The Postmodern Library

Social theorists argue postmodern society is characterised by an emphasis on plurality, a weakening of the high/low culture dichotomy, and a rejection of the authority of grand narratives; ‘big stories’ that attempt to explain the world – such as science, religion, for example.

The movement from a modern to a postmodern society can be seen in many facets of the library. In this post I’ll be musing on three different aspects of the library and how they relate to postmodernity; library design; public libraries; and academic libraries.

Library Design

This is perhaps where postmodernism is most apparent.

Postmodern architecture rejects the functional design of modern architecture, where the building is designed round its purpose, in favour of aesthetics.

Another aspect of postmodernism is pastiche; the borrowing of elements from other styles, or historical periods. In this way, there may be a juxtaposition of classical elements with cutting edge design.

Harold Washington Library, Chicago, IL - front oblique
The Harold Washington Library Centre in Chicago mixes old and new design – credit: Daderot [Public domain]
The Information Commons here in Sheffield is an excellent example of a postmodern library, both in its architecture, and in its use of space inside – catering for a variety of learning styles.

Public Libraries

Some may argue that public libraries are a product of modernity, as they promote grand narratives of education, professional knowledge, and bureaucracy [1]. However, an important manifestation of postmodernity is pluralism, and this is reflected in the need for pluralistic library services for previously marginalised groups. Postmodern society is increasingly diverse, and public libraries should be, and are, responding to this in their provision.

Additionally, community-run libraries, though generally seen as a last resort for public libraries faced with closure, could be argued as a weakening of power of the grand narrative of overarching government.

Academic Libraries

When considering academic libraries, again pluralism is relevant. With changes in pedagogy to accept and for a range of learning styles, libraries too have had to change how they cater for students who may wish to work in a variety of ways [2].

Information commons
The Information Commons at the University fo Sheffield. Credit: Byb3 at English Wikipedia [Public domain]
The Information Commons does just this, with a number of study spaces suited to different needs.

There are still the traditional silent study areas and individual desks, but students also have the choice of group study areas and bookable rooms, as well as flexible spaces to arrange how you wish.

This is all of course open to interpretation, and many authors argue that we are not even postmodern yet, rather society is in a stage of late, or high, modernity [3]. Either way, it is clear, particularly in the case of library design, that there has been a movement away from the traditional library and that change is occurring.

[1] Black, A. & Muddiman, D. (1997). Understanding Community Librarianship: The Public Library in Post Modern Britain, Aldershot: Averbury.

[2] Brophy, P. (2000). The Academic Library, London: Facet Publishing.

[3] Giddens, A. (1991). Modernity and Self-identity: self and society in the late modern age, Cambridge: Polity.

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