Inside out

Glass-walled, 'transparent' libraries won't help readers to see clearly.

Ciaran Guilfoyle

Topics Culture

The Commission for Architecture and the Built Environment (CABE) recently announced in its report Better Public Libraries how the library of the twenty-first century should be designed (1). Not that the report admits to being so prescriptive: it says that it ‘does not aim to supply a single solution for library design’ but ‘a series of [best practice] examples’. If this is true, why do all the exemplars look the same?

The common feature of all the new libraries in CABE’s report is glass, and lots of it. Glass doors, glass walls and glass roofs. The good thing about glass is that it allows natural light into a library, which facilitates reading. But there is more to this newfound transparency than the simple urge to assist the readership (after all, windows and a stable artificial light source would suffice here).

These designs have less to do with reading than with making the library ‘a place where the whole community can feel a connection’. In other words, this is an attempt to address the problem of social exclusion by increasing architectural and institutional transparency. But whether or not we can feel a connection, greater transparency is likely to undermine the library user’s attempts to make intellectual connections.

CABE supposes that architectural transparency is representative of, and even aids, institutional transparency; and that institutional transparency is the key to social inclusion. This is the idea behind that great glass kettle known as City Hall, built on the south bank of the Thames to house the London Assembly. The London Assembly, the design suggests, has nothing to hide – and nowhere to hide – from the people of London. At City Hall, all Assembly meetings are held in public. Citizens are free to scrutinise the political decision-making process, and encouraged to feel they are part of it.

There is also an inoffensive and vulnerable quality to the glasshouse – its residents are well-advised not to throw stones. So the self-conscious message of a transparent institution to the world outside is ‘We are open, honest and harmless’ – a sort of puppy-eyed appeal for sympathy.

Such a strategy didn’t work for boxed magician David Blaine and it’s even less likely to work for our public institutions. The cuteness of puppies notwithstanding, few adults ever made friends with people who behave too much in this transparent way. The friends whom we value are those we see as our equals, who have lives of their own, and who are prepared to tell us a few home-truths every now and again. A public institution that prostrates itself naked before us is unlikely to win our respect, let alone overcome social exclusion.

As argued by Mick Hume elsewhere on spiked, there should be a private side to public institutions (2). Hiding anything from the public is today interpreted as undemocratic and exclusory. On the contrary, by keeping internal ‘noise’ to a minimum, institutions reveal the worth (or otherwise) of their external objectives all the more clearly. This allows the public to better judge such institutions and to hold them to greater account.

What does this tell us about libraries? That they should concentrate on their collections and not become side-tracked into ‘opening up’. The object of the library is to preserve books, which members of the library can read in order to become confident in their own judgements. For this to happen we need these books to present solid viewpoints to us, to say: ‘This is how things are.’

Our learning then comes from our own attempts to determine the forces at work behind the book. We must ask questions: ‘Why did the author write this? When and why then? For whom?’ Only through satisfying our curiosity on these questions can we decide whether the author’s opinions are valuable. This is how we see through to the heart of an idea – the ‘transparency’ is of our own making.

When transparency is provided for us, and the challenge of difficult
ideas is toned down, we get the opposite effect. Active scholarship is replaced with intellectual passivity.

According to CABE, the success criteria of libraries do not relate to the quality of the collection, but to the numbers of people that can be found milling around the central atrium. To attract such numbers, ‘better’ public libraries should refrain where possible from displaying books in the offensive, spine-outward manner, adopting instead bookshop-style display stands that allow the cover to be seen.

Shelves should be kept to head height so as not to overawe users by requiring them to use kick-stools. And no doubt the delicious aroma of expensive coffee should waft through the periodicals section. ‘Better’ public libraries should effectively play down the challenge of serious book, which may contain new ideas that at first offend.

Better Public Libraries speaks with enthusiasm of ‘the new library at Stratford in East London…where young people and students can watch MTV, read magazines and listen to CD selections on listening posts’. Quite a challenge to the young person’s outlook! Outside the library there is nothing wrong with such activities, but to provide them inside the library is arguably a public disservice.

This urge not to challenge but simply to reflect the library user’s prejudices is central to the architecture of the new buildings. The modern library endeavours to display, not books, but other library users. Everywhere we are shown people like ourselves: in the large atria and coffee bars, and in the study areas now given over to large tables for ‘group working’ rather than private study booths.

Next to such modern architecture something like London University’s Senate House Library appears uncomfortably claustrophobic – but if I needed to get to grips with some serious literature I know which library I’d prefer.

Ultimately, one never knows whether a transparent building has been constructed primarily for the benefit of those on the inside or those on the outside. So not only do these new buildings invite people inside to ‘feel a connection’, at the same time they render those people objects on display.

Whenever another glass building is unveiled I am reminded of 1001 Troubles, the glass maze on Blackpool’s famous Pleasure Beach. It’s a bit dated now, but back in the 1950s the designers of 1001 Troubles knew that they were providing double the fun of an ordinary maze. Not only would those on the inside face the challenge of finding their way through, but those on the outside would be entertained by the insiders’ frustration and occasional injury.

Better Public Libraries is keen to see more people put on display. Bournemouth library, it tells us, has a ‘glazed north side [which] provides a window to the town’, thus allowing library users and shoppers to gaze at each other. And Norwich Forum, it says, has ‘steps outside that encourage people to sit and observe city life’.

Though not mentioned in the report, the recently revamped British Museum Reading Room – the magnificent centre-piece of the Great Court – is the worst culprit for putting scholarship on display, with a fair chunk of the Reading Room given over to snap-happy, whispering tourists. Such ‘windows’ in effect transform the primary aim of the library, from that of active scholarship to passive observation. And in doing so it transforms library users from active subjects into passive objects.

Public libraries no doubt have a role to play in widening opportunity. But the thinking behind their great glass frontages will hinder such efforts, and damage libraries in the process.

Library users need to be challenged, not celebrated. Better than wishy-washy transparency might be some in-yer-face visibility. Might I suggest a good book…?

Read on:

Bringing books to book, by Ciaran Guilfoyle

spiked-issue: Museums and galleries

(1) See CABE’s report Better Public Libraries

(2) Hutton’s ‘transparency’ is a threat to democracy, by Mick Hume

To enquire about republishing spiked’s content, a right to reply or to request a correction, please contact the managing editor, Viv Regan.

Topics Culture


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