Anne Burdick, ArtCenter College of Design

What can we learn from the configurations of books, people, architecture, ontologies, and technologies of three libraries prized for their innovative design? This paper will examine the search interfaces, sociotechnical infrastructures, and physical environments of the Seattle Public Library, the Joe and Rika Mansueto Library at the University of Chicago, and Sitterwerk, an art library in St. Gallen, Switzerland. Each library will be understood as an “indexical landscape” — Shannon Mattern’s term for spaces that are “shaped to refer to their own organized content and operative logics” — against a backdrop of the mixed digital/physical technologies seen in fulfillment centers and dark supermarkets, along with newly accessible augmented and virtual reality (AR and VR) tools and headsets.

Within each library, design and information science merge in the spatial layout and digital systems of the libraries themselves. Sitterwerk, which calls itself a “dynamic library,” is a modest yet provocative experiment in participatory curation and the integration of digital and physical infrastructures through the use of RFID tags and robotic scanners. The Seattle Public Library is famous for its “book spiral,” which allows the collection to be arranged in an uninterrupted flow from beginning to end. The design of the Mansueto Library in Chicago attempts to solve a massive storage issue by putting the entire collection underground, accessible only through a system of bar codes, storage algorithms, human workers, and robots.

In spite of its small size, Sitterwerk’s organizational concept works across all platforms and scales, from the website to the archive to the stacks. Where the libraries in Seattle and Chicago may appear to be more ambitious due to the massive physicality and prominent architectural statements of their buildings, the online search tools for each are ordinary, off-the-shelf pages of form fields and lists, an anemic experience for researchers who never make it into the physical space. One might ask why the institutions did not invest equally in the development of new forms of digitally-enabled “rich-prospect browsing” (Ruecker) that crosses the digital-physical divide, matching the ambitions of the built environments. Regardless, the question provides an opening to consider the design of a browsing experience that gives researchers a sense of a collection as a whole, affords the pursuit of associative connections, and provides the ability to wander and discover rather than to simply search.

The design challenge gets even more interesting with the rise of accessible tools for creating computationally-generated spatial experiences through both augmented reality (AR) and virtual reality (VR) gear and software. Designers and library scientists may now work together to generate qualitatively different embodied experiences for the researcher in the context of collecting, storing, and accessing textual materials across digital and physical spaces. Building upon insights and ideas garnered from the Seattle Public Library, Mansueto, and Sitterwerk experiments, the paper concludes by outlining a new project whose goal would not be to simulate the analog materiality of the stacks but to imagine a third thing ‚— a kind of spatialized environment whose digital materiality/textuality affords a multi-modal/multi-dimensional/multi-disciplinary quest that winds its way to/through/within/around/beyond books.


Anne Burdick is the Chair of Graduate Media Design Practices at the ArtCenter College of Design.