February 2024: What Should A Library Be?

Column Description: From thinking about the library as space to who the library is historically for, this column takes a (somewhat) philosophical approach to defining what a library is. In fact, it goes one step further to consider what a library should be.

I arrived in Barcelona in the middle of its extreme summer heat wave. I’ve lived through 100-degree days in cities that smell like trash and too many people before, but all those cities offered a reprieve called air conditioning. Air conditioning is still hard to come by in Spain’s tourism capital, but there were two places I could always find it: my Spanish language school and the library (or biblioteca in Spanish).

Over the summer, I got to know Barcelona’s bibliotecas pretty well, spending every weekday afternoon in one after my four-hour morning Spanish classes. My intention for moving to Spain was to properly learn Spanish and experiment with living an academic life of the mind. I would attend Spanish class from 9 am-1:30 pm, suffer through the heat at home during lunch, then head to the library at 3 pm or 3:30 pm—depending on what time the branch I wanted to go to reopened after lunch and siesta—and stay until it closed at 8 pm.

I haven’t been to all of Barcelona’s bibliotecas, but I’ve had the chance to compare what it’s like to work from at least six or seven different ones. I don’t think I ever considered how the aesthetic of a library impacts how you work until I found myself circulating in and out of different branches like a book on interlibrary transfer.

What do I mean by aesthetic?

Well, my favorite library to work from is Espai Francesca Bonnemaison, located on a narrow street near Barcelona’s El Born and El Gótico neighborhoods, for no other reason than the aesthetic suits me (and it has the strongest air conditioning in the summer). It has a dark academic feel with its large wooden tables, high ceilings, and shelves of old manuscripts and books that are kept on a balcony above the reading room. I feel like I’m more productive here than in any of the other libraries I’ve visited.  


Photo: Barcelona City Council


Photo: Barcelona City Council

Smaller branches in Barcelona like Francesca Bonnemaison have a distinct character, but I’ve also noticed a sameness in the aesthetic that cuts across some of the larger branches: the walls are white, the large windows bring in lots of natural light, the space is open.

This same minimalist aesthetic can also be found in every coffee shop you visit around the world: white walls, lots of light from large windows, industrial-sized wood tables, and a menu that includes at least one type of avocado toast. Lose the avocado toast (though some libraries now have cafes attached) and add minimalist-yet-architecturally pleasing bookshelves, and you’ve got the modern library aesthetic.

The Vennesla Library in Norway, the Stuttgart City Library in Germany, the Donald Dungan Library in California, the Surrey City Centre Library in British Columbia, the OBA Oosterdok in Amsterdam, and the García Márquez Library in Barcelona (last year’s winner of the international best new public library award) are some examples of libraries that have been shaped by this white-wall-large-window aesthetic. It’s not that these libraries look the same; it’s that they have the same vibe.

Writer Kyle Chayka refers to this flattening of cultural spaces like libraries and coffee shops as the “tyranny of the algorithm,” a sign of globalization that will only continue to intensify with the help of social platforms like Instagram. There’s pressure for every element of our culture to exist on the internet, and being seen requires feeding the algorithm. So if cafes with a minimalist aesthetic are preferred by the algorithm, then cafes start to adopt that minimalist aesthetic.

It’s easy to blame the algorithm for pushing us toward flatter and less distinct cultural spaces, but social media really only exacerbates patterns that already exist. This pattern exists in the book publishing world, too, where the subscription service BookScan has become the book data authority for the industry. Melanie Walsh, co-editor of Post45 Data Collective out of the Emory Center for Digital Scholarship, explains that it’s a huge problem that the most influential book data—which determines who gets a book contract and whose work gets published—isn’t openly accessible. “If we want to understand the contemporary literary world, we need better book data,” Walsh writes. “And we need this data to be free, open, and interoperable.”

We need this data to help us see what factors determine a book’s popularity over time, for example. But, more importantly, we also need this data to show us who is writing our bestselling books. The issue with BookScan isn’t just the algorithm but how the data is used and the fact that it doesn’t give us a clear picture of our literary landscape. If we took a closer look at the data around the race and ethnicity of authors who dominate the publications of “mainstream” publishing houses, we’d see that they’ve historically been white. Without this data, we continue to perpetuate this history.

While the algorithm appears to be optimizing for flattening culture to appeal to white tastes, it’s a historical system that needs to be reprogrammed. Returning to libraries, we have to consider how they’ve historically functioned as mainstream institutional spaces that serve some but not all people. Over the years, this has led to marginalized communities forming their own “fugitive” libraries, which become spaces to enact resistance. As Shannon Mattern points out, these libraries that have been pushed to the margins look very different. “Often these are spaces of experimentation, where new models of library service and public engagement can be test-piloted,” Mattern writes, “or where core values can be reassessed and reinvigorated.” 

Is the library a coherent space? We want it to be, but it can’t be everything to everyone. It also can’t be everything to only white able-bodied and housed people. But maybe it can start to dismantle the system that feeds the algorithm that keeps a white colonialist culture mainstream. Now that’s a space I’d like to spend time in.


Maggie Blaha is a placeless writer who is wandering around Europe in search of a home—a place where she can live simply, write often, and read always. She’s currently living in Spain. 


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