Jeffrey Schnapp is on a mission to save our libraries.
As the director of both the Berkman Center for Internet and Society and the metaLab (at) Harvard, he typically spends his days grappling with the urgent questions of the wired world, but right now, his most pressing concern is more concrete. In a rapidly digitizing world, he is asking what will become of physical libraries — and their material soul, books.
To answer the looming questions, Schnapp started an experiment called the Library Test Kitchen. It’s a laboratory class in Harvard’s Graduate School of Design, and this fall will mark its third year in operation. Dedicated to rescuing physical, book-dense libraries from obsolescence, the team of students and instructors dream up designs that, as Schnapp says, “create a hybrid space where analog and digital coexist.”
The earliest projects were placed in experimental trials around campus and culminated this past winter in the “Labrary,” a pop-up gallery showcasing the students’ innovations. From Bri Patawaran’s print-on-demand “literary mix tape,” to Hattie Stroud’s white-noise table for silence-adverse readers, students created new directions for libraries caught at the intersection of the physical and the digital.
It’s no coincidence that the Library Test Kitchen team chose to open the Labrary in the former Harvard Square site of the Globe Corner Bookstore: Reimagining new ways to interact with books is emblematic of the designers’ vision. “We have a unique opportunity to expand, not contract, the function of libraries,” Schnapp said.
The Library Test Kitchen began in response to Harvard’s Library Transition, a massive and elaborate administrative restructuring to bring the world’s largest university library into the 21st century, with 17 million books trundling behind. The initiative, which was implemented last summer, includes aggressive staff consolidations and an emphasis on providing digital access, rather than purchasing physical materials. It matched a growing trend for big changes in research libraries around the country and the university’s overhaul struck many on campus as a short-sighted divestment in the school’s resources and reignited the ongoing debate about the future purpose, and relevance, of major research institutions.
The Library Test Kitchen aims to safeguard research libraries’ 2,500-year legacy — dating to the Library of Alexandria — of knowledge exchange and preservation while satisfying, and in many cases, exceeding, patrons’ mounting expectations for technology on demand.
But in an age of fiscal austerity, digitization, and the privatization of public space, many research libraries around the country seem to be headed in a different direction, shedding book stacks as cost-cutting measures and investment priorities drive the push toward digitization.
In 2011, the University of Chicago unveiled its Mansueto Library, the school’s slick vision of a digital utopia: 50 feet below the library’s minimalist high-tech workspace, robotic cranes pull requested books from a restricted vault and send them above ground. There are no stacks to browse, and all book requests are made online.
Last year, at Johns Hopkins University, the Welch Medical Library did away with public workspace altogether, closing its doors to users and moving its resources online. Books are requested online and delivered to offices and mailboxes around campus a few days later. Students and faculty with research questions call, e-mail, or live chat with their assigned “informationist.” For quiet workspace, students are directed to lounges and study rooms around campus.
The New York Public Library is continuing its campaign for the Central Library Plan — a controversial proposal to truck 2 million books offsite to New Jersey and build a state-of-the-art circulating library in their stead. Many scholars, writers, and librarians argue that offloading the books, thereby making it harder for patrons to gain same-day access to materials, would compromise the integrity of the NYPL’s world-class research facility.
Throughout the month of April, the Boston Public Library solicited comments and suggestions from patrons for an improvement project at the Johnson Building at the Copley branch, though it’s too early to tell where the BPL is headed with these renovations.
“The library is being changed by the people who run the library,” Library Test Kitchen instructor Jeff Goldenson said. “But library users should have a voice. The goal of the Library Test Kitchen is to engage students to create what they need and want from a library, to redesign the institution they’re a part of.” The course, which meets in the School of Design’s Frances Loeb Library to provide an immediate and tactile context for discussion, is open to all students, undergraduate and graduate alike. And in a telling measure of success, two alumni from the Library Test Kitchen’s first year, Ben Brady and Jessica Yurkofsky, are now instructors for the course.
To prepare the students for the Library Test Kitchen, Schnapp arranged for librarians to present their on-the-ground dilemmas during “Problem Solving Hours”: How can librarians connect visitors to largely invisible digital texts? How can we digitize texts without sacrificing their crucial texture and scale?
Goldenson organized a field trip to Harvard’s book depository, where students confronted the enormous scale of the structures they are hoping to bring into the 21st century. “It’s really impressive to see hundreds of years of collected knowledge,” Brady said, “but the immense physicality is also overwhelming. Any kind of intervention in the digital world would have to grapple with this. I just realized how big of a problem it was.”
For one of his Library Test Kitchen student projects, Brady developed Biblio. Biblio is a little clam-shaped device with inquisitive eyes that can sit in the palm of a hand. Press it against a page, and it can scan text, suggest related books, and share titles with its other Biblio friends. Rest him in a study carrel and the LED lights in his eyes blink expectantly as he waits to be “fed” more text. Biblio is a research buddy, a sort of bookish, Wi-Fi-enabled Tamagotchi pet.
“Books are fighting for their physical position,” Brady writes in his project statement, and with Biblio he aimed to make “old media act like new media.”
As with Biblio, the students designed prototypes that expanded, rather than negated, the most enduring joys of the library: reading, studying, and browsing for books in a shared civic space. In former student Stacy Morton’s project, a smartphone app sends an alert whenever a library book matching the user’s keyword search (for example, “Spanish art”) is nearby. Whether the book is on a colleague’s desk or in the lap of a stranger riding the same train, the city is transformed into a living library full of hidden books — and, perhaps, more research buddies — that we didn’t know we were looking for. Morton’s technology amplifies the library’s unique talent to “accommodate the near miss,” Goldenson said.
The Library Test Kitchen students also developed projects to ensure that our most essential research partners, librarians, will not be supplanted by the Internet and will become, instead, our ambassadors to the Information Age.
Goldenson suggested creating library “residencies” for younger staffers to promote mentorship and cross-pollination across libraries, or an “artist in reference” position for a distinguished guest librarian to illuminate a library’s research collection in the area of her specialty. In another Library Test Kitchen proposal, roving librarians who work “in the field” (i.e., the stacks) are texted whenever a nearby library patron has a question.
“I think we are moving in the right direction at Harvard,” said Ann Baird Whiteside, librarian of the Loeb Library and assistant dean for information resources. “The Library Test Kitchen offers librarians some ways to make the [Harvard Library] Transition as successful as we can by helping our users help us to think about the library of the 21st century.”
Despite the projects within the Library Test Kitchen that activate our ever-noisier gadgets, there is a countervailing effort to silence them as well. Brady, Biblio’s creator, also built a “Wi-Fi Cold Spot,” a room coated with special paint that jams incoming radiation and signals, disrupting wireless connections. The Wi-Fi Cold Spot — much like the Library Test Kitchen’s proposed library of the future — “thrives on the contrast between connectivity and isolation,” Brady writes.
Schnapp says his ideal library would be an inclusive “beehive,” with room for all kinds of activity, and the Wi-Fi Cold Spot would have a natural home among noisy meeting areas and open, participatory research projects.
The ethos of the Library Test Kitchen is to build libraries that mirror the communities they inhabit, where the page and the screen jostle in sometimes random, sometimes coordinated ways; where creation and rest, clamor and quiet move through public spaces in balletic chaos — and where library patrons find wonder, serendipity, and that endangered virtue, what Brady calls “a moment of pause.”
Anne Gray Fischer is a doctoral student in US history at Brown University. She can be reached at email@example.com.