The High Tech and the Beautiful: Library Buildings, Digital Libraries, and the Future

By Gilbert, Ellen D. | Library Philosophy and Practice, Fall 2000 | Go to article overview
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The High Tech and the Beautiful: Library Buildings, Digital Libraries, and the Future

Gilbert, Ellen D., Library Philosophy and Practice


The reopening of the New York Public Library's (NYPL) main reading room last fall was heralded in the New York Times by no less than three articles, one editorial, and several letters to the editor. Founded in New York City in 1895 as a free public reference library, the NYPL had occupied its current site, a formidable marble Beaux Arts edifice, since 1911, and the reading room was showing its age. Now, thanks to a $15 million gift, the entire room was refurbished: beautifully painted ceiling panels were cleaned and brought back to life, ornamental woodwork was polished, and modern windows were added. The transformation was not merely aesthetic; considerable attention was given to outfitting an area of the room for training patrons in the use of electronic resources, and electrical outlets were placed at regular intervals at the desks for computer use. These outlets it was noted, alternate with "the classic bronze reading lamps" long associated with the room, and in spite of now being outfitted for the Information Age, it was clearly the lamps, and the ceiling, and the gold-leafed woodwork that evoked the awed reactions of patrons in the first days after the room's reopening. One writer described the room's "jaw dropping beauty" (1) and the eminent art critic John Russell went so far as to gush that "the very act of bending over a book now has a built-in majesty." (2)

New York was not alone in enjoying a recent library renaissance: both the British Library and the National Library of France recently underwent similar transformations. While NYPL's restoration took a mere sixteen months, completion of the new incarnation of the British Library took thirty-six years and $843 million to complete. The new National Library of France building took ten years and a whopping $1.5 billion. An amusing article appeared shortly after the reopening of the three libraries comparing the results. (It should be noted, by the way, that these three libraries are not coequals: the British Library and the National Library of France are, as their names state, national libraries; the NYPL is a great research library, but the Library of Congress in Washington, DC is considered the United States' de facto national library). In this article several writers participated in an admittedly completely unscientific survey, comparing the three restored facilities for reference service, delivery time for books, and general ambience. The National Library of France, which is being touted as "the first library of the third millennium," suffered a major breakdown of the computer controlling the delivery of books almost immediately after it reopened, followed by a strike of 800 members of the library's 2,800 member staff.

Poor France. The authors found it be the "snootiest" ("No place to even ask a research question") and--horror of horrors--it also served the worst food (although it should be noted that the NYPL avoided this question by not serving any food inside the building). Not surprisingly, the National Library of France lagged in the race to retrieve a book from the stacks, which was ultimately won by the NYPL after the British Library suffered a "heartbreaking setback" from an "unusual glitch." (3) (We are not told what that "glitch" was.)

Of course the measure of a library's greatness today goes well beyond the speed with which a book can be retrieved from its stacks. At the same that it was cleaning the paintings in the reading room, the NYPL introduced its Digital Library Collections ( web site, featuring highlights of primary source materials from the Library's Research collections. The first of the collections, the Digital Schomburg, includes fifty-six texts and more than 500 images representing African American history and culture, and is made up of two components, "Images of African Americans in the 19th Century" and "19th-Century African American Women Writers."

Other similar online exhibits of library and museum holdings proliferate.

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The High Tech and the Beautiful: Library Buildings, Digital Libraries, and the Future


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