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Should a library be a place?

I’ve just started working on an article for Washington State Magazine about the changing role of the library. Without even interviewing a librarian yet, I’ve found the questions quickly accumulating.

Sculpture by Dudley Pratt - The Reader- aka Nature Boy at sunset. By Robert Hubner.

Sculpture by Dudley Pratt - The Reader- aka Nature Boy at sunset. By Robert Hubner.

Among the really fundamental library sources I used to use for background when delving into a subject or article were the Reader’s Guide to Periodical Literature, Essay and General Literature Index, and Encyclopedia Britannica.  It’s been years now since I’ve visited a physical library to open a paper version of either.

Britannica, of course, has been online for some time now. I’ve gravitated to other online indexes—as well, I admit, as general Google searches. As most of the more specialized information for whatever I’m working on tends to come from actual interviews with experts and other primary sources, that’s about the extent of my library use any more. In fact, these days, about the only reason I go to the actual library, which is a three-minute walk up the hill from my office, is to check out books.

Books? you say. How quaint. Not yet quaint, I reply. In spite of Kindle and Google digitalization and Bartleby, I plan to buy and read paper books for a long time to come. And I suspect they will be available. Much as I like online reference, other than for reference purposes, I’ve never read a book online or on a machine.

But back to the library. Other than a repository for books, what is the current role of the library? Is it just a big turbocharged search engine? A crutch for students nowhere near as technically adept as everyone says they are? I don’t know.

All I know—and here I’m about to ramble a bit and perhaps become repeatedly contradictory—is I miss the idea of the library I have stuck in my mind. That idea looks much like the central Boston Public Library, the old wing, with its marble staircases and central courtyard. And its reading room with comfortable chairs and green-shaded reading lamps. And a hall dedicated to solely to murals by Singer Sargent. My idea also bears some resemblance to decisions made here at Washington State University back in the late 1940s.

President Holland had long dreamed of building a cathedral-like library, similar to the Suzzalo Library at the University of Washington. It would be located at the highest spot on campus. It would be an inspiration.

So far, so good. Four days after WSC’s new president, Compton, took office, he charged Holland with the job of researching the eminent libraries of the East, with the goal of a building that would accommodate new information media and technologies.

Which Holland’s gothic dream would not.

The soaring, stained-glass cathedral that Holland envisioned was just that. It was not the functional tool that Compton and many faculty members believed was needed to support WSC’s aspirations and needs.

So we ended up with the ironically named Holland Library, a very 1950s building. Other than some nice marble in the lobby, it was pure function. In fact, its most identifiable feature, Nature Boy, a bas-relief sculpture on the southwest corner, was added later, to lend some interest to a very functional, but uninteresting piece of architecture.

In spite of the library’s changing, and perhaps reverting, functions, I would argue that enobling architecture should be its primary trait. And function.

The new library took an encouraging step in that direction with its glass teepee and light-filled atrium. And the glass south wall of the library, looking out across campus and the Palouse towards Kamiak Butte, is beautiful. Still, it feels more like a waiting room than a reading room.

And with that, I may as well open myself completely to derision for living in a past largely constructed of my desires. I miss the card catalog. More later.