Thomas R. Schiff’s 360-degree panoramic photographs of American libraries compress their vistas of shelves, reading nooks, and study tables into one broad view of the architecture. “My interest in the library began maybe two decades ago, when I became drawn to both architecture and the panoramic photograph,” Schiff states in an afterword to his monograph The Library Book, out April 1 from Aperture. “I became fascinated by how the history of the United States is reflected in our civic buildings; how the great old libraries on the East Coast, of two centuries ago, evolved into dynamic, contemporary public spaces like the Seattle Public Library, or the Salt Lake City library.”
The book features 120 of his library photographs, some so long they fold out into larger spreads. This Wednesday, March 15, Aperture Gallery in Chelsea is opening The Library Exhibition with 38 of these photographs on view. The exhibition will feature a photobook reading room with complementary selections by the Aperture staff. The Library follows Schiff’s previous publications of 360-degree photographs of the modernist homes of Columbus, Indiana, and Frank Lloyd Wright’s designs. Similar to Richard Silver’s cathedral ceiling panorama photographs, Schiff’s images immerse the viewer in the architecture in a way that would be impossible for the naked eye.
The Library Book begins with Thomas Jefferson’s library at Monticello (the volumes from which are now at the Library of Congress), with a do-not-sit rope gently draped over its presiding red easy chair. It, and the majority of Schiff’s photographs, are empty except for a few sporadic patrons, due to his often working before opening hours in order to emphasize the architecture. Yet the images portray them as active community spaces, whether the inviting tables awaiting researchers beneath the Byzantine-style dome of the Missouri History Museum Library in St. Louis, or the concrete circular forms in Louis Kahn’s 1971 Phillips Exeter Academy Library in New Hampshire seeming to invite literary exploration in the wooden levels they frame. What community has meant, though, has changed over time, from member-only libraries, to public institutions open to all. The resources visitors want have also changed. Books, of course, endure. Gone for the most part are the scientific curiosities, such as the botanical and mineral specimens that were accessible to visitors at the 1805 Portsmouth Athenaeum in New Hampshire. More recent libraries, like the 2009 Prescott Valley Public Library in Arizona, include classrooms and amphitheaters, emphasizing in-person education as much as the available tomes.
“A new definition of the role of librarians in today’s society could be drafted by diversifying their mandate,” anthologist and author Alberto Manguel notes in a foreword. “But such restructuring must ensure that the librarians’ primary purpose is not forgotten: to guide readers to their books.”