Hallowed halls of the Cyberthèque

What do we lose when we sacrifice character for utility in library design?

The difference between a raven and a writing desk lies in their respective pedagogical functions. While the former may only be relevant to students of ornithology or Edgar Allen Poe, the latter is an all-too-present part of life for every student. The table you’re writing on may seem like the least of your worries when that essay is just not happening, but library design has the potential to dramatically affect studying experience – for better or for worse.

Over the summer, the Blackader-Lautermann library got a makeover. Large wooden tables – big enough to host four students and their respective MacBooks, with enough room to spare to keep the volumes of Voltaire and Rousseau separate and content – were replaced with grey slabs of some material that has probably never been near a tree. McLennan and Redpath are going the same way. The wooden carrels have been replaced by more grey tables, with translucent plastic sheeting doing a bad job of preventing distraction. Sounds are less muffled. The chairs are moulded to fit a spine slightly more curved than my own. The camaraderie that springs from having to duke it out over a power outlet – and the universal love that burgeons in everybody’s heart for the one person who thought to bring an extension cord – has gone.

Putting my fear of change aside, recent upgrades to library furniture at McGill certainly reflect a trend of shifting thought within the field and philosophy of education. There are three issues of import within this philosophy: liability, fanatical desire for improved performance, and a belief in the ongoing battle of education versus apathy.

When I was at nursery, we were taught how to spell and then we sang songs about bluebells and executions. If we fell over and scraped our knee, no one batted an eyelid. Nowadays, if a child so much as spills water on him or herself there are a plethora of forms to fill out for liability purposes, from “injury: got wet,” to “treatment: a cuddle.” Ridiculous extremes of liability dog the education system all the way through to university – as is so evident in McGill’s ongoing dealings with various student groups. As far as personal study goes, a library is the most important resource for students. If a library looks bad, it reflects badly on the institution. Schools and universities are all about appearances, and several highlighter-coloured ottomans and an army of sleek new desks seem to do the trick.

Popular rhetoric insists that good study spaces equal better results. It is maybe for this reason that the Cyberthèque – with its ass-numbing fast-food booths, voyeuristic alien pods, and gigawatt fluorescent lighting – is consistently busier than, say, Birks reading room. Reminiscent of 1920s Ivy League colleges, its solid wood tables and brass lamps provide comfort, healthier lighting, and utter silence. This dream-library is made all the better by a lounge just steps downstairs, complete with microwave, to compensate for not allowing food near the books. Seemingly not harassed by the University, Birks is so old that you have to take your shoes off to protect the floor – and the fact that the whole study experience is exponentially better than that of the Cyberthèque is testament to the redundancy of making libraries modern for modernity’s sake.

As for education versus apathy, I doubt that a new colour scheme is going to get students racing for the stacks, incorrigibly keen to do their readings for once.

What makes students want to study is not good furniture, it’s good teaching and a well-structured, interesting course. The most a library can contribute is a welcoming and industrious atmosphere – something that cannot be achieved by harsh plastic and distracting gimmicks.