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Jeffrey Schnapp: Envisioning Bibliotheca 2.0: One of the Most Exciting Design Tasks of Our Era

Jeffrey Schnapp, a cultural historian and pioneer in digital humanities who is faculty at Harvard, co-teaches a seminar in the architecture school on the past, present, and future of libraries. In this PIL interview, we talked to Jeffrey about what we can learn from the design of libraries from a course talk to in the architecture school about libraries, the "physicality of space," and the tangible elements, as envisioned by design students and librarians, that could be central to the library of the future. (Interview posted: January 18, 2012)

j schnappJeffrey Schnapp is a cultural historian whose research interests extend from antiquity to the present and encompass such domains as the material history of literature, the history of design and architecture, the cultural history of engineering, and the past, present, and future of libraries.

Since 2000, he has played a pioneering role in the development of a new wave of digital humanities work for innovating and re-envisioning the dissemination of knowledge in the arts and humanities. Jeffrey founded and directed Stanford Humanities Lab and more recently, Harvard's metaLab.

We interviewed Jeffrey in early January 2012, at the conclusion of an undergraduate seminar he was team teaching about the history and future of libraries. We discussed the role of the library as place through time, and the opportunities that Web 2.0 applications present for libraries now and into the future.

PIL: Tell me more about the impetus of the seminar you just co-taught at Harvard with John Palfrey called “Bibliotheca: The Library Past/Present/and Future.” The course, described as a “porous seminar,” asks, “What form should the library of the 21st century assume?” What led the two of you, a Romance linguist and a lawyer, to teach a seminar like this? What is a “porous seminar,” and how did this format work for your course?

Jeffrey: The seminar developed out of some conversations about the ongoing restructuring of the Harvard library system and the design of the Digital Public Library of America (an effort that John is leading and in which metaLAB is involved). It was taught neither in the Harvard Law School (John’s academic home) nor in the Faculty of Arts and Sciences (my main academic home), but as an experimental seminar/studio hybrid in the Department of Architecture at the Harvard Graduate School of Design. This institutional location is significant, so a bit of background may be useful.

Because of my own interstitial position between literary history and digital humanities, on the one side, and design and curatorial work, on the other, I teach across schools at Harvard and am frequently engaged in forms of pedagogy that cross the boundary between making and thinking. I teach at least one such course in the Graduate School of Design every year and the Bibliotheca seminar became that course this fall semester.

From the start, our idea was to build the seminar around three main nodes: the history of the library as an institution from antiquity to the present; case studies in the design and construction of contemporary libraries (such as the Bibliothèque Nationale in Paris [arch: Dominique Perrault]; Seattle Public Library [arch: OMA]; Cambridge Public Library [arch: William Rawn Associates]); and the development, design and discussion of elements that might make up the library of the future. So as to give the seminar institutional traction and embed the historical research and speculative design work in real-world problems, four half-sessions were dedicated to hard problems being faced within the Harvard libraries. These sessions, organized with the expert help of Anne Whiteside (director of the Loeb Design Library) and Jeff Goldenson (of the Law Library Innovation Lab), were opened up to the Harvard library community as a whole and were recorded and disseminated on the website that is documenting the ongoing reorganization of the Harvard Libraries. So the “porosity” sought in the seminar’s design was, in the first instance, one that promoted interaction between professional librarians and architecture and design students, between the public conversation about libraries at Harvard and seminar discussions. Secondly, we sought to create the sense that there was an open boundary line between historically informed critical thinking, present problems, and future prospects.

The student projects that emerged from the semester’s work included flexible carrel designs, modular media/reading/event space structures for insertion into existing library facilities, networked scanning stations, spatial Googling, a radical rethinking of the reference desk, a navigational app for library exploration, as well as designs for district libraries in Bogota, Columbia and South Central Africa. The course gathered so much momentum that Jeff Goldensen and I have gone on to organize a “library test kitchen” entitled Bibliotheca II for the full development of some of the student projects during the spring semester.

PIL: You have blogged about the importance of the library as place, especially the challenge of adapting the “physicality” of library spaces from the present to the future. What sorts of physical characteristics would you say have endured and survived from the distant past to the libraries of today? Which of them stand the best chance of making it far into the future? Why?

Jeffrey: The fact that the Bibliotheca seminar unfolded at an architecture school is indicative of my core convictions regarding the future of libraries. Among them is the belief that the most exciting design tasks of our era lie at the seam where the digital meets the physical. So designing libraries for the digital millennium is less a matter of updating a building type with tens of centuries of history and tradition than an endeavor that cuts right to the heart of some of the most pressing challenges confronting contemporary architecture: how to devise new typologies of public space, new kinds of furnishings and appliances, new places for research, teaching, learning, and of interaction and play around/with knowledge, new citadels of expertise that “speak the language” of the era of mobile devices, ubiquitous networks, and the world wide web. What is a public space in an era in which a majority of individuals walk around in bubbles containing information and social networks?

I'm confident about the enduring vitality of the library as a public institution. What is in crisis is a certain historical iteration of the library, not the library itself. As one of civilization’s most ancient building types, the library cannot be expected to vanish with the wave of a digital wand. The explosion in e-Publishing, the shift in knowledge production from print to post-print or print-plus models of dissemination, the greater proportional importance of digital assets with respect to print-assets in many fields, do not diminish the fundamental roles performed by libraries as places of consultation, study, and exchange. But they alter these functions, much as the rise of the codex and universal literacy altered the mission and shape of libraries in their respective eras. Today’s citadels of expertise cannot be expected to look like those from the era of steam engine, much as I love steam engines.

As far back as the libraries of Pergamon and Alexandria, libraries have combined functions of storage, sifting and activation. They have been places of burial, preservation and worship of a certain past, where retrieval, resuscitation and animation of dormant/stored knowledge was integrated into the shaping of the present and future. It is the access, animation and activation pieces that are now moving front stage and center, while the storage and burial functions move offsite even as they remain just as essential as ever. Accordingly, physical stacks of books will be cast in less and less central roles in the libraries of the 21st century. Spaces of making and doing, from reading and study rooms to the carrel to curation and exhibition spaces to the reference or expert desk, will undergo reinvention as the library becomes what it always was (at least potentially): a beehive of social activity and a laboratory. The carrel will survive but as a social space: a place of study but where study is on display and visible to others. The segregation of media types will come under ever increasing pressure as the very notion of the book as somehow detachable from other media dissipates. Processing and preservation activities must move out of the basement into public view.

At the top of my hit list of spaces for radical overhaul are workstation clusters, computer rooms, and old (new) media rooms (microform, microfiche, recorded sound, video viewing rooms), copy and scanning rooms. Distinctly awful and dysfunctional afterthoughts that were tacked on to existing book-centered spaces, such elements need to be woven into, merged with the physical space of future libraries. In many of the libraries where I work, trivial operations like getting a page printed off of a workstation can be alarmingly complex, even impossible, whereas you can now order sandwiches from your local café off of your iPhone. (Is something broken here?)

PIL: In our latest study at PIL, we found many of the students we interviewed during the final weeks of the term on 10 U.S. campuses they were in the campus library not to use its resources or services, but to use the library as a place, as a refuge from the distractions of technology (e.g., Facebook, gaming, and texts). Would you say libraries have always offered some form of escape to their patrons? Why, and I suppose, how?

Jeffrey: The notion of the library as a place of retreat has profound roots in its history as an institution: escape from the agorá, the marketplace, the streets, home, society, the elements.  The retreat in question is not really an escape. Rather, it bespeaks an urge to seek out alternatives to the everyday: expanded horizons; deeper states of being (concentration, communion, silent contemplation); participation and inclusion in the life of communities dedicated to knowledge, science or faith; travel to distant real or fictional worlds.

In a noisy, information-overloaded, hyperconnected world like our own, urges of this sort can be expected to grow, rather than contract. So when students report that they aren’t using a library’s resources or services, I’m neither surprised nor especially concerned. The analogy that springs to mind is that of city dwellers’ relative neglect of local cultural institutions. In the course of a year only a small percentage will actually avail themselves of the riches that are readily accessible to them. But I would argue that they live better lives because they are buoyed by the knowledge that these riches are there at arms length, available in case of desire or need. This sense of future potentiality, of the existence of a reserve, has always been one of the defining features in the life of a library: the sense that it is a vault most of whose contents lie dormant, but are there waiting to be woken up at any future moment in time.

This said, there’s a definitive, irreversible fact that needs to be grappled with as we build the libraries of the 21st century: as ever-vaster digital libraries are being built online, storage has been moving off-site. And it is not coming back.

What this implies, in my mind, is an obligation to think boldly and imaginatively about what sort of place of retreat the library of the 21st century can or should become. The dormant reserve or “future potentiality” that I’ve just spoken about is still very much a defining feature of most contemporary libraries, even if such potentiality can also be tapped in part on mobile devices or from the home. (It’s crucial to recall that the vast majority of materials in today’s libraries does not exist in digital form.) But it simply isn’t present in the same ways that it has been since the late 19th century: namely, it no longer manifests itself in the form of the labyrinthine networks of stacks that once made up the bulk of a library’s physical structure.

So, in a sense, we are now free to start reinventing space that once had to be locked up as storage, as well as inventing new kinds of spaces of consultation, study, and exchange. But what kind of space should this be? What do wish to do in it and with it?

As hinted earlier, I view the double move away from on-site storage as an invitation to focus on new modes and models of what I referred to earlier as activation. Current models of activation have remained wedded to a very narrow set of typologies and book-centered usage scripts: the silent reading room, the reference desk, the exhibition gallery made up of mute display cases, the seminar room, the special event room.

I would argue for multiplying the sorts of spaces that a library provides as well as the sorts of rules that apply within such spaces (noisy vs. silent; rigid vs. flexible; built around individual vs. group activities; etc.).  I would also argue for the development of new kinds of making, curating and sharing spaces: the library as a literal laboratory and classroom, at once physical and digital; the library as mediathèque and production studio where media types and categories of objects (books, things, media) are no longer segregated. Books are a medium and they are also physical artifacts; why not experiment with reintegrating them into the larger families within which they belong?

Last but not least, I believe that we need to invent new appliances and architectures that network existing bricks-and-mortar libraries. In the case of the DPLA, for instance, I have advocated the building of nimble, architecturally and informationally flexible pop-up instantiations of DPLA at the local level that add value with respect to local needs and can also be used to feature local or regional curatorial work carried out within DPLA alongside samples of that which is being done on the national scene. The libraries of the 21st century will be networked constellations of bricks-and-mortar buildings where there is a permeable boundary between what happens inside and outside their physical walls.

PIL: I read with interest that you are thinking about writing a new book called, The Animated Archive for the metaLab Projects series at Harvard University Press. You discussed using this opening sentence: “Institutions of memory are very good at collecting and accumulating records; they are very bad at knowing what to do with them.” First, what are “institutions of memory”? Why do these kinds of institutions have this particular shortcoming? What Web 2.0 possibilities exist for institutions of memory, a topic you have written about elsewhere?

Jeffrey: Under the umbrella phrase “institutions of memory” I would include libraries museums, and archives large and small: institutions, in short, devoted to the preservation, storage and retrieval of historical records.  These are tasks that they have performed with considerable skill and a high sense of responsibility over the course of many centuries, though I believe that many of our current processing and preservation practices need to be rethought.

Over the course of the past century, institutions like the ones just mentioned have very significantly expanded –I’m tempted to say democratized—the compass of the sorts of materials that they collect: ephemera, advertising matter, pulp fiction, comics, lps, tapes, video, television and radio, photographs, the records of ordinary individuals … the list goes on. All of this greatly enriches the human record. But in tandem with the exponential growth of print materials, it also contributes to a logjam that can only be broken open by accepting the need for “quick and dirty” solutions to collections processing (rather than what some have called “processing for eternity”), solutions that involve interested user communities right from the start.  The processing and preservation methods of the 19th and early 20th century work best on a certain scale and with certain categories of objects (rare or precious materials, for instance). But they were already struggling with realities that exceeded their capabilities at the time of their invention. A century later, it is hard to see how we can persevere along past lines.

Historical materials live or die as a function of their being animated by users. If they are inaccessible or invisible or simply sit in storage crates, they might as well have been lost (however much they go into a reserve hypothetically available in the future). We have seen this over and over again even in the course of large-scale digitization projects.  Vast repositories are created that have had a relatively minor or trivial impact. Few guests show up at the party because digitization in and of itself doesn’t resolve questions of access, visibility and availability for actual use. Archives and repositories have to be built, right from the outset, in a user-centered manner and involving core potential user groups from the start.

PIL: Lastly, back to the course you just co-taught about libraries. What would you say is the greatest challenge for adapting today’s libraries to the demands and expectations of the 21st century? What single issue about the future form of libraries was the thorniest—that is, the issue you and your students probed and discussed the most deeply?

Jeffrey: There wasn’t a single answer.

The top candidate with regard to “adaptation” was an ongoing debate between the advocates of what I’d call a post-print stance --printed books will be entirely superseded by digital descendants-- and a print-plus stance --printed books will continue to play a significant role with respect to knowledge production and cultural forms, but that role will no longer be normative. Naturally, each of these positions has consequences as regards the redesign of present libraries and the design of future libraries.

If the above thoughts didn’t make it clear, I belong to the second camp. But I’m sympathetic with the first camp to the degree that I don’t believe that the word “book” can be assumed to refer to the same object that it did, say, fifty or one-hundred years ago. Experimentation with new models of print-based (as well as post-print) scholarly communication is one of the core aims of metaLAB and my own most recent book, a collaboration with the graphic designer Adam Michaels entitled The Electric Information Age Book, is a case in point. It’s a meta-book on late 1960s/early 1970s efforts to reinvent the paperback for the television era: a media archeological dig into the prehistory of the electronic book.

Jeffrey joined the faculty at Harvard University in 2011, as a Professor of Romance Languages & Literatures and Comparative Literature, and also teaches on the faculty at the Graduate School of Design. In addition, he is a Fellow at Harvard’s Berkman Center for Internet and Society.

He was the director of the Stanford Humanities Lab from its foundation in 2000 through 2010, where he was Pierotti Chair in Italian Literature and Professor of French & Italian, Comparative Literature, and German Studies.

Jeffrey has authored over 18 books, including, most recently, Speed Limits (Skira, 2009) and the forthcoming, The Electric Information Age Book (Princeton Architectural Press, 2012).

Smart Talks are informal conversations with leading thinkers about the challenges of finding, using, managing information, conducting research, and managing technology and cultural capital in the digital age.

Smart Talks is an occasional series, produced by Project Information Literacy (PIL). PIL is an ongoing research study, based in the University of Washington’s Information School and supported with contributing funds from Harvard’s Berkman Center for Internet & Society and the Institute of Museum and Libraries (IMLS), creating strong libraries and museums that connect people to information and ideas.

Smart Talks interviews are open source. No permission for use is required from PIL, though we ask that this source be cited as Project Information Literacy Smart Talk, no. 10, Jeffrey Schnapp “Envisioning Bibliotheca 2.0: One of the Most Exciting Design Tasks of Our Era."

The Smart Talk interview with Jeffrey Schnapp was conducted over email by Alison Head, Co-Director and Co-Principal Investigator at PIL during December 14, 2011 and January 16, 2012.