The architect is the natural enemy of the librarian
April 7, 2018 7:46 AM   Subscribe

"Librarians and architects were already at odds in the late nineteenth century, when librarianship and architectural practice were being professionalized. (The American Library Association was founded in 1876, the American Institute for Architects in 1856.) Many librarians felt that architects ignored their needs and created buildings that emphasized grandeur over functionality. ... At a meeting of the ALA in 1881, Poole delivered a fiery speech against the “vacuity” of the new Peabody Institute Library in Baltimore. “The nave is empty and serves no purpose that contributes to the architectural effect,” he argued. “Is not this an expensive luxury?"

Library Journal: Architecture
Arch Daily: Libraries
Dezeen: Libraries
Library design case studies

From the article:
Videbimus Lumen mural at Butler Library, Columbia University
Bobst Library at NYU; after renovation
posted by Eyebrows McGee (51 comments total) 31 users marked this as a favorite
 
The library in our town has the stacks 3 levels deep with frosted glass brick floors. They used to not be frosted but it turns out glass floors were not great for preventing pervs from looking up people's skirts on the floor above.
posted by Ferreous at 7:58 AM on April 7, 2018 [15 favorites]


which is to say, yeah sometimes architectural decisions for public spaces are at odds for how those spaces will be used.
posted by Ferreous at 8:03 AM on April 7, 2018 [11 favorites]


Interestingly, the late 19th / early 20th c. was also a period when librarians (as is maybe the standard) were at odds with one another as to library design. My neighborhood branch of the DC Public Library is a c. 1922 Carnegie that was built with a large section of closed stacks, a long-lived standard that was then in the process of being argued out of existence in favor of the less paternalistic and pedagogical open stacks / patron browsing model. It's one of several public libraries here that were effectively obsolete as soon as they opened as a result, and that then had big sections awkwardly devoted to other purposes (storage, crap offices) for decades.

Also, Peabody Institute Library. There is a lot of dead space, but in terms of public opinion and endurance as a working library, history is currently on its side.
posted by ryanshepard at 8:09 AM on April 7, 2018 [2 favorites]


Last year the Toronto Reference Library, where I work, celebrated its 40th anniversary. One of my colleagues put together a binder of newspaper clippings and other information about the history of the library, and it was somewhat amusing to read the many negative reviews - of a building that is almost universally loved today - that accompanied its opening in 1977.

Now, the D.B. Weldon Library (at the University of Western Ontario, where I did my library degree)...*there's* a building that hates itself and its users.
posted by The Card Cheat at 8:38 AM on April 7, 2018 [4 favorites]


OMG! This topic makes me so angry! I work in an "Award Winning" library building designed by Helmut Jahn in the 70's. It's mostly glass, (single pane) and square, and butt ugly. He designed it without heating and cooling since it should be self regulating, because reasons. So after many many worker complaints and lawsuit threats they shoved HVAC in sideways and made it somewhat work, for certain no load bearing definitions of work. Flash forward to 5 years ago when our director, after being told they'd design us a brand new library with full input from us, declined, because Helmut Jahn! and Award Winning Architecture! Instead they did a massive redisign and took some of the things that sort of worked (a circulation area that almost had enough room for our needs) and Architected them into useless design nonsense so that the admins & money people would ooh and ahh, and the people that would have to use them would spend their every working hour screaming. So yes, I fucking hate Architects.
posted by evilDoug at 8:44 AM on April 7, 2018 [19 favorites]


Sometimes I wonder if most architects have ever met a human being or set foot in a building.
posted by aramaic at 8:52 AM on April 7, 2018 [15 favorites]


The animosity goes beyond mere buildings. Although the title "information architect" is gradually being replaced by "UX (user experience) librarian," at one time architects were very pissed off about librarians using that title.
posted by zakur at 8:56 AM on April 7, 2018 [1 favorite]


The ultimate frustration for me was working as a project admin for architects in a brand new building designed by these very same architects who pre-surveyed all the other architects in the company as to their functional needs, BUT NOT the ADMIN STAFF, and treated us as a bunch of negative whiners when we had to move in to our shiny-new, inadequate, cramped, un-functional afterthought spaces for filing, copying, printing, document/blueprint storage, processing visitors, and just walking around. They couldn't understand why we didn't appreciate the Lines and the Surfaces and the Forms and the Raftered Ceilings.
posted by Gnella at 8:59 AM on April 7, 2018 [8 favorites]


Can we please please not turn this into a "I hated a building once, therefore architects suck" conversation?
posted by gyusan at 9:03 AM on April 7, 2018 [8 favorites]


“The nave is empty and serves no purpose that contributes to the architectural effect,” he argued. “Is not this an expensive luxury?"
Once upon a time I would have agreed. But I'm an old grouch now.

Custom buildings and custom construction are pretty much always expensive luxuries. You can cook a meal in a garage, you can bathe in a kitchen, you can study in a closet, you can teach a class in a boiler room, and you can imagine a functioning (if unhappily) library in just about any roofed structure at all.

I was raised by bookish, library people. I was taught that status symbols were silly, that gratuitous display of all kinds is often a sign of anxiety, that there are appearances on one hand and there is substance on the other, and that I should aspire to substance. As far as they went, my parents were right about those things.

But status symbols work, though. Gratuitous displays are dumb, they are wasteful, but they do have an impact on the mood and frame of mind of others.

This is exactly the larger picture I would expect librarians to discount too heavily and architects to focus on too narrowly. The worshipful grandeur of a few spectacular library buildings may do more than we'd care to admit to re-enforce the cultural priorities that keep the library organizations prestigious, respected, and funded.

I live in the Cleveland area. A trip downtown to the main library branch - four stories of grand marble staircases, windows, air-shafts, underground passageways, skylights, gardens, mezzanines, and stacks and stacks and stacks - was an exciting treat when I was a kid. I still feel that way today. A different building might hold more books or make the books faster to access, but wouldn't seize a visitor's mood and expectations, wouldn't inspire that sense of possibility and adventure. Even Cleveland's suburbs have outstanding library systems, I suspect in part because everyone remembers visiting the main branch, and it makes quite an impression.
posted by Western Infidels at 9:12 AM on April 7, 2018 [18 favorites]


Can we please please not turn this into a "I hated a building once, therefore architects suck" conversation?
I think the real issue isn't that people hate architects per se, but that if you have to work daily in a space that was explicitly designed without concern for the daily use cases of the people who have to be there, yeah people are going to have legit gripes about architecture. Especially big name prestigious architects who are given nearly free reign because the building itself is considered a work of art unto itself, but most artists works don't require you to try and do your day to day tasks inside them.
posted by Ferreous at 9:18 AM on April 7, 2018 [19 favorites]


My law firm library was "refreshed" by architects a few years ago. We had to throw out half our print collection (which was actually fine, a lot of the books were case reporters that didn't get used, we had kept them around only for the inevitable demand to cull the collection, so we'd have some painless weeding). They took out half our book stacks and replaced them with uncomfortable seating that no one uses, and a couple of computers, one of which no one uses because it faces the entrance hall to our lobby, and attorneys do confidential work, so having their work on full view from the hallway is... not a good idea. The architects had our remaining book stacks painted, but not with appropriate paint, so now our books kind of stick to the shelves and you have to yank them out. They installed a huge tv to make the library look modern, so we have Bloomberg TV on, muted, all day, because there is no other channel that would be appropriate for a law firm. Our actual workspaces were not touched at all in the refresh. The architects did not use any of our input in the process. It was pretty frustrating, because we had some good ideas about making some of the space more collaborative and innovative, but it felt like there was no consideration at all for the actual users and staff of the library.
posted by banjo_and_the_pork at 9:24 AM on April 7, 2018 [18 favorites]


The local library was renovated with basically an efficient if boring four floors alongside of quite wonderful 19th century dome entrance and reading room. Not as practical space wise but just frees the soul with warm wood detail space.

As for architect gripes, my neighbor that did construction planning for buildings at a university (you have heard of) when discussing another famous crazy creative building, mentioned what must be a standard quote:

"All modern iconic buildings leak"
posted by sammyo at 9:25 AM on April 7, 2018 [13 favorites]


useless design nonsense so that the admins & money people would ooh and ahh

but that if you have to work daily in a space that was explicitly designed without concern for the daily use cases of the people who have to be there, yeah people are going to have legit gripes about architecture.

This may be true, but who do we think holds the real power, here? An architect, who is ultimately hired by someone to provide design services, but neither constructs nor funds the project? A construction company, who is incentivized to build the project as cheaply as possible? Or the organization with money / real estate developer that knowingly pushes "useless design nonsense"?

Good buildings are built all the time, and when they are, they're done so because the people who hire architects have the users in mind.
When the people who hire architects are interested in a flashy building without regard for users, you get a flashy building without regard for its users.
posted by suedehead at 9:26 AM on April 7, 2018 [5 favorites]


the architect who designed my town's library with the deep entry alcove, shallow but narrow entry vestibule, and enormous two-story entry atrium should be shot, along with all the people who gravitate to aforementioned two-story atrium to TALK. SO. FUCKING. LOUDLY.

and don't get me started on the ridiculously loud automatic entry door either
posted by entropicamericana at 9:42 AM on April 7, 2018 [6 favorites]


When the people who hire architects are interested in a flashy building without regard for users, you get a flashy building without regard for its users.
In my case, the people hiring the architects were the architects designing their own building from scratch; ergo, my frustration. And it wasn't a library or other public building, but the inherent difficulty of communication and resulting frustration seem similar and a common problem per the post.
posted by Gnella at 9:44 AM on April 7, 2018 [1 favorite]


Can we please please not turn this into a "I hated a building once, therefore architects suck" conversation?

Can we turn it into an "I have no respect for Architects, as former art students who wanted to make art AND own expensive things but knew they weren't Picasso, so decided to be Architects." conversation?
posted by evilDoug at 10:16 AM on April 7, 2018 [7 favorites]


Yes, I do know I'm a horrible person on the fast track to hell, if it exists.
posted by evilDoug at 10:18 AM on April 7, 2018


> I think the real issue isn't that people hate architects per se, but that if you have to work daily in a space that was explicitly designed without concern for the daily use cases of the people who have to be there, yeah people are going to have legit gripes about architecture.

Just my opinion: The Michael Lee Chin Crystal is a hideous eyesore.
Fact: It sucks as a space for displaying museum collections, which is kind of a problem for, you know, a museum.
posted by The Card Cheat at 10:19 AM on April 7, 2018 [7 favorites]


Must keep quiet... The architect who designed the library in my home town mostly specialized in railroad stations. In fact, that library may be his only library. He got some things right and some things wrong. It's still a beautiful space, although the library has been expanded twice and the old stacks area is now used as a big sale room.
posted by lagomorphius at 10:48 AM on April 7, 2018


I had far greater feelings of religious awe walking into my local Carnegie library than I ever got from a church.

Which is to say these buildings are really Cathedrals, and their primary function is to enhance the worship of Knowledge and Understanding, not facilitate the mundane activities associated with handing out and getting back books.

I wish libraries could somehow foster a political party cum secular religion; I'd be proud to call myself a Librartarian.
posted by jamjam at 11:00 AM on April 7, 2018 [6 favorites]


Sadly, brutalism is probably a good design language for libraries, as it seems to maximize space in long straight lines.
posted by blue_beetle at 11:00 AM on April 7, 2018


Can we turn it into an "I have no respect for Architects, as former art students who wanted to make art AND own expensive things but knew they weren't Picasso, so decided to be Architects." conversation?

Maybe, but I only know people who dropped out of architecture school and went into art instead. I've worked for 11 firms and never met anyone that fits your description.

and a couple of computers, one of which no one uses because it faces the entrance hall to our lobby, and attorneys do confidential work, so having their work on full view from the hallway is... not a good idea.

No one at your company ever saw a drawing before they built it? Interesting.

The architects did not use any of our input in the process. It was pretty frustrating, because we had some good ideas about making some of the space more collaborative and innovative, but it felt like there was no consideration at all for the actual users and staff of the library.

Yeah, a large part of your problem is your bosses, who obviously don't care about your needs.
posted by LionIndex at 11:21 AM on April 7, 2018 [8 favorites]


Ah, yes. The academic library where I used to work had its main circulation and information desk "refreshed" into something that was very nearly unusable. Large swathes of the desk were just empty, wasted space, because they were around 3-4 feet deep, too deep for staff to use the space for anything, and there was a wall blocking the empty space off from public view, so we couldn't even use it for displays or anything. Those spaces just got filthy with dust bunnies. It was also a nice big curved desk... which meant that your computer screen was on display to passers-by, no matter what you did. Not a great thing in terms of patron confidentiality. There were also designated spaces where, in theory, a librarian would sit and work with a patron... except that that space was not in any way private, and was nowhere near the Reference section, so it was never, ever used, and became yet another dust-catcher.

The really frustrating thing was, the architect DID meet with library staff, and showed us the drawings for what they wanted to do, and we pointed out the privacy concerns and the useless space. They just ignored us and made a useless, yet pretty, desk.
posted by sarcasticah at 11:21 AM on April 7, 2018 [8 favorites]


Architects build spaces and infrastructure at the same time.

If I'm to use a computer analogy, an architect is like an IT/sysadmin/graphic designer/UX designer rolled into one. Logistics / infrastructure / appearances / user interfaces. Part of the problem is that the people funding the projects are sometimes concerned about the graphic design than the infrastructure.

Like any work that deals with infrastructure, if a space is designed really well, it works effortlessly without you noticing it. This is why you rarely see anecdotes about architecture that say things like oh, the temperature was perfectly unnoticeable, the light levels were even, there was enough fresh air changes per hour so that the room didn't feel stale, there weren't any circulatory bottlenecks in the hallways, each space felt just balanced and right, the acoustics were so well designed that I almost didn't notice that I didn't hear any noises I didn't want to and that the spaces weren't too echoey, the heating/cooling bills were reasonable, the rooftop mechanical units didn't create any sort of weird hum or vibration everywhere, I felt the right kind of privacy where I needed to, the space was just as flexible as I wanted it to while providing just the right kind of support for my particular kind of usage and accommodating someone else's particular usage.

I'd invite you all to imagine a space you enjoy. Why does it work? What things work well precisely well because you don't notice how they work?
posted by suedehead at 11:35 AM on April 7, 2018 [4 favorites]


Doctors Librarians can bury weed their mistakes; architects have to plant ivy.
posted by GenjiandProust at 11:41 AM on April 7, 2018 [5 favorites]


Sadly, brutalism is probably a good design language for libraries

Are you familiar with the PCL? (I loved the place when I was there, but have no problems with anyone who may feel otherwise.)
posted by TedW at 12:01 PM on April 7, 2018 [2 favorites]


ooh, is this the part of comments where we talk about the awful design of the Bibliothèque Nationale de France, "widely criticized in the press for a multitude of problems, primarily associated with attention to form over function," among such flaws a glass-faced design that literally was cooking the books?

tl;dr Francois Mitterand wanted to leave an avant-garde monument behind, therefore there was no real consultation with actual librarians, maybe someday everything will work right
posted by ivan ivanych samovar at 12:20 PM on April 7, 2018 [4 favorites]


I swear we should meet with architects/money people when they want to know what we want and then tell them the opposite of what we want.

"We definitely must have a lot of little alcoves and corners that we can't see around. Try to put a pillar in front of the sight line of the desk, for sure. Privacy is important, so we need to arrange the stacks so that it's hard to see if people are in there or not. Also a lot of dead ends and blind turns-- keep us on our toes. If you could make the pages have to go around a blind corner with a heavy book cart several times a day, that would be great. Also make sure the desks are either too high for children or too low to prevent children from climbing on them, and also make sure the chairs are all top-heavy in the children's department. But also try to build in some display features that kind of look like stairs? To symbolize a journey? I'm sure no children will try to climb them. As I said, privacy is important, so put the reference desk facing away from the entrance and put the computer assistant's desk outside the computer lab. It would be great if these were at the back-- it's like why they put the milk at the back of the grocery store?

"Put all the outlets in the same place, like on the floor next to the emergency exit? Also put the bathroom right next to the emergency exit and make the signs look the same. Block all the directional signs with the lighting fixture, for sure, but don't put the light switches anywhere out on the public floor near the desk, we can't have anyone touching those. Windows never need curtains, definitely go for the open look, but if you have to have curtains, make sure they're on a fragile motorized system that nobody can operate manually. We can add HVAC later, that's not your job, don't sweat it. Leave lots of room to walk around, but don't put in a lot of tables or people will want to stop here and read or work.

"Also don't worry about where to put the strollers in the children's room, we need the space for something else. The children's room should be next to the grumpy adults and shouldn't have any soundproofing or doors. Make sure that if you do have doors, make them swinging-gate style with a sharp edge. In fact, all the furniture should be pointy as hell, but if it has to be padded, don't use anything you can wipe clean, use a woven. Use as many hard surfaces as you can, the sound won't be a problem. A heavy door at the top of the stairs that swings outward into a seating area would be brilliant. Don't include any display space, we never have anything we want to tell anyone, and our desks for sure don't need any drawers. Storage closets are for chumps, but if you have to have one, make it 6 feet by 8 feet by 12 feet tall and let us worry about the shelving situation in there."

Because telling them what we actually want doesn't do shit.
posted by blnkfrnk at 1:41 PM on April 7, 2018 [13 favorites]


On a related note, Henry Petroski wrote a fascinating book called The Book on the bookshelf, which covers the history and evolution of book storage technologies, including details on the particular challenges of library construction.

While reading requires light, both sun and fire can have very bad effects on printed materials. So, libraries built before electric lighting had to be carefully designed to allow lighting into the stacks without damaging the collections. So, buildings were carefully oriented in relation to natural light sources, using tall narrow windows and skylights for illumination, and frosted glass or wire mesh floors to spread the light to lower levels.

(This book has given me what my husband calls "library-dar" - a seldom erring ability to identify libraries when we're travelling in unfamiliar locales)
posted by cheshyre at 1:56 PM on April 7, 2018 [7 favorites]


The librarian and the architect should be friends
The librarian and the architect should be friends
One of them likes to store a book
The other likes to build a nook
But that's no reason why they can't be friends
posted by kyrademon at 2:19 PM on April 7, 2018 [8 favorites]


It cost $78 million, but the recent re-do of the new wing of the Boston Public Library's main library in Copley Square transformed Phillip Johnson's hostile and dark block of concrete into a welcoming space with plenty of sunlight streaming in and lots of cheery rooms (with plenty of sockets for laptops/phones) in which to spend time. On the first floor, a good part of that was achieved simply by removing these one-story-tall granite "plinths" that for some reason somebody thought would make sense to place right in front of the floor-to-ceiling windows.
posted by adamg at 2:30 PM on April 7, 2018 [4 favorites]


I hate to be that person, but could we please have a content warning for suicide? There's a mention right at the end of the article.
posted by daybeforetheday at 3:59 PM on April 7, 2018


No one ever said fascism couldn't be pretty.
posted by unknowncommand at 6:14 PM on April 7, 2018


LionIndex, come to Denver, I went to school with a pile of them. I’ve never seen it work in reverse.
posted by evilDoug at 7:02 PM on April 7, 2018


Yes the new Boston renovation works well in many ways, however the coolest spot right in front of the huge north facing windows has stools that are just a couple inches wrong and I could tell that if I tried to be there for any length of time and actually read or work it would throw my back out.
posted by sammyo at 7:25 PM on April 7, 2018 [2 favorites]


The academic library where I work did a major renovation, and I can say that the architects took a decent amount of our advice into consideration: for example, the final design does not incorporate a path from the loading dock to technical services that goes straight through the quiet study area. However, there's still a decent number of unfathomable design choices, such as the large, empty space for the reference area bordering the major throughway where the desk sits at one corner, inexplicably arranged so that whoever is consulting the librarian has to sit across the desk from them, in the throughway, while the large, empty space behind the ref desk goes unused. Not particularly good for anyone with a sensitive information need.
posted by telophase at 9:14 PM on April 7, 2018




I suspect there is a gendered component to this. Women librarians begging architects for functional workplaces are about as likely to receive them as women patients begging doctors to take their pain seriously. Add in that librarians serve the public, including children and people who are poor, and it has echoes of healthcare that supposedly puts the baby's welfare first, yet without paying remotely enough attention to the mom's well-being.
posted by Former Congressional Representative Lenny Lemming at 6:15 AM on April 8, 2018 [2 favorites]


I’m an architect! I work on libraries sometimes! *ducks to avoid thrown remaindered hardcovers*

I recently helped continue a long term research project on academic libraries which included surveys of students and librarians, regional roundtables with academic librarians at a wide variety of schools, and direct observation of usage patterns over a two week period at a few dozen institutions.
The results were predictably complex. Often there is little alignment between students, librarians, and admin as to the prioritization of use and space. Libraries often have unique challenges that demand unique solutions. And existing conditions are often poor due to a combination of changing missions and goals, and low-budget, incremental renovation.
Librarians and architects are very similar in one way - we both have serious white knight complexes that can sometimes get in the way of listening properly. Makes us a great combination /s.

(Also- if you’re laying out furniture- four top tables in stack space or open area is always a bad idea.)
posted by q*ben at 8:38 AM on April 8, 2018 [3 favorites]


Related: When BEST Products wanted 'unique' architecture for its buildings in the 1970s.

Well that sent me down a bizarre rabbit hole. I had no idea about that history of the company. The BEST showroom near me where I grew up was so utterly boring and shabby it made the giant mall next to it look like a cathedral. My childhood memories of that store and company is of it being very dowdy, dry and dated.

The original chain looks a lot more dynamic than that.

Fry's Electronics does a similar thing with themes and weird architectural modifications to its locations, usually with weird results at best. One of them famously has a UFO crashed into the front of it.
posted by loquacious at 9:02 AM on April 8, 2018


I loved the architecture of the library I grew up in. It was a massive tinted glass, metal and concrete box with lots of air conditioning and an utterly enormous collection.

I didn't realize how uncommonly big or nice this library was for a suburban city until I moved away. It's like Seattle Public Library sized. To this day I have yet to meet a library with a bigger science fiction section or fiction section, or open stack technical book section. Or a comics/graphic novel section.

The main entrance was via a covered bridge that entered a huge open plan foyer and help/checkout desk area that was essentially the middle floor of the library. This was an open plan segmented sort of halo that surrounded the main stacks, with segmented reading areas, the huge reference, archive and microfich work and study area and much more.

The core of the main open stacks was basically a floating cube inside the main glass box 4-5 stories tall, with open stair access columns in something like 4-6 locations and two elevators serving the main stacks. This cube was accessed from various levels, including the main middle floor and open plan area around it.

Around the cube were platforms, reading nooks, study nooks and desks - all surrounded by planters of indoor tropical/subtropical plants. Some platforms also had fountains.

On the bottom/ground floor surrounding part of the main stack and cubes were open seating areas and more fountains and reading areas overlooking the park through the huge tinted glass exterior curtain walls. Despite the massive Apple-store like glass walls it was never too bright, hot or sunny anywhere in this building, which is a neat trick considering this is Southern California. The architect did an amazing job of knowing where all the seasonal sunlight would go and shading it while still letting in natural light and views.

This library was also intensely quiet despite all the open spaces and the hard metal and glass surfaces. There was a lot of sound treatment in the form of plants and planter boxes, and architectural fabric panels or acoustic tiles on the ceilings. The white noise from all the water features certainly helped and was very pleasant and noticeable throughout most of the library without being intrusive or distracting.

Also surrounding the main cube and stacks were a number of support and other features. There was an independent media library and desk, which also rented out soundproofed rooms for studying and instrument practice. There was an entire children's library and wing, with it's own reading areas, a small computer lab and activity spaces.

There was a theater and some performance, community rooms and event spaces. They also had a great little lounge and coin-op snack bar a long time before it was cool to have food and snacks in a library.

The architect also even built in a whole lot of book processing space, automation and tech. There was a warren of space towards the back where they had an actual loading dock and lift, as well as the drive through book return. They had a fully computerized and semi-automated bar coded book handling system back in the late 70s and early 80s. The building had a conveyor and book crate moving system. Stack workers would pick up pre-sorted crates of returns from locations on each floor.

Some of my earliest memories of using my library aren't of using paper slips and request forms, but a green screen touchscreen monitor for searching book titles, and using a cool looking plastic library card with a barcode that got scanned with a laser. Keep in mind nI wouldn't see a grocery store with a laser UPC scanner until about five years later. I never had to go schlepping around to find out if a book was out or on the shelf - the computer catalog told me in real time just like modern libraries everywhere do today.

I went on a tour once as a kid and in hindsight after having grown up and had librarians as friends - they were obviously very proud and happy with their infrastructure and support space and trying to tell us "Look, we have all this cool stuff and it's unique and pretty awesome!"

It was impressively functional and artful. The only libraries I've met that have even come close in terms of flow, function, size and beauty have been a select few university libraries, and even those look dowdy and institutional and feel cramped.

I loved that modern library and the architect that designed it. I must have spent thousands if not tens of thousands of hours in that building growing up.
posted by loquacious at 9:37 AM on April 8, 2018 [9 favorites]


I'd invite you all to imagine a space you enjoy. Why does it work? What things work well precisely well because you don't notice how they work?

I have been, and they're mostly vernacular spaces built by contractors or sometimes design-build contractors. One of them is literally a pole barn now serving as some other things too. The architect-designed house near it is full of things that were supposed to "look country" but work terribly, e.g. having no direct path to the kitchen from the gardens. If it was the client's job to control the architect, the architect should have had less self-confidence.

There's a house-converted-to-bookstore-and-café in Seattle that's surely the work of an architect and is pleasant and modifiable, so there's one.
posted by clew at 12:04 PM on April 8, 2018


The law school library I work in follows the old ecclesiastical model. Churches were designed to pitch priests' and choristers' voices as far as possible. Use church arches, domes, and naves in a library, and you have a library where a dropped pen at the circulation desk disturbs the study of students at the far end of the reading room. This is perverse design.

The dirty secret of library work is that librarians continually have to throw books away because libraries grow continually and we continually run out of space. We hate it. It is like euthanizing stray dogs must be for veterinarians. We do it because we have to. Every time some architect throws away two or three stories worth of stack space to create effect, we have to throw away more books.

Study is not worship and it is not passive aesthetic appreciation. Study is hard work. If you want libraries that show forth reading's dignity and stature, build them like ideally well-laid out offices and warehouses. There is nothing whatever graceless or ugly about well and respectfully designed offices or warehouses. Build libraries designed as if the work and workers in them are important and worthy of respect, and, just like that, you will have shown forth reading's dignity and stature.
posted by ckridge at 12:13 PM on April 8, 2018 [4 favorites]


I just wanted to drop in here and say that despite being the son of two librarians, I had never been into a Carnegie library until I moved to London. West London has a few of them, the two I use most often being Hammersmith and Brentford.

They're lovely little open-stacks community libraries built in that era of Edwardian London architecture that leaned slightly away from English Baroque Revival and toward Arts and Crafts. Bless their little terra cotta toes!
posted by rum-soaked space hobo at 12:18 AM on April 9, 2018


I have the strangest fond memories of an absolutely hideous concrete King County branch library my mother used to sub at from time to time. It had a children's section that seemed to have concrete blocks jutting up out of the floor, covered in shag carpet. We were always warned not to jump around on those, as they were harder than they looked if your head hit a corner, but it was a fun sunlit place to sit and read when I was 8.
posted by rum-soaked space hobo at 12:20 AM on April 9, 2018


I have to give a shout out to all the libraries in my city after reading this. Of course I don't work at any of them so the librarians may have complaints, but visiting them is not at all confusing and the librarians or interior designers have done a great job of using the space and I don't recall any of the issues that have been mentioned here being a problem. There is even that features a sunken outdoor patio area that few people use but it allows more light into a lower story and is pretty cool just to look out of from the inside.

None is particularly large, but they are all unique looking and not at all as terrible as the other public buildings built during the same time period. My daughter's school for example has a single 2X8 foot window in every class room and that is it. Prisons have more natural light and architectural significance.
posted by The_Vegetables at 7:30 AM on April 9, 2018


You know, despite being an enthusiastic lifelong library patron, I can't say I've really noticed architectural/design choices one way or another, other than the inevitable moment of disorientation when one browses a new library for the very first time. (And I have been to a lot of different libraries.)

I will say I appreciated the way my mother's local library is laid out -- there are long tables in the center for groups to do group-study things, private study nooks all along the edges, and some cozy reading chairs dotted all about (but especially clustered around the magazine section in the back, which is lit by a large window). The reference desk is right up front and the conference rooms are off in their own little corner. Unfortunately my mother is not much for libraries, despite all my encouragements, so she is not enjoying any of this.

Shoutout to my high school library also, which had a separate little SFF room with a door and a window and a single-occupancy desk. I disagreed often with the genre-classification choices, and it was a bit of a cloistering, but it was fun to be in a room all by myself :P
posted by inconstant at 7:54 AM on April 9, 2018


The law school library I work in follows the old ecclesiastical model. Churches were designed to pitch priests' and choristers' voices as far as possible. Use church arches, domes, and naves in a library, and you have a library where a dropped pen at the circulation desk disturbs the study of students at the far end of the reading room. This is perverse design.

We were makin' some noise.
posted by lagomorphius at 7:01 AM on April 10, 2018


I sometimes work in a newly expanded and renovated library that has won multiple awards. So many things are wrong with it (an entire floor with no staff area - super-creepy! no visible books when you walk in) but my biggest gripe is that it is right next door to the city's only high school (2,000 students) and the capacity of the Teen Room is 50. 50! I am so sick of everyone hating teenagers.
posted by tangosnail at 10:01 AM on April 10, 2018 [1 favorite]


The British Library is an incredible building. The atrium is inspiring, but functional – in fact, it's hard to find any wasted space throughout. The fit and finish is immaculate, down to the tiles and handrails. The glass tower containing the core of the historic collections provides some drama [pdf] - maybe this was an idea borrowed from the Beinecke? The reading rooms are comfortable and beautiful, including their bespoke furniture. There's just something about the lighting, atmosphere, volume and noise levels that is very conducive to working. I seem to be more productive there than anywhere else. However, I'd be interested to know more about what it's like for the librarians and other employees. I've seen some of the staff areas, which are notably less spacious and luxurious than the public areas.

All of this despite a complex site (requiring the building to be turned around to face the Euston Road, which isn't ideal) and a difficult build. Prince Charles hated it, which is usually a good sign, and is certainly now not widely shared. Hats off to the architect, and it is telling that this was not his first library.
posted by GeorgeBickham at 12:02 AM on April 11, 2018


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