Paging through revered German photographer Candida Höfer’s new book Libraries, you’re reminded of just how vast a scope of institutions the word encompasses — from the great Library of Alexandria referenced in Umberto Eco’s opening essay to the workaday civic buildings of reinforced concrete found in American cities that haven’t preserved their Carnegie libraries or built ambitious new media centers.
Many of the buildings Höfer photographed in these images captured from 1992 to 2005 are palatial in the most literal sense: Spain’s El Escorial with its Biblical images painted across an arched ceiling, Prague’s Strahov Library with its angels flying over towering busts, Germany’s Duchess Anna Amalia Library with its atrium of white pillars and golden capitals.
Others are of a more ascetic contemporary cut. Students (among the few human beings to be seen in these pages) read or snooze on couches in front of a checkerboard of windows and under beams sprayed with fire insulation at the Otis College of Art and Design in Los Angeles. Unadorned wooden boxes house archives at the Swiss Re Centre for Global Dialogue. A bank of 2003 computer monitors stare out from a row of tables at the Fondazione Querini Stampalia in Venice.
Though there a few close-ups on rows of books or binders, the artist favors images on a grand scale; most strikingly, for example, a stunning head-on vista of the three-tier dark wood Royal Portuguese Reading Room in Rio. Interior spaces like this can’t fail to strike a spark of wonder, reminding world-weary viewers that there are marvels yet for their eyes to behold.
As befits a student of Bernd Becher, Höfer is interested in the infinite permutations of structures built to serve a single basic function: in this case, the storage and perusal of books. Eco’s essay “De Bibliotheca,” originally published in 1983 (hence the anxiety about photocopiers and microfiche viewers), considers the problem of a “library on a human scale,” one that’s actually comfortable and accessible for ordinary patrons.
That’s somewhat ironic given the pristine, breathtaking drama of some of Höfer’s photos; I’m guessing Eco wouldn’t consider Munich’s Central Institute of Art History a “library on a human scale” given that you can’t even see a single book amid the crowd of nude marble statuary. It’s also true, though, that amid all the stacks and shelves Höfer shot, there are rows and rows of chairs and desks waiting for people to come, sit, and read. The sheer capacity of a space like the vaulted reading room at the National Library of the Czech Republic is mind-boggling. Has it ever filled up in the library’s 400-year history?
Eco’s essay begins with an excerpt from Jorge Luis Borges’s The Library of Babel, which imagines a literally infinite library that contains all possible combinations of words and ideas. It a reminder that, vast as these spaces are, they’re ultimately finite: walk and walk and eventually, you’ll hit a wall that’s the last thing standing between you and the untamed wilderness. Not every thought has yet been had, and not every book has yet been written. There’s always room for more.