Written on 24-Mar-2009 by patencia
As many researchers, students, scholars and other unlabeled people, I spend a substantial part of my time in libraries. For some of us, they are the closest place to an office, except that we can change locations every now and then—provided one lives in a place where there is more than one library.
Many libraries—especially the oldest and monumental ones—are places where one feels privileged, special, elevated, part of the institution of wisdom (for whatever that means). Probably, that is precisely their aim; just as the height and verticality on the Gothic Cathedrals were intended to make the worshipper feel closer to God, so the monumental libraries make the reader believe that he/she is reaching Plato’s World of Ideas. However, despite the aesthetic and hedonistic pleasure one can find in working in those secular temples, when it comes to doing real work, one would rather go to places designed for real people.
Real researchers and students—at least those of our times, and I believe people haven’t changed that much—are people who sometimes spend the whole day in a library. Yet, they can’t be in a contemplative attitude all the time; they need to move, talk, eat, drink, and eventually sleep or have a nap. They are noisy; they are not concentrated all the time. Like it or not, we are not ideal entities, we are imperfect and sometimes unaesthetic human beings.
When I started my postgraduate studies, I was astonished to see people barefoot in the library, snoring while sleeping on the sofas, eating smelly food in the study rooms, and unashamedly answering their phones. I thought that was the limit of vulgarity; it was unacceptable. Yet, that was an Ivy League University’s library*, so either Americans had gone mad or something really wrong was going on.
As it happens, as the term came to its critical point, I realised that leaving the library to eat (lunch & dinner), have a coffee, or have a walk, meant too much time lost. You really needed to minimise your outdoor excursions. This might sound insane to you—if you’re a normal person—and it is, indeed. But the work of people in some disciplines (such as philosophy) is peculiar: you don’t know when the ideas are going to pop up in your mind; but when they come, you’d better be in front of the computer. And, unless you’re a prodigy of nature, they normally come only—as the spirits in the Ouija board—when you ‘invoke’ them from your desk. Not surprisingly, I ended up eating, drinking coffees, having naps and even talking a bit louder than I would have otherwise found acceptable in the library. Indeed, the liberal code of behaviour, the design, and the furniture of the library itself, invited such attitudes.
In the end, I learnt, this extreme tolerance, as vulgar as it may appear, has its fruits. In terms of production, you could see it worked (and not only for me). It seems then, that it is better to assume that people are imperfect than making them believe that they are ideal beings.
Admittedly, this is a bit extreme—Americans are, for good or bad extreme—and probably the virtue, as always, lies somewhere in the middle ground.
A good example of this middle ground, I think, is well exemplified in the British Library. There, you have reading rooms where you go if you want to have a silent environment—although there is reasonable tolerance for noise; but you can also work in other areas designed for more casual work. You don’t need to go out of the building to eat since there is a coffee shop and a restaurant, although you do need to leave momentarily the study rooms. There are also alternative entertaining activities such as small exhibitions that you can visit while having a short break. And you always have the possibility to interact with people because there are open places to work and talk. Finally, there are places to rest, such as stylish sofas and ergonomic chairs. I haven’t seen people sleeping there yet, but it wouldn’t surprise me.
All in all, monumental libraries are irreplaceable and their charm and beauty will hardly be matched by more functional libraries. However, it might be the case that they are only for those days in which one wants to indulge oneself more than anything else. Or one can be lucky enough to find a library that is monumental and at the same time functional. The two alternatives are not mutually exclusive, although perhaps economically impracticable.
*It was not my University