The Library as Idea and Space

From around 300 BC until the beginning of its destruction with the Roman imperial takeover under Julius Caesar, the Library of Alexandria was the principal workplace for international scholarship. In light of this discussion of the curatorial, it is worth noting that this classical library was in fact incorporated into a larger complex known as the Mouseion, or House of the Muses, which formed a multidisciplinary study center similar to a university (etymologically, it is the source of the modern word “museum”). In his erudite meditation on libraries, Alberto Manguel makes the observation that in terms of a conception of the world, the Library of Alexandria and the Tower of Babel are direct opposites. While the tower represents the “belief in the unity of the universe,” the library instead embodies an understanding that the world is made up of innumerable different voices that, if somehow collected and read, would “address the whole of creation” through their very singularity and yet, as an ensemble, could never become static.  Expanding Manguel’s comparison, it is interesting to consider the two architectures in relation to concepts of dispersal and containment. In the moment of its destruction fragments of the Tower are violently and irretrievably flung out in all directions across the Earth, whereas the Library derives its meaning as a space of proximity for gathering together such fragments.

In the context of Occidental history, however, libraries are especially symbolic of a particular Enlightenment sensibility. Poignantly addressed by Victor Hugo in The Hunchback of Notre Dame, libraries became the new cathedrals of cities when science and the attendant desire to disseminate knowledge replaced the religious impetus of previous generations. Stories were no longer told primarily through clerical art and architecture but were instead translated, multiplied, and circulated through printed books. In Hugo’s novel, this idea is summarized in the phrase “Ceci tuera cela” [“this will kill that”]—a provocative exaggeration, though the printing press by no means did away with architecture, just as the digital turn has not replaced printed matter. What is true, however, is that the ethos of the public library (in contrast to private, monastic, or other specialized and restricted libraries) continues to be intimately connected to democratic ideals of equality and free access to knowledge and culture. Such libraries are usually non-profit spaces, which provide citizens with material and immaterial goods and media that would otherwise have to be purchased. Therefore, one of the many ways in which the library contributes to societyis by converting marketable goods into public goods. The potential of the library for making things public is furthermore reflected in its paradoxical reality as an intellectual meeting place: based on intellectual and communal values, it also lends a public platform to otherwise fundamentally private— whether mental or cerebral—activities like reading and thinking, thus connecting it with ideals such as free speech and the freedom of expression. The library is thus both a political economy and an intellectual space.

Springer, A.-S. “Legere and βιβλιοθήκη: The Library as Idea and Space,” Fantasies of the Library, MIT Press, 2016.