Where I work, we build very sleek, modern libraries. They are lovely - high ceilings, lots of light, open spaces, modern signage. They fit well with the image we're trying to create (to the extent that we think about our image at all.) We try to portray ourselves as a new library for a new age - we are modern, slick, efficient; we are cool and professional. We use Barnes & Noble as our model. We're seeking a place in the business world, we're emphasizing our role in health information literacy and financial literacy, we think of our librarians as consultants. Our publications should portray us as "a winner."
Are we going the wrong way?
One thing I've noticed is that when people speak of libraries with affection, they are almost always talking about an old-fashioned experience. They love the feeling of peace and quiet, or they love the nooks and crannies, they love the sense of mystery, and the wonder of being surrounded by books - for many people, the older the books, the better. I've heard people wax nostalgic about paper dust. They don't want the experience of a large chain bookstore. They want the old-fashioned charm of a library.
While I love the open, airy spaces of our new libraries, and paper dust makes me sneeze, I can identify with this other perspective. I love old-fashioned libraries. I love mysterious staircases and hidden corners and yes, I love old books. I once read a quote that said that the love people have for their library is inversely proportional to the size of the library - that small libraries would always be beloved, in a way that large libraries never would be.
I think that New York Public Library gives this the lie. Look at the recent reaction when they considered moving their stacks. Their reading room is beautiful and well-used, and they have a rich array of cultural programming. The lions that flank the entrance are so iconic that they had a children's television program named after them (PBS's Between the Lions). They are a huge library serving a huge population, and yet they are loved.
The simple fact is, old-fashioned libraries are an emotional brand with a lot of positive resonance. As we move our library into a sleek, almost corporate image, what will our emotional impact be? We've worked hard to get away from the old-fashioned nostalgia, but I'm worried that we've driven away the people who love us the most. How will we regain their love? How will our sleek professionalism gain anyone's love?
I'm not ready to give up on the modern library yet, but we're going to need to think hard about the way we brand ourselves. We want to be professional, but we need to stay human, need to be approachable - we need to be able to be loved.