Unpacking My Library

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Recently I ran across a fascinating project, Unpacking My Library: Architects and Their Books, produced by Urban Center Books and the Municipal Art Society of New York. The project is a series of exhibitions and book that investigates the personal libraries of some prominent architects in the city. Quoting from the Web site's blurb about the forthcoming book:

What does a library say about the mind of its owner? How do books map the intellectual interests, curiosities, tastes, and personalities of their readers? What does the collecting of books have in common with the practice of architecture? Unpacking My Library provides an intimate look at the personal libraries of fourteen of the world’s leading architects, alongside conversations about the significance of books to their careers and lives.

Photographs of bookshelves – displaying well-loved and rare volumes, eclectic organizational schemes, and the individual touches that make a bookshelf one’s own – provide an evocative glimpse of their owner’s personal life. Each architect also presents a reading list of top ten influential titles, from architectural history to theory to fiction and nonfiction, that serves as a kind of personal philosophy of literature and history, and as advice on what every young architect, scholar, and lover of architecture should read.

I find that I think a lot about the personalities of libraries. Unlike a library amassed by a single person, institutional libraries like the Carter's bear the the influences of many individuals over the course of their development: librarians, staff, and many others. They also reflect the various projects the institution has tackled over the years. Collections such as ours also grow through gifts and on several occasions has taken in whole personal libraries (one big example is Eliot Porter's library). It's clear that many people can claim to have made a mark on the collection. It's an amalgam of all these influences. The point is, the Carter library has a personality, complete with idiosyncrasies. It is a unique and dynamic organism, and that's a part of what makes it such a treasure.

Comments

Sam,

I don't know how this post slipped past me, but I want to echo you comments about library collections and how they are reflective of more than one person or more than one area of interest. I love seeing the "surprise" collections in the stacks - furniture, the great selection of Fort Worth history, and the great section of agricultural yearbooks. I think the best libraries are indeed dynamic, changing collections, reflecting the needs of its users as well as the collecting philosophies of those that are in charge of acquiring new resources. I think Alberto Manguel said it better than I:

“There is nothing,” Naudé wrote, “that renders a Library more recommendable, than when every man finds in it that which he is looking for and cannot find anywhere else; therefore the perfect motto is, that there exists no book, however bad or badly reviewed, that may not be sought after in some future time by a certain reader.” These remarks demand from us an impossibility, since every library is, by needs, an incomplete creation, a work-in-progress, and every empty shelf announces the books to come.

Jason: thanks for sharing that wonderful quote from Naude observed by Manguel. This really articulates that one ought to be careful about viewing libraries from a myopic point of view in terms of its contents being immediately useful: who knows what scholar's future need they might fulfill.

Sam

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