Friday, October 16, 2009

Institutionalized: The Loss of the Library

New York Public Library on 135th Street, Harlem

Perhaps because — like the post office — the library was an institution I embraced as a child, I feel compelled to defend it; like defending books in a Kindle-loving world. I love that nearly every town in America — and most of the Western world — has a library. It seems like one of the few commonalities we can have with cultures that are otherwise totally different from our own. Early on libraries obviously filled a community need to educate outside of children's schools. They became natural meeting places and universally-accepted quiet zones. They became public venues for thinking. Imagine that! These days there are very few places you're allowed to go for free. Everything has to be sold. While research largely no longer needs to be done within libraries, it doesn't negate the importance of these kinds of spaces.

New York Public Library, Fifth Avenue

Libraries also make a big difference in how a person discovers information. Nearly every project I start for a client begins at the library. I can wander in, plop down on the floor in front of a section that looks interesting, and browse. Browsing in a library is nothing like browsing on the internet, because your leaps of what to look for are not coming from within. The library has curated this process for you.

For example, I was designing a book cover last year for a textbook on Punishment & Sentencing, which isn't exactly my area of expertise. I cruised through crime, and law and some vaguely ominous prison books before my eye wandered to the next shelf perpendicular, which held the large art monographs. I picked up a book on Louise Nevelson, another childhood favorite, and began reading about her theories of space and confinement, and her explorations in monochromatic texture. I was immediately drawn to these notions as being illustrative of the criminology book. I checked out the monograph, plus several other possible references (for free!) and made my way home to get to work.

Even the freight entrance is lovely

People pay a lot of attention to how we get to the content of things, which is why Kindle has so many supporters. The problem for people like me is that visual people need visual stimulants in order to successfully retain information. I remember what I've read and can access it later in my mind because I am always conscious of how the words looked on a page. I think about books I've read and in my mind I pull up an image of my bookshelf and scan it for help in research. And even while web sites may be designed differently, with different colors and fonts and simulated textures, I don't necessarily recall my Firefox history because it isn't something I walk by in my house every time I go to the kitchen.

A library somewhere on the Upper East Side, New York

Even though the libraries here in Harlem are pathetically under-resourced (I've vowed to donate all of my art books to them in my will, if libraries still exist when I'm dead) I do love that they're still these welcoming, warm spaces. At least people can look for jobs, or use the internet, or sprawl their books over the vast old tables and read with good lighting and high ceilings. I am a bigger believer in needing good space to study in; while libraries have lots of things to look at, they are remarkably devoid of distractions like low light or television screens. Such is the nature of their design.

To bring up Kindle again, one of the biggest flaws I find with it is that it doesn't address any specific brief for readers — its invention was a way for publishers to cut costs, not to offer advantages to consumers. I doubt there was an overwhelming number of people who said they needed to have a selection of 10,000 books with them for their commute to work, or people who said they would read more if only they didn't have to turn pages. All that technology and hype, and each "book" is only a few bucks cheaper than the real deal in paperback.

I realize I tend to sound like an old curmudgeon when I write about these things, but I just think so much of this is short-sighted. Libraries and books have hundreds of years of thinking behind them. The legacy of these beautiful buildings quietly shows that.

Accepting my first design award at age 11,
for a bookmark design contest at my local,
The Baldwin Public Library


  1. Is that the Baldwin Public Library in Birmingham, Michigan?

  2. Yes it is! I spent most of my summers in the Young Adult section, because I am a nerd.

  3. I was just going to say, NERD! This was so touching and so true. Very good point about Kindles-- they didn't solve a problem consumers were having. Rather, READERS. There's something satisfying about physical books. I'm staring at a screen enough of my life, don't need to do that for pleasure reading, too.
    I was just in a library, sadly, for the first time in years. (I have enough books on deck to not have to go, and haven't had to research anything until now.) It was so good to be back. This better not die off like magazines. What a crap time we're in, sometimes.