Articles

What Makes a Library a Library?

by Kyle Chayka on January 16, 2013

The San Antonion BiblioTech (Image courtesy NPR.org)

The San Antonion BiblioTech (Image courtesy NPR.org)

The latest controversy striking the tumultuous world of libraries (a very shocking place) is the announcement of a bookless library to open this fall in San Antonio, Texas. The new space will look and function more like an Apple store than what we would traditionally think of as a library, but how much does that matter when it comes to providing public access to information?

The San Antonio library, called BiblioTech, will be a long, open space with a sloping front desk on one side and rows of computer terminals on long tables in the center. A smaller counter will hold a line of smartphones, while the opposite side of the library will host a reading lounge. There will be very few shelves.

It’s not that the BiblioTech doesn’t have books; its books just come in a different form. The space will hold 50 computer terminals, a stock of laptops and tablets, and preloaded e-readers for customers to take home. All the information is still there; it just exists on more platforms than normal paper.

The proposed New York Public Library renovation (Image via elitedaily.com)

The proposed New York Public Library renovation (Image via elitedaily.com)

Can you still have a library if there are no print-and-bound volumes in it? The BiblioTech calls to mind the problem currently facing the New York Public Library’s main branch — as useful as technology is, library customers (and the public at large) still love their books. Critics complain that the NYPL’s plan to remove many of the books from its central location into a storage depot in New Jersey to make room for more computer terminals and a cafe is disrespectful to its heritage and turns it into “a glorified Starbucks,” according to the New York Times.

Yet libraries have already been trending more toward media centers than manuscript repositories. It only takes one glance at Rem Koolhaas’s Seattle Central Library, a crystalline glass structure, to realize that you’re looking at something different than a normal institution. The library features large, open reading spaces and over 400 public computer terminals. If it’s more like a Starbucks, so what? It ultimately serves its function as a public resource.

The Seattle Central Library (Image via wikipedia.org)

The Seattle Central Library (Image via wikipedia.org)

Maybe the more fundamental question is: what is a book? BiblioTech will host e-readers, which will doubtless become a more and more pervasive platform for literary consumption. Books can be read wholly online through a web browser, or downloaded as a PDF, or saved onto a smartphone. When it comes down to it, “book” is just a word for a structured collection of information. It has nothing to do with print or not. A library, as a collection of books, is just as mutable: it’s where we go to consume information and access our shared cultural history, whatever form it may take.

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  • http://masrudas.com/ mari hernandez

    It’s lovely to see my hometown highlighted on Hyperallergic. San Antonio is a huge city with a small town feeling. It’s great to see this sort of technology and forward thinking in the city I love so much.

    A big fan of Hyperallergic,

    Mari

    • http://twitter.com/chaykak Kyle Chayka

      Thanks for your comment, Mari! It’s super progressive, I’d love to see more libraries like this.

  • http://twitter.com/creawritstuds Anthony Haynes

    Interesting post, thank you. When you say a library is “where we go to consume information and access our shared cultural history”, I guess the question is why the need to actually go there: if it’s all digital, does there need to be a physical space at all?

    • http://hragv.com Hrag Vartanian

      I think libraries are also places for socialization, particularly college libraries, which people can share information beyond books.

      • Jillian Steinhauer

        I agree with Hrag, especially because as we do more and more of our reading, shopping, writing, everything online, we’re increasingly isolated, and public spaces become more important as a refuge from that. Also, libraries are incredibly important for homeless or low-income people who may not have access to steady internet and need it to, say, apply for jobs, or just to know what’s going on in the world.

    • Den Hickey

      Because not everyone otherwise has access to the technology needed to use information that is all digital. It should also be kept in mind that the vast majority of information before the digital age is still not available in digital form. This is something that takes a long long time to do and costs a lot of money. For example, I am working at a state library at the moment and their (incomplete) state records for NY take up around 300 shelves. Not 300 books… 300 shelves full of books.

  • Den Hickey

    Being a library patron and library worker (not technically a librarian), I hold out hope for this sort of thing to be an additional and separate library system.. a world where both books and digital media are equally valued for their own strengths and inherent weaknesses. More likely, though, is the idea that technology is always good and always better than the old way leading to a huge investment in brightshiny at the expense of physical books and other assorted library materials.

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