The market pleases: Shopping for ideas

Published: Last Edited:

This essay has been submitted by a student. This is not an example of the work written by our professional essay writers.

One current trend in library design is to break down the barriers between libraries, education and shopping. The motive for this comes from the popularity of shopping as a leisure pursuit and the success of bookshop chains with their relaxing environment. Big modern bookshops allow the customer to browse, to listen to music and to enjoy refreshments while they shop. Public libraries are often seen as intimidating institutions and there is undoubtedly room for them to learn from the retail industry. The writings of Foucault, Borges, Eco and Castillo, Flaubert, Asimov and King have long indicated that library users are commonly over-awed by libraries: Eco's 'fortress library' in The Name of the Rose is, perhaps, one such literary example (Eco 1983). For many people the 'hushed library with its columns of books, with its titles aligned on shelves to form a tight enclosure' is an uninviting place (Foucault 1967/1977, 90).

In many ways, the traditional library experience (for both the librarian and the user) was structured by the values of order, control and suppression (Chelton 1996). This type of experience is linked to a positivist epistemology which ensures that the library is a detached, cold and mechanistic place. The 21st century must bring about a change in direction in which libraries become less system-oriented and more person-oriented and address broad social issues by bringing the concept of the library, education and leisure together in one single building. Wiegand has, of late, identified the 'understudied, everyday ubiquity of libraries' (Wiegand XXXX). Some academics, therefore, argue that libraries are a commonplace 'good' which 'makes their power discourse all the more sinister and hidden, perhaps even demonstrating that libraries and reading are more culturally and economically domineering than McDonalds - or television' (Bushman 2006, 270-299). Books are no longer the sole focus of libraries. The 'library' is arguably a brand: it exerts a powerful behavioural influence. This is truer than ever now that current library design borrows many elements from retail culture - including possible locations - and there is now a much larger synthesis between traditional architectural and interior design codes and practices.

We must now accept that libraries in a variety of locations present in very specific ways and can provide very specific experiences: for example, centres of life-long learning, cultural market-places, providers of public information and benefit rights, settings for a variety of aspirational lifestyles and community meeting places and facilities. This requires the design of each library to reflect the priority devoted to its potential service and the tailoring of a suitable ethos for its users.

It is also worth noting that the library and the home are becoming inter-related, in the same way as the home and the shop are becoming inter-related through the benefit of the internet. Just as the individual can shop online for clothes, food and other luxuries so can the library user 'shop' by browsing library catalogues and order, reserve or renew books. Through this method of intimacy the library is becoming de-institutionalised, for as Walsh writes, 'the library is apparently ripe for decentralising' (Walsh 1982, 212). The library is becoming more of a club, shopping or leisure centre. In Sweden the public library is 'the living room in the city' and interior design and furnishings generate a domestic, homely sense of membership and belonging: much the same as the approach taken by many retail outlets and their changing and shopping areas. The impact of such ICT on libraries does not threaten the existence of the public library - instead they provide valuable and effective services for users. An example of this is the 2005 concept of Library 2.0 which was the collective response of the library to the challenges faced by Google. It was also an attempt to meet the shifting needs of library users by employing web 2.0 technologies. Aspects of Library 2.0 can be seen in such things as 'commenting, tagging, bookmarking, discussions, use of social software, plug-ins, and widgets' (Cohen 2007: 47). With its inspiration in web 2.0 this is an attempt to make the library more user-driven as an institution.

This physical and technological shift can be traced through academia and literature since Borges argued that the meaning of a symbol such as the 'library' is not determined by a particular correspondence or concrete object or aspect of reality. In essence he argues that the concept of a library derives meaning by virtue of its context in relation to other symbols with which it might be inter-linked. As the language and symbols shift so too does the meaning of the word 'library' (Borges 1962). This is what is currently occurring with the inter-relation of education, retail and the library.

Modern retail therapy allows people the chance to escape and historically so too have libraries. Individuals have been afforded the opportunity to escape to fantasy worlds through books and journals and often the opportunity for individuals to educate themselves or seek academic assistance. This has, traditionally, been reflected in the architecture and interior design of the library. The designs of the libraries of the future reflect the pleasure, self-enrichment, life-enhancing nature of such pursuits. Foucault posits the presence of an intimate number of spaces 'in the intervals between books' in which reside the 'possibility of impossible worlds; worlds other than the objective world constructed in the disciplined arrangements of science' (Foucault 1977, 90). Eco also indicates that the library is not just a storehouse of texts but a labyrinth where 'every point can be connected with every other point, and, where the connections are not yet designed, they are, however, conceivable and designable. A net is an unlimited territory' (Eco 1977, 90). In the same manner as retail outlets and shops now offer greater visual transparency between the interior and exterior worlds so too do 'new' libraries in the promise of openness and democracy.

An example of this 21st century approach can be seen in the London Borough of Tower Hamlets where a string of Idea Stores have been invented. Here newly constructed libraries are sharing the same development as supermarkets and offer access to library services and training programs.

Idea Stores have created a whole new concept of learning. They aim to attract people who wouldn't necessary use a traditional library:

'People are attracted tohow we work, what we offer and it challenges how we think. Barriers are broken and opportunities arise to our local community, again, being exposed to things that they will not find it a library. If you compare our website to other authorities you will see that although libraries offer reading facilities, we provide a whole lot more. It makes a difference to people's lives.' (L. Randall Canary Wharf 'Idea Store' manager 2009, pers. comm., 11 November)

The Idea Store concept has a different approach for the community: they do offer a big variety of activities, but the focal point is still based abound literature and books. The Idea Store breaks the boundaries of the traditional library with its informal and playful outlook designed to help people engage with different media and activities.

The genesis of the Idea Store can be found in retail language; it has its own identity and it stands out as a recognizable brand. There are no restrictions for accessing the Idea Store as it is open to everybody. The design itself is curious and inviting - it is easy just to wander the space without any intimidation. The design is deliberately eye-catching with highly glazed facades, bright colours and a dramatic roof. It is a building that provides an enjoyable, highly sociable atmosphere and one that seems to fit comfortably into its Whitechapel location. It is genuinely populist - and popular - because of the multiplicity of its design.

The Whitechapel Idea Store was designed by David Adjaye with the intention of building 'the architecture of the post-city'. (Dyckhoff 2004) This new type of public architecture avoids the language that Victorian and Edwardian architects used for their institutions - portly columns and pompous gothic facades plucked from stately homes and cathedrals. David Adjaye's different version of a traditional library takes its colourful character from the sunshade of the surrounding market stalls and is praised for being both 'civic and inclusive, iconic, contextual and popular with its users' (Dyckhoff 2004).

Outside of London further examples of barrier breaking designs are evident. A notable exemplar is that of Coventry's Arena Park Library which is based within the Arena Shopping Park. Funding for the library came from the city council and Tesco. The library itself offers a huge variety of services: jobs advice; a police surgery; age concern drop in; genealogy sessions; religious sessions and its situation - between Marks & Spencer's and Burger King - make it truly part of the shopping experience. Examples such as the Idea Stores and the Arena Library indicate that, 'the public library has truly become a multi-purpose agency with multi-purpose roles covering the areas of information and life-long learning, recreation and leisure, culture and research' Smith 2005: 4).

Libraries located within retail outlets or libraries 'borrow' from the design and ethos of such outlets and are far more likely to be found in places of high footfall and/or retail developments bringing the potential experience of the library closer to the individual. It must also be noted that such libraries are likely to be designed for people who intend to borrow books, CD's and DVD's, or who want to access the internet, simply because these individuals see such activity as a public involvement in consumer lifestyles. Like any shop or retail outlet such libraries need a large store-front presence providing high visibility and transparency and interior décor in such libraries mirrors that of multi-media retailing.

As Castells writes, 'the structure of how the library controls the flow of information is more important than what the structure contains'. He characterised this as 'schizophrenia between structure and meaning' (Castells 2000). As with the Idea Stores new libraries are required to partition areas at different times of the day or night in order to meet the variety of community and individual needs. In the same way as many retail outlets consider 'time-management' in the allocation of space and patterns of circulation so must this be reflected in the libraries of the future. In practice, this can be seen in the importance of obvious patterns of circulation; architectural and spatial clarity; coherent and attractive signage. This is mirrored in the exemplar of good retail outlets with their clear signage, floor maps and obvious flow and patterns of movement.

The design of the library, however, suffers from conflicts that are unrelated to those of retail outlets and other types of educational institutions. When a wide number of people use libraries a variety of expectations and uses become apparent. For example, children in a library may well bring noise and games and interior designs need to be considered that will minimise the impact of such noise. Teens tend to require areas to sit and talk, read magazines or listen to music on listening posts (in the same way as they may do in, for example, HMV). It is no longer possible, useful nor desirable to replicate the hushed libraries which Foucault critiqued. A perennial problem is that of the library cafe which poses a problem for any library designer. The library is becoming more neutral: in the sense that, bespoke personalities can be imprinted depending upon need. The library is no longer simply the domain of order in which, in contrast the user falls into the domain of ambiguity. As Foucault writes, the library should be the production of 'a fantasia from a domain previously given to reason, rationality and order'....this is 'the modern experience' (Foucault 1967/1977, 90-91). Finally, Radford writes, 'the library becomes an instrument of possibility rather than a place where possibility seems exhausted' (Radford 1992). Never has this been more apt than with 21st Century libraries.


  • M. Foucault 'Order of things', 'Discipline and punish'
  • G. Gutting 'Foucault a very short introduction'
  • B. Smart 'Michel Foucault'
  • D. Strinati 'Popular culture'
  • M. Augé 'Anthropological place'
  • J. F. Lyotard 'The post modern condition: a report on knowledge'
  • B. Edvardas and B. Fisher 'Libraries and Learning Resource Centers'
  • T. A. Markus 'Buildings & Power'
  • M. McLuhan 'Understanding Media: the extension of man'
  • D. B. Clarke, M. A. Doel and K. Housiaux 'The consumption reader'
  • M. Bussagly 'Understanding architecture'