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2006-03, 349, Book Reviews, Colin Steele, Libraries

Book Reviews: ‘Libraries’ & ‘New Museums’

Libraries.

By Candida Hofer. Thames and Hudson. 271pp. $125.00

New Museums.

By Raul A Barreneche.Phaidon. 206pp. $99.95

In these two glossy illustrated books, libraries are represented by Hofer as static works of art, while Barreneche sees museums as “theme parks” competing for a slice of the public’s leisure time and disposable income.

Libraries is a strange book. Well known German photographer Candida Hofer has assembled 137 colour photographs of the interiors of European and, to a lesser extent American, libraries. Not a reader, however, is to be seen anywhere! The publisher’s blurb notes that this absence of readers ensures a “prevailing silence”, which instills  “a metaphysical quality that gives voice to the objects”! These objects range from library reading rooms and shelves, both ornate and functional, lockers and statues.

It is unclear which audience Hofer and the publisher are attempting to reach. Those who want to look at beautiful libraries will certainly find some stunning library interiors through photos of the Bodleian in Oxford, the Escorial outside Madrid, the Pierpont Morgan Library in New York and the Bibliotheque Sainte-Genevieve in Paris. Other photos will not necessarily appeal to the bibliophile, for example a stack of books on a table in the Austrian National Library. Some photos are slightly misleading, such as the now dated 1994 photos of the British Library taken on the old Bloomsbury site rather than the current building in St Pancras. Hofer’s book is esentially one devoted to the photographic ‘objet d’art’ rather than to ‘living’ libraries.

This slightly unreal feel to Libraries is continued in Italian novelist and scholar Umberto Eco’s introduction. Eco’s name on the front cover is clearly meant to be a major selling point. This introduction ‘De Bibliotheca’ is an English translation of a paper Eco gave in 1981 at a conference in Milan. Elements of this speech are very dated, particularly in Eco’s comments about his then use of libraries in Toronto and Yale and problems encountered with photocopiers and microfiche readers. No attempt seems to have been made to update the text by Hofer or the publisher. Eco, moreover, has more recent pieces on books, reading and libraries in the digital era, not least his speech at the opening of the new Bibliotheca Alexandrina in November 2003—available on the web at

http://weekly.ahram.org.eg/2003/665/bo3.htm.

New Museums stylishly documents twenty-seven new museums in thirteen countries in Europe, the United States, Israel, and Japan. Neither the National Museum of Australia nor Te Papa in New Zealand feature, thus making this essentially a northern hemisphere production. The notable architects represented include Santiago Calatrava, Zaha Hadid, Kengo Kuma and Alvaro Siza. Sir Norman Foster’s stunning renovation of the British Museum courtyard shows how old buildings can be infused with new life and light in “museum makeovers”.

New York based critic and editor Barreneche sees the twenty-first century as a “golden age for the museum”, through museums such as the Guggenheim in Bilbao and the Getty in Los Angeles. Museums now judge their popularity from the length of the queues outside, either through their permanent collections or travelling exhibitions—“certifiable blockbusters as popular as hit movies and musicals”.

Umberto Eco once described two kinds of libraries: one designed to hide books and discourage readers, and another that makes discovery an adventure. The new adventurous high tech “discovery” library buildings, such as the Seattle Public Library, have more in common with Barreneche’s innovative museums than the impressive yet ‘hidden’ Hoferian library images.

Colin Steele

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