Professor Boll and students, from the UW-Madison Archives collection.
Former SLIS professor John J. Boll taught all sorts of classes during his 36 years at UW-Madison: everything from Cataloging to Special Libraries. But his real passion was for library architecture. The 700 slides I mentioned in my last entry consist almost entirely of two very specific things: 1) library floor plans, and 2) photos and woodcuts of library interiors and exteriors.
But Mr. Boll’s interest in library buildings preceded his arrival at the UW — his Ph.D. dissertation for the University of Illinois LIbrary School was titled “American College Library Buildings, 1850-1950.”
""Now I suppose you’re wondering ‘Why on earth did he give this out?’" Mr. John J. Boll." (caption), from the UW Archives photo collection.
One of his lectures, “The Changing Face of Libraries,” begins as follows:
"On the one hand, there is the desire for representing the might of the state with a grand and elegant building, and for inspiring the viewer. This leads to tall or large rooms, to decoration, to spending much money on elegant materials and on things that don’t make the library operate any better as a functioning organism.
On the other hand, there is the desire for function, for creating a structure that will help to make the library operate efficiently and effectively. Form against function.”
He expands on this basic idea, discussing the various philosophies and logistical issues that influenced library design throughout history. Ever wondered why many libraries tend towards long, narrow rooms with high ceilings and many windows?
Detail of a lectern with chain, storage shelf, sidelight. Clearly a utilitarian library, intended to be used. Reader access to books. Non-circulating. From Professor Boll’s teaching slides.
It all goes back to the late middle ages, when artificial light, like candles, was banned within libraries for fear of fires. So readers had to rely on natural light from the windows.
And since the books were chained down to prevent thefts, the windows had to be large and close enough to actually provide illumination. And, as Professor Boll puts it, the concept “was kept… . even in the late 19th + early 20th centuries.”
From Professor Boll’s teaching slides.
And as for wall-to-wall bookcases? “Basically, for hundreds of years the intelligentia believed that being surrounded by books was an intellectually helpful state. This affected library architecture until at least 1850, and even later.”
So one of the aspects of library design we tend to take as a given operates on the same basic idea as sleeping with your textbook under your pillow in hopes you’ll somehow learn the contents via osmosis. But, hey, who knows, it could work. Maybe.
The former SLIS library, from Professor Boll’s photo collection. Hey, wait, look at how those bookcases are arranged…!
Something that stood out to me was that, in a lecture dated twenty years ago, Professor Boll was already discussing the problems that libraries would face with regards to integrating computers into their existing floor plans: “We are with respect to computers at the same stage that we were 125 years ago with respect to stacks. We must find a series of relevant patterns.”
I’m not entirely sure we’ve found those patterns yet, given the difficulties I’ve personally experienced in locating outlets in many campus libraries. But if Professor Boll’s lecture is anything to go by, the libraries will continue to physically shift and change to accommodate both functional and ideological issues as they develop.
—Posted by Abigail Springman, SLIS grad student (MLIS 2014)
Photos from the UW-Madison Archives collections. For more information about this story or UW-Madison campus history, visit http://archives.library.wisc.edu. More pictures of Professor Boll and other figures from SLIS history can be found at SLIS Digital Collections.