Shannon Mattern on “Library as Infrastructure”

Left: Rijksmuseum Library, Amsterdam. (Photo by Ton Nolles) | Right: Google data center in Council Bluffs, Iowa. (Photo by Google/Connie Zhou)

Our recently announced project to re-envision branch libraries in New York is heating up. The Center for an Urban Future is preparing to release an in-depth report that takes stock of branch libraries’ physical assets and identifies where investment is most urgent. A growing number of designers have expressed interest in our design study in advance of the RFQ deadline on Friday, June 20th. And today, Places has published a new essay about libraries by Shannon Mattern, who is a core part of our project team for the design study. Mattern’s scholarly research and writing probes the intersection of media, knowledge, and architecture, investigating the evolving physical manifestations and epistemological implications of archives, data, tourism, cities, libraries, and more. Her essay queries and critiques the range of models that contemporary libraries are adopting to characterize the proliferation of services they provide — from maker space to service center — and ultimately argues that libraries are a form of infrastructure. Infrastructure, of course, can refer to many things: invisible structures for energy or water, visible networks of highways or subways, or conceptual metaphors for crucial public services like education or health care. Another productive use for the term cuts across these categories, overtly connecting physical places to social needs, especially in a context of disaster and uneven access to support systems:

We need to pay more attention to such “social infrastructures,” the “facilities and conditions that allow connection between people,” says sociologist Eric Klinenberg. In a recent interview, he argued that urban resilience can be measured not only by the condition of transit systems and basic utilities and communication networks, but also by the condition of parks, libraries and community organizations: “open, accessible, and welcoming public places where residents can congregate and provide social support during times of need but also every day.” In his book Heat Wave, Klinenberg noted that a vital public culture in certain Chicago neighborhoods drew people out of their sweltering apartments during the 1995 heat wave, and into cooler public spaces, thus saving lives.

The need for physical spaces that promote a vibrant social infrastructure presents many design opportunities, and some libraries are already innovating in that direction. Brooklyn and other cultural institutions have partnered with the Uni, a modular, portable library that I wrote about earlier in [Places]. And modular solutions — “kits of parts” — are under consideration in a design study sponsored by the Center for an Urban Future and the Architectural League of New York, which aims to reimagine New York City’s library branches so that they can more efficiently and effectively serve their communities. CUF also plans to publish, at the end of June, an audit of, and a proposal for, New York’s three library systems’ branches. New York Times architecture critic Michael Kimmelman, reflecting on the roles played by New York libraries during recent hurricanes, goes so far as to suggest that the city’s branch libraries, which have “become our de facto community centers,” “could be designed in the future with electrical systems out of harm’s way and set up with backup generators and solar panels, even kitchens and wireless mesh networks.”

The essay goes on to sound a note of caution against overloading the library system with more services than it can bear. She asks, “Should we welcome the ‘design challenge’ to engineer technical and architectural infrastructures to accommodate an ever-diversifying program — or should we consider that we might have stretched this program to its limit, and that no physical infrastructure can effectively scaffold such a motley collection of social services?” Rather than conceptualizing the library as a discrete element of infrastructure, we should recognize the library within an “infrastructural ecology — the larger network of public services and knowledge institutions of which each library is a part.”

No doubt the design study will contend with this question and others that flow from it. Identifying the spatial strategies that can absorb different kinds and intensities of library use — some of which are loud and collaborative, others quiet and contemplative; some call for more flexibility, others for clearer distinction between spaces; some suggest deploying services offsite, others recommend optimizing existing buildings — will certainly yield a range of responses to just how many functions we can expect from libraries. But one assumption the design study does make is that thinking systematically about how branch libraries can realize their full potential requires considering them as valuable to our city and as worthy of strategic public support as sewers, bridges, or schools.

Read the full article here, and stay tuned for more updates on our libraries project in the coming weeks.