Monday, April 3, 2017

Library: The Drama Within by Diane Asséo Griliches

A love letter to temples of literacy
I recently received a copy of this book as a graduation present for having completed a master of library science degree. Naturally, I’m a lover of libraries and books, and this artful collection of photographs really speaks to those like me who are so inclined. Library: The Drama Within is not just a showcase of the world’s most beautiful libraries. Photographer Diane Asséo Griliches really attempts to capture the function of libraries and the role they play in people’s lives. Thus, while many of the photos are glamour shots like the one of the Bibliothèque Nationale in Paris that graces the book’s cover, you’ll also find thoughtful images of students working together at a computer, children sitting enraptured at a story time, or two homeless men seeking companionship in a library courtyard. Most photographs are accompanied by an explanatory caption, many of which offer interesting details of the histories of the libraries depicted. Griliches also pairs each image with a brief quote about books or libraries from the likes of James Joyce, Victor Hugo, or Malcolm X.

Libraries in New York and Boston feature prominently among the selections, but there are also several photos of rural libraries in the American South. Photos from France, Israel, Croatia, Bosnia, and Italy are also included. Asia is represented by only one photo from Japan, though that particular image looks like it could have been taken anywhere. The subjects include public libraries, academic libraries, and private subscription libraries. Griliches clearly has a soft spot for rare book libraries and includes shots of many antiquated volumes in appropriately classic settings. At times the book can’t seem to decide what it wants to say. Is it about the valuable services that libraries provide, or is it merely about the books? Is it about prestigious libraries of monumental beauty, or is it about the typical libraries that most of us visit on a regular basis?

The photos are beautifully reproduced in black and white or perhaps a very subtle duotone. Though the book was published in 1996, the captions indicate that some of the pictures may have been taken as early as the 1970s. They are definitely pre-digital images, exhibiting the graininess and rich silvery tones of film photography. For its textual component, the book reproduces a 1974 essay by former Librarian of Congress Daniel J. Boorstin. In this essay, the contents of which may be familiar to many book lovers, Boorstin argues that the book is the perfect technological device for conveying information, one that is unlikely to ever be replaced by a computerized substitute.

In keeping with Boorstin’s argument, Library: The Drama Within is clearly a love letter to the bibliocentric view of the library. Libraries have changed a lot in the past 20 years, however, and at times this book can be a depressing glimpse into a nostalgic past. Television, the Internet, and video games have not killed the book, as many have predicted. In fact, it’s likely that more books are being published now than ever before. However, books are no longer the main attraction at libraries, as more and more volumes are stuffed away into cold storage to make room for computer labs, coffee shops, and maker spaces. Gone are the days when browsable open stacks would put the full range of the world’s knowledge at your fingertips. For better or worse, the library that Griliches celebrates is increasingly a thing of the past. Thank god she was there to document it.
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