Bringing (Un)dead Books Back to Life at Reanimation Library

By SrrhHamerman

Reanimation Library's Reading Room, via reanimationlibrary.org

Reanimation Library’s Reading Room, via reanimationlibrary.org

The shelves of Brooklyn’s Reanimation Library are lined with bowling manuals, guides to Gregg shorthand, outdated biology textbooks, a tech-savvy fitness book called “computercise,” and even a thick tome containing nothing but random series of numbers. Browsing the collection feels more like inhabiting a vaguely retro-futurist cabinet of curiosities than a library in the traditional sense. But through this hybrid library and conceptual artwork, Reanimation Library founder Andrew Beccone challenges us to rethink systems of knowledge and cultural value.

Located in the Proteus Gowanus complex since 2006, Reanimation Library serves primarily as a visual resource to inspire artists and individuals to create new work. Though the collection does not circulate, visitors are encouraged to scan and reuse images that they find – in Beccone’s words, to “pan for gold in the sediment of visual culture.” Among Reanimation Library’s audience are book artists, animators, collectors, writers and students. Beyond Brooklyn, Reanimation installs “branch libraries,” which are temporary, site-sourced versions of the library, at art and cultural spaces as far afield as Lebanon. Additionally, the library invites writers to critically respond to works from the collection on its Word Processor blog.

Reanimation Library started out as an extension of Beccone’s personal interests. A practicing visual artist, he worked in libraries for years and studied library science at Pratt. The collection’s scope reflects his interest in the print and visual culture of the era spanning from the ‘40s to the ‘70s, eschewing high-art texts for vernacular subjects. He delights in the “popular modernism” of this atomic-age visual culture, which seems to promise everyone the possibility of transforming his or her world, even through mundane pursuits. The books function more as artifacts than as texts, giving us insight into the era’s mode of visual/textual reproduction and embodying its cultural mindset. Reanimation Library allows visitors to perform their own “archaeology of knowledge,” gleaning understanding of the past’s (failed) promises through its detritus – and reclaiming its visual potential for the future.

Owing to the project’s focus on generating new work, I asked Beccone how he tracked and displayed the art created in response to the collection. While he originally attempted to include the works in his digital catalog and link them to the books they referenced, this proved to be too much of an administrative burden, even with occasional volunteer help. Also, attempting to meticulously track and record every artwork felt a bit authoritarian – patrons actively share in the project, and once the images enter their hands, they are theirs to transform. The library negotiates an interesting space between private and public collection – in some sense, it’s a portrait of Beccone’s own interests, but he’s offering it up to everyone.

Reanimation Library has drawn an ambivalent reaction from library professionals, perhaps because it calls attention to the materials libraries eliminate through weeding. Collection development policies prioritize currently relevant textual information, often assigning little weight to the visual dimension of the work. In our conversation, Beccone noted that there’s something conservative to the way libraries consider useful information, often de-privileging visual information that’s not easily classified and pushing it away from access. His perspective on the library’s power in determining culturally useful knowledge resonates with Foucault’s definition of the archive:

“[The archive is not] that which collects the dust of statements that have become inert once more, and which may make possible the miracle of their resurrection; it is that which defines the mode of occurrence of the statement-thing, it is the system of its functioning,” (Foucault 129).

While Reanimation Library may aim to make this “miracle” possible once more, it is still, resolutely, a library, with books cataloged according to the Library of Congress system. For Beccone, the choice of Library of Congress was a bit arbitrary – it suited his purposes, and was the classification system he was most familiar with. Still, many librarians have refused to see Reanimation Library as something more than an art project, despite the fact that Beccone embraces the library’s spirit of providing free, democratic access to information.

From Reanimation Library's digital image collection

From Reanimation Library’s digital image collection

The project has received a more enthusiastic response in the art world, where it resonates with recent interests in social practice and relational art. Particularly since the 1960s, the art world has showed a continued interest in questioning hierarchies and breaking down disciplinary boundaries. Artworks such as Marcel Broodthaers’ “Department of Eagles” have emphasized the strangeness of the archive, its gaps and its visual repetitions. Artistically, Reanimation Library has found a community at Proteus Gowanus, a gallery and reading room that hosts residents interested in cross-disciplinary inquiry and collaboration. Its neighbors at the space have included Morbid Anatomy Museum, focusing on art, science, and death, and Observatory, a group of “oddball para-academics” who present lectures and events.

Marcel Broodthaers' fictitious museum, Department of Eagles, 1968

Marcel Broodthaers’ fictitious museum, Department of Eagles, 1968

While Reanimation Library encourages engagement with books as physical and material objects, it also offers a full digital catalog and online collection of thousands of images. For Beccone, print and digital are not mutually exclusive – rather, they offer different modes of understanding and searching for information that can support and mutually reinforce one another. The digital archive allows people outside of New York to access part of the collection, as well as offering a browsing experience that’s distinct from the physical space. However, he has no intent of fully digitizing the collection – because of resource limitations, conceptual intentions, and because this may infringe on fair use.

Beccone finds that many people of the younger generation that has grown up with the Internet have taken a strong interest in the collection, and in book arts more generally. Citing the success of the New York Art Book Fair, he notes that there has been an embrace of print objects and analog technologies, in reaction to the ephemerality and intangibility of the digital. Books have a medium-specific way of conveying information, speaking as much through the feel of their pages and the visual quality of color, ink and image reproduction as they do through their content. While techniques of collage, remix and juxtaposition are nothing new, they are the dominant modes of cultural production in the digital environment.

From 1985 B-horror classic,  Reanimator, which you should all watch

From 1985 B-horror classic, Reanimator, which you should all watch

Reanimation Library’s books may be “dead” in one sense, bearers of bunk knowledge and outmoded cultural trends – but they encourage the mad scientist in all of us to give them life, to make their zombie-like moans reverberate through the cracks in the “official” archive’s walls.

Interested in Reanimation Library? Check out these other alternative library projects:

Work Cited:

Foucault, M. (1972). The archaeology of knowledge. New York: Pantheon Books.

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