Where are the books?

This was the question I asked when I visited the rare book room at the new San Diego Central Library. I had come to see the newly built library which had opened five months ago in September 2013. The building was so new, it still had that new construction smell about it.

The structure was very impressive architecturally, soaring nine floors into the sky, with a metal lace dome topping it off. But it was the rare book room on the top floor that attracted my attention because it was such a beautiful room. It had that comfortable library feeling with lots of old shelving set into the walls, muted lighting, old paintings, and an impressive eucalyptus table.

The room had been designed to house the Wangenheim Collection of rare materials tracing the history of the book, which includes such specimens as Egyptian papyrus, vellum manuscripts, lacquered palm leaf books from India, a bark codex, Chinese silk scrolls, and early handmade papers from Japan.

But all the shelves in the rare book room were empty. When I asked the docent where they were, she said they were still packed away in boxes. Apparently, these beautiful surroundings were never designed with rare books in mind.

Because of their fragile condition, old books need special lighting, temperature, and humidity and are susceptible to the off gassing of wood and the dust from concrete. None of these conditions had been considered in the design of the room with its untreated wood and concrete, open windows and unfiltered lighting. The docent said efforts were being made to seal the concrete, but she had no idea when books would eventually fill the room.

Considering the conditions, I wondered if staff would use the room as a short term display space, putting out exhibits for limited periods, much like museums do with delicate materials. But whatever happens, it is a cautionary tale of poor design (be it ever so beautiful) over usable function.