Wednesday, February 22, 2006

Architecture and the library experience

Much of Van Slyck’s article focused on the physical space of libraries, and how designs changed over time to reflect the changing goals of both philanthropists and librarians. Early libraries had a lot in common with medieval buildings—distinct rooms that sharply defined the hierarchy of library users. Large, ornate buildings were meant to memorialize the donor’s generosity. Buildings were designed so that librarians would control patron access to the books—and in some cases, patrons were segregated by gender. As librarians gained greater footing in the professional world and Carnegie’s philanthropy dictated costs, the control they had over library design increased as well. Libraries began to consist of open stacks, and separate areas for children’s collections. The nature of access to library collections had changed, and libraries became less showplaces for the wealth of the donor. Within the forty years that Van Slyck surveys, the experience of librarians, patrons and trustees was transformed.

Do you agree with Van Slyck’s argument that the power of library boards was diminished by their physical location in the library? By the end of the article, Van Slyck suggests that the new architecture of libraries put librarians in a role similar to the factory supervisor, central to all activities, presiding over an ordered environment. She also makes the claim that as architecture became less grandiose, patrons found the library to be less intimidating. Do you agree with these assessments?

13 comments:

Jennifer Gile said...
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Jennifer Gile said...

As I was reading the sections in the Van Slyck article that Katie pointed out in her posts, I found some of Van Slyck's parallels just a little too convenient. Her statement that the lessening of the physical presence of donor and library board was directly correlational with the decline of the donor's and board of trustees' power over library operations was interesting by unfounded.

However, I do think her argument that less grandiose architecture appealed to more patrons is plausible. If the new architecture didn't serve to decrease potential patrons' intimidation, it could have at least served to identify the building as public. As Van kitschy states, "From the outside, the emphasis on symmetry helped identify the building as a public one; readers could enter freely, secure in the knowledge that they were welcome." As we have already discussed, for certain groups (like immigrants), the Victorian library was not terribly inviting. The new architecture seems to have helped change this perception.

Lia said...

I agree with Jennifer's assessment. As I was reading this article, I kept thinking about libraries of today and how much they have changed from the grandiose buildings Van Slyck discusses. I do think that the openness of many contemporary library designs (and of course the open stacks of libraries) make patrons feel welcome and feel that the library is accessible to them, wheras the designs of yesteryear were designed for reasons other than welcoming patrons into the building, which is interesting since the building should in theory be for the patrons (otherwise, why build it all?).

SarahStumpf said...

I think some of it can be described by the move from doners to boards and I think she does a good job of showing this with what she has.

But I also think that this article is sorely lacking in context of archetectual history. In the time period where Andrew Carnigie was building libraries, big and grandiose was in. Look around campus, building like Memorial Union are not libraries, but they have the same sense of the ornate. They also have a sense of seperating people; in the union itself women were not allowed in the Rathskeller when it was built. Women were not allowed on certain floors and black people were not allowed at all. The medieval or greco-roman knock off element was intentional and part of the fad.

But over time, that style went out. Vaulted ceilings were replaced by ones of reasonable height and gender/race segregation in buildings became illegal. Van Slyck is situation her article on the exact time period where the old archetectual styles were going out, but this whole context is missing from her analysis.

Soren said...

I agree with Jennifer that Van Slyck's argument regarding grandiose architecture is plausible. Plausible does not equal true, however. I've heard an opposite line of reasoning about the Wisc. Historical Society and the State Capitol- that is, their grandeur produces a feeling of "elevation" and "nobility" in everyday folks, making them a source of pride for citizens of the state. Once again, some contemporary, primary accounts seem needed to establish the truth or falsity of Van Slyck's notion.

Soren said...

On an semi-unrelated note: did anyone else find it odd that Carnegie's right hand man, Betram, spelled words so badly, even in published material? Was he imitating Melvil Dewey, or did he really think "bilding" was correct?

Kelly said...

I don't know, I think I'd like to go to a grandiose library. I've sometimes felt a bit disappointed by the shabby interiors of many libraries. The first time I went into one of those sorry little strip mall libraries, I honestly felt like crying. (My family had just moved from an area where our nearest library was a spacious, attractive one.)

On the other hand, I sure wouldn't want to be the poor library assistant always having to scurry away from the front desk back into the book hall to climb a ladder and retrieve books from the drafty upper levels! So a functional layout is definitely important, but I don't see that there would be anything wrong with stained glass, fireplaces, or domed ceilings...at least, not as long as some wealthy industrialist was footing the bill!

Molly said...

I think Soren makes a good point here regarding the feeling of “elevation” that comes with the grandiose building. Consider the building diagram on page 4. The layout of the library looks remarkably like the layout of a cathedral. As the author points out, this is not surprising considering the architect’s desire to draw upon the “library’s predecessors in medieval monasteries” (4). Cathedrals are buildings meant to draw the eyes upward toward something higher and greater. These are buildings meant to make one feel small. I can only imagine that one entering such a library would feel even smaller finding no direct access to materials and having exchanges with authoritarian-style librarians. This is actually very in tune with early ideas regarding the purpose of libraries – were these not the buildings that would help the working class achieve something better? Shouldn’t they be made to feel small, to feel that the library would enable them to raise themselves up? It is also interesting to tie the paternalism factor into the cathedral-style library. In a cathedral, the eyes are being lifted toward god. In this style library, the eyes are drawn above the mantel, to a picture of the donor. As the author points out, these libraries “reminded library users that they were near the bottom of a library hierarchy…” (17).

The redesign of the library building with the public instead of the donor in mind over time really coincides with the rethinking of the library and its collections in order to take the motives and desires of the public into account. As the focus shifted to drawing people into the libraries, so too did the library designs. Thus the patrons did find the library less intimidating as the buildings became less grandiose because they became spaces built to welcome the patrons. While the visibility of the library board may have decreased with library design changes, I don’t think that the power or influence of the library board was directly impacted by this physical change. I think that any reduction in board power also had to do with other factors, such as professionalization.

Hannah Gray said...

While I certainly can see why it is possible that a library patron could be intimidated by a certain type of architecture, I think we need to realize that there are other reasons why a library could be potentially intimidating. If a patron doesn't know how to use the library or doesn't know the proper 'etiquete' expected inside a library, their feelings of intimidation are certainly understanding. It seems like there were (and are) unwritten rules in many libraries regarding things like food and noise level, and if it is a patron's first time in a particular library or section of it, these factors can add to the level of perceived unfriendliness. Anyway, I digress, but I think that the level of intimidation one feels upon entering a building is based more upon your comfort with the social atmosphere. While some people may very well be intimidated by the architecture of a building, it also seems plausible that factors like the helpfulness of staff and amount of prior visits to a library setting would affect one's particular comfort with one library setting over another.

Quinn Fullenkamp said...

I, too, found it interesting that the article on Carnegie discussed the power of the Library Board, and its change due to architectural design and metamorphosis. Can we really say that library boards lost some of their power due to the opening of the library floorplan in the early 20th Century? I cannot make this assumption from the text of article, but it may very well be true. I have to assume that libraries and library boards were all evolving at this time, and there very well may have been library boards that lost their power and influence, but the library board still wielded the checkbook and veto power.

I also love grandiose library buildings with definite separations. I want the magazine area to be a casual atmosphere, but I also want the study area to a bona fide study area separate from the rest of the hustle and bustle of the building.

anne said...

I am glad that Kelly commented on not wanting the be the poor librarian that had to scurry about locating books. I feel that the begining of Slyck's article spoke of the architecture in the context of library functions/adminstratin and maintanence of the collection, two aspects which we did not discuss in great length today. In addition to the imposing vision that the alcoved book hall created, the Slyck article briefly points out the damage that such design did to the actual books. Unfortunately, very little detail about such damage was discussed. Like Swain's article on the WPA, we again have a library history that neglects the very objectss we are collecting.

Emily Schearer said...

I thought that Van Slyck’s argument was very interesting. Architecture does seem to have a way of influencing people, even if it is just in the back of their mind, but at the same time I thought that some points were oversimplified. I agree with Hannah. There are multiple causes and influences on patrons and maybe those coupled with the architecture could lead to a feeling of intimidation, but it is important to consider those contributing factors.

Sharon Stoneback said...

I agree with Hannah, too. There are many factors other than just building architecture that can influence a patron's feelings of comfort and/or intimidation. That being said, I think architecture can still influence us. I wonder if a lot of us who are interested in careers in libraries probably are more likely than the general public to find grandiose library buildings uplifting rather than intimidating, but that's just a guess. I did think it was interesting that a lot of the architecture highlighted in the Library Journal of the 1980's seemed to return to that idea of large open spaces that could be both uplifting and/or intimidating. Some of the photos from that issue looked exactly like my undergraduate library which was re-modeled in 1982-3. Lots of open space with glass and wood in the lobby & study areas.