Feng Shui by Clear Englebert

Libraries: Form & Function (Part One)

Libraries: Form & Function (Part One)

The San Francisco Public Library. Look at all that wasted space! (Wikimedia Commons photo by Joe Mabel)

“The architects won.” That’s the phrase that librarians use when walking into their brand new, great big library and seeing the amount of wasted space that’s meant to be “awe inspiring”. The main libraries in Huntsville, Alabama (“Fort Book” as it’s locally known) and in San Francisco are two perfect examples. I had never heard the phrase “The architects won” at the time, but it perfectly sums up the profound disappointment I felt when I first walked into those spaces. The beating heart of a library is its book collection, and there I saw vast, climate-controlled emptiness where the heart should be. The symbolism and sad irony was not lost on me. The kind of people who approve those designs should not be involved with books in any official basis.

At one time (before electric lighting) there was a purpose to those large empty spaces in libraries—it was to let light come into the middle of the great room at the bottom from the tall windows around the sides (and sometimes skylights in the center). This worked so well that some of the old libraries didn’t install electric lighting until well into the twentieth century. (The Bodelian Library in England is one very famous example.)

My inspiration for this post and the next one I’ll be writing.

I’ve spoken at most of the libraries in Hawaii (and several in Alabama) and the most beautiful ones (that I’ve seen) in Hawaii are the Main Library in downtown Honolulu, the Wailuku Library (designed by Charles Dickey) on Maui, and the Molokai Library in Kaunakakai. There are two Hawaii libraries with fabulous interior courtyards: the Main Library and the Hilo Library. Those spaces are very different from climate-controlled atriums (which are a waste of energy). Those two courtyards are literally a breath of fresh air.

I’ll be speaking at several Hawaii libraries in 2020: I was just at Manoa,  Aiea  and Aina Haina, and I will be at Kailua Kona and Hilo in April. The schedule is on my website: https://fungshway.com/clear/classes.shtm

I was inspired to write this by two library books (that’s a pun because they’re from libraries and they’re about libraries). The Most Beautiful Libraries in the World is published by Abrams and it’s only about old libraries. American Libraries 1730-1950 by Kenneth Breisch is about all kinds of United States libraries—old and new, with lots of vintage photographs. The inspiration for the next installment post on this topic comes from Part of Our Lives: A People’s History of the America Public Library by Wayne Wiegand. My reviews of these books on Amazon point out their typos and bloopers—I can’t help myself. Every publisher should have an editor as good as my Watermark editor, Dawn Sakamoto—there are no typos or bloopers in any of my Watermark books!

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