Building Libraries

walking towards the entrance, which is to the left of the purple staircase

In 1999, the city of Warsaw in conjunction with the University of Warsaw unveiled a new university library. There are so many reasons why this is a sweet example of a building – and I realize that in Warsaw, city of prefabricated splendor, the bar for sweet buildings is set, sadly, rather low. But it is just so nice to see a structure like this off-setting the otherwise dreary, functionalist cityscape.

Like book stores in general, libraries are admittedly becoming more and more obsolete. Their boxy statures and weighty tombs harkening back to the days before Internet when the quest for knowledge was a tangible endeavor. Knowledge is no longer tangible. And as it becomes increasingly digital, the existence of libraries and bookstores starts to look more and more like an attempt to play the tune of nostalgia on a single-stringed violin.

Having said all that though, I’m not so sure libraries should be treated analogously to bookstores. The most obvious reason for this is that while the latter exist to sell books, the former exist to have their books read – an activity that is almost an anathema to the bookstore owner.

A library’s purpose isn’t¬†commodification and profit – it’s knowledge dissemination. In this way, libraries need not be victims of the basic limitations, extent in today’s economy, of places that sells things.

What a library in fact “sells” is community space. A place where people can gather together, quietly, and trawl for knowledge, ideas, insight, whatever.

Even though this basic function of a library hasn’t changed since whenever libraries came to be, this doesn’t also mean that they do not need to develop and evolve with the changing patterns of knowledge accumulation and interaction present in today’s world. Instead of remaining passive warehouses piling knowledge in ever more elusive and impenetrable stacks, libraries ought to adapt, in some ways, to the changes going on around them.

As Borges has noted, getting lost in an actual and physically overwhelming library is unquestionably a good thing, an admirable pursuit in itself. But in my view, today’s library should function, qua community space, more widely. It should be a coffee shop, a center for various and varying events, a park, an Internet haven, a public classroom with actual classes, a theater, etc. The list goes on.

Although it doesn’t satisfy all my theoretical requirements for a perfect library, the new University of Warsaw library certainly gets quite close. In its multi-functionality it is both an example of what cities can build and a harbinger for what is to, or at least should, be done by city planners.

view from the library's rooftop garden

Enough sermonizing, let’s do a quick rundown of the reasons the building is awesome: (1) it’s a library so there are lots of books and desks and carrels and what not in it; (2) the design is weirdly modern yet unpretentious, a difficult achievement to pull off; (3) it has a massive rooftop garden/greenhouse; (4) it’s partially open to the public – the public can hang out on the rooftop garden and stroll around the ground floor arcade; (5) the location is ideal – next to the river, close to the main university campus and the old town; (6) the ground floor arcade has coffee shops and a pretty cheap buffet-style cafeteria; (7) inside the library part of the library, the public can’t go – at least not without obtaining proper authorization (which is easy to do) – ensuring a quiet environment for the studious denizens within.

The one major drawback – and there may be others that I will discover in the future as I log more hours – is that it’s only open from 9-9. And it’s open for even fewer hours on Sundays. This is something that needs to be changed. Learning is a full day affair, and no one deserves to be kicked out of a room while reading.

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