As electronic books and portable tablet computers multiply, the physical book would appear to be threatened. This year e-books outsold their hardbound counterparts for the first time, with sales up to $282 million in the first quarter of 2012. By extension, the library would also seem to be in danger. As the Office of Metropolitan Architecture and Bruce Mau Design determined in their program study for the Seattle Public Library, the contemporary library is no longer simply a repository for books; rather, it now comprises a collection of many different kinds of media and related services.
By the looks of things, however, the library is not only here to stay—it is being continually reinvented. Last month, I had a chance to visit Snøhetta's new James B. Hunt Jr. Library in Raleigh, N.C., a building that will be served by four "bookBots," which will store and retrieve up to two million books automatically. Although the structure doesn't officially open until the new year, another significant work—MVRDV's new library in Spijkenisse, Netherlands—is now fully accessible.
MVRDV's "Book Mountain" is just that: a ziggurat of bookshelves that spirals upward underneath a pyramidal glass enclosure. Unfolded, the terraced construction consists of a 480-meter-long path with a bookshelf surface area of 9,300 square meters. Like other contemporary libraries, the building is also populated with meeting rooms, an auditorium, a cafe, and offices. Archivists will be happy to note that Book Mountain's sun-drenched volumes anticipate a four-year life span in situ, thus avoiding damage from solar exposure.
Book Mountain not only represents a clever way to organize physical tomes and public circulation; it also conjures a familiar, ancient archetype. In The Hunchback of Notre Dame, Victor Hugo uses an architectural paradigm to describe the history of books: "The 18th century contributed the Encyclopedia; the Revolution the Monitor. Certainly, these too are structures, growing and piling themselves up in endless spirals; here, too, there is a confusion of languages, untiring labor, incessant activity, a furious competition of all humanity, a promised refuge for the intelligence against another deluge, against another submersion by the barbarians. It is the second Tower of Babel of the human race."
In the wake of a flood of digital media, Book Mountain argues for the reassuring physical presence of both book and building. Ironically, the archetype has now shifted: it is now the electronic information stream that exhibits Babel-like qualities, with its "confusion of languages, untiring labor, incessant activity, [and] a furious competition of all humanity." By contrast, the physical library now represents a quiet retreat from this storm. It calmly emanates a sheltering aura: an artificially complete microcosm within a world that is forever incomplete.
Blaine Brownell is a regularly featured columnist whose stories appear on this website each week. His views and conclusions are not necessarily those of ARCHITECT magazine nor of the American Institute of Architects.