This observation was undertaken in three parts: a visit to the working studio and gallery space, a meeting with their Collections Manager, Theo Roth, and an exploration of their online catalogue. Continue reading
“The archival profession is inherently an activist profession.” -Rich Wandel
Last night, the New York Academy of Medicine hosted a panel called “Archives, Advocacy, and Change” as part of their Changemakers series. The panelists were Jenna Freedman, founder of the Barnard Zine Library; Steven Fullwood, founder of In the Life Archive; Timothy Johnson, director of NYU’s Tamiment Library and Robert F. Wagner Labor Archives and co-director of Tamiment’s Cold War Center; and Rich Wandel (quoted above), founder of The Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual & Transgender Community Center National History Archive. Continue reading
The shelves of Brooklyn’s Reanimation Library are lined with bowling manuals, guides to Gregg shorthand, outdated biology textbooks, a tech-savvy fitness book called “computercise,” and even a thick tome containing nothing but random series of numbers.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.
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.
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.
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:
Foucault, M. (1972). The archaeology of knowledge. New York: Pantheon Books.
When the city halted construction on a Hunters Point library this past spring, pop-up and mobile libraries provided alternative services. 1 Queens Library CEO Thomas Galante, who is currently on paid leave due to an investigation into his salary and spending, had said plans were halted because of budget discrepancies concerning the complexity of the building’s designs. 2 Hunters Point residents petitioned for access to a public library, leading Queens Library to open a mobile library at the would-be site of construction. In addition, a group called Friends of Hunters Point Library has kicked off their own pop-up library, which uses the “take-a-book-leave-a-book” model and offers free WiFi and downloads to the public.
These solutions follow the recent trend of “pop-up” libraries that seem to mark a renewed focus on community engagement. Some of these libraries, such as Occupy Wall Street’s The People’s Library, are completely community run and often run on donations. Others, like the Cleveland-based ‘Literary Lots’ work with public institutions to provide access in underserved areas. These directives interest me because they recall the idea of strengthening community service. In “The Professional is Political: Redefining the Social Role of Public Libraries,” Shiraz Durrani and Elizabeth Smallwood state that,
Engaging with the traditional library commodity of information in a ‘non-traditional’ way that responds to local contexts, via the involvement of local people in service design and development, will enable libraries to help bridge the gap between the information rich and the information poor (137). 3
The pop-up library’s mobile and ephemeral nature seems to be a direct response to an information age that allows us a constant flow of communication outside of our immediate surroundings, and to a hostile economic climate that has left the poor segregated in underserved and barren areas of the world. These libraries reinforce the necessity of open access to information and its agents, while abandoning its traditional structure and taking on the transient quality of information today.
This new pop-up model seems to be a way to better engage with communities that don’t have access to traditional libraries. However, I wonder if community engagement necessarily equates to community good. Historically, community engagement has not always meant servicing the public in open and honest ways. American libraries have been centers of education meant to proselytize bourgeois ideals to disenfranchised people. In The Alienated Librarian, Maria Nauratil notes
George Ticknor, leader of the Boston Brahmins and a founder of the Boston Public Library, worried that the steadily increasing immigrant population was unfit ‘to understand our free institutions or to be entrusted with the political power given by universal suffrage,’ and he strongly advocated education as a ‘remedy for this influx of ignorance,’ (38). 4
The library’s opening of access to the general public seemed benevolent, but the underlying forces were patronizing in nature. Upper-class philanthropists believed in libraries as ways to assimilate the working class to their ideals and thus qualm social unrest (Nauratil, 39). Pop-up, community-based libraries could easily act in a similar manner, disguising assimilation tactics as wholesome public service. A more sinister view could propose that these libraries are infiltrating community spaces to disrupt existing and relevant conversations.
However, this idea that the library can act as a vanguard of mainstream ideals can be disturbed upon closer inspection. We must question what these libraries are meant to offer us and how they choose to interact with us. Not every pop up library follows the same model.
For example, last year the PEN World Voices Festival and Architectural League of New York set out to create ten Little Free Libraries, which used small non-invasive spaces such as mailboxes and trellises to provide a limited number of books to the public. The readers are invited to give self-directed tours of the designers’ favorite reading spots. The books provided are from popular publishers and include titles such as Suzanne Collins’ The Hunger Game series. 5
This year, the Floating Library emerged on the Hudson: a pop-up library aboard the Lilac Museum Steamship organized by artist Beatrice Glow. The space is open to the public. The ship will offer, “a range of reading materials from underrepresented authors, artist books, poetry, manifestoes, as well as book collections, that, at the end of the lifecycle of the project will be donated to local high school students with demonstrated need.” The ship also offers art installations, performances, and workshops dedicated to DIY politics with an emphasis on leftist politics and environmental concerns.
Both pop-ups are at least part artistic experiment, but I wonder which library services the community better. Both have an agenda: the Little Free Libraries aim to be accessible to what the public, while The Floating Library aims to expose the public to new ideas, authors, and culture. What is of more value to the public: accessibility or exposure? The Little Free Libraries were set up in deliberately public places, while the Floating Library exists in a contained and maybe exclusionary place. Surely it’s easier to grab a book from your bench-turned-book-shelf than to trek to Pier 25 on the Hudson River. But then again, we must wonder who has the best access to these Little Free Libraries, all located on the Lower East Side? I would also seek to question: where are the librarians, curators, and information specialists? While I am not about to assert that the Little Free Libraries actively aims to uphold bourgeouis ideals and brainwash the working class, the project isn’t interested in engaging the public in conversation surrounding its material.
The Little Free Libraries project seems to focus more on the book than on the flow of information between people. In some ways, this echoes the idea of the enchained book in university libraries. Andre Cossette touches on this in Humanism and Libraries, noting, “The tidy arrangement sufficiently shows the importance that [universities] accorded to the preservation of books as opposed to their diffusion and sharing” (41). 6 Leaving books in odd corners of New York City for casual perusal could hardly be called a focus on preservation. However, both models of libraries seem to value the book over its information. That seems to be the case for the director of the PEN World Voices Festival, Jakab Orsos, who told the Times, “It really restores my faith, this connectedness — how people are actually harboring the beauty of reading and the book and the importance of the book.” 7 Part of the appeal of the Little Free Libraries project is the novelty of seeing a book in a bird-feeder instead of on a shelf. Glow’s “Floating Library” seems more focused on conversation surrounding content, than the book itself. To me, this seems to be the more meaningful way to engage communities. Whether it’s the most appealing way is another question.
On a symbolic level, I wonder about the uprooting of the traditional, physical library. Removing reading, learning, and conversation from the confines of traditional educational structures in favor of the open spaces we tend to have more organic connections with is appealing to me. These pop-up libraries illustrate the ways that information is no longer confined to institutions. When they include underserved communities in relevant conversations, these libraries begin to, as Durrani and Smallwood say, “help bridge the gap between the information rich and the information poor.”