20.5 Beauty and the Mind

Beauty and the Mind – Samuel Kimbriel (Nottingham University).

Samuel Kimbriel gives us food for thought – image by Carla Marchesan.

Thursday’s opening salvo provided us with a philosophical, thematic thread to underpin the whole conference, by considering how beauty intersects with the built environment. We had begun with some big, open questions in Wednesday’s opening workshop – the how and why behind restoring rare books. Here we were encouraged to contemplate; can a library really fulfil its purpose without being beautiful? What is beauty? What is real and meaningful and good for the soul? In dealing with several intangibles at once, it could be quite difficult to pin down any answers, though we did get some lively discussion in the interactive part of the session which attempted to draw this together.

Dr Kimbriel’s direct look at ‘an anthropology of reading’ aimed to open our eyes to the reasons why we read and the sheer oddity of human animals marking bits of paper in the first place. There seems to be a clash between Aristotle’s reasoning that ‘all people by nature desire to know’ and that we cannot be fully happy without satisfying this drive, with the modern western approach which takes us beyond the simplicity of ‘knowing’ to an actual outcome such as for a project or commercial endeavour.

The argument would soon come to the point that human life is not quite liveable if we are only set up for the production of things, with people becoming restless consumers. Libraries provide access to high culture and esoteric science, in unique places where like-minded people can share in their deeper value and the pursuit of knowing. They are places where we can reach for that sense of wonder always just a little out of our grasp and in doing so feel less alienated.

The talk also considered the non-physical nature of libraries and the sense of loss and grief for the fire ravaged Mackintosh Library. Were we grieving for bricks and mortar and paper, or for what they represented, for a soulful space, the nostalgia or inspiration it provided for a like-minded community? I must admit I lost the thread a little here as we delved into Artistotle’s ‘Theoria’ and the idea of contemplation residing in divine things and even basic structures. I think the point was that the loss of a unique physical place that represents the beauty and deeper value of the pursuit of knowledge is a tragedy for us. Beautiful places and things can help us connect with what is most beautiful and real – even if those ‘real’ things are ultimately intangible and unobtainable. The talk then became very theological, considering the impact of beauty on the soul- with the true purpose of libraries to relax the soul, rather than simply being information repositories.

Perhaps the beauty of libraries lies in how they can help us develop our character through the meaningful and satisfying pursuit of knowing, as well as through more tangible things such as beautiful architecture, books, art, craft – and maybe even beautiful librarians! Whatever you took from this talk, I think we could all agree that there was no shortage of beautiful libraries at this conference, even if – on contemplation – we cannot fully define why they are.

Review by: David Stacey, University of Bath

A captive audience. ARCLIB delegates giving their undivided attention. Cambridge Faculty of Architecture & History of Art. Image – Carla Marchesan.



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