Tuesday, August 14, 2012


I struggled for a while with the topic for this post. While in Florence, my personal attention was on all the myriad implications of space and place—while there was no way to do more than just scratch the surface in a place as storied as Florence, it was useful as a guiding lens to help me focus. The experience of place in Italy was overwhelming, and I’m still processing, connecting new dots and reaching new conclusions.

One of the things I believe to be true (and I thought this long before my current trip) is that librarians need to be laser-focused on outreach. No matter how fantastic the collection, if no one is aware of it, or willing to come to the library and engage with it, the collection will languish. In Florence, the libraries are clearly centers of culture, learning, and history—one can feel the weight of the centuries simply by walking into any of the historic libraries we visited. I realized, though, that in the bulk of cases I hadn’t seen or been presented with any efforts that showed the librarians leaving their libraries. Certainly, we saw libraries that made a great effort to welcome the world into their spaces, and we saw libraries that were truly leading the way in terms of digital access, making their collections available to anyone with an internet connection be they scholar or curious schoolchild. I’m also very aware that we spent relatively little time in all of the libraries we saw—while the librarians were very generous with their time throughout the city, it’s difficult to make any sort of blanket statement about library services after just one day’s tour and experience of a library.

Still, with all of that said, I think I’ve finally hit upon the reason I was always a bit unsettled in Florence. In the last year, I and my classmates have spent a great deal of time considering exactly what it means to be a librarian, and for me, the answer almost never had anything to do with the physical space of the library. Even in those possible futures in which I’m working for a traditional library, I’m outside of the building, working with project teams and holding steady as a mobile librarian, accessing library and internet resources from my station in the local cafĂ© or community center. I’ve said that I’m not a rare-books librarian or an archivist, and I think what I may have meant is that I’m not a collections-focused librarian at all; rather, I’ll forge ahead with my communities and the people within them even if we don’t have a well-stocked research collection backing us.

In direct opposition to those ideals stand the great Florentine libraries, which have for centuries served as havens for learning, and as the repositories for the information in physical form. When faced with buildings that housed—or STILL house—some of the finest collections in Europe, what am I to do with this notion that ‘the books don’t matter’? For most of the libraries we saw, clearly the books not only matter, but are paramount. The librarians, then, are servants to the collections, carefully, skillfully adding to and conserving them regardless of the world outside. If people want to come to the library and use the collections, so much the better, but outreach was never high on the list of priorities for the libraries we saw. 

The oddest piece of it all for me is the realization that there’s something to be said for their approach. I still can’t see myself in that role, not really, but on some visceral level I think I “get” some of the notions that motivate the archivists I know. Bringing it full circle, I think, now, that I understand the unadulterated joy of creating the physical place of a library, and filling it with materials that will help distinguish the space. While I will likely focus my efforts on outreach, I now see the value of the other side of the coin.

Thursday, August 9, 2012

Persistent Spaces, Flexible Collections

While in Florence, I and my colleagues have visited a number of libraries that were originally designed to house a specific collection. I was continually surprised to find that these collections—dating from the 16 and 17thth centuries—not only had their own cataloging schemata (not very shocking), but also that the spaces holding the books were designed specifically to accommodate the collections in question.

The implications are staggering.

Imagine a library in which the architecture of the physical space reflects the underlying logical design of the collection. Suddenly, interactions with a collection become more than simply finding the relevant materials, and expand to include an entire vocabulary of information-seeking behavior. Admittedly, the aforementioned Florentine libraries only showed the connection to their collections with built-in ornate shelf labels, designating precise location for the books in question, but the expansion of these ideas could mean anything from museum-style planned interactions with materials to full discovery-driven browsing in rooms that invite library patrons ever farther into the building, and into the collection.

Some might argue that libraries are already starting to borrow ideas from the fields of museum design and education for these sorts of interactions, but I think that the act of keeping space multi-purpose negatively affects the opportunities for planning this type of experience. The rooms in Florence were successful in part because the collections were very defined, circulated only a little to a relatively small audience, had a specific purpose, and grew very slowly, if at all. No matter the size of a collection, if the exact contents are stable, creating a space that will maximize the potential interactions with that collection will be easy. In modern libraries, however, the need to leave spaces that can be changed at will, because a collection is being weeded, because the film club is coming in and needs chairs set up like an auditorium, because new acquisitions are constantly growing (but changing the focus of) the collection, or because of any one of dozens of other reasons, is preventing the creation of specific, single-purpose spaces in many libraries, even if those spaces would otherwise be successful.

I admire libraries that display a great degree of flexibility. Until these two weeks in Florence, I would have argued for dynamic spaces with modular furniture every time. Now, though, while I still think that flexibility in librarianship is vital, I recognize that libraries with the luxury of designing for a defined collection may have a better deal. When I return to the states, I want to spend some time looking into this type of question: I know there may be answers I simply don’t have time to find at the moment.

Still, I wonder what possibilities might be out there that can address the need for flexibility while still customizing a space for specific interactions. The libraries in Florence that inspired me also serve as a sort of warning; They were customized for collections that in the intervening centuries have moved or been broken up, and now the customizations mean very little. While we might be able to design phenomenal spaces for fantastic experiences, if we don’t succeed in making them relevant into the future, how long will it be until they’re simply an unused relic?

Monday, August 6, 2012

Location, Location, Location

As long as I can remember, I've studied the masterworks of art history, either directly, as in my high-school Art & Architecture survey, or indirectly, providing context for my music history courses in undergrad. I thought I had a decent grasp of the importance of the works themselves, and even some of the historical implications (as documents for the study of Renaissance art, as evidence of the changing cultural attitudes in Europe at that time, as artifacts adding weight to claims of the Apollonian-Dionysian dichotomy, and more), but what I realize now is the simple reality that studying the works from afar cannot possibly approach the heady experience of seeing them in person, in Florence.

No matter how perfect the reproduction, there are characteristics of the original that are hard to capture, including the fact that thousands-upon-thousands of people had been in exactly the same place, having their own reactions to a masterwork. Add in the realization that this was the work over which a master labored, this was the work in which a patron invested, this was the work that inspired the scholars and critics and people before considered a "masterwork", and it's a powerful experience. When the masterwork is a building, such as in Florence's Duomo, then there's no comparison to reproductions at all.

Location matters. Being in the same location as a work that is part of the world's cultural heritage is a feeling that can't really be described. Here, in Florence, I've seen the masterworks of the Renaissance, and I've held the books that were banned by the inquisition. I could write about that feeling all day, describing facets of the whole without ever being able to impart the nuances of the feeling.

Until this trip, I wouldn't have considered myself a rare-books/preservation/archives-focused librarian. I still doubt that I'll end up in one of those jobs, but I have a new respect for that sort of work. I appreciate, more, the effort that librarians and curators choose to spend on replicating a space that once existed, or creating a new one to showcase the works under their purview (which is technically an information-design problem, but that's a can of worms I don't want to open now).

I applied for #SUiSchoolFirenze because I wanted to travel more, and because I thought that talking about non-American librarianship would be easier and more enriching if I was outside the country. I knew there would be opportunities here I would never get in the States. The pleasant surprise, though, has been the places themselves.

Our locations change us, and partially determine what we can experience in a given situation. Here in Florence, I know that I'm faced with history I never would have understood if I hadn't been able to walk through the streets, to feel the weight of the traditions and the culture. Certainly, I have questions, but they are informed by the places I see, the places I go, and my questions are the better for it.

I'll be asking many of those questions as these reflections continue. Hopefully, I might even come to some conclusions, even if I don't get "answers" in the traditional sense. Bear with me?

Thursday, August 2, 2012


Somehow, I've ended up in Florence!

Well, it wasn't exactly a surprise, I suppose--I was fortunate enough to be selected for the iSchool's study-abroad pilot program. There are six of us here; myself, four other iSchool students, and our professor, Dr. Sarah Webb, who is teaching a modified version of her International Librarianship class and helping us parse the experiences we're having in the field.

I've been here almost a week, and have a number of blog posts in the works, most focusing on a theme of "Place." Of the libraries I've seen so far, there are some interesting implications of space, certainly, but I'm also very interested in exploring international librarianship through the perspective of location. My background in Renaissance music history is rearing its head once again, as I'm surrounded by the names, the art, and the culture of Florence.

We get a bit of free time this weekend, which is likely to be when I'll blog the trip. We've been going full-steam-ahead, and that also means that we've not had much time to process our thoughts. Personally, I enjoy being busy, but there are some things (including blogging) that find themselves lower on the list of priorities--especially when there's gelato involved. Stay tuned!