Thursday, January 9, 2014

The Material and the Symbolic: Designing Libraries in 2014

During this arctic week in the Midwest, I am working on a keynote for the JSEA Librarians conference.   My husband lent a helping hand to the process by pointing me in the direction of communication theory of "discourse of space"… we’re a lively pair ya know.  This led to more topics, which eventually led me to the urban planning scholarship of socio-spatial transformation and the research of Ole Jensen in Denmark. 

Jensen argues any planning process (in my case redesigning a 1980's library) as a consideration of the “relationship between the material practices and the symbolic meaning that social agents attach to their spatial environments…”  For me, this means that the tension between material practices (the day to day doings of librarianship) and the symbolism we attach (the sacred cows of librarianship) effects how we arrange our physical environments.  The catch in bringing library services (particularly K-12 school media services) into the 21st century can partially be attributed to how many of us still attach our own experiences to the school library – sitting and reading a book in a quiet, safe place. The library was a repository for books and other print (or at least tangibly physical) items where one went to sit quietly and absorb knowledge.

UC Riverside Library

Diana Eidson recently published an article entitled “The Celsus Library at Ephesus: Spatial Rhetoric, Literacy and Hegemony in the Eastern Roman Empire.”  In the article, she looks at how the Celsus Library (probably one of the most famous images of a library out there) was not just a repository of material - it was a place where the walls told a story (allegorical carvings tell the stories of Greek and Roman convergence), people met to share experiences and hear stories, communal decision making took place.  It would have been a lively place.  In a population where only 10% were literate, the physical building spoke to patrons and passersby.  Sadly, the Dark Ages, a bit of plague and some circling of the wagons shifted the focus of libraries to silent repositories only for the elite.

2014 holds so many ways we can get back to the library as center of community where even the building can speak to passersby!

Libraries still have material practices in the 21st century. Some look much like they have for centuries: books, magazines, maps, artwork and newspapers. Some are a little more recent: instruction on citation practices, research strategies and information retrieval. A quiet place of self-reflection in an over-stimulating school environment is needed… but do we adults let our own symbolism influence how the space functions for a young visitor?  Just because we had wood tables nestled in stacks of books, is that what our students need today? 

Face it, we need to let go of our symbolic meanings of what defines a library.  Embrace the innovations, which allow us to move beyond walls, continents and even time (have you seen the awesome collaboration between the Bodleian Libraries and the Biblioteca Apostolica Vatincana?).  Open spaces for story telling, collaborative assignments and communal discourse. 

Seattle Library Main Branch

And what the heck, let the walls or floors tell stories again.

Story Surfer at Aarhus Library, Denmark

Libraries can be vibrant spaces of experience.  In 2014, reflect on where your attachments to symbolic meaning are hampering progress.  Reflect on material practices that really can be let go (there is no need to keep a year’s worth of paper magazines these days).  And let’s move forward…

Update 2/5/2014... Here's the slideshow from the presentation.  The title is what happens when my husband and I get a little silly during snowstorms - but it's how we roll...

Click image to link to SlideShare Upload

Works Cited:
Eidson, Diana. “The Celsus Library at Ephasus: Spatial Rhetoric, Literacy and Hegemony in the Eastern Roman Empire.” Advances in the History of Rhetoric (2013) Vol 16, Issue 2.

 Jensen, Ole. Discourse Analysis and Sociospatial Transformation Processes. School of Architecture, Planning and Landscape, Global Urban Research Unity. Electronc Working Paper  28.

, Diana. “The Celsus Librarys: Spatial Rhetoric, Literacy and Hegemony in the Eas