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. Continued...