curated by Rachel Gugelberger


Libraries, we are told, are in trouble. Since the appearance of search engines in the mid-1990s, libraries have been on a deathwatch. Despite the fact that they have not died, and don’t seem about to, there is some basis to this concern. The Internet, the reasoning goes, is simply too powerful and too ubiquitous. Information no longer needs to be printed, bound, cataloged, and stored in libraries. It now lives in a massive distributed computer network and can be called up anytime, anywhere, by anyone. The old, analog print regime—and its attendant institutions—is on the way out, its structural integrity under ceaseless assault from blinking packets of electronic bits that continuously pulse through the circulatory system of the Internet. Books—the analog object most closely associated with libraries—are also in trouble. The proliferation of ebook readers and tablet computers that allow us to carry entire libraries in our pocket threaten to finally lay to rest the long reign of the dusty, backbreaking tome. It seems, according to this school of thought, that a whole mode of apprehending the world is on the brink of extinction. This doomsday scenario, seemingly emblematic of our contemporary moment actually has a precedent in recent art history: Though developing out of two completely different contexts, the transformation of the book from a printed object into a networked file neatly parallels the dematerialization of the art object that occurred during the advent of Conceptualism in the late 1960s.

Painting, sculpture, and other object-based artworks were also once in trouble. Emerging as an alternative to market-driven art, and in reaction to prevailing trends in the art world, Conceptual art – the elevation of an idea over the primacy of the object – was a supposedly democratic approach that allowed art to flourish any and everywhere. This radical, utopian “movement” caused plenty of concern in more traditional corners of the art world when it first arrived on the scene. Having spent the first half of the century making sense of multiple, overlapping, competing movements, the art world and the art market were now faced with artists who were just as happy not to fabricate anything at all. 40 years on, the traditionalists should feel somewhat reassured; Conceptualism didn’t destroy traditional mediums of artistic expression. But certainly none of them remain unchanged in its aftermath, nor did it ultimately evade the market. The book and the library will likely follow similar transformative trajectories in the era of the Internet. They will be recognizable in 40 years – they will change in ways that are impossible to predict – but they will both still be with us.

Probably the single most important thing that librarians, authors, and publishers should pay attention to in this parallel paradigmatic shift is the fearlessness with which Conceptual artists approached and appropriated other forms of working and creating. As Lucy Lippard states in the introduction to the reprint of her book, Six Years: The Dematerialization of the Art Object:

Perhaps most important, Conceptualists indicated that the most exciting “art” might still be buried in social energies not recognized as art. The process of extending the boundaries didn’t stop with Conceptual Art: These energies are still out there, waiting for artists to plug into them, potential fuel for the expansion of what “art” can mean. The escape was temporary. Art was recaptured and sent back to its white cell, but parole is always a possibility.

Just as artists look to archives and libraries for their raw material, so too can librarians, publishers, and other representatives of print culture turn to artists to help think about the seismic changes that are disrupting the information landscape. Many of the foundational documents of libraries – the mission statements and collection development policies, written in and for another time – have calcified. Perhaps it’s time for librarians to seek parole from their own institutional stasis and create those documents in the spirit of Sol LeWitt’s instructions or Felix Gonzalez-Torres’ certificates of authenticity, setting up flexible parameters that could be executed with the input of others to produce varying results. This “process of extending the boundaries” – a counterintuitive move for a profession based on classification – might just be a way forward.

Andrew Beccone
November 10, 2011

Andrew Beccone is the founder and director of the Reanimation Library, a small independent library based in Brooklyn. He received his masters in Information and Library Science from the Pratt Institute in 2005. With the Reanimation Library, Beccone has organized exhibitions in the United States and Europe, including Center City Branch at Vox Populi, Philadelphia, Hackney Branch at Space, London, Carlisle Borough Branch at Dickenson College, Carlisle, PA, and Hyde Park Branch at the University of Chicago. He lives in Brooklyn.