experience library

[written 10/30/04]

as part of my public libraries class today, we met at the cerritos library. named the best public library in the u.s. by reader’s digest this year, it’s a big shiny new library that i was at first really impressed by. later though, except for the kid’s section, i ended up not liking it a whole lot. i know a lot of thought was put into the recent re-designing of this library, but i don’t feel it was successful. early in the class, i heard one classmate mutter that the library felt like a mall. ironically, the city librarian, when he spoke to the class a few minutes later, used that same simile (overheard from a teen in the elevator months ago) but as the highest compliment possible.

some other things the city librarian said that stuck out for me:

  • · this library’s emphasis in on the commons rather than on information
  • · he sees information as a commodity
  • · “what we wanted to create was ownership” of the library
  • · their VolunTeen program has over 200 teen volunteers
  • · the library’s primary target group is 18 to 24 year olds
  • · “our product is not the book, databases..but is the individual user’s experience”
  • · libraries needs to “romance the users”
  • · “we’re not an IQ library, but an EI library” (i think by EI, he meant ‘emotional intelligence’)

though several of those points seemed great, a few were puzzling if not downright disturbing, mainly the emphasis on experience and emotions.

calling cerritos an “experience library”, their website says the planners “looked at mass-volume public spaces like Disneyland, Universal’s Citywalk and Las Vegas” for inspiration in designing the library. it’s definitely smart to look at such spaces since they have a big effect on what people expect from public (including commercial) spaces and they must be doing something right to be so popular, but that doesn’t mean libraries should be just like them. after all, one obvious big difference from disneyland or las vegas is that the library isn’t trying to sell you something and it’s not trying to trick you into buying. maybe i’m just naive, but i’m not into the whole enthusiastic marketing of the library. i understand publicity for libraries is important, but “branding” and “corporate loyalty” are not words i want to hear much less ideas i (both as a user and a future employee) want libraries to work on, and honestly, i don’t see how they’re appropriate.

the general layout of the cerritos library is, according to their literature, marked by “numerous thematic spaces that reference the physical world or temporal eras.” but, besides the kid’s space (which is pretty great, and obviously had the most time spent on developing), the other spaces just seemed like show-off ideas that didn’t really work. for example, the ‘old world reading room’ is this somewhat crowded and yet formal space filled with dark wooden shelves, a fake fireplace, tables shaped as parts of old greek columns, and lots of those fancy leather-bound classics you can have shipped to you once a month if you have a lot of extra cash (though i was greatly relieved that they were indeed real books and not just fake plastic ones. that i thought for a second that a library would dare have those should show you how tacky this ‘reading room’ space was.) next to this ‘reading room’ was a art deco ‘teen space’ and an arts and crafts-y periodicals space. the idea i guess was to feel like you’re walking through time, through history or something, but it just didn’t work. it felt poorly thought-out and just like a bunch of money was thrown at the architect and that was that. i felt like i was indeed in disneyland, with the result that this space didn’t feel real much less a place where i could sit and actually learn and research and devote time in.

to not seem too doom-and-gloom, some impressive things about this library: laptop ports everywhere (over 1000 total in the library!), lots of comfortable and varied seating, great lighting, pretty happy staff it seems (a great great sign of a good library), free parking, and tons of people.

yeah, tons of people. so, am i wrong? the goal is, after all, getting people in the door, right? well, no. i think some librarians have been focusing so much on just getting people in the door that it doesn’t even matter why they come in, in a way. that’s ridiculous. it’s great that people come in for free bathroom use, free cold water-fountain water, safety and shelter if it’s raining or dark, etc. that’s important stuff that everyone knows you can’t take for granted. (it’s a sad state of the world if it’s really hard to find free public bathrooms any more!) but a library is more than anything about information. if people aren’t using it for information, then something is fundamentally wrong.

now, that information can come from lots of places, not just books or even the internet. it can come from the reference librarians, from workshops and meetings held at the library, from people you meet at the library, and so on. but to me, this library, the cerritos library, just didn’t feel real cozy and conducive to information-gathering in general and i think that’s due to the emphasis on “experiencing” the library, as if it were some kind of amusement park ride. the library can be, and is, so much more than that.

(incidentally, from librarian.net, i found out that today, cerritos was hosting the ‘Cerritos California for the Workshop on the Information Commons’. i knew there was some kind of library thing going on, and i peeked into the room where the workshop was, but if i’d known jessamyn west was there, i would’ve peeked around some more. ;)

(update: just found out the mad librarian was also there, as well as other notable lib. folks like howard besser. hm. wonder what it took to get into that workshop? oh.)