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Jay Lemke is Professor Emeritus at the City University of New York. He has also been Professor in the PhD Programs in Science Education, Learning Technologies, and Literacy Language and Culture at the University of Michigan (Ann Arbor) and most recently adjunct Professor in Communication at the University of California - San Diego and Senior Research Scientist in the Laboratory for Comparative Human Cognition (LCHC). Professor Lemke's research investigates multimedia communication, learning, and emotion in the context of social and cultural change.

Chronopaths: Feelings in Libraries #2

In Different Libraries, in Different Eras


Different libraries can clearly evoke in us very different feelings. It can be fascinating when looking at pictures of various historical libraries to imagine the feeling of being in them. I have been in some of these and others like them, and I know how different they feel from modern libraries or even those from the 19th century.



For the fullest sense of contrast, compare the libraries in my previous post with this one in Vienna. This is library as palace. It is a testament to the political power and wealth of a ruling dynasty in the age of European grandeur. As you walk through the space of this library you feel as much impressed by the marble floors, the classical sculptures, and the ornately sculpted and painted ceilings as by the books. You feel what you are meant to feel: the nobility and grandeur, the wealth and power of those who collected and owned these books.

If you focus on the books almost as an afterthought, you will see that they are recessed and although partly illuminated, hardly touchable or ready to hand. Each one bound in leather, each one asking to be treated as much as an object of value as a source of knowledge. This does not feel -- at least I think to the modern observer -- as a comfortable place to commune with books, to reach out and touch them, to casually open them to explore.




Somewhat similar but less Imperial, this library in Prague, part of the same Habsburg tradition and culture, is a little bit more like a church than a palace. The books are more out front and they more completely define the scene and the experience compared to the library in Vienna.

The light feels gentler, the floor softer, the atmosphere more contemplative than Imperial. The mood and feeling has shifted considerably. I can also imagine that the quality of sound is different, changed from the sharp echoing of marble to the softer acoustics of wood. The feeling here is quieter, calmer, more accepting of the visitor and less alienating, so that we feel not so much impressed as inspired.



In the Royal Portuguese Library another element has been added, the work desks for library patrons and scholars. This clearly is meant to be a room for reading and thinking, perhaps for writing notes and copying out passages from books.

It still sets out to impress and it still uses the books as a feature of architectural decoration, much as if they were wallpaper. But it does so in a beautifully aesthetic way that creates a soft calming feeling conducive to the quiet contemplation of a Reading Room. The feeling here is of a serious place for serious work and it is harder to imagine casually and playfully exploring its treasures.




Finally, here is the library of Trinity College in Dublin, built in the classic tradition of Oxford and Cambridge: a gentleman's library, a testament not to an Imperial Dynasty so much as to a lineage of scholars and a succession of professors, an aristocracy of the Academy closely allied with the real aristocracy that probably paid for the library to be built.

From the feeling of quiet and contemplation, of a serious place for serious work, we have moved on to a sort of Church of Learning. The busts of scholars and professors might well be those of saints, the Romanesque arches and the long nave could belong to a cathedral. The feeling here is that this is a testament to order and organization, everything and everyone in its proper place. 

The richness of the wood and the binding of the books still evokes a feeling of being at home in a place made from the forest but shaped to human purposes. People feel comfortable with wood, we instinctively feel the majesty of trees and forests, and here wood dominates over stone and the feelings of wood contrast with those of stone and marble. Compare the feeling you imagine you would have in this library space with that of the imperial library in Vienna.

How do we feel in each of these spaces? And why do we feel as we do?

Chronopaths: Feelings in Libraries #1


 “Like all men of the Library … I have wandered in search of a book.” (Borges, Library of Babel)


One of my fondest memories of my years at the University of Chicago as a student is the feeling I had exploring through the book stacks in the old libraries on campus.

There was a feeling of mystery and adventure, of whole new worlds of knowledge to explore. I came across volumes hundreds of years old that should probably have been under lock and key. I found myself among books written in languages and alphabets that were totally new to me. And above all there was the quiet and comfort I felt alone in the library, just me and the books, never knowing what treasure I might pull from the next shelf, what new horizon of ideas and questions I might find.

The first picture here approximates that experience in so far as it was taken in the newer library at the University but with many of the same books in the same order of arrangement. In the old libraries light was not so bright, the floor was not so polished, and the bookshelves themselves showed the patina of age. But they were also narrowly spaced apart and rose to about the same height, giving the same feeling of being enclosed and protected and so near to all the books that you could hardly resist touching them or pulling them off the shelf for a quick look at what they contained.


The second picture from a much older library approximates a little more closely the mood and feeling of the older libraries on campus in my day. But they did not have this open plan with stacks of books rising up to a very high ceiling and accessed along walkways that might just feel a bit precarious.

But the light is more like the light I remember, the old metal of the book stacks more what echoes in my memory. And the books surely look old, and what after all is the difference in feeling between a library and a bookstore except for the fact that in a library most of the books are older than you are. In a library especially an old library history becomes physically tangible. In my time I touched books more than 300 years old, books that might have been held by the famous people who wrote them or by their friends. There is also a unique smell of old books, partly from leather, partly from old paper, and partly from dust. All these things contribute to the unique and special feeling you get in the book stacks of a great old library.


Like everything, libraries also evolve and change and come to evoke new feelings as well as echo old ones. In the third image we see the book stacks of a very new library in China. The library is filled with light, although slightly subdued light. The books are arranged on shelves, but there are no dividers and no separate book stacks or bookcases, all the books appear one after the other in an almost unending shelf that wraps around the whole enormous space of the library. The stairways to access the books seem almost to float and disappear so that the total experience is one of being on the loose in the Valley of the Books.

To some it may feel as if the books rise so high as to be out of reach. Or perhaps we may feel drawn up to explore them and see what lies on the very top shelves. Historically, for long periods in many libraries the books were hidden in so-called closed stacks and only the librarians could actually wander in them. In many ways this new library is a return to much earlier models of libraries in which the books were out front and on exhibition perhaps as status symbols of the library's owners as much as for easy access.

In which of these Libraries would you most like to wander in search of your Book?



Chronopaths: Feelings in Place #3

A View in Graz

 Looking out a well-placed window onto the roof of a modern art museum set in the rolling landscape of a small city not far from the Alps.


Feeling the thrill of being high above the landscape. Feeling the imagined danger of having nothing but a pane of glass between you and a long fall. Feeling wonder and amazement at the bizarre but sensuous architecture of the building's roof and openings to the light. Feeling the radical contrast between modern uniform colors and textures, simple shapes and surfaces versus the complexity and richness of the natural shapes of hills, trees, mountains and clouds.

Feeling drawn backward away from the window back into the museum interior, but also feeling the pull to fly out and soar through the magnificent scene in front of you. This push and pull is interrupted by the great curving surface of the roof seeming to push our line of attention off towards the right. That feeling is strengthened by the reflections we see in the roof of the scene around to the right and even below and behind us 

The town and the museum are centered in a river valley where the land rises steeply up on both sides. From our vantage point here, we are as high or higher than the immediately surrounding hills and buildings. We float above but we still feel pushed and pulled, drawn forwards and back, pulled out and around. We stand still but our feelings imagine us moving in all these ways, creating a dynamic sense of activity even while the scene before us remains static and tranquil.

Once again, the way we feel is a rich contradiction between rising and falling, steping back and moving forwards, relaxing and adventuring, feeling restful and excited. Two different esthetics blend and clash, the ultramodern and the classical, and the feelings that go with each of these. With the modern, we feel attracted to our sense of amazement at the possibility of building such a structure and its triumph of imagining outside-the-box, but we also feel some regret and alienation because this industrial modern style does not agree with our human need to have things around us that follow the natural patterns of millennia of human evolution in the way that the landscape outside does.

These feelings are heightened by the contrast between trees, hills, mountains, clouds, and sky that we are seeing on the one hand and the ultramodern building we are in and also looking at. Everything that appeals to us about the rolling wooded hills and fair-weather clouds in the sky is so very much not what appeals to us about the modern architecture. And yet that curving glass roof also reflects the clouds, the hills, and the much more traditional buildings below. The museum is trying to blend in and to stand out. We are caught in between for better and for worse. We can love the hills and admire the building. We can feel the excitement of visiting the alien imagination of the museum, even while we might find ourselves more comfortable living in one of those older buildings down below.

The special feeling of this place and this view is rooted in its contrasts and contradictions, in excitement and restfulness, in feeling affinities -- however contrary -- with both these worlds at once.




Chronopaths: Feelings in Place #2

The Covered Lane in Provence

 In a small and very old town in the south of France, this covered lane steps down a hillside from the town center toward an outer street. Even though much restored and very lightly modernized to accommodate people living and visiting here, you still get the feeling of heavy, old medieval stone building -- a darker, cooler passageway, a short escape from the hot summer sun.


What is there about old stone building and narrow passages that give us a feeling of security, of being protected from sun, from rain, and perhaps from the surprises or dangers of open spaces?

There is a strange paradox in human feelings about comfort and security, that on the one hand we feel comfort in protected and enclosed spaces, but on the other we also rejoice in openness and freedom of movement. Walking down this passageway you feel that you want to reach out your arms and touch the walls on both sides. You want to feel their solidity and the coolness of the stone. You want to look up at the archways above, which are often decorated at the top because others for generations have also looked up. And you want to look down at the cobblestone steps to keep your footing as they force you to maintain a wariness that balances with the feeling of relaxation and comfort of being in the enclosed passageway.

Feelings have an interior dynamic. They are not all one thing or another. They both push us and pull us, lift us and enclose us, keeping us both relaxed and alert. We can name one part of a feeling or another, but there are no names for the wholeness of what we feel.

Chronopaths: Feelings in Place #1

What's a Chronopath? A way of looking at feelings and emotions as complex, changing, and extending across time. From a few seconds to register a scene to the acumulation of layers of feelings and memories across years. 
Where to start? For now, with the unique feelings we have in particular places. This is an ongoing exploration, and I want to start with a favorite place near to home.    #chronopaths                                                                                                                                                                                                                                           .

The greenhouse




Perhaps my favorite place in San Diego is this old wooden greenhouse in Balboa Park. The attraction of this place for me is not just the beauty of its architecture, the escape it provides from a world of steel and concrete, or even the natural beauty of the trees, plants and flowers inside.

People are quiet inside the greenhouse almost as if in a library or a church. There is a feeling of hush amidst the lush of the foliage. There is a feeling closer to oneness with the natural world that has been bridged closer to us by being brought inside a human structure.

The roof and dome are open to the outside air, the sky and the sunlight. The breeze blows through it, but gentled by the old wooden structure. The feeling inside is partly inspired by smells of old wood, growing things, and flowering plants. It is always a little more moist inside than outside in the normally dry San Diego climate. You walk along the narrow stone paths so close to the plants and trees that they can almost touch you.

The experience and feelings here are both those of being in a place, inside a greenhouse, but also of moving through it and experiencing changing views on a scale that is small and human at ground level, contrasting with the much larger scale of the elegantly rising roof and dome open to the sky above. You feel drawn upwards as if in a cathedral, but in place of bare stone and a closed roof, cut off from the harsh world outside as cathedrals are meant to do, here you feel a connection with the world outside, surrounded by park and grass, a connection through the air and sky, a connection through the plants and trees and flowers, being part of a living system.

You can walk quietly through as an observer, distancing yourself from the life around you, tranquil and unmolested. But even as an observer you feel connected, you feel drawn towards the life around you and a part of it. There is a subtle feeling of being balanced between stepping back and falling in. Just as there is between grounding yourself in earth and life or letting yourself rise and soar.

The feeling of the greenhouse is not a static feeling. It provides a small chronopath, both as you move through the space and as the focus of your feeling shifts between above and below and between stepping back and falling in. It affords a small world of unique feelings that I only have here.