studying the city (Annette Koh)

Public space, the right to the city, and civic engagement. How can we improve equity and access through participatory urbanism? Ph.D. student in Urban & Regional Planning at the University of Hawaiʻi at Mānoa. Former resident of Seoul & San Francisco.
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Taking inspiration from ancient libraries as copying centers and Sneakernet, Henry Warwick describes the future of the library as digital and offline. Radical Tactics of the Offline Library traces the history of the library and the importance of the Personal Portable Library in sharing knowledge and resisting proprietarian forces.

The Personal Portable Library in its most simple form is a hard drive or USB stick containing a large collection of e-books, curated, archived and indexed by an individual user. The flourishing of the offline digital library is a response to the fact that truly private sharing of knowledge in the online realm is increasingly made impossible. While P2P sharing sites and online libraries with downloadable e-books are precarious, people are led to an atavistic and reversalist workaround. The radical tactics of the offline: abandoning the online for more secure offline transfer. 

More National Library Week thoughts! I’m having fun taking a little time each day to ponder the role of libraries in my life. As the only child of a librarian, I willingly spent part of my summer vacations at my mom’s workplace, the university’s Art & Architecture department’s slide library. I will confess that I have no facility for doodles, got a C+ in the one graphic design class I took, and can only critique art on the basis of whether I’d hang it up in my living room or not. But I think spending summers alphabetizing slides of the most referenced art and architecture (child labor law violations, yes we know) must have had some lasting imprint on me and my layman’s love of planes and portals, lines and lintels.
Louis Kahn's architectural spaces are secular cathedrals of the 20th century — full of light and reverence and geometric calm. (Frankly speaking, I'm no fan of the Hadid and Gehry style of swooping curves.)
there-is-no-there-there:

Louis Kahn by Andreas Levers

More National Library Week thoughts! I’m having fun taking a little time each day to ponder the role of libraries in my life. As the only child of a librarian, I willingly spent part of my summer vacations at my mom’s workplace, the university’s Art & Architecture department’s slide library. I will confess that I have no facility for doodles, got a C+ in the one graphic design class I took, and can only critique art on the basis of whether I’d hang it up in my living room or not. But I think spending summers alphabetizing slides of the most referenced art and architecture (child labor law violations, yes we know) must have had some lasting imprint on me and my layman’s love of planes and portals, lines and lintels.

Louis Kahn's architectural spaces are secular cathedrals of the 20th century — full of light and reverence and geometric calm. (Frankly speaking, I'm no fan of the Hadid and Gehry style of swooping curves.)

there-is-no-there-there:

Louis Kahn by Andreas Levers

(via rchtctrstdntblg)

In honor of National Library Week, here’s my current stack of library books borrowed from the University of Hawaii at Manoa library, give or take five books buried amongst other papers. I have nothing on some of my classmates who have over a hundred books checked out.

Which reminds me, public service announcement time. Don’t be a shy doofus like me and feel bad about recalling books from the university library system. Some people have been hoarding them for years. YEARS.

Though this “Walking Library” charged borrowers, I can imagine adapting this in the spirit of the Little Free Library concept and walking around one afternoon just giving away books for free. Part of the awesomeness of last year’s Bike-In Theater events at Old Stadium Park was the free book table/book swap. 

In case you can’t read the caption, it reads

THE WALKING LIBRARY: London, England — Critics are always remarking that we in this country lag far behind those of European countries when it comes to borrowing books from libraries. Well, this enterprising girl at Rumsgate solves the problem by taking her books in a rack tied to her back round the streets and from door to door and people can borrow them for a week at the price of twopence.

vsw:

The Walking Library

from the VSW Soibelman Syndicate News Agency Archive

vsw.org

[Willesden’s French Market]

Zadie Smith writes not just a eulogy for a particular bookshop but also about the defunding of public libraries in the UK and the demise of free indoor spaces in the New York Review of Books. I liked how she mocks the idea that loitering (aka hanging out in public) inevitably leads to “anti-social” behavior. As per usual, images are linked through to their sources:

The key thing about Willesden’s French Market is that it accentuates and celebrates this concrete space in front of Willesden Green Library Centre, which is at all times a meeting place, though never quite so much as it is on market day. Everybody’s just standing around, talking, buying or not buying cheese, as the mood takes them. It’s really pleasant. You could almost forget Willesden High Road was ten yards away. This matters. When you’re standing in the market you’re not going to work, you’re not going to school, you’re not waiting for a bus. You’re not heading for the tube or shopping for necessities. You’re not on the high road where all these activities take place. You’re just a little bit off it, hanging out, in an open air urban area, which is what these urban high streets have specifically evolved to stop people doing.

Everybody knows that if people hang around for any length of time in an urban area without purpose they are likely to become “anti-social.” And indeed there were four homeless drunks sitting on one of the library’s strange architectural protrusions, drinking Special Brew. Perhaps in a village they would be sitting under a tree, or have already been driven from the area by a farmer with a pitchfork. I do not claim to know what happens in villages. But here in Willesden they were sat on their ledge and the rest of us were congregating for no useful purpose in the unlovely concrete space, simply standing around in the sunshine, like some kind of community. From this vantage point we could look ahead to the turrets, or left to the Victorian police station (1865), or right to the half-ghostly façade of the Spotted Dog (1893).

[Willesden Green Book Shop] 

Meanwhile my daughter is running madly through the centre’s esplanade, with another toddler who has the same idea. And then she reverses direction and heads straight for Willesden Green Book Shop, an independent shop that rents space from the council and provides—no matter what Brent Council, the local government for the London borough of Brent, may claim—an essential local service. It is run by Helen. Helen is an essential local person. I would characterize her essentialness in the following way: “Giving the people what they didn’t know they wanted.” Important category. Different from the concept popularized by Mr Murdoch: giving the people what they want. Everyone is by now familiar with the Dirty Digger’s version of the social good—we’ve had thirty years of it. Helen’s version is different and necessarily perpetrated on a far smaller scale.

Helen [of Willesden Green Book Shop] gives the people of Willesden what they didn’t know they wanted. Smart books, strange books, books about the country they came from, or the one that they’re in. Children’s books with children in them that look at least a bit like the children who are reading them. Radical books. Classical books. Weird books. Popular books. She reads a lot, she has recommendations. Hopefully, you have a Helen in a bookshop near you and so understand what I’m talking about. In 1999 I didn’t know I wanted to read David Mitchell until Helen pointed me to Ghostwritten. And I have a strong memory of buying a book by Sartre here, because it was on the shelf and I saw it. I don’t know how I could have known I wanted Sartre without seeing it on that shelf—that is, without Helen putting it there. Years later, I had my book launch in this bookshop and when it got too full, mainly with local friends of my mother, we all walked up the road to her flat and carried on over there.

And it was while getting very nostalgic about all this sort of thing with Helen, and wondering about the possibility of having another launch in the same spot, that I first heard of the council’s intention to demolish the library centre along with the bookshop and the nineteenth-century turrets and the concrete space and the ledge on which the four drunks sat. To be replaced with private luxury flats, a greatly reduced library, “retail space” and no bookshop. (Steve, the owner, could not afford the commercial rise in rent. The same thing happened to his Kilburn Bookshop, which closed recently after thirty years.) My mum wandered in, with some cheese. The three of us lamented this change and the cultural vandalism we felt it represented. Or, if you take the opposite view, we stood around pointlessly, like the Luddite, fiscally ignorant liberals we are, complaining about the inevitable.

What kind of a problem is a library? It’s clear that for many people it is not a problem at all, only a kind of obsolescence. At the extreme pole of this view is the technocrat’s total faith: with every book in the world online, what need could there be for the physical reality? This kind of argument thinks of the library as a function rather than a plurality of individual spaces. But each library is a different kind of problem and “the Internet” is no more a solution for all of them than it is their universal death knell. Each morning I struggle to find a seat in the packed university library in which I write this, despite the fact every single student in here could be at home in front of their macbook browsing Google Books. And Kilburn Library—also run by Brent Council but situated, despite its name, in affluent Queen’s Park—is not only thriving but closed for refurbishment. Kensal Rise is being closed not because it is unpopular but because it is unprofitable, this despite the fact that the friends of Kensal Rise library are willing to run their library themselves (if All Souls College, Oxford, which owns the library, will let them.) Meanwhile it is hard not to conclude that Willesden Green is being mutilated not least because the members of the council see the opportunity for a sweet real estate deal.

All libraries have a different character and setting. Some are primarily for children or primarily for students, or the general public, primarily full of books or microfilms or digitized material or with a café in the basement or a market out front. Libraries are not failing “because they are libraries.” Neglected libraries get neglected, and this cycle, in time, provides the excuse to close them. Well-run libraries are filled with people because what a good library offers cannot be easily found elsewhere: an indoor public space in which you do not have to buy anything in order to stay.

Undoubtedly libraries are a good thing. The access and training that we provide for technology isn’t offered by any other public service (largely because public services are rapidly becoming a dirty word in this gilded age of decadence and austerity), and without our services it wouldn’t be the end of the world, but it would be a significant dimming. 

If you can take yourself out of your first world techie social media smart-shoes for a second then imagine this: you’re 53 years old, you’ve been in prison from 20 to 26, you didn’t finish high school, and you have a grandson who you’re now supporting because your daughter is in jail. You’re lucky, you have a job at the local Wendy’s. You have to fill out a renewal form for government assistance which has just been moved online as a cost saving measure (this isn’t hypothetical, more and more municipalities are doing this now). You have a very limited idea of how to use a computer, you don’t have Internet access, and your survival (and the survival of your grandson) is contingent upon this form being filled out correctly. 

Do you go to the local social services office? No, you don’t. The overworked staff there says that due to budget cuts they can no longer do walk-in advising, and that there’s a 2 week waiting list to get assistance with filling out forms. You call them up on the by-the-minute phone you’re borrowing from your cousin (wasting 15 of her minutes on hold) and they say that they can’t help, but you can go to your public library. OK, so you go to your public library after work (you ask your other cousin to watch your grandson for the day since wasting those minutes has temporarily burned some bridges). Due to budget cuts the library no longer has evening hours, sorry, try again (and you also don’t get back the bus-fare or money you spent on a hack to get across town to the nearest branch, since other budget cuts closed the one in your neighborhood). OK, so you come back on the weekend. You ask the overworked librarian at the desk to sign up for a computer. She testily tells you that you’re at the wrong desk, and that sign-ups are at circulation. You feel foolish and go over to the circulation desk, who tells you that you need to sign up for a library card to use the computer. After filling out the forms the librarian starts to make your card for you, and informs you that she can’t process a card, since you have fines from 2 years ago that total fifty dollars. It’s an emergency, you say, you need to use the computer. She sighs heavily, informs you that it’s against policy, and then prints a guest pass anyway. You get 30 minutes at a time for a total of 2 hours per day. Computers are on the second floor. 

You go up to the second floor to find a total of 20 computers with a waiting list of 15 people. You do some quick math in your head, and realize you’re probably going to be here for a while, so you walk over to the magazine section, and read People while you wait. Finally, it’s your turn. You walk over to your terminal, and your time starts ticking. Your breath seizes in your chest, and you realize you have no idea what to do. You have the form that they gave you at the social services office, which has an address, which you sort of know what that does, but you can’t quite remember – 17 minutes, by the way. You try typing X City Social Services in a box at the top, a page comes back and says “address not found” with a list of things below it. You’re panicking, because there’s a line forming (there always is) and the library will probably close before you can make it back on – 10 minutes, by the way. After a little more fumbling and clicking you have no luck, you’re kicked off, and immediately someone is standing behind you to use your computer. You relinquish your seat, and head back down stairs. You’re about to leave, already trying to think of who you know who has a computer who might let you use it, and might know about filling out these forms, but the only person you can think of is your friend in the county, and taking a bus out there would be awfully expensive.

Before leaving you decide to try one last thing. You go up to the desk, and explain your situation. The tired, overworked person at the desk nods along, and says, “well, we’re not supposed to do this, but…” and tells you to walk around the desk. With a few clicks on the mouse they have the site up that you spent 30 minutes trying to find. They bring up the electronic form, politely turn their head aside as you fill in your social security number, and then ask you a series of questions to satisfy the demands of the form. It comes to your email address, and you have to admit that you don’t have one, so the librarian walks you through setting up a free one and gives it to you on a slip of paper. “We have free computer classes,” he says (and you’re lucky, because a great deal of public libraries don’t), but you look at the times and realize that between your job and taking care of your grandson you’d never be able to attend, and it’d probably be too hard anyway. You thank him, and he smiles, and you leave. Congratulations, you’ve staved off disaster until the next time you need to use a computer for a life-essential task.

Now let’s start that again, but this time you don’t speak English. Just kidding, I don’t want to give you too much culture shock in one day.

So that little melodrama right there is every minute of every day at the public library. Replace essential forms with applying for a job, or filling out hours on a time sheet, or trying to find legal assistance, or any number of the other high skill, high resource activities that you, as a privileged first world person who is constantly surrounded by computers and has used them for a majority of their life, find trivial. The digital divide isn’t just access, but also ability, and quality of information, and the common dignity of having equity of participation in our increasingly digital culture. 

Just read the Design Observer post on little libraries and tactical urbanism. The mammoth post (but well worth reading even if you aren’t a child of a librarian) ends with the UNI project in Boston.

We “started with the space,” Sam Davol said; we “didn’t really have an agenda about books.” Yet their neighbors had been hoping for decades that the Boston Public Library would replace their branch, which had closed in 1956. The Davols saw an opportunity; they found a 3,000-square-foot storefront on Washington Street, partnered with design students at Harvard to create shelving and furniture, drummed up local support and attracted volunteers and accepted donations — and the Chinatown Storefront Library was born in 2009. The group shelved 4,100 books, issued 540 library cards, hosted community meetings and offered innovative programming, including a Drawing Lab and zine-making workshops led by the Papercut Zine Library. Because the space was small and community-focused, and because the Davols were present to oversee the space and the collection, they were able to adapt and improvise. As Sam Davol puts it, “The Storefront Library was R&D” for what came next. Appreciating the potential extendibility, flexibility and portability of their creation — and inspired by the Project for Public Spaces’ call for “lighter, quicker, cheaper" urban development — they hatched an idea for the Uni. 

The Davols knew they wanted to create small public spaces for urban neighborhoods, but they weren’t sure what the space would be. Perhaps a portable community center or a library — although they were reluctant to carry or imply the weight of either institutional type. While they wanted to partner with libraries and other public entities, they were reluctant to call themselves a “library.” So they chose the name Urban Neighborhood Institution — or Uni, for short. 

The Uni structure consists of 144 open-faced, trapezoidal cubes stackable in various configurations depending upon the site and program; thus far the Uni has been installed at the New Amsterdam Market in Manhattan and at the Brooklyn Book Festival on Borough Hall Plaza. Each 16-inch cube can hold 10 to 15 books, and each is outfitted with a weather-resistant protective cover which, when removed, can double as a bench, a table, a podium, or a display surface. The design is always evolving.

Improvised or ambulatory libraries have a long history. (see Bookmobile) The best examples may be from South America.

Weapon of Mass Instruction (Argentina)

Biblioburro (Colombia)

unconsumption:

Artists transform vandalized library books into art

In 2001, librarians and staff at the San Francisco Public Library started finding damaged books, mainly related to gay, lesbian, and HIV/AIDS issues, shoved under shelves. The vandal was caught and ultimately charged with a hate crime.

“Rather than discard the damaged books, the Library distributed them to interested community members in the hope of creating art.” The artistic responses comprise “Reversing Vandalism,” an exhibition of more than 200 works of art. 

Images, via Reversing Vandalism: Online Gallery :: San Francisco Public Library: Altered book pieces by Mary Bennett (top) and Gretchen Schermerhorn and Eric Bu.

In case you missed them: Unconsumption’s collection of library-related posts can be found here; books here.

I’m deeply aware of the misfit between my profession and the current moment. There is an enormous amount of technology that undermines the legitimacy of building or physical space, and so I’m deeply aware of the vulnerability of architecture as a plausible activity or discipline. And for that reason what I think architecture can still do, or ought to focus on, is to represent moments where collectivity is an attractive experience rather than an imposition. For me libraries have that incredible quality. Each of us can be motivated by our own motivations, but nevertheless sit together in a room like that, that is an exceptional experience of sharing even though you are completely alone. That is for me what the most interesting part of architecture can be.

Rem Koolhaas speaking at the New York Public Library  


New York Public Library ©Andy Cross

A Daily Dose of Architecture

via pdsmith

(via citybreaths)

(via citybreaths)

Libraries are the new X. Wendy MacNaughton did an illustrated ode to the people of the SF Main Branch. The New York City Public Library did a one-night scavenger hunt/lock-in* and in case you needed more proof— even superheroes know you need a library card.
*Confession #36: being locked in a library all night has been a longstanding fantasy, ever since childhood favorite The Mixed Up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler got muddled up with teenage stories of classmates who snuck into the school library for all night debauchery. I don’t recall if the plot of Party Girl featured any late night library shenanigans but I bet it was responsible for the spike in sexy librarian fetishes.

Libraries are the new X. Wendy MacNaughton did an illustrated ode to the people of the SF Main Branch. The New York City Public Library did a one-night scavenger hunt/lock-in* and in case you needed more proof— even superheroes know you need a library card.

*Confession #36: being locked in a library all night has been a longstanding fantasy, ever since childhood favorite The Mixed Up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler got muddled up with teenage stories of classmates who snuck into the school library for all night debauchery. I don’t recall if the plot of Party Girl featured any late night library shenanigans but I bet it was responsible for the spike in sexy librarian fetishes.