A Room for Books

A Room for Books

The Library: A World History
By James W. P. Campbell, Photographs by Will Pryce
University of Chicago Press, $75

The present debate about the future adaptation of the great Beaux-Arts landmark of the New York Public Library at Fifth Avenue and 42nd Street lends editorial currency to the advent of The Library: A World History. Its author conjoins the function of storage with the act of reading as solved by architects and their clients, and, finally, in the 19th century, the librarians themselves as that profession emerged as the science we know today.

A radical reworking of the Carrère and Hastings masterpiece, with proposed removal of its reliable system of concealed yet adjacent stacks, along with most the books themselves to an offsite repository, flies in the existential face of just such a form-making alliance. It separates the printed word itself as the formal centerpiece of the library’s architectural assignment with its safe conveyance of content to reader. That is Mr. Campbell’s guiding editorial imperative, explored throughout world history with print linked to structure. The relevance was made further in the midst of the controversy by Barry Bergdoll’s tenderly rigorous look at Henri Labrouste and his functional proto-modern articulation of contemporary engineering and the materials it called for.


Paradoxically, Campbell came to the project as architect and historian to point out that astonishingly there really has never been such a survey. And what is without doubt an exceptionally lively and passionate consideration comes to spectacular life in the remarkable illustrations, which provide a nearly gasp-out-loud voyage through some of the finest and certainly most optimistic design works of mankind. While mostly full-page interiors, they propel the well paced narrative meandering succinctly as it does between history and theory in complementary doses. They also make clear how from the advent of writing with the cuneiform tablets of the Fertile Crescent 5,500 years ago to the brand new twig-shrouded Liyuan Library outside Beijing by Li Xiaodong, the library form itself has evolved from what was essentially a room for books (albeit often very large, and, in Rococo Austria, astonishingly ornamented with storage cabinets yielding to shelves) to a building type: Wall to stall to hall, to combine Campbell’s expert progression. Demand and supply drove it: moveable type, paper, and mechanization in concert with the need for more broadly accessible education and the tools to make that happen. Architecture has kept pace as Campbell reveals with such evident glee. Regardless of types however, it is apparent how the storage of books and the act of reading them has continually spawned such prides of civic place especially once monastic, royal, or only elite resources gave ever-increasing way to a tax-paying public. The little known 1251 wooden Tripitaka Koreana monastery library in South Korea’s Haeinsa Temple is alone worth the read. There’s hope after all!


Campbell welcomes his reader with a graceful discussion of such iconography and social meaning of the library: “Libraries indicate to the wider world the scholarly ambitions of individuals or organizations and, in the case of public libraries they can also be a charitable gesture. In the simplest cases the mere existence of the library may represent.”

While he goes on to describe how so often (as with all architecture of integrity despite style) there can also be a more explicit message of, for example, wealth or polemics, he makes reassuringly clear that he will not lose sight of the design task. He adds, “It is important to safeguard against over-interpretation and the imposition of over-elaborate or anachronistic reasons for elements that may have been shaped simply by practical considerations or the desire to copy a well-worn formula or established device.”


It is this practice-minded sense and, accordingly, application of historic precedent that makes a page-turner of what, at first glance, may seem only another coffee table scale monograph. Don’t judge a book by its cover especially if it is about books.

If online access and electronic reading mean an inevitable shift from this building typology as implicitly foretold at the New York Public proposal, then the volume comes along in the knick of time. If any practitoner or lover of architecture still cares about the capacity to remove a book from a shelf then this becomes an essential, if ludicrously overdue, reference.


On the other hand, maybe the brilliant trajectory Campbell animates will continue after all. Proposals of civic visionaries such as the Center for an Urban Future to reinvigorate the broad civic asset of the public library branch system for the first time since Andrew Carnegie gave his “staggering” $350,695,653 donation for 2,811 public libraries worldwide lends it timely significance. This infrastructure of knowledge is too precious to squander and demands reinvention. A special library bond issue would in this case play patron as this history highlights throughout.

The shifting potential of the library buildings and their fundamental program as an ultimate and finally inevitable conversation between the living and the dead provides a fine design challenge ahead. With the whole atomizing idea of knowledge storage, retrieval, and access in a period when Google and its unlimited database (not to mention the prospect of placing the entire contents of Edmund Lind’s Beaux-Art Library of Congress confection on a micro-chip…) stands as the flying buttress of discovery, it is fitting that a book about libraries as social lodestones reminds its readers of how much is at stake and what fine standards there are.