Guessing the Future of the Library

By Bart Verschaffel
Bart Verschaffel is a philosopher and professor at the University of Ghent, Belgium. He specializes in the theory and philosophy of public space.
The public library as a place for contemplation and the gathering of knowledge is dependent on a simple yet all-important act, namely: the act of reading itself. Bart Verschaffel presents here insight into the 'space' in which reading occurs.
'Sapientia aedificavit sibi domus' (Wisdom has built herself a home)
The architectural program of the library is tra­ditionally related to the materiality and culture of the book, but the printed book is quickly losing ground and made almost obsolete by the new electronic media. The entire history of intellectual culture can - in principle - eas­ily and cheaply be digitalized and stored, and made available virtually everywhere. And this is true for all kinds of information. Soon new hard ware substitutes for the traditional book will be available, and we will download and read any text on the book-device we carry with us such as our mobile phone. So the end of the book is near. But what about the library? Most libraries have adapted to the new developments and have transformed themselves into some kind of 'media centre', where - in addition to traditionally dealing with books and printed documents - images, slides, videos, and music are collected as well, and free public access is offered to all forms of new media'.1 This compro­mise is certainly pragmatically valid for the time being, but understanding these developments and realizing what is at stake here, requires a more radical approach.
Let us therefore consider the library, not as a place where books are stored and borrowed from, but, first of all, as a place and an environ­ment for reading.
Reading is a demanding, highly complex, very artificial activity, with its own long history and culture.2 The individual and silent reading we practice today is a derivative of the traditional and archaic practices of reciting before an audience, on a special occasion and in a spe­cial place: in auditoria, theatres, and places of worship. It is important to realize, though, that modern and secularized silent reading - reading for entertainment included - keeps its 'transformational power' and 'mythical potential' too. Reading is and remains: transformation, in­wardness, contact with an 'elsewhere'. Reading somehow relates to thinking and dreaming, and even to sleeping: it implies a detachment from one's environment and a retreat inwards. One ‘sinks’ into a book like one 'sinks into thoughts'. Contrary to thinking or feeling however, reading is not an informal activity, something that just 'happens' even while performing other activi­ties. Reading is more like praying: a ritualized activity, relating to specific gestures and specific objects. It creates a situation, and that situa­tion 'takes place,' it occupies and organizes space. The reader turns inwards via the external medium of the book: the book opens up an 'elsewhere', where his attention dwells. Read­ing transforms a person: it makes one forget oneself and where one is, it affects the reader's consciousness and brings him in another 'state of mind'. As a secularized crypto-mythical prac­tice, it is used to interrupt on a regular basis the everyday and the ordinary, to reinforce and reju­venate life via intense experiences and feelings caused by an enriching contact with an 'other dimension': "The activity of reading, maybe even more than attending a spectacle, effectuates a rupture in the time flow and an escape of 'nor­mal time"' (Mircea Eliade)3. When one looks at a person reading, this transformation becomes a kind of transfiguration: a reader is exposed and not simply 'himself' or 'herself', but at the same time uncannily here and elsewhere. Therefore, to kill a person who is reading, forgetful of his environment and unprotected, is a sacrilege, just as killing a person who is asleep or praying. in the Western tradition, the act of reading is linked to contemplation, both in the religious mode of prayer and in 'thought' or 'theory'. The Greek verb ‘theorein' originally means: being present at and witnessing the appearance of the divine.4 The philosophical tradition has partly secularized this into: contemplating the truth. Wisdom and insight, as a profane 'contact' with the truth, thus replace the archaic ritual trans­formation by contact with a primitive force.
The printed book is quickly losing ground and made almost obsolete by the new electronic media
In one way or another, reading, from its very beginnings, is related to acquiring knowledge and wisdom, to living a good life. The activity of reading itself is not just a means, but indeed already a part of living a wise life. The Western tradition thus opposes the 'vita contemplative', or the withdrawal from worldly matters and the cultivation of a spiritual life, to the 'vita active', with its belief in the world and the meaning of action.
The act of reading absorbs one's consciousness and isolates a person from their environment, but not as radically as in dreaming or sleeping, and not as in seeing a movie or a performance in a darkened theatre. Reading is not a 'trip'. Being focused on a printed page is necessarily accompanied by some awareness of 'where' the reading takes place, and of the fact that the text one reads is also an 'object' in the world. A text on a page is not a floating 'appearance' as a theatre performance or a piece of music. Furthermore, a text differs from the painted im­age in the fact that a page is not a full image but consists of signs that stand out against a neu­tral background. Signs have to be deciphered, not just looked at. This implies that a text does not capture the eye as an image does: in read­ing the attention and the eyes regularly wander off, certainly when turning the pages. Reading is full of pauses. In reading, there is no total absorption, but a peculiar back and forth be­tween the book and the world of books and the environment and the setting where one reads. Reading is situated on a threshold: it is focused on an 'elsewhere' but is at the same time aware of its 'here'. One could expect that we would have developed functional, technical 'reading space'-devices to isolate the reading from possi­ble distractions - just as the design of a shower or a phone booth. Certainly some strategies of that kind are used to structure the 'reading situ­ation', but it is crucial that reading as an activity remains intensely related to its environment. Reading is absorption and concentration with the eyes on the page, but also seeing and feel­ing and hearing the paper of the page and the book, and letting the eyes wander and rest on the table, on the walls, and, through the win­dows, stare at the landscape and the sky - all while staying 'in' the reading. Because reading is a situation that 'takes place', it is important to investigate in detail how the experience of space becomes part of the activity of reading. During the long history of private, silent reading a limited number of 'reading situations' have been spatially defined. On the basis of the rich and complex iconography of reading I propose a taxonomy with five types.5
1.   Reading at home. Because a person who reads forgets himself and is not vigilant, the place where he or she reads has to be safe and secured. In the prototype of the protected place, 'inwardness' is protected by intimacy: it is the interior. The room, the couch at the fireplace, the cozy corner, the circle of light of the reading lamp, the bed, or, for St.-Jerome, his grotto, his 'energizing cell'
2.   Reading in nature. If reading implies inward­ness and a withdrawal from the environment, uninhabited nature, the wilderness, far away from the voices and the noises of the world of men, is the proper place to read. Reading by the sea, in the mountains, in the forest, in the desert... When we lift the eyes there, we don't meet a world full of human activity and history, but an empty landscape, a subject of contempla­tion with nothing of 'human interest' that could distract us... 
The activity of reading itself is not just a means, but indeed already a part of living a wise life
3.   Reading among the crowd. The modern equivalent of the natural wilderness is the urban mass. The city experience, as poets and think­ers from Charles Baudelaire to Georg Simmel have written, is intense and overwhelming, and modern man has to learn to be lonely amidst of the crowd. Reading has become one of the strategies to take a rest from the hectic city life: amidst the hustle and bustle, amidst the noise and the business of people, one reads on a street bench, in the café, on the train, at the swimming pool, at the airport. The book opens a perspective to an outside world we can focus on, and, now and then, look up at the world around us as a strange spectacle we are not involved in. Besides these three typical 'reading situations', I distinguish two more, characterized by the fact that, when the reader lifts his eyes, he doesn't meet some symbolic image of 'the world', but more books. In her lecture on St.-Jerome, Alison Smithson quotes St-Jerome who writes that he could leave everything behind except his library: "But the library I had built up with such pain and ardour in Rome, I could not bring myself to do without". Reading in the library exists in two traditional versions:
4.   Reading in the study room: the studiolo. A private, secluded room, with a desk of one's own, and bookshelves. Reading is here about writing too. It is quite remarkable that books are not stored away and hidden as we do with instruments, but are kept in living rooms: the function of bookshelves lies somewhere be­tween furniture and decoration. What does it mean to read surrounded by one's own books? The personal library is the accumulation of what one has read or chosen to read: it is the collec­tion of the books - Walter Benjamin writes -that have crossed our life path and entered our life of the mind.6 A personal library is a memory scene built by a reader's history.
5.   Reading in the library. A personal library is like a private art collection, a public library is like a museum. One reads not in the midst of what one has read already and is familiar with, but against the oppressive surrounding pres­ence of all that has been written already and that one hasn't read and will not be able to read ever. The public library therefore invokes melan­choly and sometimes even a specific kind of ag­oraphobia. One reads while being exposed, not to one's own reading history, but to the History or Culture. Comfort here comes from the fact that one is not alone. In the public reading room all readers become a fascinating view for each other, and one witnesses silent transmission: reading and writing as a continuous process and a collective project of an invisible community.
What is at stake in the architectural programme of library architecture for the 21st century? It is not how to store and to preserve books or printed matter and make them accessible: it is the (public) meaning and significance of read­ing. Reading as an informal activity will certainly continue to be part of most people's lives. The question is (a) if, and eventually how, reading, being the basic image of the 'vita contemplati­va', will be valued as such and assigned public dignity, and (b) if, and how, the reading expe­rience can be linked to memory and history after the dematerialization of the book and the library.
(a)   One can imagine the library of the future as a 'reading palace', where people will go to read like they go to a concert hall to hear music instead of listening to their earphones. A locus aemonus for the reader, with many different reading situations, from a café, a bookshop, a scholarly reading room, a sitting room with a fireplace and piano music, austere study cells, to a hortus conclusus or a roof garden to read while walking, or sitting next to a gurgling fountain, etc... These institutions don't need to store many books, and people can read on their computer if they want to. The Palace can provide the conditions for an intense, concentrated, rich, and diversified reading experience. What is even more important, however, is that in this way the form of the 'vita contemplativa' remains publi­cally represented in the modern city as a pos­sibility. Could this possibly be a future for the many abandoned churches and chapels?
Reading is situated on a threshold: it is focused on an 'elsewhere' but is at the same time aware of its 'here'
(b)   What is at stake and much more difficult to deal with, is the loss of the actual presence and public meaning of memory and history. This is already true for the private reading. What does it imply when, during a long life of reading and writing, only files pile up? When even a whole life of reading and writing hardly leaves a trace in the world, and doesn't produce or mark any `environment' at all. Is it not as uncanny as a man or a woman who, after a long and full life, carries the face of a twenty-year-old - as a life that didn't write wrinkles? What if from all the work of reading and writing that people have done for thousands of years, nothing would heap up in the world, if it would all hide behind screens and search engines? This is even truer for the reading in public. One can indeed argue that everything a person has read and written in a life somehow stays and is alive in his or her mind and personality. One doesn’t necessarily need souvenirs to have memories. But can one really be aware of everything that has been thought and lived and written when this only shows in the numbers of hits of a Google search? Even just one book taken from the library that exists as an object and a ‘body’ in the world, seems more ‘real’ than a long bibliography on the screen, because it has travelled through time and space, originating from the author, to end up with me, to grow old, and maybe to survive after I am gone. A book has a life, a file doesn’t. How can we believe that there is that common endeavour of making and transmitting knowledge, thought, and wisdom, if it doesn’t somehow accumulate in the world, where one can see it? Beyond the preservation of a form of life that interrupts and questions our daily ‘business’, the question of the library of the future concerns the possibility of living with the past, of collective time, of cultural transmission. Victor Hugo famously wrote that the printed book will cause the end of architecture. Library architecture, I believe, has proven him wrong. Books and architecture do have a common cause. Here it is the screen – not the book – that is the enemy.
It is quite remarkable that books are not stored away and hidden as we do with instruments, but are kept in living rooms
1 The bibliography on library architecture is endless. See for a status questionis: Terry D. Webb (ed.), Building Libraries for the 21st Century: the Shape of information, McFarland, 2004.
2 There are plenty of books on the psychology, sociology, history and the ethnography of reading. See for example: Jonathan Boyarin, The ethnography of reading, Berkeley, 1993; Sven Birkerts, The Gutenberg Elegies:The Fate of Reading in an Electronic Age, Boston/ London, 1994; Alberto Manguel, A History of Reading, New York, 1996; Paul J. Griffiths, Religious Reading. The Place of Reading in the Practice of Religion, 1999; Steven R. Fischer, A History of Reading, London, 2003; Jeff Gomez, Print Is Dead: Books in our Digital Age, New York, 2007.
3 Mircea Eliade, Les mythes du monde moderne, in: Mythes, reves et mysteres, Paris, Gallimard, 1957, p. 36.
4 Hannelore Rausch, Theoria. Von ihrer sakralen zur philosophischen Bedeutung, Miinchen 1982.
5 Architects may be familiar with a stimulating short lecture by Alison Smithson on 'The habitats of Saint Jerome: the desert, the grotto, and the study'. The draft of the lecture is published in D. van den Heuvel & Max Risselada, From the House of the Future to a House of Today, Rotterdam, 2004, p. 224-230.
6 Walter Benjamin, Ich packe meine Bibliothek aus. Eine Rede fiber das Sammlen, in: Gesammelte Schriften, IV-I, Frankfurt a. M., 1980, pp. 388-396.
Original Publication: Bart Verschaffel, “De bibliotheek van de toekomst/The Future of the Library”, in Huib Haye van der Werf, ed., Architecture of Knowledge/Architectuur van de kennis (Rotterdam, 2010), pp. 84–95.