Libraries: An Argument

Suzanne E. Thorin, dean of libraries at Syracuse University, made the news last week when she declared “Let’s face it: the library, as a place, is dead … Kaput. Finito. And we need to move on to a new concept of what the academic library is.”

Thorin made these startling comments at the 2009 Educause Conference, sparking a lively debate amongst the conference participants that has now been taken up across the web, as many commentators have begun to weigh in on the question of whether the library is, in fact, dead — or whether there is still life in the old brick-and-mortar receptacle for books.

It seems to me that there are many excellent and compelling arguments to be made for why libraries are still necessary, if not urgent. However, I want to enter into this debate by putting forward what is probably the least substantive argument in favor of the continuing value of libraries: aesthetics.

I love libraries. I think they are beautiful, aesthetically pleasing places. I can think of few human-designed environments that are as appealing as libraries. There is something about the balance between symmetry and order, and the wide diversity of textures, colors, physical and spatial forms that produces, in me, a sense of serenity and reflection. I have spent many hours in many libraries – some ultra modern, built out of steel and glass – others historic, located in old, restored brick or stone buildings. I’ve been in libraries that were kept too cold, or were too loud, or were disorganized, or too dark, or that looked like they could be the setting for a serial killer flick. But, the ones I remember the most are the beautiful libraries – those with large windows, big tables, comfy chairs, and that certain indefinable feeling that comes from being surrounded by more knowledge than one person can contain.

My favorite library is the American Antiquarian Society, which is an elegant and lovely space, with the clearest light and sense of openness that I ever have encountered in a historic library. (Photo: the AAS Reading Room)


Of course, it helps that the AAS is one of the most important archives of early American history and literature (my particular scholarly interest) and that the librarians there are incredibly helpful and kind. My days doing research there were a delight on a number of levels, not the least of which was the opportunity to just sit and soak up the environment.

I’m not the only one who takes their love of libraries to the level of aesthetic appreciation. The wonderful website, Librophiliac Love Letter: A Compendium of Beautiful Libraries, includes pictures of some of the most extraordinary, breath-taking libraries that I have ever seen, and only dream of seeing in real life.

So, in rebuttal to Dr. Thornin’s rather too hasty declaration of the death of libraries: What’s your favorite library, and why?

— Desiree Henderson

Photo source: HistoryGradGuy on Flicker

1 Comment

  1. For me it’s the New York Public Library on 42nd Street and Fifth Avenue, what’s now called the “Stephen A. Schwarzman Building.” It is grander than the AAS, more impersonal, not as cozy, but the idea is the same: steady chairs, big tables, lots of light. And always completely public, which means that anyone can walk right in and get pretty much any book in the world. What a concept.

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