I unfortunately missed the big Koolhaas-Obrist talk at the NYPL last evening; I was on a bus, heading to my parents’ house. I’ve seen both men talk on several occasions before (a big part of my dissertation was on Koolhaas’s public presentation — so I’ve made a point of seeing him present, publicly, as much as possible over the past decade or so), but I would’ve enjoyed seeing the two philosophes together, and seeing the “new Koolhaas” after reading a few recent pieces on his supposed mellowing.
I’m sure I’ll watch the video when it’s released so I can catch up on the conversation, but what really interests me about the few write-ups I’ve read thus far is how much they focus on the library itself — the fact that the talk took place at the NYPL, and that, by golly, they’ve got some fantastic public programming and a “sumptuous Victorian-age hall” tucked away in there amongst all the dead trees and unemployed people!
It seems to me that so many in the “progressive” design community have written off the library as it’s embodied at the NYPL. I’ve seen a few recent studios focusing on the “future of the library” — but the final projects suggest that students find a more promising future in digital kiosks distributed throughout the city, or file-sharing services (because, as we all know, all that’s worth knowing has been digitized!), than in real estate, material media, and public gathering spaces.
Some folks writing about their experience at the NYPL last night seem to have been surprised that such a place could compel so many cool people to gather together for such a trendy talk. But this is precisely what the library needs to do — and what the successful ones have been doing for years: connecting the history of ideas embodied in its collections with conversations and practices that are both inspired by, and inspiring, those ideas. I happen to believe that that big hulk of a building on 42nd Street — and the little branches sprinkled throughout the city, and even the tiny, weird-smelling branch in my hometown — play an integral role in providing a freely-accessible public space for that type of ideation and praxis to happen.
I hope last night’s event will convince those who were surprised by the building and the institution housing the conversation — and those among the design community who have come to regard a library as more of a “distributed information network” than a place — to take up the public library as a design challenge: to apply their valuable design skills in thinking about how to make this institution always as vibrant and vital as it seemed last night. How can we design spaces and systems and services that reinforce the integral social and intellectual roles these institutions play; that help the larger public recognize that this institution, a place of (potential) vibrancy and creativity, could perhaps be one of the last that reflects the interests that we want to define our society; and that convince the powers-that-be that our public libraries are deserving of strong and long-lasting support.