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The Culture War Being Fought Over Tomorrow’s Libraries

Libraries are a reflection of our culture, and they’ve never been more in flux.

New York City’s most iconic library is set to receive a $317 million makeover. The Dutch architecture firm Mecanoo and New York and D.C. firm Beyer Blinder Belle will overhaul the landmarked Stephen A. Schwarzman Building–the Beaux Arts masterpiece located on Fifth Avenue and 42nd Street and famous for its sweeping outdoor staircase and lion statues–to add 20% more space for public exhibitions, research, and educational programs. The project, scheduled for completion in 2021, is emblematic of a broader transformation of libraries from bastions of public knowledge into fun houses–for better or worse, depending on who you ask.

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“For over a century, the Schwarzman Building has been a beacon of open access to information and a tireless preservationist of the world’s knowledge,” New York Public Library president Tony Marx said in a news release. “We have a responsibility to preserve its architectural wonder and its role as an important civic space, while also preparing it for the future, and another century of best serving the public. We believe this plan does just that.”

The plan, on its surface, promises more public access, more knowledge, and more education. One glaring omission? Books. “[T]he Master Plan does not include a definitive plan for the central stacks,” the release admits. Since 2013, the library’s special collections–the NYPL’s crown jewels–have been tucked away in a special storage facility since the conditions in the space are now too harsh for the fragile tomes. In their stead are circulating books from the nearby Mid-Manhattan branch, which is undergoing its own $200 million renovation.

The NYPL’s renovation of the Schwartzman building has been embroiled in controversy for years. In 2008, the organization hired Foster + Partners to come up with a plan to make the flagship location more open to the public and relevant in the digital era. In 2012, the architects unveiled their plan to reconfigure the interiors and add more reading room space, which would have required moving books to a New Jersey storage facility due to space constraints. The idea caused an outrage among library advocates, and though the library paid Foster $9 million for his work, it buckled to pressure and scrapped the plan in 2014.

This new plan–though still incomplete–is somewhat of a compromise between advocates of the printed word and new media advocates on what a library should be in 2017.

[Image: Mecanoo with Beyer Blinder Belle]
The public library is a truly modern construct. Before the 1800s, most libraries were privately owned or accessible only through paid memberships. But as public knowledge–as gained by accessing information in books–became an important yardstick for a democratic society, public libraries flourished in the 19th century. Cities commissioned tremendous buildings to house this knowledge and keep it safe–and accessible–for generations.

Now, libraries are evolving along with the digital era. As more information becomes digitally accessible, a physical book repository is somewhat obsolete for many users. Stack after stack of books isn’t as engaging as an interpretive exhibition or multimedia experience. Libraries still offer a critical public service and space, and they’re evolving to become the living rooms of some cities. After a Kansas library renovated to include gaming rooms for teens and a coffee bar, visitors jumped 55%. But while libraries should evolve with the changing needs of society, is their core mission–to make knowledge more accessible–fading away?

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One prominent example of this shift can be found in the Chinese port city of Tianin. Its new, MVRDV-designed library has gone viral on the internet for its breathtaking interiors, which look like cascading stacks. Too bad half of the books are fake. “[T]he tight construction schedule [only three years from sketch to opening day] forced one essential part of the concept to be dropped: access to the upper bookshelves from rooms placed behind the atrium,” the architecture firm said. Additionally, the main hall isn’t approved for book storage, according to a Mashable report. The library is part of a bigger master plan to spark growth in the area and draw people in. And while it does have books, reading rooms, and computer labs, it’s more of a cultural attraction and a photo op.

Does it even matter if people are coming to the space for a photo if it gets them in the door and engaging with one another, and possible picking up a book they wouldn’t normally have?

[Image: Mecanoo with Beyer Blinder Belle]
Libraries, like other architectural spaces, are leaning into behavioral shifts wrought by technology. Take the Seattle Central Library by OMA. Completed in 2004, it’s an absolutely jaw-dropping space and has become a main tourist destination in the northwestern city. A similar phenomenon is taking place in New York. The NYPL library system is  investing in its tourism-friendly hubs like the main branch, and playing to the sight-seeing vibe. Mecanoo’s new plans for the branch–with a cafe, gift shop, and exhibition space–are indistinguishable from a museum. The NYPL says its forthcoming center for Research and Learning at the Schwartzman Building will “introduce high school and university students to the array of collections and uses of the research library.” But after they tour the space, will they return to engage with and absorb what’s there?

As WNYC points out, New York is spending half a billion dollars–a combination of public money and private funding–to renovate two libraries in Midtown Manhattan. Meanwhile, other libraries in the system–mostly in the outer boroughs–are suffering from leaky roofs, mold, mildew, non ADA-compliant bathrooms, and aging electrical systems, among other issues. In his budget for the fiscal year 2018, Mayor Bill De Blasio allocated $110 million split between the NYPL, Brooklyn Public Library System, and Queens Library–a sum that fell short of the $150 million for maintenance and $34 million for operating costs requested by the three systems for the over 200 branches between them.

[Image: Mecanoo with Beyer Blinder Belle]
While the main branch is indeed a “a symbol of open and free access to information and opportunity”–as the NYPL states in its news release about the renovation–it’s just that, a symbol. The real agents of information, whether printed or digital, are embedded in the neighborhoods; however only 7% of N.Y.C. libraries are open seven days a week. Regardless of whether you agree with its design approach, by disproportionately investing in only two locations the NYPL is amplifying inequity rather than reducing it. Sure, the majority of money for the renovations is coming from philanthropic sources and the city might not have as much say in where those dollars wind up, but perhaps it could be more persuasive about other ways those donations should be distributed. As a reminder, Andrew Carnegie alone was able to build over 2,500 libraries.

Today libraries are simultaneously tourist destinations, places to read, places to gather and socialize, places to study, and places to learn. They also remain a mirror of our culture. They reflect not just the way we consume information (and architecture) through our phones today, but also the forces of that inequality. Tomorrow, will libraries exist as the gateway to public enrichment,  or will they all be reduced down to naming rights and Instagram hashtags?

About the author

Diana Budds is a New York–based writer covering design and the built environment.

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