Esprit De Place: Maintaining and Designing Library Buildings to Provide Transcendent Spaces. (Facilities)

By Demas, Sam; Scherer, Jeffrey A. | American Libraries, April 2002 | Go to article overview

Esprit De Place: Maintaining and Designing Library Buildings to Provide Transcendent Spaces. (Facilities)


Demas, Sam, Scherer, Jeffrey A., American Libraries


"Libraries are places that embody learning, culture, and other important secular values and manifestations of the common good, and there is a need arising from our common humanity to visit such places."

--Michael Gorman, in Our Enduring Values (2000)

Despite long-standing predictions of their demise and current reports of "deserted libraries," people are using America's libraries--virtual and physical--more than ever. In combination, library buildings and their virtual library presence on the user's desktop constitute an evolving complex of cultural resources and services. As noncommercial, altruistic educational institutions, libraries fill a vital human need for communal exploration of ideas.

The physical library building, when designed and maintained with "place-making" in mind, serves as a vital agent in community-building--bringing people together to promote a community's civic and educational values. Place-making involves the art and science of crafting spaces in ways that transcend their physical attributes. The successful library building, with its programs and its staff, creates a sense of connection to the values, traditions, and intellectual life of the community, and helps the patron participate in building its future.

After a generation of intense focus on building the virtual library, librarians have reawakened to the place-making role of the library building. Working with architects to design buildings that embody both physically beautiful and functional spaces, libraries of all kinds are reasserting their role as serious, welcoming, and enjoyable physical destinations.

As Raymond Irwin stated in The Origins of the English Library, "Almost without exception every great library, from the days of classical Athens to the Age of Reason, has been built on holy ground. The reason is plain. Of all the devices of magic by which a king maintains his sway over his subjects, the magic of the written word is the most potent."

Communities create a sense of place

While American libraries have carefully adapted the ancient authoritarian sense of awe and beauty of monumental civic architecture to a distinctly egalitarian tradition of librarianship, they have retained the timeless design goal of creating transcendent and transportive spaces: transcendent, in the sense of buildings that delimit physicality through imaginative understanding and application of virtues; and transportive, in design that uplifts the patron and enhances the unique experience of sensing past, present, and future simultaneously. It is this transcendent/transportive co-existence, with particular reference to its local, place-specific manifestations, that distinguishes a library with what we are calling esprit de place, or spirit of place.

The real estate in a physical community--such as a town or a college campus--encompasses public, commercial, and private spaces. Every community seeks to set aside commons, or public spaces, that will be frequented by a broad cross section of the community. In a town, these include community centers, parks, schools, and libraries. On a college campus, these include quadrangles, recreation centers, cafeterias, student centers, and libraries. Commons create opportunities for people who do not necessarily travel in the same disciplinary, social, political, or economic circles to frequently meet and greet each other. Egalitarian common spaces associated with learning and culture hold a particularly strong appeal for many people, even those who do not use them frequently.

Nationwide expenditures on library building and renovations have held steady at $500-$700 million per year for the past six years, but the sources of funding have shifted dramatically from a reliance on federal and state allocations to a reliance on local funding sources. Communities have not only willingly picked up the funding slack, they have increasingly advocated for building designs that make architectural and programmatic statements about the community's sense of itself. …

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