Media @ McGill

Paulina Mickiewicz | The Bias of Libraries: Montreal’s Grande Bibliothèque

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This dissertation is centered on the Grande Bibliothèque (GB) which opened in Montreal in the spring of 2005, and was a library project of unprecedented scale in the city. The Grande Bibliothèque project unfolded during a significant moment in the cultural history of Québec, in which contemporary technological changes were, and are still, exerting transformative pressures on traditional models of the library. These same technologies have come to play an increasingly important role in the formation, circulation and reproduction of cultural practices and identities more broadly.

As a case study, the GB is an instance of the many trends that are currently shaping libraries, including their changing historical narratives, their innovative architectural designs, their adjustment to new and emerging media technologies and the implications of the changing meanings of the book and reading. The aim of this research has been to consider the role that the library plays as a communications medium and cultural technology in a period when emerging digital and network media are destabilizing traditional notions of libraries and their role as democratic, public institutions. In other words, this dissertation considers how broader understandings of the library, which is treated as a medium of communication in its own right, have shifted dramatically over the last several decades.

The 21st century library can be seen as an emerging medium that seeks to not only preserve and disseminate collective memory and culture, but also to provide access to spaces and networks of knowledge, culture and interaction that together renovate the library’s traditional role as a democratic institution. The library has become a central nervous system for new and emergent media technologies, a space that centralizes increasingly decentralized networks and systems, and a place in which new and emergent media technologies have not only found a home, a place where they can be contained, but a space in which the encounter between citizens and public knowledge and culture is staged.

Chapter One presents the Grande Bibliothèque as an object of study, and establishes the historical and local context from which it emerged. It recounts the pre-history of the GB, including the history that surrounded the creation of a public library system in Québec and more specifically in Montreal. The chapter then recounts the details of the project to bring together the collections of both the Bibliothèque nationale du Québec (BNQ) and the Bibliothèque centrale de Montréal (BCM) in a new, unified institution that would become the Grande Bibliothèque. As this chapter shows, from the outset of its development, the GB project was intended to serve a diversity of national, civic and public priorities that invested it with a complexity that greatly exceeded what we might otherwise imagine for a public library.  

Chapter Two seeks to address the importance of site in modern library design. This chapter explores the tensions surrounding the choice of site for the Grande Bibliothèque (GB). Attention to new library design and architecture have overshadowed consideration of the actual physical siting of new libraries and how site has affected the kinds of public spaces that they become. The final choice of site for the Grande Bibliothèque in Montreal’s less gentrified downtown east end raised many issues concerning questions of access, public involvement, suitability, and more generally about the library’s future success. Drawing on a 1998 study evaluating potential site choices for the Grande Bibliothèque, Chapter Two serves to explore how matters of site can affect the ways in which we use and understand the library as a public space.

Chapter Three is dedicated to the architectural dimensions of the Grande Bibliothèque. It focuses on the spatiality of the GB as well as on the new architectural priorities that have emerged in the construction of contemporary libraries. More broadly, this chapter studies the ways in which contemporary libraries are imagined and constructed in architecture and design. Designing and building the contemporary library has everything do with attempting to define its new role. Although newly constructed libraries share many similarities, they are also unique in the ways in which they are adapted to their particular contexts. Through a close analysis of the Grande Bibliothèque’s (GB) trajectory from conception to building, Chapter Three investigates how architecture has, in part, defined and delimited what sort of institutional public space the Grande Bibliothèque creates.

Chapter Four focuses on the programming and technologies of the GB. One of the main reasons for the creation of the GB was to offer Montreal citizens a public library that would be capable of not only hosting and managing emergent media technologies, but that would provide free and equal access to these new media. In addition to being a highly digitized and networked facility, the GB is also a site that offers the most advanced methods of storage, search and retrieval of a multiplicity of collections, be they referential, digital or archival. This chapter studies the so-called “technologization” of the traditional library, how this has transformed the ways in which we use and understand the library as a public space, as well as what this may mean for the future of libraries, and how well equipped the GB is in adapting to the constant flow of newer and faster technologies. I propose that the idea of the library as an important medium in itself has been overlooked in the broader context of communication and media studies.

Chapter Five explores the ideological and organizational shift that has taken place within the contemporary public library. There has been a significant move away from the library as a space of autonomous learning to the library as an institution now offering more formal educational programming, and increasingly, a community service oriented outlook. As such, librarianship has been equally transformed from being a relatively passive profession of custodianship and organization to a more proactive presence in the facilitation of education. Chapter Five focuses on how and why this move has taken shape and what the implications are for the future of libraries more generally. Libraries have continued to thrive in the face of digitization, not only because they have embraced new and emergent media technologies (libraries have always done so throughout their history), but primarily because they have become new social and educational institutions for the 21st century. There is a tension that lies within this transformation as libraries struggle to hold on to an older version of themselves while simultaneously coming under pressure to fill in the gaps that other cultural and educational institutions often leave behind. The contemporary challenge that libraries face, to become more like something else or to step in where other institutions might be struggling or failing, is a new kind of challenge; a challenge that is specific to the library’s place within an evolving digital cultural reality. This chapter seeks to address the potential consequences of transformative pressures on the defining characteristics and identity of the library. In other words, where is the line to be drawn? At what point does a library stop being a library and become something else?