Person with laptop kills the idea of the new National Library

Why people who go to the National Library not to read and what it lacks to become the “third place”

The National Library that pompously opened after reconstruction of the building of the former Lenin Memorial quickly became a trendy place for Kazan citizens. But when you come to read a book, you immediately face the harsh reality. You will unlikely be able to comfortably sit in an armchair and read an interesting book with a view of the Kazanka River. All such seats are occupied by people who find here a good substitute for co-working from morning till evening: it is free, cosy and very Instagrammable. In a column for Realnoe Vremya, blogger, sociologist Dilya Izbudushcheva reflects on why the National Library cannot yet become a truly “third place” and what major problem it came across immediately after the opening.

To obtain information: conflict of ways

“May I come with my book and read it?” a girl asked in an Instagram post announcing the long-awaited opening of the National Library. This seemingly inoffensive question became a signal personally for me what a problem the library had to face immediately after the opening. It is a conflict of two ways of information consumption, one of which is millennia-old, while the second one appeared no more than 15 years ago but has already brought up a whole generation. The question the girl asked was the voice of the era of the cognitive revolution. And to answer it, employees of the library had to, first of all, understand why it was asked.

The old way envisages that information is consumed “on the territory of the establishment”, and libraries, in fact, are places of physical storage of knowledge. During the pre-digital era, a physical, “analogue” library was almost the only way to find information. Home collections of books only partly solved the problem of information hunger. Amounts of information were huge, but the challenge was even to know what knowledge exactly existed in nature. Bibliographic references in textbooks gave some tips, lists of recommended literature offered other tips. But these were just scraps. The key amount of names was hidden like ships drowned under the water. And it was hard to get access to it. It was a good way to guard books near the delivery desk and take the books from people who return them.

I remember when the school library was once moving, schoolchildren were asked to help: to pile the books and tie the piles. I got to that part of the library where books were stored for the first time and felt I was in a cave with treasure. But I had not time to look through the books that interested me. At first, I tried to remember the titles. Then I began to write them down. Later, I understood that I wouldn’t have the time to write everything down, everything was happening so fast. It was a tragedy. The treasure was disappearing, and it felt like they were disappearing forever because I understood that the librarian wouldn’t give me a book according to the cover’s description later. Then I burst out crying and rushed to the librarian with a pile of books in my arms. She was shocked, simply gave them to me and asked me to return them as soon as I could.

A new era of knowledge consumption

Then digitalisation came. It made everything available. A new consumption era arrived. And the case is not only that the e-book became accessible to an unlimited number of readers at the same time. The case isn’t that it became possible to read books not indoors but also outdoors, without going to the library. The case is that a digital book can be placed at the same time in a hundred catalogues, and it will match hundreds of requests. If in the analogue library, Donna Tartt’ The Goldfinch would lie in Contemporary Foreign Literature, in the digital library, it will have a lot of tags: novels about art, Bildungsroman, Pulitzer Award winners, novels written by women, screened compositions and so on. The first online libraries made catalogues alphabetically or geographically in the old fashion, but the next iteration allowed sorting the database according to different snapshots. And the same happened to all places of knowledge: film libraries, audio libraries, torrent trackers, stocks with embroidery patterns and desktop wallpapers.

The Internet gave us a chance of finding information and a community with very precise requests. If one had to settle for a book club with a common topic (let’s say, English romantic prose), now it is possible to find live communication in virtual clubs on “How much money did the characters of Jane Austin's novels earn in modern-day money?” with a 200-page discussion. If the information isn’t found on the first two pages of the search results, it means it doesn’t exist in nature. To go to the third page is a luxury. It is ineffective to waste time searching for information that has already fallen into your hands itself for long in the form of lists, catalogues, chats and targeted advertising.

“Person with a laptop” as a behavioural model

That’s why the girl is wondering if she can come to the library with her book. She wants to protect her energy resources. As a child of the cognitive revolution, she wants the biggest feedback with the smallest investment for her leisure time. It is a too big risk to waste time in going to the library and not finding content to her liking.

This is why when I went to the National Library for the first time, a couple of days after the opening, I didn’t find empty seats. And they all were occupied by people who brought sources of information with them.

How did I learn it? Very simple: they all were sitting with laptops. A person with a laptop in a public place is in general quite a deplorable show. And if the laptop is plugged in, things are really bad: it is a signal that the person is here probably for the whole day. He seems to say: “This table is mine, not yours. Yes, for long. No, I am not going to go. No place to sit? Not my business.”

On that day in the library, people with laptops occupied all empty seats: at tables, in armchairs, on sofas in the scenic area. A table with digital services (it has computers with access to commercial e-libraries) was also occupied by people who “brought food from home”. They put laptops directly on the table with the library’s computers, while some particularly gifted people unplugged desk computers and plugged in theirs. Moreover, they didn’t have books on the tables. They were sitting in headphones. Somebody was watching a series. Somebody was editing a video. Somebody was simply chatting.

People with books in their arms were confusedly wandering in the library, they didn’t understand how to use the library as intended. A group of girls who came to a meeting and were sitting at a big table discussing something loudly started laughing in one of the reading halls. Discussing something loudly. In the library. It started to smell a canteen from the second floor: stewed cabbage, Alaska pollack, pastry. Dishes started to clash, a buzz of a crowd having lunch was heard. I stopped understanding where I was.

What is that? A library? A public space? Co-working? A canteen?

Why library won’t become the third place

Perhaps, is it the renowned “third place” whose idea was heard everywhere a few years ago?

Definitely not. Attempts to apply the theory of modernisation to libraries and upgrade them a bit were made during the whole post-Soviet period but they didn’t lead to success. The concept of the third place is hard to use in libraries because the author of the theory of the third place Ray Oldenburg thinks that it must be private and envisage total freedom of expression. The Russian library will never be able to provide this.

From a perspective of marketing, now the National Library considers it is in the third place concept but meets only two of five criteria: free services and democracy.

The library is far from a public transport stop, it doesn’t have free or convenient parking. It is hard to enter the building passing by, its visit requires a conscious and purposeful action, that’s to say, it considerably consumes energy: time, effort. Mentally, one wants to replenish these resources very much, and if there isn’t such an opportunity, people stop going there. But now the beautiful and fashionable site of the National Library will become an anchor for those who look for a beautiful, comfortable and free (!) site to sit with their laptop and their Thermos flask for the whole day.

Why go to the library if you aren’t going to read?

An enquiring reader has already probably wondered: why on earth do these people go to the library if they aren’t going to read? I will answer using the language of science. Humans are by nature social creatures, they suffer without communication. To put it strictly, cooperation and expression of skills of communication, collaboration with people alike, learning experience, sharing concerns are the qualities that helped humankind to survive as species.

People need to feel they are in society, even though this feeling was created artificially. This is why hours-long sounds of white noise from coffee shops and restaurants are popular on YouTube — they help one feel they are in society, namely, protected. Let’s have a look at Abraham Maslow’s hierarchy of needs: consumption in society follows the basic needs for physical comfort. Humans need communication immediately after sleep, food and protection. What is more, communication is needed to create social capital: social links.

It is already a bad manner to talk about the pandemic, but it anyway became a factor that pitilessly cuts up our social capital that is now recovering bit by bit. Been there. Do you know any confectioner? No, he’s gone to Petersburg. Do you know any traffic cop? No, they all have turned into techies. Does your neighbour make logotypes? No, he is now a taxi driver.

The ideal third place unites all factors that are necessary to obtain social capital: it is geographic accessibility, goodwill and comfortable service, inexpensive or free goods and services, the presence of a group of people who are frequent visitors who are the heart and essence of the establishment.

Precisely third places make us feel a part of society. It is especially important that it be comfortable to get to, stay there for a few hours, eat and drink. Is there such a place in Kazan in general? To go on foot, talk with amazing people and not leave your daily wage for a piece of biscuit? Please, write in the comments.

To disconnect from the matrix

Coming to the third place, a person leaves social pressure that he or she can feel, for instance, at home, from the parents. One can meet with friends informally, make new friends, join a conversation, listen to a lecture or concert. But, of course, for this purpose, one will have to close the laptop and put the phone away.

From a perspective of sociology, psychology, education, consumption, etiquette, we are in uncertainty now. It is a new era. A fast-food establishment’s employee can ALREADY ask a guest with a laptop to free the table for a person with a tray of food. But a library employee CANNOT yet do the same for a person with a pile of books. At the moment, there aren’t norms and standards, there isn’t etiquette in such situations. Squat book club and store on Universitetskaya Street closed due to the absence of this “code”. It was an establishment with a new format where visitors were offered to not only buy books but also read them directly in the store and have coffee and talk in a cosy atmosphere. Guess, how quickly did the visitors become shameless? How quickly did they come to the format “to occupy a table and sit there all day long?” Perhaps, as soon as people removing the number plate from their cars at municipal parking.

“A person with a laptop” stopped being a desirable client in cafes where he orders a cup of small cappuccino in the morning and occupies a table for four for the whole day. Hipster establishments fight against this occurrence with mixed success: somebody transforms into an anti-cafe, somebody hides sockets, somebody restricts free Wi-Fi. All these forced measures lead to not only a rise in the average bill of the establishment but also make us disconnect from the matrix of the Internet at least a bit and look at each others’ eyes.

It seems the library will have to take some measures because the situation is very sad now. The hype will probably subside with time, and the library’s “own” audience that’s characteristic of libraries will stay: cranks with horn-rimmed glasses, old ladies with large felt hats and excited student girls with a feather in their hairdo. But I think that the creation of this space assumed a different target audience and other purposes at first. I wish we neither lost nor broke them.

By Dilya Izbudushcheva. Author’s photos