Stanley Abercrombie

Critic; Curator; Writer; Editor; Lecturer / Architecture; Interior Design / United States / Books Editor, Interior Design magazine

Stanley Abercrombie’s Notable Books of 2013

1 book
Text by James W. P. Campbell
Photographs by Will Pryce

To some of us, there is nothing more handsome or interesting than a wall of books. This is the book for us. For its preparation, the author, director of studies in architecture and art history at Queens’ College, Cambridge, and his masterful photographer visited 82 libraries in 21 countries. Their chapters carry us chronologically from “Lost Beginnings” to “The Future of Libraries in the Electronic Age” with stops along the way including “Cupboards, Chains and Stalls” (the 16th century) and “Angels, Frescoes, and Secret Doors” (the 18th). The oldest extant example we see is the ancient Roman Library of Celsus in Ephesus, Turkey, c.135 AD, and the most recent the 2012 Liyuan Library in Jiaojiehe, China, designed by Chinese architect Li Xiaodong, its rustic twig-faced exterior hiding an elegantly finished interior.

The book amply demonstrates the changing nature of functions in library design and also changes in technology and in books themselves. We see the results of trying to discourage those things that endanger books: fire, insects, mold (or, in this book, mould), and theft. We are told that in the beautiful 18th-century libraries at Mafra and Coimbra, both in Portugal, colonies of tiny bats are used to feed on book-destructive beetles. “The only downside is that the bats leave droppings … that need to be cleaned up every morning.” Electronic surveillance systems now play the role once played by locking books away and chaining them to desks. And “damp Alexandria was one of the worst places in Egypt to choose as the site of a great library.”

Missing, intentionally we assume, is Seattle’s much-touted Central Library designed by Rem Koolhaas in 2004, and mentioned but not shown are any of Andrew Carnegie’s roughly two thousand American libraries in which so many of us first fell in love with books. But these omissions are petty compared with the wonders and delights that have been included. Of all these, my guess is that the author’s own favorite may be the marble-clad Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library at Yale, designed by Gordon Bunshaft of Skidmore, Owings & Merrill and finished in 1965. A full-page image of its interior, with the translucent marble furnishing a golden glow, introduces the 20th-century chapter, and Campbell says, “The result [of Bunshaft’s design], executed with great skill, is a space of almost unimaginable power and simplicity.”

Not sidestepped, however, is the topic that casts a shadow over this whole subject. In his preface the author asks “[W]ill this study serve merely as a memorial to a defunct building type?” The book’s final words answer that “… humankind has created an extraordinary variety of spaces in which to read, to think, to dream and to celebrate knowledge. As long as humankind continues to value these activities, it will continue to build places to house them. Whether they will involve books or will still be called libraries, only time will tell.” If indeed what we now know as the library disappears, this book will be the perfect reminder of all that we will have lost.

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