Seductive silent spaces that speak volumes

Candida Höfer
December 9, 2005

Librarianship is a bipolar profession. On the one hand, librarians are custodians of treasure houses, whose responsibility for preserving collections of potentially rare, fragile and sometimes unique material can most easily be achieved by keeping people away from it. On the other hand, they are gatekeepers, charged with facilitating the most direct and fruitful access to the information and knowledge contained in their collections to all who may wish to use them. This beautifully produced book of Candida Höer's photographs will be pornography for those librarians for whom the first impulse is the stronger, as well as appealing to those library users who love everything about libraries apart from their fellow readers.

Höfer, who has been photographing libraries for nearly 30 years, most often chooses to capture her subjects out of hours, so that they are, almost without exception, devoid of people (a conceit teasingly heightened by her image of the Zentralinstitut fur Kunstgeschichte in Munich, whose main hall appears crowded with dozens of classical marble figures, mostly nudes). One result of this accumulation of depopulated spaces is to overemphasise libraries as "cathedrals of knowledge" - a cliche irresistible even to Umberto Eco in his introduction - at the expense of recognising them as places of work and productivity. There is, though, a hint of the innate architectural duality of libraries in the image of the main reading room of the New York Public Library, where, under immense arched windows begging for stained glass, lie row upon long row of readers' tables that, even empty, bring to mind the production lines of the Fordist factory system, or the vast battery-style typing pools of the early 20th century. Eco's "introduction" is something of a cheat, being, in fact, a translation of his lecture "De Bibliotheca", delivered in March 1981 to mark the 25th anniversary of the Biblioteca Comunale in Milan and published in his collection Sette anni di desiderio (1983), which makes no reference to Höfer's photographs. It is, though, a playfully readable reflection on the contrariness of libraries from the viewpoint of an enthusiastic user, whose blueprint for how not to run a library ("catalogues must be split up to the maximum degree... the time lapse between request and checkout must be very long... if possible, no toilets") should be required reading on library and information studies courses everywhere.

The 137 colour photographs included in the volume were taken between 1993 and 2005. They are arranged linguistically - a quasi-classification that would appeal to both Eco and Jorge Luis Borges, whose The Library of Babel he admiringly quotes in the introduction - so that the images of libraries in the anglophone world (in the US, Ireland, England and Scotland) are followed by 40 from institutions in German-speaking countries, with subsequent smaller groups of photographs covering, for example, Czech, Scandinavian, French and Italian libraries, and ending with a Spanish/Portuguese amalgam from Spain, Brazil and Mexico. It is an arrangement that serves to highlight some unexpected national characteristics in library design: the dauntingly high multi-levelled galleries of both the Rijksmuseum in Amsterdam and the Handelingenkamer Tweede Kamer der Staten-Generaal in The Hague, with their ornate but perilously inadequate railings and vertiginous spiral staircases, would suggest that Dutch librarians and library users must be the Edmund Hillarys of the bibliographic world. But for Borges, the library is the universe in microcosm, and there is ultimately something universally reassuring about the serenity, continuity and order explicit in all of Höfer's sumptuous images.

Christopher Phipps is head of reader services, the London Library.

Candida Höfer: Libraries

Author - Candida Höfer, with an introduction by Umberto Eco
Publisher - Thames and Hudson
Pages - 268
Price - £42.00
ISBN - 0 500 54314 3

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