In 1838, Pierre François Henri Labrouste, a Beaux Arts-trained architect who had been living in Rome, was commissioned to design a separate building for France’s Bibliothèque Sainte-Geneviève—an outgrowth of the old Sainte-Geneviève Basilica that the revolutionaries had transformed into the Pantheon. Today, Labrouste’s design is best-known for his revolutionary use of relatively thin cast-iron supports for the library’s reading room; the lack of thick, load-bearing pillars or columns created a soaring, open space designed with the reading public’s use in mind.
Unlike the monastic libraries that preceded it, Labrouste’s Sainte-Geneviève’s reading room is largely devoid of built-in shelves. What one notices isn’t books but rather their absence: space. Labrouste’s breakthrough was reliant on another innovation, one that lay elsewhere, out of view. He designed a system of book stacks, accessible only by librarians, that sit beneath (and also physically support) the reading room. By separating the books from the reading areas, he created the modern library as we know it, one that serves both as a public space designed for readers and a carefully organized repository of knowledge.
On May 9, the Samuel Paley Library at Temple University—where I’ve been a graduate student for the past two years—will permanently close. Beginning on May 15, library workers will shuttle 1.3 million volumes from Paley’s open, browsable stacks to their new home. Space will be created. In the Snøhetta-designed Charles Library—tentatively to open before fall semester—the books will find their new home in a chamber some three stories underground.
Unlike Labrouste’s system, however, the stacks at Charles won’t be accessed by librarians. Instead, they will be ordered and arranged by an “automated storage and retrieval system (ASRS),” a robotic arm designed by the logistics megafirm Dematic. Folks at Temple are calling “the bookbot.”
At Charles, books will be sorted into “bins” not according to subject matter or language but rather by size; crucially, this means that a book withdrawn from one bin can be ‘reshelved’ in another with similarly-sized books. Individual volumes will be ordered not by call number and shelf position but by barcode, SKU, automated system.
This spells certain death for a particular kind of book-seeking experience: the browse. For around 100 years after Labrouste’s innovation, book stacks were closed to the general public. In the US, the modular stack system was refined and improved upon by designers and librarians alike, most influentially by Bernard R. Green, who oversaw construction of the US Library of Congress after the Civil War. His system was popularized (and patented) by the Snead and Company Iron Works of Jersey City, who went on to publish handbooks like Book Stack and Shelving for Libraries, laying out in exacting language how best to organize a library—or rather, how Snead’s system makes for the best-organized libraries. (Requisite of a Library Book Stack Number 7: “Maximum capacity and capability of infinite extension.” Number 12: “Furnishing no lodgment or comfort to book pests.”) Though they were meant to encourage efficient storage and access, the Snead design still envisioned a trained corps of librarians in the driver’s seat.
The end of World War II—and its associated boom in literacy rates and university enrollment—saw the growth of de-centralized library systems, at the heart of which lay the “open stack” that all but encouraged strolling and leafing. Though Temple’s first on-campus library, Sullivan Hall (1936), operated as a closed-stacks system, Paley’s dazzling stacks represented that empowering spirit when it opened in 1966.
By moving away from open stacks, Charles seems to be an acknowledgment that while the library itself continues to grow, the browser is increasingly regarded as an anachronism. The space promised by the new library is for people, not for volumes: “five grand reading rooms, flexible classrooms and collaboration zones.”
There’s something eerie about the bookbot, something a little deadening, I think, about seeing or imagining the book in the way the Dematic system promises to: as a flat object with square corners, of varying length and width. An organizational problem has been “solved” by design: instead of an archive of knowledge spread among the continuum of human knowledge, the books have become physical objects, packed like an Amazon truck. Those who visit a library like Charles are no longer readers, scholars, browsers, or even patrons—mini-Carnegies, supporting public knowledge one late-fee at a time—but rather “users,” passive recipients of downloadable information brought to you by an algorithm.
In school, libraries were both where I spent time and did time. In Saturday detentions and in-school suspensions, the worst punishment was when detention was overseen by a science teacher, who invariably made us clean and catalog lab equipment. But my first forays into the library were also guided largely by fierce competition over size: as a fiercely competitive participant in my school’s Accelerated Reader program, I was drawn to Little Women and Anna Karenina primarily for the space they occupied on the shelf.
As an impressionable undergraduate at Yale, I briefly sought employment in what seemed the biggest game in town: the sixteen-story stacks at Sterling Memorial Library (a Snead creation, by the way). I didn’t even make it through my first pay period—I could never get used to the eerie silence and cold—but I will never forget the lesson taught us by the librarian in charge of our training: a book shelved out of place was as good as lost forever. I found the thought harrowing: imagine, being lost within all that knowledge…
I was happy to discover that Paley is the opposite of Sterling. Squat where Sterling is tall, quasi-Brutalist where Sterling is neo-Gothic, and accessible where Sterling is all-but closed off, I found a lovely home for myself among Paley’s much-smaller collection, which clocks in at only 2 million volumes total. There was, furthermore, something charming about the inconstancy of Paley’s open system: very often, the search for one book yielded another entirely, one which I simply never would have found in any catalogue, no matter the ability of that season’s UX designer. Such a system, of course, must offend the sensibility of the serious scholar and the librarian, and yet for me—nothing if not a browser—there was something a little magical about the experience. Perhaps the solution is to ask the bookbot for every book in a given call number range.
In his book The Library at Night—a series of essays reflecting on the origins, construction, and maintenance of a private 30,000-volume library in the Loire river valley—Alberto Manguel addresses the two main archetypes of the library: in its desire for breadth, universal knowledge, the Library at Alexandria, which was to “record everything that had been and could be recorded, and these records were to be digested into further records, an endless trail of readings and glosses that would engender in turn new glosses and new readings.” And in its reach, its ambition, “all the tongues of Babel.” Both models represent both the attempt at universality and such an endeavor’s ultimate failure: knowledge can be tended after, but it cannot be contained.
What is a library for? It’s an increasingly urgent question in 2019, a moment when the Internet—in its best, Utopian vision, the Alexandria-Babel hybrid ne plus ultra—feels both inescapably pervasive and also irrefutably bad. Almost every single fact in this article came not from Google but rather from Temple’s library website, where with my login credentials I can access hundreds of paywalled databases. In a moment when the universalist spirit of the web has been made grotesque by the data-hoovering, metrics-obsessed nature of the tech billionaires, there’s something comforting about the orderly, enclosed walls of the library. (Oftentimes literally so.)
But such comfort is short-lived; as a graduating student, my credentials will be revoked not long after Paley—whose open stacks offered ready access to anyone with a valid government ID—closes its doors. The books themselves will be locked away. Temple operates at the very edge between the privatizing impulses of the corporate university and its own proud public tradition. The question now is whether Charles’ robot-controlled underground stacks represent an entombment of knowledge of a preservation of it.