Tag Archives: system

Eye Magazine | Feature | Meta’s tectonic man

Eye Magazine | Feature | Meta’s tectonic man.


FF Meta on the ZVV Nighttime network map, Zurich

Invitation Retail Design Conference, 2012 (FF Meta Serif and FF Meta)

Invitation Retail Design Conference, 2012 (FF Meta Serif and FF Meta)

Stamo ‘Liberalisme’, Belgium, 1996

Stamo ‘Liberalisme’, Belgium, 1996

Book cover Hermann Hesse biography

Book cover Hermann Hesse biography (Suhrkamp)

Erik Spiekermann is a consummate pluralist. Able to move, seemingly without effort, between roles as a typographer, designer, writer, public speaker and merchandiser, he was once even a politician – A Green Party member of the Berlin Senate. Spiekermann is the author of Stop Stealing Sheep and Rhyme & Reason – two models of typographic rectitude for a lay audience – and the articulate upholder of standards of public design in many a conference lecture. He is the designer of Meta, one of the most successful typefaces of this decade, and founder of the typeface distribution company FontShop.


‘I am a typographic designer. A typographic designer starts from the word up; a graphic designer starts from the picture down.’


But how, then, does Spiekermann distinguish his approach from that of an avowed graphic designer such as Gert Dumbar?

‘Dumbar always uses space. He can’t have three-dimensional space because paper is flat, so instead he uses cross-sections – he dissects objects in space and puts them on the flat page. He is a spatial kind of image guy: he thinks in theatrical terms. I think in page terms. The page is the lowest common denominator of the book system. The page is the molecule and the atom is the word. You see, I read. I read before I design, and I write. I design outwards from words.’


His conversation is a stream of aphorism and metaphor. On national stereotypes in graphic design, for instance, we learn: ‘France is olive shaped; Holland is triangular, always very pointy and narrow; Germany is very square; and England is round.’ And on being a designer: ‘I am a servant, I’m not an artist. If I was an artist I would be oval, like an olive.’

As a typographic designer, however, Spiekermann is distinctively quadrilateral. His trademarks are a rectangular or braced bar that bleeds off the page and a palette of just two colours – black and red, in the craft tradition. While he is generous with words, Spiekermann is extremely parsimonious when dispensing colour, shape and typographic variation.


He has written that his intention for Meta was that it be ‘neutral design – not fashionable, nor nostalgic’, yet also ‘unmistakable and characteristic’. As far as is possible, these apparently mutually exclusive aims are resolved in the finished version. Meta has a News Gothic base – neutral – with an exaggerated contrast between bowl and counter-shapes for legibility and highly distinctive curved and flared (or ‘pseudo-serif’) stems. The fact that it has become the height of typographic fashion is ironic rather than blameworthy. Meta is a blue-collar typeface, workmanlike, practical, sleeves rolled up ready to do a job. It is well-balanced, neither pretty nor elegant, pragmatic but not unprincipled – not unlike its maker. Spiekermann is contemptuous of modern type which puts geometric harmony before contrast and therefore before legibility (he means Helvetica) and of highly formalised, theoretical design. ‘I detest Rotis,’ he says with enthusiasm. ‘It’s overstarched, too perfect. I like to leave some dirt in my work, some imperfection. That’s why I like deadlines and budgets, otherwise the work can be too finished.’

‘Legibility is not communication; but in order to communicate type has to be legible’ is a truism with which MetaDesign likes to decorate its stationery. Another company motto, ‘My role is to communicate my client’s message – not my own’, sounds self-righteous until Spiekermann elaborates by adding the notion of interpretation, removing the conceit of objectivity. ‘What I like to do most is to interpret a message so that people can understand it. At the same time I like to add colour, in the journalistic sense, by using colourful language, in my case visual language.’

This is another compromise, between the mechanical constraints of legibility and the creation of a pleasing visual narrative, or simply of variety – legibility is qualified by readability. Information design and public signage have usually been regarded as zones of pure functionality in which there is no need to persuade people to want to read. But according to Spiekermann, the communication of hard information may be enhanced rather than impaired by the stimulation of the brain’s emotional centres. The trick (the word is used advisedly, it implies sleight of hand) is to add colour without sacrificing clarity. You can see the theory in action in MetaDesign’s timetable for the BVG, with its simple elaborated typography bounded by tectonic elements – bars, arrows, circles, each doing a job of signage – and underlaid by a page-sized circle in a contrasting tint out of which the bus number is printed. There is a manifest danger that this will make the timetable harder to read, in direct proportion to the extra visual stimulus it provides. The dilemma is solved by the change of scale between the display and the text faces, which forces the eye to focus on one or the other, rarely both.

The same principle is applied to the signage system for the newly unified Berlin underground and overground railways. MetaDesign exploits the riot of colour provided by the inherited coding of 19 different S-bahn, U-bahn and regional lines and adds to it the favourite brew of squares, pictograms, arrows and bars to grab attention and indicate direction. The result is noisy, a striking contrast to, for instance, Vignelli’s frankly dreary scheme for Milan or his austere, industrial New York subway signage. Does it work? Nobody knows. Sitting and consistency of implementation are at least as important as typography in a system as complex as Berlin’s city transport, yet MetaDesign has had almost no control over the way its work has been used and there has been no systematic evaluation of its success through pilot programmes. Spiekermann regrets this, of course. Many signs are poorly positioned and carry too much information and he would like to know how effective the system is.

The problem with such projects lies in establishing the boundaries of graphic (or typographic) design: where does graphics end and behavioural science begin? And how are clients to be persuaded to give designers greater responsibility? MetaDesign has provided good answers to both these questions in its corporate design work. But in information design, where the client is usually a state enterprise or city council, political manoeuvring and committee mentality foster conservatism. Spiekermann continues to complain that what the subway signs say and where they are placed are beyond his control.

MetaDesign preceded its work for BVG with a subjective study of how people act on the underground. The designers went to the stations, looked and learned, yet Spiekermann remains suspicious of schemes based on objective scientific analysis: ‘You know what to do from experience and intuition. You don’t have to go down the research route. Cognitive science ignores the fact that people are fuzzy, meaning out of focus – they have all sorts of personal preoccupations and don’t all act the same way.’ Spiekermann prefers to rely on his ‘designer’s instinct’, his informal rationalism and non-aligned, undogmatic common sense. Though he can draw on empirical and quantative studies of legibility and has evolved his own heuristic approach to readability, these lack the force to move German bureaucracy.

To recognise that the education of clients is as important as the genius of the designer is to lose innocence, to mature. The complete designer must be acquainted with the baser skills of persuasion, cunning and diplomacy. Spiekermann, who possesses the first two but lacks the third, used to protest too much that jobs turned out badly because of the client’s short-sightedness. Now, when I ask him what are his ambitions for MetaDesign, he responds immediately: ‘We must become more professional.’ This means, for instance, that MetaDesign now employs a psychologist to orchestrate client presentations and to persuade the designers to work in teams.


The method which might be said to be grounded in the principles of typographic design, consists in devising a framework of constants and variables based on proportion, orientation, spatial arrangement, colour and, of course, type, which combine to form a distinctive but flexible system. ‘A system offers an infinite number of possibilities,’ observes Spiekermann, ‘and a scheme is dead.’

Proportion is the fundamental constant. ‘I always use what we call rational proportions,’ says Spiekermann. ‘There are 20 rational rectangles, for example. The golden section is one, the DIN section another, 2:3, 4:3, et cetera. Proportion is the common denominator of any page or surface and it provides the basic discipline, out of which we derive the grid, and then add colour: the grid for reason, the colour for emotion.’ But Spiekermann himself uses only two colours: red and black. He admits that his colour sense is undeveloped: ‘Maybe deliberately so, I don’t know. But I certainly don’t trust it. I know colours are emotional and I don’t want to make a statement exactly about it, but … ’. For once he is nonplussed, because MetaDesign and Spiekermann are no longer synonymous, though he remains its primary force. He recovers, ‘Uli is our colour woman. She’s absolutely brilliant. She spends half an hour with a Pantone book and comes up with amazing colour combinations.’

Colour is used in a confined way, almost always within rational shapes, most commonly the bar or broken rectangle. Usually Spiekermann – or rather MetaDesign, for all its designers follow the same principle – will bleed the bar to provide a dynamic tectonic element which defies the arbitrary confines of the page. This element is common to Spiekermann’s personal card, his type specimen sheets and forms for Berthold, MetaDesign’s stationery, the Berlin city identity, the identity for Cologne-based radio station WDR, the Berlin railway signage, et cetera. The BVG identity does not include the bleed, but only because the client forbade it.

We spent a long time talking about this device, long enough for Spiekermann to begin to bristle. ‘How can we spend so much time talking about a stupid piece of rectangle?’ But is there not a danger that the elements of the system are too repetitious? Might not the DIN style be replaced by an equally ubiquitous Spiekermann style?

The answer combines attack with defence. In attack: ‘The device is used for obvious reason. It’s tectonic: it’s a roof, it’s the slab across the door. The square denotes territory, and it works like a colon, pointing somewhere , and like a hand on a shoulder it is possessive, saying “this belongs to this”; it represents the corporate embrace.’ In defence: ‘I must admit I am always appalled when I’m doing another tectonic element, but the page is tectonic, the page is rectangular – I didn’t invent it. I agree with you, there is a danger. I have a very limited box of tricks, but it is because they are so obvious and so rational. Yet despite this few people use them because they are trying so hard to be clever or to excel, or they simply cannot see the obvious.’

‘Don’t forget,’ he adds, ‘that I have to stay within my cultural framework otherwise I won’t communicate.’ I am reminded that the cultural framework is German. I think of the Lufthansa in-flight magazine I flipped through on the plane, set in three sizes of one weight of Helvetica, looking about as convivial as a mail-order catalogue for plumbing equipment. It helps me to understand why, when contemplating acts of typographic non-conformity as minor as making 7 point caption type bolder rather than lighter, Spiekermann cannot help a devilish glint coming to his eye. In Germany there is a way of doing things and you diverge from the norm – The Deutsche Industrie Normen – only at your peril.

The strength and flexibility of MetaDesign’s systematic approach is evident in the brevity of its corporate design manuals, which tend to contain a set of principles rather than a dictionary of canon law in which the design of every last item of stationery, product packaging or delivery vehicle livery is set in stone. ‘An identity manual is not stable – it must react to change within the company,’ says Mayer. This approach is symptomatic of the way digital production has transformed the nature of corporate design. Creating systems for use by non-designers is now an increasingly important process, as is the implementation of production systems, the installation of templates, logotypes and pi-fonts, and putting database management systems in place. These are all skills Spiekermann has nurtured since his work with Berthold in the mid 1980s. MetaDesign’s practice is based on the belief that without due attention to this larger part of any corporate design programme – consultation, implementation, training and maintenance – its visible manifestation will be weak and incomplete. The method exposes the fallacy that graphic design is solely about the creation of good-looking visual images – here it is as much about enabling others to create. In stark contrast with the heroic designer / client relationship of the past in which the designer sought direct access to an aristocratic chief executive, MetaDesign seeks consultation at every level in order to command support and participation. As a consequence, its solutions have tended to towards distributed, modular forms and away from monolithic identities.


MetaDesign is marked by consistent ingenuity and quality – Qualität, to use the nation’s favourite expression – rather than by creativity or pictorial brilliance. Indeed, its pictorial work is sometimes heavy and unimaginative by British or Dutch standards, but like Spiekermann himself, most of its designers are trained to start from the word rather than from the image. As Spiekermann says, ‘I provide the grammar. I’m the modest guy in the background. Nobody ever said, “Wow, what a great grid”.’

MetaDesign’s character is derived to a large extent from Spiekermann’s own motivation, which is the promotion of a high standard of public life rather than the private pursuit of transient beauty. He says he became a designer to change things that annoyed him as a citizen: ‘I use the underground every day, I use forms every day, I use my city every day. Street furniture, signage advertising – their standard is a measure of the quality of life. That’s why design, that kind of design, is so important to me – it is the interpreting of data, it is making the world accessible.’


Spiekermann is clearly happiest when the words he communicates can be seen to serve the public good. I suspect that in this respect, he is a citizen before he is a designer. He undoubtedly adheres to notions of ‘good taste’ and is something of an aesthete, but if the typographic designer in him has any moral superiority, it lies in his conviction that the meaning of words is more important than how they look. What words look like matters so that they will be noticed and understood. For Spiekermann, typographic rigour is about the preservation of literacy and efficient communication and not, as with some other sticklers in his own country and abroad, a fetish for what is pure and correct.


An Idea Whose Time Has Come – Metropolis Magazine – June 2013

An Idea Whose Time Has Come – Metropolis Magazine – June 2013.

Billy Wilder’s The Apartment


Living Office concept by Herman Miller

In Billy Wilder’s 1960 comedy The Apartment, an anatomization of sex and power in the white-collar workplace that anticipated Mad Men by half a century, the great director offered a brutally funny, spot-on portrait of the postwar office, depicting the fictitious Consolidated Life of New York as a cornfield-size, perfectly rectilinear grid of anonymous, identical desks. How long ago and far away that seems. Though in places the old model still prevails, today’s ideal office paradigm could not be more different: fluid rather than fixed, less hierarchical and more egalitarian, and encouraging (mostly) of individuality, creativity, and choice.

A new story requires a new stage, and into this brave new world comes Herman Miller’s Living Office, the initial components of which the Zeeland, Michigan, furniture company is introducing at this year’s edition of NeoCon. The first wave of an anticipated two-year rollout, the Living Office’s first three product portfolios—called PUBLIC Office Landscape, Metaform Portfolio, and Locale, and designed, respectively, by fuseproject, Studio 7.5, and Industrial Facility—represent the company’s carefully considered response, not only to the ways in which a changed business culture has transformed workplace design, but to where our personal aspirations may be headed, and how the office can support them.

It’s a resolutely forward-looking vision. Yet this emphasis on what the company calls “human-centered problem-solving” has been the hallmark of Herman Miller since 1930, when Gilbert Rohde, its first design director, famously declared, “The most important thing in the room is not the furniture—it’s the people.”

In fact, the past is prologue to the Living Office in a central way—specifically, a slender, significant book, published in 1968, called The Office: A Facility Based on Change, by Robert Propst, at the time the company’s head of research. Under George Nelson, the second design director, Herman Miller had produced many of postwar America’s most iconic objects, by the likes of Charles and Ray Eames, Isamu Noguchi, and others, including Nelson himself. But by the late 1950s, the residential and commercial businesses had plateaued, and the company’s out-of-the-box-thinking president D.J. DePree began casting about for untapped revenue streams. DePree discovered Propst at the 1958 Aspen Design Conference, and was immediately taken with the artist/teacher/inventor. “Propst was truly brilliant, an innovative thinker,” explains Mark Schurman, Herman Miller’s corporate communications director. “D.J. figured, ‘We’ll set him up with a research division, and he’ll find new opportunities.’ One of his first directives was, ‘Anything but furniture.’”

Despite the company’s mandate, Propst became increasingly absorbed by the idea of reinventing the office, an interest that dovetailed with Nelson’s, who as early as 1948 had talked about the ideal working environment being a “daytime living room” that would be welcoming and humane. Propst, too, concerned himself with the human factor—specifically how flexible floor plans and porous, intercommunicating spaces might empower both the individual and the organization.


Action Office II’s 12 “principles of operation,” encouraged a workplace in which “the individual can participate in goal setting and thus behave like a manager at any level.” Propst’s environment remained “responsive to the goals of the user,” changed gracefully and with minimal disruption, and enabled rapid replanning. It also thrived on contrast: between neatness and chaos, sitting and standing, solitude and collaboration, privacy and community, and, critically, “geometry versus humanism”—that is, a traditional, grid-based floor plan versus a more organic layout.


Alas—and despite Propst’s injunction against the “four-sided enclosure”—by the late 1970s, the dominant application of the Action Office (and its multiple imitations) had become that most despised of office conditions: the cubicle. Propst, who died in 2000, had sought to liberate humankind from the grid, but his invention wound up locking the worker even more tightly into it.

Yet good ideas die hard, and the Living Office—which expresses Propst’s vision in a new-century way—suggests that, 45 years on, it’s an idea whose time has come. For one, when the Action Office appeared, the world depicted in Wilder’s film had its roots in the blue-collar assembly line, an essentially Victorian model. “There was a small group of people who made decisions, and a whole lot of people lined up executing,” says Greg Parsons, Herman Miller’s vice president of New Work Landscape. Today, Parsons points out, “the office is a facility based on creativity, and we need an organizational structure that reflects that.” As well, the anchoring effects of technology, which worsened in the 1980s and 1990s as ever more devices appeared, have been swept away in our wireless world. Both philosophically and physically, the office is far more flexibility-friendly than it was a half-century ago.

No less important is what might be called the Marissa Mayer Effect. Though the Yahoo! CEO’s ban on work-from-home may have been poorly handled, according to Gary Smith, director of design facilitation and exploration at Herman Miller, her point was powerful. “We’re talking about a shift of emphasis, away from housing and technology, capabilities that could exist only in the office,” Smith explains. “Now there’s a different thing that can exist only in the office, and that’s my access to you. I want to tap your potential, because what humans do best is connect and communicate”—something the Living Office is meant to encourage, by creating a multiplicity of differently scaled settings and making the connections between them more logical, adjustable, and fluid.

In keeping with its people-first philosophy, the company focused its predesign research on gathering insight, not information. “Research will expose the manifest behavior of a population, but it won’t reveal innovation,” observes Smith. Instead, Parsons says, “We asked, ‘What’s going on in the world? What’s fundamental about all human beings, and what do they really want to do?’” Toward this end, Herman Miller engaged in a process that Maryln Walton, of the insight and exploration group, describes as “informed dreaming.” Since 2001, the company has completed three rounds of scenarios, in which it looks five years ahead at potential futures; these enable the company to think about how the world might change, and adjust its product development and business strategies accordingly. The brainstorming process begins with a dozen people from different parts of the organization, followed by a two-day “expert workshop” with six individuals representing multiple disciplines—the most recent, which looked ahead to 2018, included two cultural anthropologists, a specialist in Asian HR policies, and a political science professor—to challenge the in-house assumptions.

The team then takes what it’s learned and imagines (and reimagines) the future until it arrives at three possible scenarios. For 2018, these include Datasphere, which looks at how the digital information generated by individuals worldwide can be innovatively repurposed; New Normal, a consideration of potential push-back against organizations, institutions, and governments; and Polarized World, in which the U.S. and China emerge as the two great economic powers. “We ran workshops with groups of people thinking about each scenario,” Walton says. “Then we spent a lot of time synthesizing the results, and developed what we believe are likely workplace realities in 2018.”

These realities— called propositions—are the gold nuggets sieved from the sand of the scenarios. “We don’t think any one of the three stories will come true,” says Walton. “But the eight propositions are things that we really believe.”


PUBLIC Office Landscape
Yves Behar & fuseproject

We found this statistic: 70 percent of collaboration happens at the workstation. This hit me like lightning, and I wrote on the project wall: “THE MAJORITY OF COLLABORATION HAPPENS AT THE DESK, YET DESKS HAVE NEVER BEEN DESIGNED FOR INTERACTION.” Our approach became to think of every place in the office, including one’s individual desk, as a place for collaboration. We came up with the notion of Social Desking.


We believe collaboration doesn’t just happen in conference rooms—it happens everywhere. PUBLIC Office Landscape supports fluid interactions and spontaneous conversations. The seating elements flow into desk surfaces, the fabric elements flow cleanly into hard surfaces. The result is a visual connection that encourages new functionality and casual postures.


“We’re trying to create Living Office products that function in group and community as well as individual zones,” Katie Lane, Herman Miller’s director of product development, tells me as we tour the cheerfully cluttered, bustling obeya space, the company’s fancy name (obeya is Japanese for “big room”) for the R&D skunkworks in its Design Yard, one of several facilities scattered around Zeeland. PUBLIC Office Landscape, the first system Lane showed me, supports areas in which two to six people typically cluster, and is designed specifically “for knowledge transfer and cocreation to occur,” she says. The heart of PUBLIC is the Social Chair, which supports the casual nature of the contemporary workplace by elevating the ergonomic levels of what looks at a glance like hip lawn furniture. Equally suited to perching, slouching, or sitting on the arm rests, the Social Chair, which can be easily pulled up to a desk or arranged in clusters, invites the quick chat or collaborative bull session, and supports what fuseproject principal Yves Behar (noting that “70 percent of short meetings happen at a person’s desk”) calls “collaborative density.” PUBLIC Office Landscape also speaks to one of the most compelling of the 2018 propositions: Swarm-Focused Work, in which—like bees—groups of individuals quickly zoom together to one spot to accomplish tasks.

Metaform Portfolio
Studio 7.5

Our approach was based on our observations in American offices: We saw a shift from individual to collaborative work patterns, we saw the walls being lowered to 42 inches to introduce natural light to the floor plan. We observed a huge amount of content and the transactions associated with work moved to the digital realm, leaving drawers and cabinets empty. We were looking for an environment to support the creative class.


Metaform Portfolio addresses a proposition called Hackable and Kinetic Nodes, a vision of the workplace as a campsite that can be arranged opportunistically and moved when necessary. The design challenge, according to Studio 7.5’s Carola Zwick, involved achieving “an architectural quality that can still be transformed by the inhabitants, since traditional planning cycles miss the needs and dynamics of today’s knowledge workers.” Accordingly, Metaform’s core element is a tiered block of polypropylene, weighing about 18 pounds, which can be combined with identical units to create a semi-enclosed space. The arrangement Lane shows me is formed into a half-circle, with squiggly shelves called Centipedes cantilevered off the tiers, and magazines and work displays tucked into the narrow spaces between them. An adjustable-height table, large enough for small-group collaboration, bisects the half-circle. Vertical versions of the shelving—called Vertipedes—are connected to the top tier and provide light visual screening.

Industrial Facility

In our office, we all travel from our own neighborhoods to a place where we can collaborate in person, so we thought: Why not design an office landscape that behaves like a good neighborhood? In our first thoughts we talked a lot about how social networks behave. Locale is a physical version of how social networks function; the most relevant participants are kept close so that communication is easy, fast, and frequent.

Locale works like a small high street where everything you need is clustered together. The architect or specifier can build small clusters out of different functional modules to form what we call a Workbase, so that the disparate functions of the office reside comfortably together. The library, social setting, working desk, and meeting table are al formed into an architectonic line.

In Sam Hecht and Kim Colin’s Locale, “individual work areas mix with group and collaborative elements to give a high-performance team everything it needs within a neighborhood on the floorplate,” Lane explains, leading me into a zone shaped by standing-height screens, storage/shelving units incorporating sliding easels, and with a low circular coffee table, stand-alone refreshment center, and a row of curved adjustable-height desks. Locale grew out of what Hecht calls an “autobiographical approach” to design, wherein he and Colin thought about how unnatural it felt to have an impromptu get-together in their own office. “You’re sitting, they’re standing, it’s not very productive,” he explains. “We wanted to create a system in which people would collaborate very naturally—every table can be a meeting table.”


Greg Parsons recalls, “We came up with ten modes of work that are repeated in virtually every organization”—including “administer,” “contemplate,” “create,” “quick chat,” “converse,” “warm up/cool down,” and “gather and build”—“and tied them to the kinds of settings we can create,” he says.

Once an organization’s programmatic needs are understood, and what the mix of work modes might be, Gee’s group develops study plans that suggest how an office’s square footage can be best apportioned. The ones she showed me resemble urban site plans, which seems appropriate: A well-functioning business environment, after all, is akin to a neighborhood, different parts of which cater to varying needs and interactions. “Our team uses a lot of urban planning metaphors when we talk about this,” Gee says. “Because getting the settings right is just part of the equation. That would be like getting one building right in a whole city.”

fantastic journal: On the limits of anthropomorphic machines

fantastic journal: On the limits of anthropomorphic machines part 1

part 2

I spend an awful lot of time watching Thomas the Tank Engine. To be more precise I spend a lot of time with someone who spends an awful lot of time watching Thomas the Tank Engine. My (nearly) three year old son is obsessed by it; he sleeps with his Thomas trains, eats with a Thomas knife and fork and wears Thomas pyjamas. The words to the Thomas songs comprise almost his entire vocabulary.


I’ve spent a lot of time wondering about the roots of my son’s obsession. I’m fairly sure that he’s unaware of the antiquarian nature of steam trains or that the setting is nominally in a slightly distant past. My son doesn’t seem to care that there are aren’t any traction engines to be found anymore or that men don’t dress in spats and a top hat like the Fat Controller. In that sense the appeal of the books might genuinely be considered timeless. The world they depict is somehow complete enough in itself to form a hermetic, self-sustaining universe.

As any parent knows, children are Utopians. They construct fantasy worlds that run on rules of their own devising. These rules are often rigidly inflexible and uncompromising. The appeal of Thomas then might lie in the precise logic of an imaginary railway network. The simple rules that underpin the movement and actions of the trains might also be the part that makes them so successful. The engines themselves have very limited scope for independent action. They can move forwards and backwards, speed up and down, occasionally break down or have an accident but that’s about it. They can’t fight, or dance or play football or run. They don’t chase villains or solve mysteries and they have no special powers. Although they have been anthropomorphised they remain far more train than human. They are in many ways merely extensions of the way that we often attribute human characteristics to machines, giving them names and celebrating their faults as charming idiosyncrasies.

The engines also depend on humans for operation. In the original stories the relationship of the trains to their drivers and guards is very carefully delineated. It does not intrude so much that the trains become ‘simply’ machines but neither are they allowed any genuine independence. They can only deviate from the control of their human operators to a limited degree, normally with fairly disastrous results. These limitations also extend to the minimal nature of the stories where a fallen tree or a faulty turntable provides pretty much the only narrative hook. The legendarily boring nature of the stories is actually cleverly consistent with the repetitive nature of the engine’s tasks. The text mirrors this, repeating simple phrases in a way that is analogous to the movements of the trains. “Clickety clack went the trucks”, “We did it together, we did it together” etc.

Alongside this physically limited universe is an equally restricting moral one. Unsurprisingly perhaps given the identity of the author of the stories, the Thomas books are filled with simple pieties and swift retribution for crimes and misdemeanors. Instructions and justice are metered out by the all-powerful Fat Controller. Sometimes they get abandoned, like Duke the Lost Engine, or decommissioned or even on occasion cut up for scrap. A bleak Victorian morality hangs over the stories allowing for sentimentality and indulgence but only up to a point and only after the work has been done. The aspiration for the all the engines is to be considered “really useful”, a reward that that confirms both their status as machines and their role within an over-arching morality of duty.

The TV series of Thomas remained faithful to both the storylines and the moral universe of the books for some time. The fact that it was filmed using an actual model railway gave it in some ways an even greater degree of fidelity to the concept than the original illustrated books. If the model trains couldn’t do something then neither could the ones in the stories. The wobbly, home-made aesthetic of the model railway became part of the series’ ‘charm’, an anachronistic 1950’s toy used to recreate the equally anachronistic world of 1950’s steam engines.

More recently the series has been introducing new characters, partly as a way of boosting merchandise sales but also in order to create new plot lines. The relatively recent switch to CGI has produced a more decisive shift though. In contrast to the earlier stories, recent feature length Thomas’ have involved the discovery of lost towns, psychotically deranged diesel engines and journeys to magic islands. This expansion beyond the tightly controlled constraints of the original books pushes the logic of the series’ scenario beyond plausible limits.

In Misty Island Rescue, for instance, Thomas is set adrift on a raft at sea, eventually running ashore on an island that appears to be in the deep south of America. Even more bizarrely, when Thomas’ raft hits the beach the engine rolls straight onto a conveniently placed set of tracks running directly out of the water. Later on Thomas discovers some kind of portal or short-cut between Sodor and Misty Island via a vast hollowed out tree trunk. In other recent films Thomas discovers lost towns (The Great Discovery), battles evil baddies (Day of the Diesels) and travels through yet another portal to a contemporary mid-Western village called Shining Time (Thomas and the Magic Railroad).

These fantastical adventures cause a kind of conceptual crisis in Thomas’ carefully controlled universe. His actions are no longer those of a railway engine stuck shunting trucks but of a buccaneering adventurer. The Reverend Awdry’s pedantic fidelity to the movements of steam engines and railway lines is long gone. The driver and guard have become like those film crews accompanying TV explorers, something that it’s convenient to forget about lest they spoilt the mystique. It’s no coincidence that this capitulation to pure fantasy has come about at the same time as a shift from real-time modeling to CGI. Computer rendering allows Thomas the physical and conceptual freedom to inhabit any kind of environment in more or less any way. Thomas has moved from being an anthropomorphised machine into a human being who just happens to look like a train.

The first half of this post wasn’t intended as a rant against CGI, although it’s true to say that the original Thomas drawings are for more subtle and beautiful than the current animations. The development of computer animation has created a renaissance in children’s movies, particularly from the Pixar studio. It’s interesting then that Pixar’s own fantasy world creations are also most successful when operating in a similarly plausible but defined universe to that of the Railway Series.

Much of the humour and pathos of the Toy Story movies, for example, emanates from a tension between what the toys can and can’t do, and from the fact that they are restricted to a series of plausible movements. Their ability to stretch (Slinky Dog), disassemble themselves (Mr Potato Head) and organise military operations (Bucket O Soldiers) provides action sequences within precise physical limitations Equally important to the storyline is what the toys can’t do, such as Buzz Lightyear’s various heartbreaking attempts to fly. They may be ‘alive’ but they also only exist within a logical extension of their ‘toyness’. As in Salvador Dali’s Paranoiac Critical method, an absurd fantasy (of the toys being alive but still toys) is pursued with complete logic throughout.

The toys also clearly inhabit a human world although they fight for independence within it. This is in contrast to the recent Cars franchise which, interestingly, runs into many of the same problems as the new Thomas. Like Thomas, the Cars concept depends on the anthropomorphisation of machines. Unlike Thomas though the machines in Cars inhabit a people-less world, one where they have replaced the roles, characteristics and foibles of the absent humans. This conceit is wittily explored in the first film both visually (vans that look like Elvis, radiator grill moustaches that suggest redneck tendencies etc.) and structurally (a town designed by and for cars).

The action of the first film is confined to very limited spheres, essentially either the stadium in which the cars race or the isolated desert town of Radiator Springs. The choice of the town’s location is important because it avoids all sorts of contradictions that would occur in a larger and more pedestrian – and thus human – orientated realm. The functions of the buildings in Radiator Springs have been altered so that the generic Italian restaurant has become a garage and the petrol station the local drive-in. This is a car-based universe and nothing breaks the logic or the suspension of disbelief required to follow their anthropomorphised autonomy.

In the second Cars film the action has become global and follows the World Grand Prix, a series of races held in well-known cities. This creates a conceptual problem in that the cities (London, Paris, Tokyo etc) need to be rendered both plausibly recognisable and consistent with a people-less universe. Subtle scale changes are made to the sizes of doorways for instance and humour is found in car based versions of human spaces such as the rough local pub ‘inhabited’ by taxis and delivery trucks. And although famous landmarks have been rather fabulously ‘motorised’ (as detailed here) it remains impossible to imagine what they might actually be for.

But the film still begs some fairly fundamental questions which threaten to derail it entirely. What happens in the mansard roofs of those Parisian apartments? Why have upper floors at all? Who are the double-decker buses for? Not only that but the cars themselves are thrown into a full-on spoof spy movie where they fly through the air, set off booby traps and engage in tyre-to-tyre combat Jason Bourne style. As the cars have become more human, moving beyond simply being machines with characters, the absence of humans becomes oddly more telling.

Not only does the construction of an alternative car based society need precise rules to work but the humour depends on the careful substitution of one set of rules for another. The way that cars move, the things that they can and can’t do is very important. When they can fly through the air firing machine guns and foiling international villains their car-ness becomes far less implausible (of course) but also less important. Similarly, when they inhabit an environment whose underlying logic is clearly man-made (stairs, attics, Georgian windows etc), the suspension of disbelief evaporates.

In a sense, the moral universe inhabited by the Cars is every bit as pervasive as the one in Thomas the Tank Engine. The world of duty, obedience and responsibility delineated in Thomas is no less insufferable than the homilies about friendship and staying true to oneself in Cars. There is a confused environmental narrative at the heart of the Cars storyline too, presumably as an attempt to ameliorate the obsession with motor racing to start with. But children’s stories always have an explicitly moral message. The creation of alternative worlds be they miniature, anthropomorphic or whatever, allows for the creation of precise rules and limits. These serve not only to contain the fantasy but to communicate the ethical dilemmas the stories rehearse.

The ‘system’ which underpins the action is a kind of machine itself, a metaphor for a functioning moral universe where things have their place and people understand their role. Tests to the stability of this universe form the narrative for individual stories, helping ultimately to reinforce the desirability of the system to start with. Character’s that deviate from their roles are punished in the end and learn to accept certain limits to their freedom. This is why Thomas the Tank Engine is such a brilliant conception for children’s stories.

Library as Infrastructure: Places: Design Observer

Library as Infrastructure: Places: Design Observer.

Melvil Dewey was a one-man Silicon Valley born a century before Steve Jobs. He was the quintessential Industrial Age entrepreneur, but unlike the Carnegies and Rockefellers, with their industries of heavy materiality and heavy labor, Dewey sold ideas. His ambition revealed itself early: in 1876, shortly after graduating from Amherst College, he copyrighted his library classification scheme. That same year, he helped found the American Library Association, served as founding editor of Library Journal, and launched the American Metric Bureau, which campaigned for adoption of the metric system. He was 24 years old. He had already established the Library Bureau, a company that sold (and helped standardize) library supplies, furniture, media display and storage devices, and equipment for managing the circulation of collection materials. Its catalog (which would later include another Dewey invention, the hanging vertical file) represented the library as a “machine” of uplift and enlightenment that enabled proto-Taylorist approaches to public education and the provision of social services. As chief librarian at Columbia College, Dewey established the first library school — called, notably, the School of Library Economy — whose first class was 85% female; then he brought the school to Albany, where he directed the New York State Library. In his spare time, he founded the Lake Placid Club and helped win the bid for the 1932 Winter Olympics.

Dewey was thus simultaneously in the furniture business, the office-supply business, the consulting business, the publishing business, the education business, the human resources business, and what we might today call the “knowledge solutions” business. Not only did he recognize the potential for monetizing and cross-promoting his work across these fields; he also saw that each field would be the better for it. His career (which was not without its significant controversies) embodied a belief that classification systems and labeling standards and furniture designs and people work best when they work towards the same end — in other words, that intellectual and material systems and labor practices are mutually constructed and mutually reinforcing.

Today’s libraries, Apple-era versions of the Dewey/Carnegie institution, continue to materialize, at multiple scales, their underlying bureaucratic and epistemic structures — from the design of their web interfaces to the architecture of their buildings to the networking of their technical infrastructures. This has been true of knowledge institutions throughout history, and it will be true of our future institutions, too. I propose that thinking about the library as a network of integrated, mutually reinforcing, evolving infrastructures — in particular, architectural, technological, social, epistemological and ethical infrastructures — can help us better identify what roles we want our libraries to serve, and what we can reasonably expect of them. What ideas, values and social responsibilities can we scaffold within the library’s material systems — its walls and wires, shelves and servers?

Library as Platform

For millennia libraries have acquired resources, organized them, preserved them and made them accessible (or not) to patrons. But the forms of those resources have changed — from scrolls and codices; to LPs and LaserDiscs; to e-books, electronic databases and open data sets. Libraries have had at least to comprehend, if not become a key node within, evolving systems of media production and distribution. Consider the medieval scriptoria where manuscripts were produced; the evolution of the publishing industry and book trade after Gutenberg; the rise of information technology and its webs of wires, protocols and regulations. [1] At every stage, the contexts — spatial, political, economic, cultural — in which libraries function have shifted; so they are continuously reinventing themselves and the means by which they provide those vital information services.

Libraries have also assumed a host of ever-changing social and symbolic functions. They have been expected to symbolize the eminence of a ruler or state, to integrally link “knowledge” and “power” — and, more recently, to serve as “community centers,” “public squares” or “think tanks.” Even those seemingly modern metaphors have deep histories. The ancient Library of Alexandria was a prototypical think tank, [2] and the early Carnegie buildings of the 1880s were community centers with swimming pools and public baths, bowling alleys, billiard rooms, even rifle ranges, as well as book stacks. [3] As the Carnegie funding program expanded internationally — to more than 2,500 libraries worldwide — secretary James Bertram standardized the design in his 1911 pamphlet “Notes on the Erection of Library Buildings,” which offered grantees a choice of six models, believed to be the work of architect Edward Tilton. Notably, they all included a lecture room.

In short, the library has always been a place where informational and social infrastructures intersect within a physical infrastructure that (ideally) supports that program.

Now we are seeing the rise of a new metaphor: the library as “platform” — a buzzy word that refers to a base upon which developers create new applications, technologies and processes. In an influential 2012 article in Library Journal, David Weinberger proposed that we think of libraries as “open platforms” — not only for the creation of software, but also for the development of knowledge and community. [4] Weinberger argued that libraries should open up their entire collections, all their metadata, and any technologies they’ve created, and allow anyone to build new products and services on top of that foundation. The platform model, he wrote, “focuses our attention away from the provisioning of resources to the foment” — the “messy, rich networks of people and ideas” — that “those resources engender.” Thus the ancient Library of Alexandria, part of a larger museum with botanical gardens, laboratories, living quarters and dining halls, was a platform not only for the translation and copying of myriad texts and the compilation of a magnificent collection, but also for the launch of works by Euclid, Archimedes, Eratosthenes and their peers.

Yet the platform metaphor has limitations. For one thing, it smacks of Silicon Valley entrepreneurial epistemology, which prioritizes “monetizable” “knowledge solutions.” Further, its association with new media tends to bracket out the similarly generative capacities of low-tech, and even non-technical, library resources. One key misperception of those who proclaim the library’s obsolescence is that its function as a knowledge institution can be reduced to its technical services and information offerings. Knowledge is never solely a product of technology and the information it delivers.

Another problem with the platform model is the image it evokes: a flat, two-dimensional stage on which resources are laid out for users to do stuff with. The platform doesn’t have any implied depth, so we’re not inclined to look underneath or behind it, or to question its structure. Weinberger encourages us to “think of the library not as a portal we go through on occasion but as infrastructure that is as ubiquitous and persistent as the streets and sidewalks of a town.” It’s like a “canopy,” he says — or like a “cloud.” But these metaphors are more poetic than critical; they obfuscate all the wires, pulleys, lights and scaffolding that you inevitably find underneath and above that stage — and the casting, staging and direction that determine what happens on the stage, and that allow it to function as a stage. Libraries are infrastructures not only because they are ubiquitous and persistent, but also, and primarily, because they are made of interconnected networks that undergird all that foment, that create what Pierre Bourdieu would call “structuring structures” that support Weinberger’s “messy, rich networks of people and ideas.”

It can be instructive for our libraries publics’ — and critical for our libraries’ leaders — to assess those structuring structures. In this age of e-books, smartphones, firewalls, proprietary media platforms and digital rights management; of atrophying mega-bookstores and resurgent independent bookshops and a metastasizing Amazon; of Google Books and Google Search and Google Glass; of economic disparity and the continuing privatization of public space and services — which is simultaneously an age of democratized media production and vibrant DIY and activist cultures — libraries play a critical role as mediators, at the hub of all the hubbub. Thus we need to understand how our libraries function as, and as part of, infrastructural ecologies — as sites where spatial, technological, intellectual and social infrastructures shape and inform one another. And we must consider how those infrastructures can embody the epistemological, political, economic and cultural values that we want to define our communities.

Library as Social Infrastructure
Public libraries are often seen as “opportunity institutions,” opening doors to, and for, the disenfranchised. [6] People turn to libraries to access the internet, take a GED class, get help with a resumé or job search, and seek referrals to other community resources. A recent report by the Center for an Urban Future highlighted the benefits to immigrants, seniors, individuals searching for work, public school students and aspiring entrepreneurs: “No other institution, public or private, does a better job of reaching people who have been left behind in today’s economy, have failed to reach their potential in the city’s public school system or who simply need help navigating an increasingly complex world.” [7]


Partly because of their skill in reaching populations that others miss, libraries have recently reported record circulation and visitation, despite severe budget cuts, decreased hours and the threatened closure or sale of “underperforming” branches.


Libraries also bring communities together in times of calamity or disaster. Toyo Ito, architect of the acclaimed Sendai Mediatheque, recalled that after the 2011 earthquake in Japan, local officials reopened the library quickly even though it had sustained minor damage, “because it functions as a kind of cultural refuge in the city.” He continued, “Most people who use the building are not going there just to read a book or watch a film; many of them probably do not have any definite purpose at all. They go just to be part of the community in the building.” [10]

We need to attend more closely to such “social infrastructures,” the “facilities and conditions that allow connection between people,” says sociologist Eric Klinenberg. In a recent interview, he argued that urban resilience can be measured not only by the condition of transit systems and basic utilities and communication networks, but also by the condition of parks, libraries and community organizations: “open, accessible, and welcoming public places where residents can congregate and provide social support during times of need but also every day.” [11] In his book Heat Wave, Klinenberg noted that a vital public culture in Chicago neighborhoods drew people out of sweltering apartments during the 1995 heat wave, and into cooler public spaces, thus saving lives.

The need for physical spaces that promote a vibrant social infrastructure presents many design opportunities, and some libraries are devising innovative solutions. Brooklyn and other cultural institutions have partnered with the Uni, a modular, portable library that I wrote about earlier in this journal. And modular solutions — kits of parts — are under consideration in a design study sponsored by the Center for an Urban Future and the Architectural League of New York, which aims to reimagine New York City’s library branches so that they can more efficiently and effectively serve their communities. CUF also plans to publish, at the end of June, an audit of, and a proposal for, New York’s three library systems. [12] New York Times architecture critic Michael Kimmelman, reflecting on the roles played by New York libraries during recent hurricanes, goes so far as to suggest that the city’s branch libraries, which have “become our de facto community centers,” “could be designed in the future with electrical systems out of harm’s way and set up with backup generators and solar panels, even kitchens and wireless mesh networks.”


I’ve recently returned from Seattle, where I revisited OMA’s Central Library on its 10th anniversary and toured several new branch libraries. [15] Under the 1998 bond measure “Libraries for All,” citizens voted to tax themselves to support construction of the Central Library and four new branches, and to upgrade every branch in the system. The vibrant, sweeping Ballard branch (2005), by Bohlin Cywinski Jackson, includes a separate entrance for the Ballard Neighborhood Service Center, a “little city hall“ where residents can find information about public services, get pet licenses, pay utility bills, and apply for passports and city jobs. While the librarians undoubtedly field questions about such services, they’re also able to refer patrons next door, where city employees are better equipped to meet their needs — thus affording the library staff more time to answer reference questions and host writing groups and children’s story hours.


These entrepreneurial models reflect what seems to be an increasingly widespread sentiment: that while libraries continue to serve a vital role as “opportunity institutions” for the disenfranchised, this cannot be their primary self-justification. They cannot duplicate the responsibilities of our community centers and social service agencies. “Their narrative” — or what I’d call an “epistemic framing,” by which I mean the way the library packages its program as a knowledge institution, and the infrastructures that support it — “must include everyone,” says the University of Michigan’s Kristin Fontichiaro. [19] What programs and services are consistent with an institution dedicated to lifelong learning? Should libraries be reconceived as hubs for civic engagement, where communities can discuss local issues, create media, and archive community history? [20] Should they incorporate media production studios, maker-spaces and hacker labs, repositioning themselves in an evolving ecology of information and educational infrastructures?

These new social functions — which may require new physical infrastructures to support them — broaden the library’s narrative to include everyone, not only the “have-nots.” This is not to say that the library should abandon the needy and focus on an elite patron group; rather, the library should incorporate the “enfranchised” as a key public, both so that the institution can reinforce its mission as a social infrastructure for an inclusive public, and so that privileged, educated users can bring their knowledge and talents to the library and offer them up as social-infrastructural resources.

Many among this well-resourced population — those who have jobs and home internet access and can navigate the government bureaucracy with relative ease — already see themselves as part of the library’s public. They regard the library as a space of openness, egalitarianism and freedom (in multiple senses of the term), within a proprietary, commercial, segregated and surveilled landscape. They understand that no matter how well-connected they are, they actually don’t have the world at their fingertips — that “material protected by stringent copyright and held in proprietary databases is often inaccessible outside libraries” and that, “as digital rights management becomes ever more complicated, we … rely even more on our libraries to help us navigate an increasingly fractured and litigious digital terrain.” [21] And they recognize that they cannot depend on Google to organize the world’s information. As the librarian noted in that discussion on Metafilter:

The [American Library Association] has a proven history of commitment to intellectual freedom. The public service that we’ve been replaced with has a spotty history of “not being evil.” When we’re gone, you middle class, you wealthy, you tech-savvy, who will fight for that with no profit motivation? Even if you never step foot in our doors, and all of your media comes to a brightly lit screen, we’re still working for you.

The library’s social infrastructure thus benefits even those who don’t have an immediate need for its space or its services.

Finally, we must acknowledge the library’s role as a civic landmark — a symbol of what a community values highly enough to place on a prominent site, to materialize in dignified architecture that communicates its openness to everyone, and to support with sufficient public funding despite the fact that it’ll never make a profit. A well-designed library — a contextually-designed library — can reflect a community’s character back to itself, clarifying who it is, in all its multiplicity, and what it stands for. [22] David Adjaye’s Bellevue and Francis Gregory branch libraries, in historically underserved neighborhoods of Washington D.C., have been lauded for performing precisely this function. As Sarah Williams Goldhagen writes:

Adjaye is so attuned to the nuances of urban context that one might be hard pressed to identify them as the work of one designer. Francis Gregory is steel and glass, Bellevue is concrete and wood. Francis Gregory presents a single monolithic volume, Bellevue an irregular accretion of concrete pavilions. Context drives the aesthetic.

His designs “make of this humble municipal building an arena for social interaction, …a distinctive civic icon that helps build a sense of common identity.” This kind of social infrastructure serves a vital need for an entire community.

Library as Technological-Intellectual Infrastructure
Of course, we must not forget the library collection itself. The old-fashioned bookstack was at the center of the recent debate over the proposed renovation of the New York Public Library’s Schwartzman Building on 42nd Street, which was cancelled last month after more than a year of lawsuits and protests. This storage infrastructure, and the delivery system it accommodates, have tremendous significance even in a digital age. For scholars, the stacks represent near-instant access to any materials within the extensive collection. Architectural historians defended the historical significance of the stacks, and engineers argued that they are critical to the structural integrity of the building.

The way a library’s collection is stored and made accessible shapes the intellectual infrastructure of the institution. The Seattle Public Library uses translucent acrylic bookcases made by Spacesaver — and even here this seemingly mundane, utilitarian consideration cultivates a character, an ambience, that reflects the library’s identity and its intellectual values. It might sound corny, but the luminescent glow permeating the stacks acts as a beacon, a welcoming gesture. There are still many contemporary libraries that privilege — perhaps even fetishize — the book and the bookstack: take MVRDV’s Book Mountain (2012), for a town in the Netherlands; or TAX arquitectura’s Biblioteca Jose Vasconcelos (2006) in Mexico City.

Stacks occupy a different, though also fetishized, space in Helmut Jahn’s Mansueto Library (2011) at the University of Chicago, which mixes diverse infrastructures to accommodate media of varying materialities: a grand reading room, a conservation department, a digitization department, and a subterranean warehouse of books retrieved by robot. (It’s worth noting that Boston and other libraries contained book railways and conveyer belt retrieval systems — proto-robots — a century ago.) Snøhetta’s James B. Hunt Jr. Library (2013) at North Carolina State University also incorporates a robotic storage and retrieval system, so that the library can store more books on site, as well as meet its goal of providing seating for 20 percent of the student population. [23] Here the patrons come before the collection.

Back in the early aughts, when I spent a summer touring libraries, the institutions on the leading edge were integrating media production facilities, recognizing that media “consumption” and “creation” lie on a gradient of knowledge production. Today there’s a lot of talk about — and action around — integrating hacker labs and maker-spaces. [24] As Anne Balsamo explains, these sites offer opportunities — embodied, often inter-generational learning experiences that are integral to the development of a “technological imagination” — that are rarely offered in formal learning institutions. [25]

The Hunt Library has a maker-space, a GameLab, various other production labs and studios, an immersion theater, and, rather eyebrow-raisingly, an Apple Technology Showcase (named after library donors whose surname is Apple, with an intentional pun on the electronics company). [26] One might think major funding is needed for those kinds of programs, but the trend actually began in 2011 in tiny Fayetteville, New York (pop. 4,373), thought to be the first public library to have incorporated a maker-space. The following year, the Carnegie Libraries of Pittsburgh — which for years has hosted film competitions, gaming tournaments, and media-making projects for youth — launched, with Google and Heinz Foundation support, The Labs: weekly workshops at three locations where teenagers can access equipment, software and mentors. Around the same time, Chattanooga — a city blessed with a super-high-speed municipal fiber network — opened its lauded 4th Floor, a 12,000-square foot “public laboratory and educational facility” that “supports the production, connection, and sharing of knowledge by offering access to tools and instruction.” Those tools include 3D printers, laser cutters and vinyl cutters, and the instruction includes everything from tech classes, to incubator projects for female tech entrepreneurs, to business pitch competitions.

Last year, the Brooklyn Public Library, just a couple blocks from where I live, opened its Levy Info Commons, which includes space for laptop users and lots of desktop machines featuring creative software suites; seven reserveable teleconference-ready meeting rooms, including one that doubles as a recording studio; and a training lab, which offers an array of digital media workshops led by a local arts and design organization and also invites patrons to lead their own courses. A typical month on their robust event calendar includes resume editing workshops, a Creative Business Tech prototyping workshop, individual meetings with business counselors, Teen Tech tutorials, computer classes for seniors, workshops on podcasting and oral history and “adaptive gaming” for people with disabilities, and even an audio-recording and editing workshop targeted to poets, to help them disseminate their work in new formats. Also last year, the Martin Luther King, Jr., Memorial Library in Washington, D.C., opened its Digital Commons, where patrons can use a print-on-demand bookmaking machine, a 3D printer, and a co-working space known as the “Dream Lab,” or try out a variety of e-book readers. The Chicago Public Library partnered with the Museum of Science and Industry to open a pop-up maker lab featuring open-source design software, laser cutters, a milling machine, and (of course) 3D printers — not one, but three.

Some have proposed that libraries — following in the tradition of Alexandria’s “think tank,” and compelled by a desire to “democratize entrepreneurship” — make for ideal co-working or incubator spaces, where patrons with diverse skill sets can organize themselves into start-ups-for-the-people. [27] Others recommend that librarians entrepreneurialize themselves, rebranding themselves as professional consultants in a complex information economy. Librarians, in this view, are uniquely qualified digital literacy tutors; experts in “copyright compliance, licensing, privacy, information use, and ethics”; gurus of “aligning … programs with collections, space, and resources”; skilled creators of “custom ontologies, vocabularies, taxonomies” and structured data; adept practitioners of data mining. [28] Others recommend that libraries get into the content production business. In the face of increasing pressure to rent and license proprietary digital content with stringent use policies, why don’t libraries do more to promote the creation of independent media or develop their own free, open-source technologies? Not many libraries have the time and resources to undertake such endeavors, but NYPL Labs and Harvard’s Library Test Kitchen, have demonstrated what’s possible when even back-of-house library spaces become sites of technological praxis. Unfortunately, those innovative projects are typically hidden behind the interface (as with so much library labor). Why not bring those operations to the front of the building, as part of the public program?

Of course, with all these new activities come new spatial requirements. Library buildings must incorporate a wide variety of furniture arrangements, lighting designs, acoustical conditions, etc., to accommodate multiple sensory registers, modes of working, postures and more. Librarians and designers are now acknowledging — and designing for, rather than designing out — activities that make noise and can occasionally be a bit messy. I did a study several years ago on the evolution of library sounds and found widespread recognition that knowledge-making doesn’t readily happen when “shhh!” is the prevailing rule.

These new physical infrastructures create space for an epistemology embracing the integration of knowledge consumption and production, of thinking and making. Yet sometimes I have to wonder, given all the hoopla over “making”: are tools of computational fabrication really the holy grail of the knowledge economy? What knowledge is produced when I churn out, say, a keychain on a MakerBot? I worry that the boosterism surrounding such projects — and the much-deserved acclaim they’ve received for “rebranding” the library — glosses over the neoliberal values that these technologies sometimes embody. Neoliberalism channels the pursuit of individual freedom through property rights and free markets [30] — and what better way to express yourself than by 3D-printing a bust of your own head at the library, or using the library’s CNC router to launch your customizable cutting board business on Etsy? While librarians have long been advocates of free and democratic access to information, I trust — I hope — that they’re helping their patrons to cultivate a critical perspective regarding the politics of “technological innovation” — and the potential instrumentalism of makerhood. Sure, Dewey was part of this instrumentalist tradition, too. But our contemporary pursuit of “innovation” promotes the idea that “making new stuff” = “producing knowledge,” which can be a dangerous falsehood.

Library staff might want to take up the critique of “innovation,” too. Each new Google product release, new mobile technology development, new e-reader launch brings new opportunities for the library to innovate in response. And while “keeping current” is a crucial goal, it’s important to place that pursuit in a larger cultural, political-economic and institutional context. Striving to stay technologically relevant can backfire when it means merely responding to the profit-driven innovations of commercial media; we see these mistakes — innovation for innovation’s sake — in the ed-tech arena quite often.


As Zadie Smith argued beautifully in the New York Review of Books, we risk losing the library’s role as a “different kind of social reality (of the three dimensional kind), which by its very existence teaches a system of values beyond the fiscal.” [31] Barbara Fister, a librarian at Gustavus Adolphus College, offered an equally eloquent plea for the library as a space of exception:

Libraries are not, or at least should not be, engines of productivity. If anything, they should slow people down and seduce them with the unexpected, the irrelevant, the odd and the unexplainable. Productivity is a destructive way to justify the individual’s value in a system that is naturally communal, not an individualistic or entrepreneurial zero-sum game to be won by the most industrious. [32]

Libraries, she argued, “will always be at a disadvantage” to Google and Amazon because they value privacy; they refuse to exploit users’ private data to improve the search experience. Yet libraries’ failure to compete in efficiency is what affords them the opportunity to offer a “different kind of social reality.” I’d venture that there is room for entrepreneurial learning in the library, but there also has to be room for that alternate reality where knowledge needn’t have monetary value, where learning isn’t driven by a profit motive. We can accommodate both spaces for entrepreneurship and spaces of exception, provided the institution has a strong epistemic framing that encompasses both. This means that the library needs to know how to read itself as a social-technical-intellectual infrastructure.

It’s particularly important to cultivate these critical capacities — the ability to “read” our libraries’ multiple infrastructures and the politics and ethics they embody — when the concrete infrastructures look like San Antonio’s BiblioTech, a “bookless” library featuring 10,000 e-books, downloadable via the 3M Cloud App; 600 circulating “stripped down” 3M e-readers; 200 “enhanced” tablets for kids; and, for use on-site, 48 computers, plus laptops and iPads. The library, which opened last fall, also offers computer classes and meeting space, but it’s all locked within a proprietary platformed world.

In libraries like BiblioTech — and the Digital Public Library of America — the collection itself is off-site. Do patrons wonder where, exactly, all those books and periodicals and cloud-based materials live? What’s under, or floating above, the “platform”? Do they think about the algorithms that lead them to particular library materials, and the conduits and protocols through which they access them? Do they consider what it means to supplant bookstacks with server stacks — whose metal racks we can’t kick, lights we can’t adjust, knobs we can’t fiddle with? Do they think about the librarians negotiating access licenses and adding metadata to “digital assets,” or the engineers maintaining the servers? With the increasing recession of these technical infrastructures — and the human labor that supports them — further off-site, behind the interface, deeper inside the black box, how can we understand the ways in which those structures structure our intellect and sociality?

We need to develop — both among library patrons and librarians themselves — new critical capacities to understand the distributed physical, technical and social architectures that scaffold our institutions of knowledge and program our values. And we must consider where those infrastructures intersect — where they should be, and perhaps aren’t, mutually reinforcing one another. When do our social obligations compromise our intellectual aspirations, or vice versa? And when do those social or intellectual aspirations for the library exceed — or fail to fully exploit — the capacities of our architectural and technological infrastructures? Ultimately, we need to ensure that we have a strong epistemological framework — a narrative that explains how the library promotes learning and stewards knowledge — so that everything hangs together, so there’s some institutional coherence. We need to sync the library’s intersecting infrastructures so that they work together to support our shared intellectual and ethical goals.