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?

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