Nouvelles Alexandries; Les Grands Chantiers de Bibliothèques dans le Monde. Edited by Michel Melot. [Paris] Editions du Cercle de la Librairie. [c1996] 411 p. (Collection Bibliothèques) ISBN: 2–7654–0619–7. FF 750.
Building Libraries for the 21st Century: The Shape of Information. Edited by Terry D. Webb. [Jefferson, NC] McFarland & Co. [c2000] 270 p. ISBN: 0–7864–0665–8. US $55.00.
Although these two books (one in English, the other in French) appeared several years apart, both deal with libraries constructed in the last decade or so of the 20th century. Each consists of reports or presentations on individual building projects written by authors invited by an editor who had presumably come up with the idea for the collection.
This review essay examines the contents, authors, presentation, contribution of the editors, special features, physical characteristics, etc. of each book—done largely through a comparison of similarities and differences between them. It is clear that each editor found himself facing a dilemma in determining his book's contents; Webb puts it this way: "With all the new libraries being built in the United States and around the world at the turn of the century, so many contributors could have been invited to participate that it was necessary to make a relatively spare collection" (p. 2).
From the listing below one can draw a few conclusions: each compiler wanted his book to be international in scope; each felt it desirable to include the very large and costly projects in London and Paris; and Webb chose to have greater variation in size of collection (from a junior college in Hawaii to national libraries with more than several million volumes). Still, some questions on selection come to mind. Was there a deliberate attempt to include countries of various types? Were libraries from the 1980s considered "too old" for inclusion? Were school and special libraries viewed as "too different"? Were some exclusions accidental (e.g., failure to receive a promised manuscript?) In any case, since neither editor provides a statement on his choices, one must conclude that they were, at least in large part, personal; someone else preparing either volume would probably have made deletions and additions. In any case, let us examine the selection at hand from three points of view: geography, type of library, and date.
Taking the two volumes together, there are 24 different libraries in 14 countries: Algeria, China, Denmark, Dubai, Egypt, Estonia, France, Germany, Japan, Netherlands, Senegal, Taiwan, United Kingdom, and United States. Of these, only China and the United States have more than one library included. By continent, it's not surprising to find that Europe and North America (i.e., U.S.) dominate: 7 from the former and 9 from latter; there are 5 from Asia and 3 from Africa, but none from South America (despite major projects in Argentina, Colombia, and Venezuela) or from Australia and New Zealand.
By type of library, the distribution is as follows: 1 junior college, 6 public, 8 college and university, and 8 national (excluding the new library at Alexandria and counting the national and university library in Copenhagen with the national group).
With regard to date of construction, most of these libraries fall between the late 1980s and the mid 1990s. (The date would vary if one wished to count beginning of construction or even of site preparation or date of completion). One also needs to remember that some time elapses between completion of a manuscript and its publication. It is clear that neither the new British Library nor the French National Library (BNF) were fully operational when the reports were prepared—and they are included in both books.
The libraries discussed are as follows:
In Melot's Nouvelles Alexandries: Bibliotheca Alexandrina, Alexandria; National Library, Algiers; Royal and University Library, Copenhagen; Cheikh Anta Diop University Library, Dakar; Juma–Al–Majid Cultural Center, Dubai; University Library, Gottingen; Municipal Library, The Hague; British Library, London; Science, Industry and Business Library, New York; French National Library (BNF), Paris; National Library, Beijing; Public Library, San Francisco; National Library, Taiwan; National Library, Tallinn; and Waseda University Library, Tokyo.
In Webb's Building Libraries for the 21st Century: British Library, London; Shanghai Library, Shanghai; Public Library, San Antonio; Peking University Library, Beijing; George Mason University Library, Fairfax; Kapiolani College Library, Honolulu; California State University Library, Monterey Bay; IUPUI Library, Indianapolis; Central Library, Phoenix; Seton Hall University Library, South Orange; and the French National Library (BNF), Paris [two separate articles]. In addition, there is one article, discussed below, about American academic library architecture.
The above listings show the arrangement of the main body of each book. Melot's sequence is very straight forward—it is alphabetical by the names of the cities in which the libraries are located (i.e., from Alexandria to Tokyo). Webb, on the other hand, has chosen to group his 13 reports into four "units," entitled "FUNCTION/Mission, People, and Places," "FORM/Arranging Services in Place," "STYLE/Architects and Builder–Librarians," and "SIGNIFICANCE/Symbols and Emblems." Sometimes the results seem awkward, as placing the accounts of The British Library and the French National Library (BNF) at opposite ends of the text, rather than having one follow the other; this may be a small point, because one suspects that many will choose to read the chapters in a sequence dictated by their own interests and backgrounds.
Turning to authors, one finds that 13 persons wrote for the American volume and 18 for the French one, giving a total of 31 (including the two editors, each of whom was also a contributor). While Webb tells us that each author was a librarian
"who actually worked on the project" (p. 10), Melot's approach was apparently to invite French librarians, documentalists, and administrators of university or public libraries.
The brief biographical sketches (p. 400–401) indicate that most had had experience outside of France as a UNESCO expert or advisor to the French cultural services overseas and that, in addition, had been "on site" for the library he or she was describing. (These arrangements meant that there was no need for translation of articles.) Yet this reader was somewhat surprised that the articles on libraries in the U. S. and U. K. (The British Library, NYPL, and San Francisco Public) were not written by members of their staff; this might have prevented a few somewhat unclear statements (e.g., the nature of the public/private partnership which finances The New York Public Library).
A single author prepared each article appearing in Webb's compilation, while in Melot accounts of five buildings (those in Alexandria, Dubai, San Francisco, Tallinn, and Tokyo) resulted from the collaboration of two persons. Actually for Alexandria the presentation is in two parts, one on the ancient library and the other on the "new" Alexandrian Library (scheduled now to open in 2001), with the former done by one person and the latter by two. Among the contributors was one architect in each volume, Jan Meissner in Melot and Geoffrey Freeman in Webb; the former was a co–author for the reports on the buildings in Alexandria and Dubai, the latter with a general presentation entitled "The Academic Library in the 21st Century: Partner in Education" (pp. 168–175) in which he reflects upon such issues as "the unprecedented demands of technology and an explosion of information " (p. 168), the need to preserve present collections in major American research libraries, and the percentage of holdings to be housed in offsite storage. He draws upon the experience of his firm (Shepley Bulfinch Richardson and Abbott) in working with such universities as Columbia, Cornell, Duke, Emory, and Southern California.
While it is true that, given the great differences in the history, collections, services, spatial needs, and funding possibilities of the buildings surveyed in these two volumes, no single, uniform approach to the presentations could be utilized, there is much more variation in Webb than in Melot; perhaps the former's instructions account, in part, for this:
Contributors were asked to write on design and building concerns ... particularly relevant to their libraries: philosophy, technology, construction, architecture, budget, administrative issues, or any other concerns they faced in the process of planning, building, and providing services in their new facilities. … [They] chose the features of their separate experiences that
were most important to them. (p. 2, 10)
On the other hand, reading the articles in Nouvelles Alexandries makes one feel that the editor probably provided more overall guidance, so that the following points are generally (if not always) covered: institutional history and background, aspects of the building program, the building itself—features, layout, equipment, collection, information technology, etc. (the body of each article), with conclusions and observations at the end. Most statistical data (e.g., size of collection, building dimensions, cost in French francs, chronology of construction) appear in full page tables. The last element in nearly all cases is references to publications under the rubric "Bibliographical Orientation." Articles in Webb average perhaps 10 pages; those in Melot are somewhat longer, in a few cases reaching 30 pages.
The contribution of the two editors goes well beyond simple assembling a number of case studies of recent library buildings. Each was also a contributor: Webb on the Kapiolani Community College Library in Hawaii and Melot (in collaboration with François Reiner) on the San Francisco Public. Much more important, however, is that each wrote background pages to "set the stage" for the individual chapters. Melot's splendid introduction (pp.7–43) consists of six sections, including observations on "libraries without readers" (i.e., storage facilities) and on national libraries, as well as on "Tomorrow's Alexandrias"—this part could easily have been placed at the end as concluding remarks. Webb's "editorial" remarks appear in six places: a general introduction, preliminary remarks for each of his four "units" (see above), and at the end "Conclusion: Rational Space" (pp. 253–265), in which he comments on technology, the sense of place, partnering, digitization, funds and economics, flexibility, and predictive space; they make a total of about 50 pages. Both editors mention other libraries—e.g., Library of Congress, New York University, the Luis Angel Arango Library in Bogotá (the only mention of Latin America found by this reviewer), and the Helsinki Public.
Both books are attractive and well printed: Webb in octavo and Melot in quarto. Text runs to 266 pages in the former and 399 pages in the latter; actually there is somewhat less text than these figures imply, because both volumes devote considerable space to pictures, floor plans, statistics, and tables. Outstanding are the many illustrations; in the American book all are in black and white, except for an 8–page color inset, while in the French volume nearly all (except floor plans) are in full color. (A few floor plans are reduced to the point of making the use of a magnifying glass necessary to distinguish detail.) Given the varied approach of authors, it is not always possible to make accurate comparison of such facts as square meters (feet) and total cost; a table in each book giving such data for all libraries included would have been a useful addition.
Both books provide assistance to the reader who wishes additional information. Melot does this in two ways: (1) the bibliographies at the end of the individual articles (mainly to works in French, but sometimes in English, German, Dutch, Estonian, etc.) and (2) a general listing (22 items) at the end of his introduction (p. 43)—not, however, including all of the items in his 37 footnotes. In Webb's book only a few articles have "References" at the end, but the editor has brought together (pp. 267–68) "Works Cited" by authors (46 items, all but 4 in English). For the French National Library (BNF) one article has a useful English/French bibliography, arranged in chronological order (pp. 225–30).
We come to the end of these two interesting volumes and find a 3½ page index in Webb, containing over 350 entries (a spot check showed page references to be accurate). It is quite disappointing to find no index at all in Melot, even though a fairly detailed table of contents (13 pages) helps on overall coverage of articles; the gap remains for one seeking to find quickly discussion of building features (e.g., stacks) or mention of other institutions (e.g., Yale University Library).
What, then, one might ask in conclusion is the most important contribution of these two books? It seems to this writer that, taken together, they offer a wide–ranging group of case studies—how two dozen institutions have built new facilities for an era of electronic as well as print resources and of new kinds of library service.
Whether some of these new libraries prove to be "the last extravagance of a disintegrating discipline, a grandiose expiration on the brink of a new century"
(Webb, p. 5) remains to be seen. Through case studies and the thoughtful additional contributions of the editors we have two valuable, useful, and complementary compilations; for this reason this reviewer predicts that many readers will keep them side–by–side in their personal collections, whatever classification numbers libraries give to them.
About the Author
William V. Jackson is Professor Emeritus, Graduate School of
Library and Information Science, University of Texas at Austin, and also Senior Fellow, Graduate School of Library and Information Science, Dominican University.
© 2000 William V. Jackson
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