Where is the Library?

What kind of space is a modern library? Where exactly is a library nowadays? And how can you go there?

You may have heard in the news that hundreds of local libraries have closed over the last six years and a quarter of the entire library workforce have been lost. Yet despite howls of protest that a vital knowledge resource is disappearing, the issuing of items in public libraries is falling in all areas, sometimes by half over the last few years. So who even uses libraries now? University students and the lecturers that assign them compulsory reading lists? Are they now “mediatheques” for browsing and watching films? Or the last resort for those seeking shelter?

Before I started this research project as the artist in residence I had not visited the British Library or my own local library for at least ten years. Yet when I entered I found distinct changes across both spaces. Many people were reading but from their laptops, others were having meetings, local libraries had play areas for tots and then there were still a few souls sitting around who looked like they had no where else left to go. There were also a few books on shelves.

Yet the atmosphere was not depressing or doom laden. This did not look like an organisation on its last legs. It looked more like a form of public space that was undergoing a profound level of transformation. And it is partly my job to think through what kind of transformation we want that to be.

Everywhere the same unspoken phrase is on people’s lips. It’s the Internet! That’s why we don’t need libraries anymore! Wikipedia knows everything. Google can find the rest. So how is it that our understanding of libraries has become such a casualty of our liking for recent networked information platforms, especially when you consider that physical libraries are still so visibly popular? Are people just not using libraries properly anymore?

Even a casual visitor can see that the British Library (or any library) is far from gradually falling into disuse. There are people reading in the frequently overflowing Reading Rooms and outside in the sprawling public areas, numerous laptop-ers, writers, meeters and greeters, tourists and exhibition goers. At a time when the privatisation of public areas and control of activities preventing uncensored speech let alone protest is becoming the norm, a new form of public space may be suggesting itself. A library is also a location which the rules governing commercial transactions are suspended, where you have access to items without having to pay for them. You might even copy materials at will as long as their usage is kept within certain restrictions. Yet this is also contradicted by the availability of new electronic media, web sites that are accessible anywhere else are at the British Library locked down so that text cannot be selected on the screen and copied, your cursor skimming ineffectively over the surface.

This is also a space that has a digital infrastructure, designed in the first place to enable the most efficient discovery and retrieval of information. In this we see the library catalogue as the precursor of all searching and browsing technologies. As distinct from a bibliography, the catalogue is not just a reference work or listing but also a finding aid, something that must have  functional links to enable access to works, traditionally in the form of the shelfmark. And just like the user of an account who must log in to access their drives on some cloud, library readers have typically always carried a card with some identifying code they can use to request books and other items. The library’s regulated acquiring of knowledge is mirrored in the protocols of modern information systems, making its central functions now appear to reside in the space of data. Yet the prevalence of library users who sit in the public areas and never request a single item shows that it is also important where this consumption of information physically happens. They chose to work in the atmosphere of data.

If we still need special physical spaces in which to go to access information, will the developing use of those spaces in turn lead to new uses of that information? If the physical space of the library is changing in response to the differing ways of acquiring knowledge, will the digital space of the library be far behind?

Image Gallery

Model of the British Library on display at the registration

Here we see the varied architectural features of the institution above the surface (inspired by ship design) and below the surface the uniform rows of bookshelves holding the millions of items. The actual basement is much more varied in structure than this suggests, but any details which may reveal information about where things are located is considered a security risk and thus suppressed.

A selection of bookshelves photographed at the storage basement of the Saint Pancras site

Up until the 1850s, the public were allowed direct access to the bookshelves. But after the Round Reading Room was constructed, Anthony Panizzi, the Principle Librarian, decided that the print collection had grown so large that it was no longer practical to allow readers to wander amongst the ailes themselves. Many of the items are still stored according to shelfmarking systems partially inherited from those days and so still reflect how they would have appeared to the public before being removed from view.


The King’s Library Tower – BL

This iconic structure in the middle of the British Library is the Royal Library of George III, donated in 1828 on condition that it remain on permanent public display. It is, therefore, now the only collection of books, pamphlets and other printed matter that is always visible. Because of the value of the items, it is also an area of extremely high security, its inner organisation being a matter of secrecy. At the same time, apart from particularly restricted items, any Reader can request an item for delivery to the Rare Books reading room. There are about 50 such requests on average every day.

This area in the middle of the British Library was originally designed to hold the printed catalogues and various library index cards. By the time the St. Pancras building opened in 1997 however, most of that material had been digitised and so the decision was taken to use this area to house the Kings Library instead. An object which is accessible but no longer in direct visible form was displaced by an object which is visible but no longer directly accessible.

British Library Observation Tower, viewed from Upper Ground cafe.

There is an “observation tower” in the British Library, accessible from the Readers Common Room on the 3rd floor. What can one “observe” from this platform, apart from the monumental Kings Tower straight ahead and the restaurant goers below? Occasionally people sit out there working or lunching on cushions or sometimes bringing out whole tables and chairs (a practice which is strictly forbidden, by the way).

Richard WrightCommissioned artist for the IoCT project

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