Library as Infrastructure

# Library as Infrastructure

Reading room, social service center, innovation lab. How far can we stretch
the public library?

Shannon Mattern

June 2014

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/mattern-library-infrastructure-1x.jpg)Left: Rijksmuseum Library, Amsterdam.
[Photo by[Ton Nolles](]
Right: Google data center in Council Bluffs, Iowa. [Photo by Google/Connie

Melvil Dewey was a one-man Silicon Valley born a century before Steve Jobs. He
was the quintessential Industrial Age entrepreneur, but unlike the Carnegies
and Rockefellers, with their industries of heavy materiality and heavy labor,
Dewey sold ideas. His ambition revealed itself early: in 1876, shortly after
graduating from Amherst College, he copyrighted his library classification
scheme. That same year, he helped found the American Library Association,
served as founding editor of _Library_ _Journal_ , and launched the American
Metric Bureau, which campaigned for adoption of the metric system. He was 24
years old. He had already established the Library Bureau, a company that sold
(and helped standardize) library supplies, furniture, media display and
storage devices, and equipment for managing the circulation of collection
materials. Its catalog (which would later include another Dewey invention,
[the hanging vertical
represented the library as a “machine” of uplift and enlightenment that
enabled proto-Taylorist approaches to public education and the provision of
social services. As chief librarian at Columbia College, Dewey established the
first library school — called, notably, the School of Library _Economy_ —
whose first class was 85% female; then he brought the school to Albany, where
he directed the New York State Library. In his spare time, he founded the Lake
Placid Club and helped win the bid for the 1932 Winter Olympics.

Dewey was thus simultaneously in the furniture business, the office-supply
business, the consulting business, the publishing business, the education
business, the human resources business, and what we might today call the
“knowledge solutions” business. Not only did he recognize the potential for
monetizing and cross-promoting his work across these fields; he also saw that
each field would be the better for it. His career (which was not without its
embodied a belief that classification systems and labeling standards and
furniture designs and people work best when they work towards the same end —
in other words, that intellectual and material systems and labor practices are
mutually constructed and mutually reinforcing.

Today’s libraries, Apple-era versions of the Dewey/Carnegie institution,
continue to materialize, at multiple scales, their underlying bureaucratic and
epistemic structures — from the design of their web interfaces to the
architecture of their buildings to the networking of their technical
infrastructures. This has been true of knowledge institutions throughout
history, and it will be true of our future institutions, too. I propose that
thinking about the library as a network of integrated, mutually reinforcing,
evolving _infrastructures_ — in particular, architectural, technological,
social, epistemological and ethical infrastructures — can help us better
identify what roles we want our libraries to serve, and what we can reasonably
expect of them. What ideas, values and social responsibilities can we scaffold
within the library’s material systems — its walls and wires, shelves and

[![Dictionary stands from the Library Bureau’s 1890
stands from the Library Bureau’s 1890 catalog.](
infrastructure-2x.jpg) Dictionary stands from the [Library Bureau’s 1890

## Library as Platform

For millennia libraries have acquired resources, organized them, preserved
them and made them accessible (or not) to patrons. But the [forms of those
resources]( have
changed — from scrolls and codices; to LPs and LaserDiscs; to e-books,
electronic databases and open data sets. Libraries have had at least to
comprehend, if not become a key node within, evolving systems of media
production and distribution. Consider the medieval scriptoria where
manuscripts were produced; the evolution of the publishing industry and book
trade after Gutenberg; the rise of information technology and its webs of
wires, protocols and regulations. 1 At every stage, the contexts — spatial,
political, economic, cultural — in which libraries function have shifted; so
they are continuously [reinventing
themselves]( and the
means by which they provide those vital information services.

Libraries have also assumed a host of ever-changing social and symbolic
functions. They have been expected to symbolize the eminence of a ruler or
state, to integrally link “knowledge” and “power” — and, more recently, to
serve as “community centers,” “public squares” or “think tanks.” Even those
seemingly modern metaphors have deep histories. The ancient Library of
Alexandria was a prototypical think tank, 2 and the early Carnegie buildings
of the 1880s were community centers with swimming pools and public baths,
bowling alleys, billiard rooms, even rifle ranges, as well as book stacks. 3
As the Carnegie funding program expanded internationally — to more than 2,500
libraries worldwide — secretary James Bertram standardized the design in his
1911 pamphlet “Notes on the Erection of Library Buildings,” which offered
grantees a choice of six models, believed to be the work of architect Edward
Tilton. Notably, they all included a lecture room.

In short, the library has always been a place where informational and social
infrastructures intersect within a physical infrastructure that (ideally)
supports that program.

Now we are seeing the rise of a new metaphor: the library as “platform” — a
buzzy word that refers to a base upon which developers create new
applications, technologies and processes. In an [influential 2012 article in
_Library Journal_](
/by-david-weinberger/), David Weinberger proposed that we think of libraries
as “open platforms” — not only for the creation of software, but also for the
development of knowledge and community. 4 Weinberger argued that libraries
should open up their entire collections, all their metadata, and any
technologies they’ve created, and allow anyone to build new products and
services on top of that foundation. The platform model, he wrote, “focuses our
attention away from the provisioning of resources to the foment” — the “messy,
rich networks of people and ideas” — that “those resources engender.” Thus the
ancient Library of Alexandria, part of a larger museum with botanical gardens,
laboratories, living quarters and dining halls, was a _platform_ not only for
the translation and copying of myriad texts and the compilation of a
magnificent collection, but also for the launch of works by Euclid,
Archimedes, Eratosthenes and their peers.

[![Domnique Perrault, La bibliothèque nationale de France, literally elevated
on a platform. \[Photo by Jean-Pierre
Perrault, La bibliothèque nationale de France, literally elevated on a
platform. \[Photo by Jean-Pierre Dalbera\]](
library-infrastructure-3x.jpg) Domnique Perrault, La bibliothèque nationale de
France, literally elevated on a platform. [Photo by [Jean-Pierre

Yet the platform metaphor has limitations. For one thing, it smacks of Silicon
Valley entrepreneurial epistemology, which prioritizes “monetizable”
“knowledge solutions.” Further, its association with new media tends to
bracket out the similarly generative capacities of low-tech, and even _non_
-technical, library resources. One key misperception of those who proclaim the
library’s obsolescence is that its function as a knowledge institution can be
reduced to its technical services and information offerings. Knowledge is
never solely a product of technology and the information it delivers.

Another problem with the platform model is the image it evokes: a flat, two-
dimensional stage on which resources are laid out for users to _do stuff
with_. The platform doesn’t have any implied depth, so we’re not inclined to
look underneath or behind it, or to question its structure. Weinberger
encourages us to “think of the library not as a portal we go through on
occasion but as infrastructure that is as ubiquitous and persistent as the
streets and sidewalks of a town.” It’s like a “canopy,” he says — or like a
“cloud.” But these metaphors are more poetic than critical; they obfuscate all
the wires, pulleys, lights and scaffolding that you inevitably find underneath
and above that stage — and the casting, staging and direction that determine
what happens _on_ the stage, and that allow it to function _as_ a stage.
Libraries are infrastructures not only because they are ubiquitous and
persistent, but also, and primarily, because they are made of interconnected
networks that undergird all that foment, that create what Pierre Bourdieu
would call “[structuring
that support Weinberger’s “messy, rich networks of people and ideas.”

It can be instructive for our libraries’ publics — and critical for our
libraries’ leaders — to assess those structuring structures. In this age of
e-books, smartphones, firewalls, proprietary media platforms and digital
rights management; of atrophying mega-bookstores and resurgent independent
bookshops and a metastasizing Amazon; of Google Books and Google Search and
Google Glass; of economic disparity and the continuing privatization of public
space and services — which is simultaneously an age of democratized media
production and vibrant DIY and activist cultures — libraries play a critical
role as mediators, at the hub of all the hubbub. Thus we need to understand
how our libraries function _as_ , and as _part of_ , infrastructural ecologies
— as sites where spatial, technological, intellectual and social
infrastructures shape and inform one another. And we must consider how those
infrastructures can embody the epistemological, political, economic and
cultural values that we _want_ to define our communities. 5

[![Hammond, Beeby and Babka, Harold Washington Library Center, Chicago Public
Library. \[Photo by Robert Dawson, from Public Library: An American
Beeby and Babka, Harold Washington Library Center, Chicago Public Library.
\[Photo by Robert Dawson, from Public Library: An American
content/uploads/2014/06/mattern-library-infrastructure-4x.jpg) Hammond, Beeby
and Babka, Harold Washington Library Center, Chicago Public Library. [Photo by
Robert Dawson, from _[Public Library: An American
commons/)_ ]

## Library as Social Infrastructure

Public libraries are often seen as “opportunity institutions,” opening doors
to, and for, the disenfranchised. 6 People turn to libraries to access the
internet, take a GED class, get help with a resumé or job search, and seek
referrals to other community resources. A [recent
report]( by
the Center for an Urban Future highlighted the benefits to immigrants,
seniors, individuals searching for work, public school students and aspiring
entrepreneurs: “No other institution, public or private, does a better job of
reaching people who have been left behind in today’s economy, have failed to
reach their potential in the city’s public school system or who simply need
help navigating an increasingly complex world.” 7

The new Department of Outreach Services at the Brooklyn Public Library, for
instance, partners with other organizations to bring library resources to
seniors, school children and prison populations. The Queens Public Library
employs case managers who help patrons identify public benefits for which
they’re eligible. “These are all things that someone could dub as social
services,” said Queens Library president Thomas Galante, “but they’re not. … A
public library today has information to improve people’s lives. We are an
enabler; we are a connector.” 8

Partly because of their skill in reaching populations that others miss,
libraries have recently reported record circulation and visitation, despite
severe budget cuts, decreased hours and the [threatened closure or
brooklyn-public-library-system-mired-300-million-repair-article-1.1748855) of
“underperforming” branches. 9 Meanwhile the Pew Research Center has released a
[series of studies]( about the materials and
services Americans want their libraries to provide. [Among the
communities/): 90 percent of respondents say the closure of their local public
library would have an impact on their community, and 63 percent describe that
impact as “major.”

[![Toyo Ito, Sendai Mediatheque. \[Photo by Forgemind
Ito, Sendai Mediatheque. \[Photo by Forgemind
content/uploads/2014/06/mattern-library-infrastructure-5x.jpg)Toyo Ito, Sendai
Mediatheque. [Photo by [Forgemind

Libraries also bring communities together in times of calamity or disaster.
Toyo Ito, architect of the acclaimed [Sendai
Mediatheque](, recalled that
after the 2011 earthquake in Japan, local officials reopened the library
quickly even though it had sustained minor damage, “because it functions as a
kind of cultural refuge in the city.” He continued, “Most people who use the
building are not going there just to read a book or watch a film; many of them
probably do not have any definite purpose at all. They go just to be part of
the community in the building.” 10

We need to attend more closely to such “social infrastructures,” the
“facilities and conditions that allow connection between people,” says
sociologist Eric Klinenberg. In [a recent
infrastructure-a-conversation-with-eric-klinenberg/), 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.” 11 In his book _Heat Wave_ , Klinenberg
noted that a vital public culture in Chicago neighborhoods drew people out of
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 devising innovative
solutions. Brooklyn and other cultural institutions have
with the [Uni](, a modular,
portable library that [I wrote about earlier in this
urban-margins/). 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](
qualifications-re-envisioning-branch-libraries/) 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. 12 _New York Times_ architecture critic Michael Kimmelman,
reflecting on the roles played by New York libraries [during recent
-first-aid-kit-bottled-water-and-a-library-card), goes so far as to
could-be-our-shelters-from-the-storm.html) 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.” 13

[![Bobst Library, New York University, after Hurricane Sandy. \[Photos by
Library, New York University, after Hurricane Sandy. \[Photos by
content/uploads/2014/06/mattern-library-infrastructure-6x.jpg) Bobst Library,
New York University, after Hurricane Sandy. [Photos by

But is it too much to expect our libraries to serve as soup kitchens and
recovery centers when they have so many other responsibilities? The library’s
broad mandate means that it often picks up the slack when other institutions
fall short. “It never ceases to amaze me just what libraries are looked upon
to provide,” says Ruth Faklis, director of the Prairie Trail Public Library
District in suburban Chicago:

> This includes, but is not limited to, [serving as] keepers of the homeless …
while simultaneously offering latch-key children a safe and activity-filled
haven. We have been asked to be voter-registration sites, warming stations,
notaries, technology-terrorism watchdogs, senior social-gathering centers,
election sites, substitute sitters during teacher strikes, and the latest —
postmasters. These requests of society are ever evolving. Funding is not
generally attached to these magnanimous suggestions, and when it is, it does
not cover actual costs of the additional burden, thus stretching the library’s
budget even further. I know of no other government entity that is asked to
take on additional responsibilities not necessarily aligned with its mission.

In a Metafilter discussion about funding cuts in California, one librarian
offered this poignant lament:

> Every day at my job I helped people just barely survive. … Forget trying to
be the “people’s university” and create a body of well informed citizens.
Instead I helped people navigate through the degrading hoops of modern online
society, fighting for scraps from the plate, and then kicking back afterwards
by pretending to have a farm on Facebook.

[ Read the whole story](
Dreamin#4183210). It’s quite a punch to the stomach. Given the effort
librarians expend in promoting basic literacies, how much more can this social
infrastructure support? 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?

Again, we need to look to the infrastructural ecology — the larger network of
public services and knowledge institutions of which each library is a part.
How might towns, cities and regions assess what their various public (and
private) institutions are uniquely qualified and sufficiently resourced to do,
and then deploy those resources most effectively? Should we regard the library
as the territory of the civic _mind_ and ask other social services to attend
to the civic _body_? The assignment of social responsibility isn’t so black
and white — nor are the boundaries between mind and body, cognition and affect
— but libraries do need to collaborate with other institutions to determine
how they leverage the resources of the infrastructural ecology to serve their
publics, with each institution and organization contributing what it’s best
equipped to contribute — and each operating with a clear sense of its mission
and obligation.

Libraries have a natural affinity with cultural institutions. Just this
spring, New York Mayor Bill de Blasio [appointed Tom
names-tom-finkelpearl-of-the-queens-museum.html?_r=1) as the city’s new
Commissioner of Cultural Affairs. A former president of the Queens Museum,
Finkelpearl oversaw the first phase of a renovation by Grimshaw Architects,
which, in its next phase, will incorporate a Queens Public Library branch — an
effective pairing, given the commitment of both institutions to education and
local culture. Similarly, Lincoln Center houses the New York Public Library
for the Performing Arts. As commissioner, Finkelpearl could broaden support
for mixed-use development that strengthens infrastructural ecologies. The
[CUF/Architectural League project](
for-qualifications-re-envisioning-branch-libraries/) is also considering how
collaborative partnerships can inform library program and design.

[![Bohlin Cywinski Jackson, Ballard Library and Neighborhood Service Center,
Seattle. \[Photo by Jules
Cywinski Jackson, Ballard Library and Neighborhood Service Center, Seattle.
\[Photo by Jules Antonio\]](
library-infrastructure-7x.jpg)Bohlin Cywinski Jackson, Ballard Library and
Neighborhood Service Center, Seattle. [Photo by [Jules

I’ve recently returned from Seattle, where I revisited [OMA’s Central
architecture-in-the-age-of-media/) on its 10th anniversary and toured several
new branch libraries. 15 Under the 1998 bond measure “Libraries for All,”
citizens voted to tax themselves to support construction of the Central
Library and four new branches, and to upgrade _every_ branch in the system.
The [vibrant, sweeping Ballard branch](
(2005), by Bohlin Cywinski Jackson, includes a separate entrance for the
Ballard Neighborhood Service Center, a “[little city
hall](“ where residents
can find information about public services, get pet licenses, pay utility
bills, and apply for passports and city jobs. While the librarians undoubtedly
field questions about such services, they’re also able to refer patrons next
door, where city employees are better equipped to meet their needs — thus
affording the library staff more time to answer reference questions and host
writing groups and children’s story hours.

Seattle’s City Librarian, Marcellus Turner, is big on partnerships —with
cultural institutions, like local theaters, as well as commercial
collaborators, like the Seahawks football team. 16 After taking the helm in
2011, he identified [five service priorities](
library/mission-statement) — youth and early learning, technology and access,
community engagement, Seattle culture and history, and re-imagined spaces —
and tasked working groups with developing proposals for how the library can
better address those needs. Each group must consider marketing, funding, staff
deployment and partnership opportunities that “leverage what we have with what
[the partners] have.” For instance, “Libraries that focus on early-childhood
education might employ educators, academicians, or teachers to help us with
research into early-childhood learning and teaching.” 17

The “design challenge” is to consider what physical infrastructures would be
needed to accommodate such partnerships. 18 Many libraries have continued
along a path laid by library innovators from Ptolemy to Carnegie, renovating
their buildings to incorporate public gathering, multi-use, and even
commercial spaces. In Seattle’s Ballard branch, a large meeting room hosts
regular author readings and a vibrant writing group that typically attracts 30
or more participants. In Salt Lake City, the [library
plaza]( features an artist co-op, a radio
station, a community writing center, the Library Store, and a few cafes — all
private businesses whose ethos is consistent with the library’s. The New York
Public Library has [recently announced](
that some of its branches will serve as “learning hubs” for Coursera, the
provider of “massive open online courses.” And many libraries have classrooms
and labs where they offer regular technical training courses.

[![Moshe Safdie, Salt Lake City Public Library. \[Photo by Pedro
Safdie, Salt Lake City Public Library. \[Photo by Pedro
content/uploads/2014/06/mattern-library-infrastructure-8x.jpg)Moshe Safdie,
Salt Lake City Public Library. [Photo by [Pedro

These entrepreneurial models reflect what seems to be an increasingly
widespread sentiment: that while libraries continue to serve a vital role as
“opportunity institutions” for the disenfranchised, this cannot be their
primary self-justification. They cannot duplicate the responsibilities of our
community centers and social service agencies. “Their narrative” — or what I’d
call an “epistemic framing,” by which I mean the way the library packages its
program as a knowledge institution, and the infrastructures that support it —
“must include everyone,” says the University of Michigan’s Kristin
Fontichiaro. 19 What programs and services are consistent with an institution
dedicated to lifelong learning? Should libraries be reconceived as hubs for
civic engagement, where communities can discuss local issues, create media,
and archive community history? 20 Should they incorporate media production
studios, maker-spaces and hacker labs, repositioning themselves in an evolving
ecology of information and educational infrastructures?

These new social functions — which may require new physical infrastructures to
support them — broaden the library’s narrative to include _everyone_ , not
only the “have-nots.” This is not to say that the library should abandon the
needy and focus on an elite patron group; rather, the library should
incorporate the “enfranchised” as a key public, both so that the institution
can reinforce its mission as a social infrastructure for an inclusive public,
_and_ so that privileged, educated users can bring their knowledge and talents
_to_ the library and offer them up as social-infrastructural resources.

Many among this well-resourced population — those who have jobs and home
internet access and can navigate the government bureaucracy with relative ease
— already see themselves as part of the library’s public. They regard the
library as a space of openness, egalitarianism and freedom (in multiple senses
of the term), within a proprietary, commercial, segregated and surveilled
landscape. They understand that no matter how well-connected they are, [they
actually _don’t_ have the world at their
the-urban-margins/) — that “material protected by stringent copyright and held
in proprietary databases is often inaccessible outside libraries” and that,
“as digital rights management becomes ever more complicated, we … rely even
more on our libraries to help us navigate an increasingly fractured and
litigious digital terrain.” 21 And they recognize that they cannot depend on
Google to organize the world’s information. As the librarian noted in [that
discussion]( on

> The [American Library Association] has a proven history of commitment to
intellectual freedom. The public service that we’ve been replaced with has a
spotty history of “not being evil.” When we’re gone, you middle class, you
wealthy, you tech-savvy, who will fight for that with no profit motivation?
Even if you never step foot in our doors, and all of your media comes to a
brightly lit screen, we’re still working for you.

The library’s social infrastructure thus benefits even those who don’t have an
immediate need for its space or its services.

[![David Adjaye, Francis Gregory Neighborhood Library, Washington, D.C.
\[Photo by Edmund
Adjaye, Francis Gregory Neighborhood Library, Washington, D.C. \[Photo by
Edmund Sumner\]](
content/uploads/2014/06/mattern-library-infrastructure-9x.jpg)David Adjaye,
Francis Gregory Neighborhood Library, Washington, D.C. [Photo by Edmund

Finally, we must acknowledge the library’s role as a civic landmark — a symbol
of what a community values highly enough to place on a prominent site, to
materialize in dignified architecture that communicates its openness to
everyone, and to support with sufficient public funding despite the fact that
it’ll never make a profit. A well-designed library — a contextually-designed
library — can reflect a community’s character back to itself, clarifying who
it is, in all its multiplicity, and what it stands for. 22 David Adjaye’s
associates/) and [Francis Gregory](
gregory-library-adjaye-associates/) branch libraries, in historically
underserved neighborhoods of Washington D.C., have been lauded for performing
precisely this function. [As Sarah Williams Goldhagen

> Adjaye is so attuned to the nuances of urban context that one might be hard
pressed to identify them as the work of one designer. Francis Gregory is steel
and glass, Bellevue is concrete and wood. Francis Gregory presents a single
monolithic volume, Bellevue an irregular accretion of concrete pavilions.
Context drives the aesthetic.

His designs “make of this humble municipal building an arena for social
interaction, …a distinctive civic icon that helps build a sense of common
identity.” This kind of social infrastructure serves a vital need for an
entire community.

[![Stacks at the Stephen A. Schwarzman Building, New York Public Library.
\[Published in a 1911 issue of Scientific
at the Stephen A. Schwarzman Building, New York Public Library. \[Published in
a 1911 issue of Scientific American\]](
library-infrastructure-10x.jpg)Stacks at the Stephen A. Schwarzman Building,
New York Public Library. [Published in a 1911 issue of _Scientific American_ ]

## Library as Technological-Intellectual Infrastructure

Of course, we must not forget the library collection itself. The old-fashioned
bookstack was [at the center of the recent
over the proposed renovation of the New York Public Library’s Schwartzman
Building on 42nd Street, which was
abandons-plan-to-revamp-42nd-street-building.html) last month after more than
a year of lawsuits and protests. This storage infrastructure, and the delivery
system it accommodates, have tremendous significance even in a digital age.
For scholars, the stacks represent near-instant access to any materials within
the extensive collection. Architectural historians defended the historical
significance of the stacks, and engineers argued that they are critical to the
structural integrity of the building.

The way a library’s collection is stored and made accessible shapes the
intellectual infrastructure of the institution. The Seattle Public Library
uses [translucent acrylic
/You-re-not-going-crazy-Library-book-stacks-ARE-cool) made by Spacesaver — and
even here this seemingly mundane, utilitarian consideration cultivates a
character, an ambience, that reflects the library’s identity and its
intellectual values. It might sound corny, but the luminescent glow permeating
the stacks acts as a beacon, a welcoming gesture. There are still many
contemporary libraries that privilege — perhaps even fetishize — the book and
the bookstack: take MVRDV’s [Book
Mountain]( (2012), for a town in the
Netherlands; or TAX arquitectura’s [Biblioteca Jose
tax-arquitectura-alberto-kalach/) (2006) in Mexico City.

Stacks occupy a different, though also fetishized, space in Helmut Jahn’s
[Mansueto Library](
library-murphy-jahn/) (2011) at the University of Chicago, which mixes diverse
infrastructures to accommodate media of varying materialities: a grand reading
room, a conservation department, a digitization department, and [a
subterranean warehouse of books retrieved by
robot]( (It’s
worth noting that Boston and other libraries contained [book
systems.html) and conveyer belt retrieval systems — proto-robots — a century
ago.) Snøhetta’s [James B. Hunt Jr.
Library]( (2013) at North Carolina
State University also incorporates a robotic storage and retrieval system, so
that the library can store more books on site, as well as meet its goal of
providing seating for 20 percent of the student population. 23 Here the
patrons come before the collection.

[![Rem Koolhaas/OMA, Seattle Central Library, Spacesaver bookshelves. \[Photo
Koolhaas/OMA, Seattle Central Library, Spacesaver bookshelves. \[Photo by
Koolhaas/OMA, Seattle Central Library, Spacesaver bookshelves. [Photo by

[![MVRDV, Book Mountain, Spijkenisse, The Netherlands. \[Photo via
Book Mountain, Spijkenisse, The Netherlands. \[Photo via
/mattern-library-infrastructure-12x.jpg)MVRDV, Book Mountain, Spijkenisse, The
Netherlands. [Photo via MVRDV]

[![TAX, Biblioteca Vasconcelos, Mexico City. \[Photo by
Biblioteca Vasconcelos, Mexico City. \[Photo by
content/uploads/2014/06/mattern-library-infrastructure-13x.jpg)TAX, Biblioteca
Vasconcelos, Mexico City. [Photo by

[![Helmut Jahn, Mansueto Library, University of Chicago, reading room above
underground stacks. \[Photo by Eric Allix
Jahn, Mansueto Library, University of Chicago, reading room above underground
stacks. \[Photo by Eric Allix Rogers\]](
library-infrastructure-14x.jpg)Helmut Jahn, Mansueto Library, University of
Chicago, reading room above underground stacks. [Photo by [Eric Allix

[![Mansueto Library stacks. \[Photo by Corey
Library stacks. \[Photo by Corey Seeman\]](
library-infrastructure-15x.jpg)Mansueto Library stacks. [Photo by [Corey

Back in the early aughts, when I spent a summer touring libraries, the
institutions on the leading edge were integrating media production facilities,
recognizing that media “consumption” and “creation” lie on a gradient of
knowledge production. Today there’s a lot of talk about — [and action
libraries-study-released/) — integrating hacker labs and maker-spaces. 24 As
Anne Balsamo explains, these sites offer opportunities — embodied, often
inter-generational learning experiences that are integral to the development
of a “technological imagination” — that are rarely offered in formal learning
institutions. 25

The Hunt Library has a maker-space, a GameLab, various other production labs
and studios, an immersion theater, and, rather eyebrow-raisingly, an Apple
Technology Showcase (named after library donors whose surname is Apple, with
an intentional pun on the electronics company). 26 One might think major
funding is needed for those kinds of programs, but the trend actually began in
2011 in tiny Fayetteville, New York (pop. 4,373), thought to be [the first
public library](
library-to-create-a-maker-space/) to have incorporated a maker-space. The
following year, the Carnegie Libraries of Pittsburgh — which for years has
hosted film competitions, gaming tournaments, and media-making projects for
youth — [launched](, with
Google and Heinz Foundation support, [The
Labs]( weekly workshops
at three locations where teenagers can access equipment, software and mentors.
Around the same time, Chattanooga — a city blessed with a [super-high-speed
municipal fiber network](
switch/wp/2013/09/17/how-chattanooga-beat-google-fiber-by-half-a-decade/) —
opened its lauded [4th Floor](, a
12,000-square foot “public laboratory and educational facility” that “supports
the production, connection, and sharing of knowledge by offering access to
tools and instruction.” Those tools include 3D printers, laser cutters and
vinyl cutters, and the instruction includes everything from tech classes, to
incubator projects for female tech entrepreneurs, to [business pitch

Last year, the Brooklyn Public Library, just a couple blocks from where I
live, opened its [Levy Info
Commons](, which
includes space for laptop users and lots of desktop machines featuring
creative software suites; seven reserveable teleconference-ready meeting
rooms, including one that doubles as a recording studio; and a training lab,
which offers an array of digital media workshops led by a local arts and
design organization and also invites patrons to lead their own courses. A
typical month on their robust event calendar includes resume editing
workshops, a Creative Business Tech prototyping workshop, individual meetings
with business counselors, Teen Tech tutorials, computer classes for seniors,
workshops on podcasting and oral history and “adaptive gaming” for people with
disabilities, and even an audio-recording and editing workshop targeted to
poets, to help them disseminate their work in new formats. Also last year, the
Martin Luther King, Jr., Memorial Library in Washington, D.C., opened its
[Digital Commons](
where patrons can use a print-on-demand bookmaking machine, a 3D printer, and
a co-working space known as the “Dream Lab,” or try out a variety of e-book
readers. The Chicago Public Library partnered with the Museum of Science and
Industry to open [a pop-up maker lab](
/3d-printing-for-all-inside-chicago-librarys-new-pop-up-maker-lab/) featuring
open-source design software, laser cutters, a milling machine, and (of course)
3D printers — not one, but _three_.

[![Chattanooga Public Library, 4th Floor. \[Photo by Larry
Public Library, 4th Floor. \[Photo by Larry
content/uploads/2014/06/mattern-library-infrastructure-17x.jpg) Chattanooga
Public Library, 4th Floor. [Photo by [Larry

[![Snøhetta, James B. Hunt, Jr. Library, North Carolina State University,
MakerBot in Apple Technology Showcase. \[Photo by Mal
James B. Hunt, Jr. Library, North Carolina State University, MakerBot in Apple
Technology Showcase. \[Photo by Mal Booth\]](
library-infrastructure-16x.jpg)Snøhetta, James B. Hunt, Jr. Library, North
Carolina State University, MakerBot in Apple Technology Showcase. [Photo by
[Mal Booth](]

[![Hunt Library, iPearl Immersion Theater. \[Photo by Payton
Library, iPearl Immersion Theater. \[Photo by Payton
content/uploads/2014/06/mattern-library-infrastructure-18x.jpg)Hunt Library,
iPearl Immersion Theater. [Photo by [Payton

Some have proposed that libraries — following in the tradition of Alexandria’s
“think tank,” and compelled by a desire to “democratize entrepreneurship” —
make for ideal [co-working or incubator
great-startup-incubators/4733/), where patrons with diverse skill sets can
organize themselves into start-ups-for-the-people. 27 Others recommend that
librarians entrepreneurialize _themselves_ , rebranding themselves as
professional consultants in a complex information economy. Librarians, in this
view, are uniquely qualified digital literacy tutors; experts in “copyright
compliance, licensing, privacy, information use, and ethics”; gurus of
“aligning … programs with collections, space, and resources”; skilled creators
of “custom ontologies, vocabularies, taxonomies” and structured data; adept
practitioners of data mining. 28 Others recommend that libraries get into the
content production business. In the face of increasing pressure to rent and
license proprietary digital content with stringent use policies, why don’t
libraries do more to promote the creation of independent media or develop
their own free, open-source technologies? Not many libraries have the time and
resources to undertake such endeavors, but [NYPL
Labs]( and Harvard’s [Library Test
Kitchen](, have demonstrated what’s
possible when even back-of-house library spaces become sites of technological
praxis. Unfortunately, those innovative projects are typically hidden behind
the interface (as with so much library labor). Why not bring those operations
to the front of the building, as part of the public program?

Of course, with all these new activities come new spatial requirements.
Library buildings must incorporate a wide variety of furniture arrangements,
lighting designs, acoustical conditions, etc., to accommodate multiple sensory
registers, modes of working, postures and more. Librarians and designers are
now acknowledging — and designing _for_ , rather than designing _out_ —
activities that make noise and can occasionally be a bit messy. I did a study
several years ago on the evolution of library sounds and found widespread
recognition that knowledge-making doesn’t readily happen when “shhh!” is the
prevailing rule. 29

These new physical infrastructures create space for an epistemology embracing
the integration of knowledge consumption and production, of thinking and
making. Yet sometimes I have to wonder, given all the hoopla over “making”:
_are_ tools of computational fabrication really the holy grail of the
knowledge economy? What _knowledge_ is produced when I churn out, say, a
keychain on a MakerBot? I worry that the boosterism surrounding such projects
— and the much-deserved acclaim they’ve received for “rebranding” the library
— glosses over the neoliberal values that these technologies sometimes embody.
Neoliberalism channels the pursuit of individual freedom through property
rights and free markets 30 — and what better way to express yourself than by
3D-printing a bust of your own head at the library, or using the library’s CNC
router to launch your customizable cutting board business on Etsy? While
librarians have long been advocates of free and democratic access to
information, I trust — I hope — that they’re helping their patrons to
cultivate a [critical perspective](
/tedification-versus-edification/) regarding [the politics of “technological
innovation”]( — and the
potential instrumentalism of makerhood. Sure, Dewey was part of this
instrumentalist tradition, too. But our contemporary pursuit of “innovation”
promotes the idea that “making new stuff” = “producing knowledge,” which can
be a dangerous falsehood.

Library staff might want to take up the critique of “innovation,” too. Each
new Google product release, new mobile technology development, new e-reader
launch brings new opportunities for the library to innovate in response. And
while “keeping current” is a crucial goal, it’s important to place that
pursuit in a larger cultural, political-economic and institutional context.
Striving to stay technologically relevant can backfire when it means merely
responding to the profit-driven innovations of commercial media; we see these
mistakes — innovation for innovation’s sake — in the [ed-
tech]( arena quite often.

[![George Peabody Library, The John Hopkins University. \[Photo by Thomas
Peabody Library, The John Hopkins University. \[Photo by Thomas
content/uploads/2014/06/mattern-library-infrastructure-19x.jpg)George Peabody
Library, The John Hopkins University. [Photo by [Thomas

## Reading across the Infrastructural Ecology

Libraries need to stay focused on their long-term cultural goals — which
should hold true regardless of what Google decides to do tomorrow — and on
their place within the larger infrastructural ecology. They also need to
consider how their various infrastructural identities map onto each other, or
don’t. Can an institution whose technical and physical infrastructure is
governed by the pursuit of innovation also fulfill its obligations as a social
infrastructure serving the disenfranchised? What ethics are embodied in the
single-minded pursuit of “the latest” technologies, or the equation of
learning with entrepreneurialism?

As Zadie Smith [argued
london-blues/) in the _New York Review of Books_ , we risk losing the
library’s role as a “different kind of social reality (of the three
dimensional kind), which by its very existence teaches a system of values
beyond the fiscal.” 31 Barbara Fister, a librarian at Gustavus Adolphus
College, offered an [equally eloquent
about-libraries#sthash.jwJlhrsD.dpbs) for the library as a space of exception:

> Libraries are not, or at least should not be, engines of productivity. If
anything, they should slow people down and seduce them with the unexpected,
the irrelevant, the odd and the unexplainable. Productivity is a destructive
way to justify the individual’s value in a system that is naturally communal,
not an individualistic or entrepreneurial zero-sum game to be won by the most
industrious. 32

Libraries, she argued, “will always be at a disadvantage” to Google and Amazon
because they value privacy; they refuse to exploit users’ private data to
improve the search experience. Yet libraries’ failure to compete in
_efficiency_ is what affords them the opportunity to offer a “different kind
of social reality.” I’d venture that there _is_ room for entrepreneurial
learning in the library, but there also has to be room for that alternate
reality where knowledge needn’t have monetary value, where learning isn’t
driven by a profit motive. We can accommodate both spaces for entrepreneurship
_and_ spaces of exception, provided the institution has a strong _epistemic
framing_ that encompasses both. This means that the library needs to know how
to read _itself_ as a social-technical-intellectual infrastructure.

It’s particularly important to cultivate these critical capacities — the
ability to “read” our libraries’ multiple infrastructures and the politics and
ethics they embody — when the concrete infrastructures look like San Antonio’s
[BiblioTech](, a “bookless” library featuring
10,000 e-books, downloadable via the 3M Cloud App; 600 circulating “stripped
down” 3M e-readers; 200 “enhanced” tablets for kids; and, for use on-site, 48
computers, plus laptops and iPads. The library, which opened last fall, also
offers computer classes and meeting space, but it’s all locked within a
proprietary platformed world.

[![Bexar County BiblioTech, San Antonio, Texas. \[Photo by Bexar
County BiblioTech, San Antonio, Texas. \[Photo by Bexar
content/uploads/2014/06/mattern-library-infrastructure-21x.jpg)Bexar County
BiblioTech, San Antonio, Texas. [Photo by Bexar BiblioTech]

[![Screenshot of the library’s fully digital collection. \[Photo by Bexar
of the library’s fully digital collection. \[Photo by Bexar
content/uploads/2014/06/mattern-library-infrastructure-20x.jpg)Screenshot of
the library’s fully digital collection. [Photo by Bexar BiblioTech]

In libraries like BiblioTech — and the [Digital Public Library of
America]( — the collection itself is off-site. Do _patrons_
wonder where, exactly, all those books and periodicals and cloud-based
materials _live_? What’s under, or floating above, the “platform”? Do they
think about the algorithms that lead them to particular library materials, and
the conduits and protocols through which they access them? Do they consider
what it means to supplant bookstacks with server stacks — whose metal racks we
can’t kick, lights we can’t adjust, knobs we can’t fiddle with? Do they think
about the librarians negotiating access licenses and adding metadata to
“digital assets,” or the engineers maintaining the servers? With the
increasing recession of these technical infrastructures — and the human labor
that supports them — further off-site, [behind the
deeper inside the black box, how can we understand the ways in which those
structures structure our intellect and sociality?

We need to develop — both among library patrons and librarians themselves —
new critical capacities to understand the _distributed_ physical, technical
and social architectures that scaffold our institutions of knowledge and
program our values. And we must consider where those infrastructures intersect
— where they should be, and perhaps aren’t, mutually reinforcing one another.
When do our social obligations compromise our intellectual aspirations, or
vice versa? And when do those social or intellectual aspirations for the
library exceed — or fail to fully exploit — the capacities of our
architectural and technological infrastructures? Ultimately, we need to ensure
that we have a strong epistemological framework — a narrative that explains
how the library promotes learning and stewards knowledge — so that everything
hangs together, so there’s some institutional coherence. We need to sync the
library’s intersecting infrastructures so that they work together to support
our shared intellectual and ethical goals.

![Places Journal](

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###### Author's Note

I’d like to thank the students in my “Archives, Libraries and Databases”
seminar and my “Digital Archives” studio at The New School, who’ve given me
much food for thought over the years. Thanks, too, to my colleagues at the
[Architectural League of New York]( and the [Center for
an Urban Future]( I owe a debt of gratitude also to
Gabrielle Dean, her students, and her colleagues at Johns Hopkins, who gave me
an opportunity to share a preliminary draft of this work. They, along with my
colleagues Julie Foulkes and Aleksandra Wagner, offered feedback for which I’m
very grateful.

###### Notes

1. See Matthew Battles, _Library: An Unquiet History_ (New York: W.W. Norton, 2003); Lionel Casson, _Libraries in the Ancient World_ (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2001); Fred Lerner, _The Story of Libraries_ (New York: Continuum, 1999).
2. Casson explains that when Alexandria was a brand new city in the third century B.C., its founders enticed intellectuals to the city — in an attempt to establish it as a cultural center — with the famous Museum, “a figurative temple for the muses, a place for cultivating the arts they symbolized. It was an ancient version of a think-tank: the members, consisting of noted writers, poets, scientists, and scholars, were appointed by the Ptolemies for life and enjoyed a handsome salary, tax exemption … free lodging, and food. … It was for them that the Ptolemies founded the library of Alexandria” [33-34].
3. Donald Oehlerts, _Books and Blueprints: Building America’s Public Libraries_ (New York: Greenwood Press, 1991): 62.
4. David Weinberger, “[Library as Platform](,” _Library Journal_ (September 4, 2012).
5. For more on “infrastructural ecologies,” see Reyner Banham, _Los Angeles: The Architecture of Four Ecologies_ (Berkeley, University of California Press, 2009 [1971]); Alan Latham, Derek McCormack, Kim McNamara and Donald McNeil, _Key Concepts in Urban Geography_ (Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage, 2009): 32; Ming Xu and Josh P. Newell, “[Infrastructure Ecology: A Conceptual Mode for Understanding Urban Sustainability](,” Sixth International Conference of the International Society for Industrial Ecology (ISIE) Proceedings, Berkeley, CA, June 7-10, 2011; Anu Ramaswami, Christopher Weible, Deborah Main, Tanya Heikkila, Saba Siddiki, Andrew Duvail, Andrew Pattison and Meghan Bernard, “A Social-Ecological-Infrastructural Systems Framework for Interdisciplinary Study of Sustainable City Systems,” _Journal of Industrial Ecology_ 16:6 (December 2012): 801-13. Most references to infrastructural ecologies — and there are few — pertain to systems at the urban scale, but I believe a library is a sufficiently complicated institution, residing at nexus of myriad networks, that it constitutes an infrastructural ecology in its own right.
6. Center for an Urban Future, [“Opportunity Institutions” Conference]( (March 11, 2013). See also Jesse Hicks and Julie Dressner’s video “[Libraries Now: A Day in the Life of NYC’s Branches](” (May 16, 2014).
7. Center for an Urban Future, _[Branches of Opportunity]( (January 2013): 3.
8. Quoted in Katie Gilbert, “[What Is a Library?](” _Narratively_ (January 2, 2014).
9. Real estate sales are among the most controversial elements in the New York Public Library’s much-disputed Central Library Plan, which is premised on the sale of the library’s Mid-Manhattan branch and its Science, Industry and Business Library. See Scott Sherman, “[The Hidden History of New York City’s Central Library Plan](,” _The Nation_ (August 28, 2013).
10. Toyo Ito, “The Building After,” _Artforum_ (September 2013).
11. Eric Klinenberg, “[Toward a Stronger Social Infrastructure: A Conversation with Eric Klinenberg](,” _Urban Omnibus_ (October 16, 2013).
12. I’m a member of the organizing team for this project, and I hope to write more about its outcomes in a future article for this journal.
13. Michael Kimmelman, “[Next Time, Libraries Could Be Our Shelters From the Storm](,” _New York Times_ (October 2, 2013).
14. Ruth Faklis, in Joseph Janes, Ed., _Library 2020: Today’s Leading Visionaries Describe Tomorrow’s Library_ (Lanham: Scarecrow Press, 2013): 96-7.
15. The Seattle Central Library was a focus of [my first book](, on public library design. See _The New Downtown Library: Designing With Communities_ (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2007).
16. Personal communication with Marcellus Turner, March 21, 2014.
17. Marcellus Turner in _Library 2020_ : 92.
18. Ken Worpole addresses library partnerships, and their implications for design in his _Contemporary Library Architecture: A Planning and Design Guide_ (New York: Routledge, 2013). The book offers a comprehensive look the public roles that libraries serve, and how they inform library planning and design.
19. Kristin Fontichiaro in _Library 2020_ : 8.
20. See Bill Ptacek in _Library 2020_ : 119.
21. The quotations are from my earlier article for Places, “[Marginalia: Little Libraries in the Urban Margins](” Within mass-digitization projects like Google Books, as Elisabeth Jones explains, “works that are still in copyright but out of print and works of indeterminate copyright status and/or ownership” will fall between the cracks (in _Library 2020_ : 17).
22. I dedicate a chapter in _The New Downtown Library_ to what makes a library “contextual” — and I address just how slippery that term can be.
23. This sentence was amended after publication to note the multiple motives of implementing the bookBot storage and retrieval system; its compact storage allowed the library to reintegrate some collections that were formerly stored off-site. The library has also developed a Virtual Browse catalog system, which aims to promote virtual discovery that isn’t possible in the physical stacks.
24. According to a late 2013 web-based survey of libraries, 41 percent of respondents provide maker-spaces or maker activities in their libraries, and 36 percent plan to create such spaces in the near future. Most maker-spaces, 51 percent, are in public libraries; 36 percent are in academic libraries; and 9 percent are in school libraries. And among the most popular technologies or technological processes supported in those spaces are computer workstations (67 percent), 3D printers (46 percent), photo editing (45 percent), video editing (43 percent), computer programming/software (39 percent). 33 oercent accommodated digital music recording; 31 percent accommodated 3D modeling, and 30 percent featured work with Arduino and Raspberry Pi circuit boards (Gary Price, “[Results From ‘Makerspaces in Libraries’ Study Released](,” _Library Journal_ (December 16, 2013). See also James Mitchell, “[Beyond the Maker Space](,” _Library Journal_ (May 27, 2014).
25. Anne Balsamo, “[Videos and Frameworks for ‘Tinkering’ in a Digital Age](,” Spotlight on Digital Media and Learning (January 30, 2009).
26. This sentence was amended after publication to note that the Apple Technology Showcase was named after former NCSU faculty member Dr. J. Lawrence Apple and his wife, Ella Apple; in an email to the author, library director Carolyn Argentati wrote that the corporate pun was intentional.
27. Emily Badger, “[Why Libraries Should Be the Next Great Start-Up Incubators](,” _Atlantic Cities_ (February 19, 2003).
28. Stephen Abram in _Library 2020_ : 46; Courtney Greene in _Library 2020_ : 51.
29. See my “[Resonant Texts: Sounds of the Contemporary American Public Library](,” _The Senses & Society_ 2:3 (Fall 2007): 277-302.
30. See David Harvey, _A Brief History of Neoliberalism_ (New York: Oxford University Press, 2005).
31. Zadie Smith, “[The North West London Blues](,” _New York Review of Books_ Blog (June 2, 2012).
32. Barbara Fister, “Some Assumptions About Libraries,” Inside Higher Ed (January 2, 2014).

###### __Cite

Shannon Mattern, "Library as Infrastructure," _Places Journal_ , June 2014.
Accessed 09 Jun 2019.


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