his client’s, the librarian’s, lead. But as I say, the building is more interesting than the librarian’s apparent motive. So I am guessing some mischief on K.’s part, nothing that can ever be disclosed. Or I am just flat out wrong. I am quitting smoking again this week and a nicotine deficit is playing havoc with my idea production/distribution.

    Thanks, Grant

  5. Joe

    I am just a simple lawyer, so I don’t have all the fancy artistic lingo, although I suspect some of the above words are made up. I was actually accepted into some M.Arch. programs once, in hindsight it is probably a good thing I did not go. I am a new fan of yours because you are so challenging for me to read and think about, not comforting like much of what I caught myself reading. That creaking sound is my mind expanding.

    But I would like to defend libraries from my perspective. The interesting thing for me is, I actually spend more time in the library now because of what I find on the Internet. The threads I try to unravel always seem to snag on something that is just not online. Google Print may solve that, but I am not betting on it. It will only have what the publishers see fit to give.

    And at present there is no other way for me to listen to a book in the car for free. Or check my e-mail on vacation. In fact, your modern library has the Internet for the digitally-divided, as well as audio books, movies, periodicals, meeting space, classes, seminars, etc. It is changing for sure, but I would not sign the death certificate just yet.

    As far as the architecture is concerned, what does this library look like on the inside? Many architect’s renderings are of views no one will ever see unless they tear down the building you would be standing in, and one or two others in the way, anyway. Maybe one of your readers is willing to snap it with a digital camera in context. I remember reading how the context is important, somewhere.

    One final thought, I am willing to wager the great majority of library patrons go to a branch. Most main library buildings are half administrative anyway.

  6. Kerim Friedman

    Libraries are not dead by any means, although government agencies keep cutting their budgets. The community library in my neighborhood is always packed – so much that they are trying to raise money to expand! Sure, many people come for free internet access, but so what – libraries may be changing, but there are still people who need what they offer. The Koolhaus library is very focused on digital content. But people also come to the library for information about public services, to get help with finding information, to borrow dvds, CDs, for public readings and events, not to mention … borrowing books.

    About the building. I too am not particularly impressed with the external shots of the building, but the internal spaces look beautiful (from pictures I’ve seen on the web), they really seem to have done a nice job making the internal spaces “accessible” even if the external look of the building is not. I often find that one’s experience of a building up-close is very different from what they look like in pictures.

  7. T: Central

    Alternate, simpler explanation of librarian’s “awe” comment: Maybe she didn’t like the building, but wanted to appear as if she supported it, or as if the effect is intentional. The ol’ “We meant to do that.”

  8. rvman

    My immediate reaction was “Polaroid Camera”. My second was “Decapitated Robot”. Awe was pretty far down the list.

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