I recently attended a town hall meeting to discuss the future of McGill’s libraries. A presentation was given by the oldest architectural firm in North America. “What would a library of the 21st century look like at McGill” was the focus of the presentation. The presentation consisted of images of libraries (like Harvard, Johns Hopkins, etc.) that have recently undergone construction, paving the way for a new future.
The libraries of the 20th century were “static.” The libraries of the future will be “dynamic,” creating spaces for inter-disciplinary research, access to high definition touch screens, video games, smart-boards, and so on.
A student remarked that there were very few books in the presentation. The student said this is a trend: books are off in some big warehouse and are available upon request. Thus, she said, the spontaneity of browsing, which often facilitates research, is done away with.
An emeritus professor of architecture lamented the fact that the entire presentation was very plastic, open concept, lots of glass and light. Walls with detail, paintings, or sculptures were nowhere to be found. Apparently, the future has no room for that sort of thing in libraries.
But what struck me the most was the fact that there was no mention as to “why” the libraries were moving towards a plastic, technological accessible, non-traditional future. Are they doing it because students are researching better? Is their mental health better taken care of? What kind of research are these dynamic libraries privileging, as in, what kind of research is fostered, what kind of research is hindered?
The question, “what is a library” or even “what is a library for” was not answered. True, there was a lot of talk about “the identity of McGill” and how the library should reflect its current identity. An attempt to define McGill’s identity was also missing, I suppose it was up to us at the town hall to tell the architects about our identity. I suppose that means that there was no way that they could have been informed by faculty or students prior to the presentation. In any case, the question of identity seemed like a gimmick. The focus was on the Ivy league schools that are also updating their libraries. The message? McGill’s identity is defined by its competition.
All of this is to say that we need thinking more than ever. We must erect buildings that foster healthy practices. Practices which are only deemed as such as we examine our practices, and more importantly, as we learn how to examine our practices. If the future hails an ethic that no longer cares for an examined life, a thinking life, then we can confidently say that our future is one where we no longer care, and no longer think.