Monthly Archives: December 2009

How Buildings Learn: What Happens After They’re Built by Stewart Brand


From my last post – this was the only book referred to in the New South Wales matrix that I hadn’t yet read. So I set out to grab a copy of How Buildings Learn and discover more about its metaphor for a potential library future.

I think I have always been interested in architecture – take me to any city and I am perfectly happy wandering around to see what I can see in the streetscapes. I knew why I had this interest after a 1997 college guest lecture by James Howard Kunstler. As deeply ashamed as I was at the audience, some of whom booed his talk and belligerently challenged both his ideas and authority in the field, I had a growing sense of excitement and identification. Kunstler was my kind of guy – someone who had figured out that people’s relationships with their surroundings profoundly affect their sense of development as a people. “Is this a place worth caring about?” he shouted, showing slides of all-too-familiar suburban landscapes where big box stores held dominion over the horizon and token landscaping replaced once thriving & complex ecosystems. It’s no wonder young people feel alienated and isolated, he claimed, pointing to the lack of sidewalks in housing developments and the proliferation of bland “places” that resemble nowhere in particular.

His ideas resonated with me and I was grateful to find the words for things I sensed but was not able to articulate. I found this to be true of Brand’s book as well: although one can read this book through the photographs, illustrations, and captions alone, the narrative Brand created is a good one indeed. My favorite reading “moments:”

He quotes from Jane Jacobs on the costs of new construction: “Old ideas can sometimes use new buildings. New ideas must come from old buildings.” (p. 28) This quote faces two photos – one of the carriage-style garage where Hewlett-Packard took shape in 1939, and the modest interior of a 1970s garage in Palo Alto where Steves Jobs & Wozniak invented the Apple computer.

In a strange way, libraries are always old buildings because we store the past – we are the metaphoric “old building” that provides a foundation for today’s thinkers to build upon.

On p. 188, Brand points out the difference in philosophy of an architect who thinks of a building as a way to manipulate the power structure of those who inhabit it, and the actual inhabitants who will inevitably shape it the way their lives evolve: “A building is not something you finish. A building is something you start.”

Libraries are changing organisms just as our users are changing organisms. Our future depends on being flexible, modular, and providing the raw space in which change can flourish.

“Anticipate greater connectivity always.”

Beyond being an excellent example of Strunk & White style, this simple declarative sentence is what we should do for our institution as a whole and for the learners that come through our doors. Brand uses this as an introduction to a paragraph on the Berkeley’s Wurster Hall conduits, built into the fabric of the building anticipating lots of lovely coaxial cable for television in every classroom. Instead, it proved to be a great way to network computers as the Internet revolution arose. What else could it have connected? Had this empty, “useless” space not been provided, there would have been no opportunity to help the building keep evolving with its inhabitants.

Architecture turns out to have a lot in common with libraries. We deal on a human scale, and help people create places worth caring about, worth inhabiting, and worth growing.

Bookend Scenarios – Public libraries 20 years in the future?

The State Library of New South Wales did a little future forecasting and compiled their results in a nice white paper called Bookend Scenarios (pdf). Although they were focusing on particularly Australian concerns, I was surprised by how applicable their vision is to American libraries. We face very similar challenges to our services, and it’s worth taking a look at this report if you are concerned about the public library and its future incarnations.

Above is their matrix of change, with a sector for each of four scenarios named after seminal monographs: nonfiction for generalized scenarios, and fiction for the niche scenarios. The predicted outcomes of each scenario will depend on variables in our socioinformatic landscapes.

Right now, I’d say the average American public library is in the How Buildings Learn quadrant – technology is accelerating & formats are unstable but library services & buildings are expanding to meet community desires. Barring some global catastrophe after Peak Oil, I’d say American libraries are typically headed for a mashup between the Neuromancer and Fahrenheit 451 scenarios. In particular, I think that electronic formats will win the day for most sources of nonfiction and the physical paper-based book will become the province of fiction exclusively. I don’t think that we will suffer from the lack of relevance forecast in the Fahrenheit 451 scenario, but I do believe we will find value in the Neuromancer prediction: people’s skepticism of information could be tempered by situating librarians as arbiters of content, where we help users discern bias and conflicts of interest in the production of specific pieces of information.

Where do you think public libraries are headed in the next 20 years? We will surely follow society’s lead, and the four visions in this fascinating project are distinctly possible versions of our collective future.

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