Mark Lamster | Essays

The Once & Future Library

Room 300, home of the art & architecture collection, of the NYPL. Photo: Norman McGrath

The future is now, the saying goes, and for those of us who live and work in the world of letters, that maxim rings especially true. Tablets and e-readers and the overwheming availability of digitized content are transforming the way we consume information, the kinds of information we consume, and—not least of all—the places in which we do that consumption. Just how libraries are adapting to this new world of information is the subject of my cover story for the July issue of Metropolis, a piece prompted by the contested plans to dramatically redesign, both intellectually and physically, the main research library of the NYPL. 

Although it's tempting to think that the "future is now," one of the realities about which I write is that the future is still in the future. We live in a time of competing technologies, and just how these will shake out in 2 or 5 or 10 years is anything but clear. While the Internet offers an enormous amount of content, it is disorganized, subject to randomness, and absent equally enormous amounts of material that has not been and may never be scanned. As one scholar told me, "Google has the problem that it's an index from nowhere, and it's not even a good index." Predicting the future is hard, and libraries have a pretty dubious record. The NYPL only recently bet big on CD-ROMs for its Science Industry and Business Library (SIBL). Now it wants to close that building, as part of its restructuring. 

High density stacks at Mansueto Library. Photo: Tom Rossiter

This should suggest a somewhat cautious path, and this in fact characterizes the most sophisticated new research library, the University of Chicago's recent Mansueto Library, designed by Helmut Jahn as an appendage to the school's primary research facility, a 1970s concrete bunker by SOM. The genius of Mansueto is that it holds books in high-density pallets retrieved by automated cranes, allowing it to serve books with extreme rapidity. But this library of the future was designed only to serve the library's needs for a few decades; it is, essentially, an interim solution until the future actually arrives. 

It's also worth noting that while many are anxious to proclaim the death of the library, we seem to be building more of them than ever, and they seem to be playing ever more central roles in our communities, even if their primary functions are not longer to serve books to readers.

In any case, I hope you will read the story

Comments [2]

I think it is a little too early to state that these competing technologies will "shake" out. As history shows us, I believe we are in a new genre of technology release. More and more, barriers are breaking down to fund, build and release new technologies than ever before. Are we past the point of achieving a new "solid" format like the television that had a hold on us for decades? Or is touch-screens simply the new remote-format that will stick around for decades to come? Are these organizations waiting for a future that will only out-date itself in couple years rather than couple decades in previous project lifespan expectations? Perhaps these organizations should design

One thing seems clear. The library is going to be a battleground for corporate copyright and control, like the e-reader.
Carnegie established thousand of libraries as an end run around the cost of books as an impediment to knowledge. Rights management limits both the number and usefulness of electronic books through many of their useful lifespans increasing costs and decreasing volume for libraries.
As much as I love physical books I see the e-reader being the clear winner in the same way cd's were vanquished by the inferior mp3 and ultimately changing the library to an online resource.
Doug C.

Jobs | April 12