I know our class is over, but since I still owe at least half a blog post I thought I could share a few observations about our final course topic: the university library. In a way this is really just an extension of the comments Christina and Eliza exchanged regarding Lingerr’s most recent post, so forgive me for indulging myself.
Flavorwire originally published this piece–a photoessay of sorts–in December 2011. I remember seeing it then and showing it to others, not just for the photographs but also for the comments left by readers (which are fantastic, by the way, and worth perusal). Apparently the post received enough attention to be worthy of republication in January as one of Flavorwire’s “most popular features of the year.” Unsurprisingly (?), the very brief paragraph that introduces the photographs covers some of the same ground we did in our in-class discussions about the function of the academic library:
The college library, whether ornate or modern, digital or dusty, is in many ways the epicenter of the college experience — at least for some students. It is at once a shining emblem of vast, acquirable knowledge, a place for deep discussions and meetings of the mind, and of course, a big building full of books, which, as far as we’re concerned, is exciting enough.
“At least for some students.” It is the strangest phrase in the post. The author reveals, mid aesthetic revel… what? A kind of discomfort? She never returns to this question about which students do and which do not find the library to be “the epicenter of the college experience,” so why include the qualification at all? As I noted above, and as you can see if you click through, the post is all about aesthetics: thirty seven photographs (some libraries merited more than one) but fewer than two hundred words. Of course the title of the post is “The 25 Most Beautiful College Libraries in the World,” so this is hardly surprising. But the excerpt I quote above sits uneasily with the photoessay and not only because we are left wondering about those unfortunate students who, sadly, don’t frequent the library. Quite a number of commenters noticed the tension here too, which arises I think from the claim that the academic library can be (and is) at once an “emblem of… knowledge,”a “place for deep discussions,” and a “big building full of books.”
As some of the commenters point out, the slideshow presents pictures neither of library stacks, nor, for the most part, of building architecture. These are almost exclusively photographs of reading rooms–and largely photographs of empty reading rooms. Hardly surprising, once again, as the essay purports to show us the “most beautiful” academic libraries in the world. This brings me back to the author’s claim: are these photographs supposed to illustrate libraries en toto–those buildings which are simultaneously emblems of knowledge, places for discussion, and repositories for books? These lovely reading rooms seem to me more like anti-libraries, at least as far as the aforementioned definition goes. Perhaps it’s a naming problem, and if the blog post had been titled “The 25 Most Beautiful College Library Reading Rooms” I would feel less uneasy about what, exactly, we’re supposed to take away from the photos. That is, if I do feel uneasy. I’m not sure what I feel, to be honest. But maybe it has something to do with that parallel Professor Stauffer drew for us between libraries and churches. Maybe reading rooms are like little chapels: after all, one goes there to read and reflect and to feel inspired. Cathedral architecture has always been designed to draw the mind and heart up towards God—to awe and exhilarate. Does the aesthetically pleasing reading room (or library) perform a similar albeit secular function? And what does this have to do with the future of the academic library?