The lotus library

More and more of the text we consume is delivered via screens — yet an odd little preoccupation with the traditional brick-and-mortar library is emerging.

You could call it a fetish. We’re isolating and glamorizing the very thing about libraries— their existence as permanent elements of the built environment — whose usefulness is being called into question by digital and mobile formats. In a manner similar to Chinese foot-binding, we’re denying the utility of the real thing, miniaturizing it, and making a symbol of it.

The phenomenon goes by a variety of names, some precious (“itty bitty libraries”), others with subversive or bleeding-edge overtones (“guerrilla libraries,” “micro-libraries”).

But it is epitomized by the ready-made Little Free Libraries designed, in cartoonish fashion, to mimic the kind of traditional town-commons buildings we love but that don’t get built anymore:

By Lisa Colon DeLay [CC BY-SA 3.0 (], via Wikimedia Commons

Call me a cynic, but there’s something creepy about the Little Free Library organization and its claim to have been inspired by Andrew Carnegie, who donated 2,509 brick-and-mortar libraries all over the world. Also creepy is LFL’s declared goal—which it ultimately reached — of exceeding the Carnegie library total. I mean, seriously?

Then there’s the “entrepreneurship” factor, and the marketing kitsch that goes along with it: the designation of Little Free Library installers as “stewards” (with their very own Facebook group!); the strategy-and-scaling narrative; the idea that these overdecorated book bins need to be “registered” — with “charter signs” and “charter numbers” and an interactive global map — as though a place might be worth visiting because someone put a book bin on a stalk and filled out an online form:

Now, the pop-up library idea hardly needed entrepreneurial know-how to gain momentum; British Telcom discovered the re-purposing potential of phone booths as bookcases around the same time that the Little Free Library initiative was launched. Nor do these little book-shares exist solely in nostalgic-retro format; there are avant-garde models to serve edgier locales.

Bookshelves are cropping up at transit stops and street corners all over the world — sometimes as crude volunteer hacks …

… and sometimes as polished exercises in municipal branding:

Converted bus stop library at Jerusalem’s trendy Train Track Park

These micro-libraries are perceived as “disruptive:” small, agile upstarts — or startups — that bypass the yawn-inducing rigidities of subject headings and classification schemes. Kind of the way Uber is thought by some to be a smart alternative to old-fashioned, creaky and smelly fixed-route mass transit.

Although they are generally represented as place-making devices that draw people together and cultivate community, I would argue that there is a sense in which these diminutive book-share facilities are actually “anti-place.” They are made to look like real libraries, but their salient features are portability and ornamentality — the latter a result of the former. We’re getting a totem instead of a temple.

As pretty as some of the Little Free Libraries are, no one could mistake them for buildings capable of sheltering humans from the elements; it’s unclear how good a job they actually do at sheltering books. And the transit-station bookcases are obviously meant for people in transit. We may become attached to our regular bus or train stops, especially if they are nicely designed and dignify our commuting routine — but we don’t visit them for any purpose other than to pass through them, and we certainly don’t take ownership of them the way we do of legitimate community destinations where people spend time.

A brick-and-mortar library is like a marriage; a micro-library like a one-night stand with an exquisitely-preened courtesan.

You might not think of your public library as a hip destination. Its institutional carpeting may be worn and stained, its walls may badly need a paint job, and its tables may be pockmarked — yet it will keep you dry on a rainy day, or cool on a hot one. Not only that, but it can be counted on to answer any conceivable information need, however arcane. If the item required is not in the local collection, it can be ordered from another public library, from a college library or even from the Library of Congress. Inter-library loan might be a slow and creaky process; waiting in line to check out books or to consult with a reference librarian might be tedious; but these quaint library operations not only work — they predated what we now think of as the sharing economy.

The micro-library offers the odd serendipidous rapture but isn’t much use when you actually need something other than your neighbors’ discards. My own experience is that maybe one visit in five will turn up something worth reading. I have trudged home with books from a local micro-library just because I felt I had to take something. Then, of course, I never read them.

I started out by likening the Little Free Library movement to the Chinese custom of foot-binding; it seems to me that the root cause of the one can illuminate the root cause of the other.

If digitality and mobility are key concepts for today’s economy, fixed-location public libraries seem, by contrast, like drains on the public purse — the exact opposite of “productive.”

But if the brick-and-mortar library is so “unproductive,” why the urge to miniaturize it and deploy it totemically in multiple locations? Why not just switch to Amazon and Kindle and be done with it?

You could similarly ask why the subjugation of women in China involved so much elaborate ritual and ornament.

Foot binding is generally thought to have

demonstrated male economic power. At a time when most Chinese people existed only a few rice bowls away from starvation, being able to keep economically unproductive women whose only practical functions — due to crippled feet — were decorative, sexual and reproductive, was a powerful status marker.

Yet the sheer longevity and intricacy of this horrific custom suggest a source that is yet more primal than the aspiration to status. They call to mind the kind of thing that Camille Paglia is known for saying about male fear and envy of women’s power.

You trivialize and miniaturize something to subdue your fear of it — but also to sublimate your own yearning toward it.

The tyranny of place, the obligation to get along with a specific set of people in a fixed setting; the need, once experienced by most people, to master and perform a specific set of banal tasks, so that one could eat and have a roof over one’s head— these would be perceived by most people today as intolerable confinements. Most of us cannot imagine a life of subsistence farming, lived among a very limited group of people, with access to, at most, a nearby market town (and its library) for diversion. We cannot imagine our range of choice being so constricted.

Yet I think we’re also very disturbed by what globalization and its digitized enablers are doing to the various spheres that we, as individual human beings, actually inhabit — the sphere of work, the sphere of relationships, the sphere of local distinctiveness and attachment to place.

We long for place, though we would attempt to flee it if confined there. We resent the tyranny of place, but are terribly diminished by our deracination.

It is in this tension that the micro-library fetish becomes understandable.

That’s why, though their global reach and unnourishing content tempt me to call them “McLibraries,” I think they should be referred to as “lotus libraries.”