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Bricks and Mortar

Submitted by Tom Peters on May 25, 2010 - 9:19am

If I had a brick for every time I’ve heard or read the phrase “bricks and mortar in library literature and conversations, I’d have at least as many bricks as the third little pig.  We librarians love to talk about bricks and mortar libraries, more than HVAC systems, load-bearing walls, and even shelving.  Recently, I had an up-close-and-personal encounter with bricks and mortar that got me thinking again about the past, present, and future of bricks and mortar libraries.

The old high school in Fontana, Kansas is being razed, and the current owner of the property is offering free bricks to anyone willing to pick them up and haul them away.  Because salvage bricks often cost as much as a buck-a-brick, I drove my pick-up truck over there to load up. 

The high school was built in 1929.  Imagine the pride and anticipation of the students, teachers, townfolk, and school administrators during the dedication ceremony in the late summer.  Little did they know that before the school year was over the nation would be slipping into the Great Depression. 

Back at Monkey Mountain, I began the arduous process of knocking the mortar off – brick by brick.  It was blistering work.  The bricks themselves, from the Venetian Brick Co. in Oskaloosa, MO, as every brick attests, are in remarkably good shape. The brick company and the town, however, are now ghosts. 

Back then, the value of schools, libraries, and other social and cultural landmarks was unequivocal and unchallenged.  Libraries were places, and there was no need to even qualify them as real places.  Libraries began as rooms in the larger homes, along with nurseries, sculleries, and (my personal favorite) orangeries – a privileged hedge against scurvy, I guess.  Then libraries graduated to become standalone bricks and mortar buildings in their own right.

Now, one has to wonder about the future of the library as a built space in the real world.  We now have tons of online information resources and services, e-branches, and libraries in virtual worlds that soar without being anchored to any real-world building.

The future of bricks and mortar libraries reveals a basic conflict in human nature.  On one hand, we love to gather together.  The library serves many communities well as a third place, neither home nor work.  As a wise colleague observed to me years ago, the library is one of the few truly public places in many communities.  The idea of a great third place is very alluring.  Television producers tap into this yearning for a third place, and deliver such places as the bar in Cheers and Jerry Seinfeld’s living room. 

On the other hand, we want our information and information services anywhere, anytime.  The idea of the library without walls is very appealing, too.  Witness the explosion of personal, portable electronic devices for seeking information, communicating with others, and being entertained on the go. 

Computerized, networked information systems may be the slow, inexorable drip that eventually seriously erodes the value of bricks and mortar libraries.  Sure, the turnstiles at most public libraries are whirring today, primarily because so many people are unemployed or underemployed.  When the economy fully recovers, one has to wonder about the amount of foot traffic we will see in these bricks and mortar libraries.  

Computerized, networked information systems are not trying to do bricks and mortar libraries in.  They are just following their own careers and realizing their own affordances. 

The lure of the real libraries remain strong, however.  I was reminded of the value and the allure yesterday when I took my older son to the bricks and mortar library in Oak Grove to get his first library card.  The rose bushes in front were splendid.  It was a clean, well-lit place with lots of activity.  The librarian who signed up my son was very helpful and charming.  My son answered all the questions with bated breath.  That experience could not have been replicated online.

What I learned from Fontana High School is to never take bricks and mortar for granted.  Don’t allow the phrase “bricks and mortar” to fall trippingly off the tongue.  The concept, like the bricks themselves, is not to be taken lightly.