One of the world’s first and most famous libraries, in Alexandria, Egypt, was frequently home some 2,000 years ago to the self-starters and self-employed of that era. “When you look back in history, they had philosophers and mathematicians and all sorts of folks who would get together and solve the problems of their time,” says Tracy Lea, the venture manager with Arizona State University’s economic development and community engagement arm. “We kind of look at it as the first template for the university. They had lecture halls, gathering spaces. They had co-working spaces.”
This old idea of the public library as co-working space now offers a modern answer – one among many – for how these aging institutions could become more relevant two millennia after the original Alexandria library burned to the ground. Would-be entrepreneurs everywhere are looking for business know-how and physical space to incubate their start-ups. Libraries meanwhile may be associated today with an outmoded product in paper books. But they also happen to have just about everything a 21st century innovator could need: Internet access, work space, reference materials, professional guidance.
Libraries also provide a perfect venue to expand the concept of start-up accelerators beyond the renovated warehouses and stylish offices of “innovation districts.” They offer a more familiar entry-point for potential entrepreneurs less likely to walk into a traditional start-up incubator (or an ASU office, for that matter). Public libraries long ago democratized access to knowledge; now they could do the same in a start-up economy.
“We refer to it as democratizing entrepreneurship,” Lea says, “so everyone really can be involved.”
For decades, 20th-century modernists had favored openness in urban planning, maintaining that undue density caused social problems and that expansiveness and green, park-like spaces were healthful and therapeutic. The early 1960s saw a shift away from this thinking, and by this time Rudolph had concluded that open spaces actually caused alienation. Thus he advocated enclosure, believing that it would stimulate strong, positive, emotional responses from individuals and the community. To be sure, Rudolph’s notion of what constituted community was unclear, perhaps because of his intense focus on individuality. To a large extent his notions about urbanism, enclosure, and communal space — mostly an appreciation of the traditional city’s formal, aesthetic qualities — were drawn from City Planning According to Artistic Principles (1889), by the late 19th-century Austrian planner Camillo Sitte.  Rudolph frequently referred to Sitte in articles and lectures and in discussions about urbanism for his Yale studios. Like Sitte, Rudolph believed that buildings that shared walls exemplified tighter, more cohesive urbanism.
Famously employing the term “agoraphobia” to describe the alienating effects of vast open urban spaces, Sitte criticized the psychological impact of conventional planning.  In a way that appealed to the musician in Rudolph — in his youth the architect had aspired to be a concert pianist — Sitte thought the city should be like the stage set for an opera — a Wagnerian Gesamtkunstwerk, a total work of art, with squares and piazzas for civic activities, such as parades and communal festivals, that would have the emotional impact of musical theater directed by a great conductor. These views resonated with Rudolph, and he found especially appealing Sitte’s criticism of conventional planning strategies, of collaboration and bureaucratic organization. “Works of art cannot be created by a committee or through office activity,” Sitte said, “but only by a single individual; an artistically effective city plan is also a work of art and not merely an administrative matter. That is the crux of the whole matter.”