curated by Rachel Gugelberger


“The library will endure; it is the universe.” — James Gleick, The Information

The sunlight bathing the late Baroque interior of the “Joanina” Library in Candida Höfer’s large-scale color photograph Biblioteca Geral da Universidade de Coimbra IV (2006) highlights a collection of rare and ancient books, and acts as a metaphor for the illumination—both cultural and intellectual—that permeated the Age of Enlightenment. Presiding over the central room is a portrait of King João V, one of the period’s greatest art patrons and after whom the library is named, painted by the Italian portraitist Domenico Duprà. Completed in 1728, the Joanina is a gilded testament to the financial and intellectual wealth that the Portuguese Empire enjoyed at the time. And yet, in Höfer’s photograph, the space is devoid of people, suggesting a twist to a classic riddle: Does a library contain knowledge if no one is there to read it?

Candida Höfer
Biblioteca Geral da Universidade de Coimbra IV, 2006
80.5 x 97.375 x 2.375 inches
Courtesy of Sonnabend Gallery, New York

For the philosophers of the Enlightenment, knowledge was not just something to be known, it was something to be classified, a fact evidenced by the rise of the encyclopedic dictionaries during the 18th century. The first Encyclopedia Brittanica was published in 1771, fueled by a desire to expand the access to knowledge beyond the elite class, using new modes of taxonomy and hierarchical systems. The era’s meticulous approach to documenting information also informs Höfer’s own typological interest in ordered, purpose-driven institutional spaces, such as libraries, museums, zoos and theaters.

By rarely depicting the patrons and focusing instead on the details of interior design, the intention behind their construction and the logic of the contents within, Höfer presents an “architecture of absence”[1] that nevertheless implies a human presence. In documenting many of the world’s most prized cultural institutions, some of which may be on the verge of obsolescence, Höfer reveals, if not knowledge itself, the considerable efforts that society has undergone to organize, preserve, display, share and honor it.

While the Enlightenment represents a major step forward in the realm of taxonomy, the desire to collect information in the form of a library or archive dates back to at least the 4th millennium BC in the city-states of Sumer (modern-day Iraq), where temple rooms have been found to contain clay tablets detailing inventories and financial transactions in cuneiform script. And while those archives amassed a particular kind of data, the idea of collecting all the world’s information is an ancient one. Built in the 3rd century BC—and according to several ancient sources including Plutarch, accidentally burned down by Julius Caesar in 48 BC—the Library of Alexandria in Egypt is considered to be the first attempt to collect the world’s knowledge. At the end of the 19th century, in an effort to organize all information, Paul Otlet, with Nobel Prize laureate and fellow Belgian Henri La Fontaine, created the Universal Decimal Classification, a library classification system still in use that helped to earn him such titles as the “father of information science” and the “founder of documentation.”

In his 1903 essay about the science of bibliography, Otlet presaged the World Wide Web, envisioning a “Universal Book of Knowledge” that would “constitute a systematic, complete current registration of all the facts relating to a particular branch of knowledge…formed by linking together materials and elements scattered in all relevant publications.” He also foresaw the rise of Google: “Readers, abstractors, systematizers, abbreviators, summarizers, and ultimately synthesizers, they will be persons whose function is not original research or the development of new knowledge…rather their function will be to preserve what has been discovered, to gather our intellectual harvests, to classify the elements of knowledge.”[2]

Today, the task of putting the Web’s estimated 500 billion gigabytes of digital information[3] into some kind of order has been taken up with aplomb by the internet giant Google, whose stated mission is, pithily, “to organize the world’s information and make it universally accessible and useful.”[4] Part of this task has been to digitize the world’s books, a project that has thrown fuel onto the copyright infringement fire that swept through recorded music and newspapers.

While some may bemoan the loss of the physical and tangible relationship to the book, Loren Madsen has taken advantage of the readily available information online about books, using the World Wide Web as a reference library to create a hierarchy of the subjects that dominate the books that we read. Searching book titles for the appearance of such loaded words as sex, fat, self, fashion, violence and virtue, Madsen conducts a conceptual exercise to rank our varying degrees of interest in certain popular topics. In Untitled (Titles: Fashion), Untitled (Titles: Sex) and Untitled (Titles: Self) from 1998, each collection of titles is rendered in the same paper and font size. The amount of ink expended on each keyword offers a clever, if unscientific, visualization of the topics that dominate English-language books.

Loren Madsen
Untitled (Titles): Self, 1998
Iris print
30 x 30 inches, 32 x 32 inches framed
Courtesy of McKee Gallery, New York

Madsen’s interest in data visualization takes a three-dimensional form in his series of sculptures Historical Abstracts, which render changes in statistical data over time taken from such varied sources as the U.S. Census Bureau, the National Endowment for the Arts, the Bureau of Labor Statistics and the Pew Research Center. Worry (Prayer) Beads (2004), for example, is a set of prayer beads made out of hematite and carnelian, the size of each bead determined by the number of terrorist-related deaths during different years in the United States, the Middle East, Africa and Europe. More recently, in his Web-based piece Many Endings (2011), Madsen has created a virtual eschatological library, classifying all end-of-the-world theories and relevant dates throughout history into one website, explaining them through text and images culled from online sources. Madsen refers to his creative approach as “maximal art,” which seeks an experience that he says, “includes the cerebral along with the visual.”[5]

Perhaps a “maximal” experience regarding books is something that will suffer, at least in sensory ways, as books become digitized. “A lot of book-readers, myself included, enjoy the smell and palpable history of a book from a library or used bookstore,” writes Benjamin Dangle on Alternet.org. “There is something comforting about the shared experience of reading a physical book many others have read, and will read in the future. I like the story of a used book—a folded page, the markings on the margins, the hints at its past. Sure, sometimes they smell like cigarette smoke, but they can also smell like the places they’ve been, whether it’s a dusty old used bookstore or the tropical funk of Asunción, Paraguay. You can’t share a Kindle book and so history doesn’t cling to it the same way.”[6]

Madsen’s Titles series were made in 1998, the same year Google was founded. At the time, his search for book titles was on Amazon.com using Netscape Navigator, and the books were most certainly of the paper variety. His search for the word fashion returned 853 titles; sex, 3,299; and unsurprisingly, self returned 3,529.

While the self may always remain a hot topic for books, it is the romantic notion that the self can be expressed by the books in one’s collection—digital or otherwise—that informs Reynard Loki’s First Lines/Last Lines (2011), a diptych of vertical scrolls that each display the first and last lines of the books in his personal library, a cumulative ongoing project started in 2002 that challenges the viewer to a game of literary recognition. With “First Lines” to the left and “Last Lines” to the right, the space in between creates a pause; essentially, a blank space where the rest of the book might be. The rhythm of the centered lines, from top to bottom—some as brief as one word, others long enough to fill multiple lines across the width of the page—can, as in Madsen’s work, be read graphically. Instead of revealing socio-cultural trends, this unique selection of text offers visual cues suggesting undulating soundwaves, imbuing the work with a performative quality while acting as an ever-changing portrait of the artist, as lines are added and taken away to mirror the activity of his library. James Wood, who teaches literary criticism at Harvard University, recognizes the complex relationship we may have with our own book collections. “Libraries are always paradoxical,” he writes in a recent essay in The New Yorker about packing up his father-in-law’s library. “They are as personal as the collector, and at the same time are an ideal statement of knowledge that is impersonal, because it is universal, abstract.”[7]

Reynard Loki
First Lines/Last Lines, 2004-present (ongoing) (First Lines, detail)
Ink on paper
Diptych: two pieces at 9 x 3 feet each
Courtesy of the artist

Much of Loki’s artistic practice explores the abstract and ultimately impersonal elements of language and literature through the taxonomic application of his own idiosyncratic classification systems. For his series Character Distribution Comparison of Shakespeare’s Sonnets (2004), for example, he created dual-axis line graphs expressing how many times each letter of the alphabet appears in the sonnets of William Shakespeare, as if such mathematical-based analyses of poetry could somehow reveal something about the work in question, while offering a sardonic observation on the strict mathematical construction required by the sonnet form. In his series Thought for Food (2004), Loki presents bottles of chewed pages of works by such philosophers as John Dewey, C.S. Peirce and Marshall McLuhan, playfully subverting the “food for thought” metaphor by literally chewing through books.

Books and the libraries that contain them have long been the targets of destruction, intentional or otherwise; libraries have closed as a result of budget cuts, suffered damage or destruction by wars, natural disasters and censorial governments. In his 1953 novel Fahrenheit 451 (titled after the temperature at which paper burns), Ray Bradbury describes a future dystopia in which books are outlawed and firemen are charged with setting them ablaze. Xiaoze Xie addresses this deliberate destruction of books in Untitled #3 (2010), a painting that depicts books on fire. Painted after stills from the 1993 documentary “Degenerate Art,” the work references the campaign of book burning under the Nazi Regime during the 1930s. And yet, abstracted from the actual scenes of book burning, they appear as if in flight, conjuring the mythical phoenix rising from the ashes. While the blurred painterly rendering evokes the movement and urgency of its time-based source, the overall composition of orange and red undertones infuse the scene, immortalizing knowledge in the face of its destruction.

Xiaoze Xie
Untitled #3, 2010
Oil on canvas
20 x 30 inches
Courtesy of Chambers Fine Art

Using a methodical and deliberate approach, Xie contemplates the relationship between history, media and time in paintings after photographs he takes in libraries. While the fleeting nature of folded newspapers are captured with a keen eye on the replay of current events through fragments of images, Xie’s paintings of books reflect on the circumstances and conditions of their surroundings, such as entropy, neglect and violence. With a crisp realism, Chinese Library No. 46 (2011) depicts the edges of stacked manuscripts in full decay, buckling under their own weight. Their monochromatic bindings are abstracted in vivid horizontal red lines, illuminating at once a past importance and a pending demise, speaking perhaps to China’s complicated history as centuries-old traditions collide with the rapid pace of modernity. Having studied architecture and painting in Beijing in the late 1980’s and trained in the social-realist style of the Cultural Revolution, Xie’s practice was informed by the violent crackdown on protests at Tiananmen Square in 1989, after which his realist style shifted to focus on documentation and collective memory, resonating with his current themes of power and its abuses.

Fire also plays a transformative role in Blane De St. Croix’s Library Fire: Landscapes (2011), a sleek contemporary library that houses 24 drawings of charred landscapes. Of indeterminate time or place, each landscape represents wild fires that indiscriminatly cross our southern and northern borders. Rendered in dark ink on a white background with gold sizing, De St. Croix experiments with contrast, patterning and texture, to capture diverse landscapes relegated to the same fate. The drawings are shelved high on the wall, physically engaging the viewer, who must climb the rolling library ladder in order to view the drawings. This functional ladder doubles as a symbolic device: Appearing in religious and esoteric contexts since ancient times, it stands in for progress and spiritual ascent. Yet De St. Croix’s library does not represent a world of higher consciousness. Evoking ancient book formats such as the clay tablet and manuscript to capture contemporary landscapes, the library is a foil for the power of knowledge at the expense of the natural world.

Blane De St. Croix
Library Fire: Landscapes, 2011 (detail)
Rolling library ladder, 24 drawings on wood panels, wood cabinets, Masonite and gold sizing
Panels 14 x 11 inches each
Overall dimensions 10 feet high x 3 feet wide x 6 inches deep
Courtesy of the artist

In earlier projects related to libraries and books, De St. Croix created a taxonomic catalog of extinct North American animals (Vanishing, 1993); a library of evanescent drawings of North American birds on the verge of extinction (Rare Pages IV, 1992); and an altar of burned books (Stations of the Cross, 1992). Rendering visual information difficult to decipher or displaying its scorched remains, these projects present information on the cusp of destruction. More recent work addresses such issues as coal and mountaintop removal mining, controversial and multidimensional subjects that are well-suited to his research-intensive practice, a practice that he says is about “articulating humankind’s desire to take command over the earth, revealing distinct conflicts with ecology, politics and ourselves.”[8] Long interested in themes of modernism and its discontents, De St. Croix takes a geopolitical approach to better understand the destruction of both the natural environment and human knowledge.

Many view the digitization of books as the destruction of an intellectual legacy that derives some of its value from its palpability. In Books on Fire: The Destruction of Libraries Throughout History (2007), French historian Lucien X. Polastron argues that the replacement of books by digital copies is the newest danger facing libraries today, as many struggle financially to keep up with the pace of digital technologies. He also notes the potential legal challenges that may arise from the increased difficulty in authenticating knowledge as books undergo dematerialization.

This phenomenon of dematerialization brings to mind Lucy Lippard’s illustration of the dematerialization of the art object through the practice of conceptual art.[9] The art object and conceptual practice are doing just fine, however, if art auction sales are any indication. And not surprisingly, the book—readymade or fabricated—is increasingly employed in contemporary art practice. Garrett Stewart refers to this as “conceptual book art” in Bookwork: Medium to Object to Concept to Art, in which he discuses the demediated nature of the book as sculpture.[10]

Melissa Dubbin and Aaron S. Davidson engage in a process of the materialiation of books, shaping data into form in their installation Reading Room for Kids (2006/2011). Based on all 39 books on the Central Intelligence Agency’s recommended reading list for children from Kindergarten to 12th grade, as posted on the CIA website in 2006, the piece is a cozy reading room decorated with wallpaper and carpeting, containing a small library and modular furniture. A graceful flock of wood and paper butterflies of varying sizes pinned to the walls appear frozen in mid-flight. Playful and child-friendly, the butterflies, and the room’s leaf pattern wallpaper, appear innocent enough. But the designs are based after illustrations from My Adventures As a Spy (1915) by Lieutenant-General Lord Baden-Powell, founder of the Scout Movement and an intelligence officer in the British Army who once disguised himself as a bumbling, nearsighted lepidopterist as he surreptitiously sketched detailed information about the Austro-Hungarian fortress in Cattaro, Dalmatia, into the wings of his butterfly and leaf drawings.[11] In the section of the book entitled “The Value of Being Stupid,” Baden-Powell wrote that “the exceedingly stupid Englishmen who wandered about foreign countries sketching cathedrals, or catching butterflies, or fishing for trout, were merely laughed at as harmless lunatics.”[12]

Melissa Dubbin & Aaron S. Davidson
Reading Room for Kids, 2006/2011 (detail)
All 39 books from the CIA’s 2006 Intelligence Book List for K-5th and 6-12th graders, wood and paper butterflies, metal pins, glue, wallpaper, furniture, carpet
Dimensions variable
Courtesy of the artists
Produced while in residence with the Lower Manhattan Cultural Council

Reading Room for Kids touches on issues of control—ideological, psychological, political and military—as implemented by way of the design of a library’s content. The work also speaks to our paranoid post-9/11 climate and the dramatic sociopolitical changes that have been born out of it, exemplified by the Patriot Act, which had been in effect for five years by the time Dubbin and Davidson’s project was realized. Section 215 of the act, “Access to records and other items under the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act” (often referred to as the “library records provision”), gives the FBI the authority to demand “the production of any tangible things (including books, records, papers, documents, and other items) for an investigation to protect against international terrorism or clandestine intelligence activities.”[13]

The reading list no longer appears on the CIA website, a testament to the fleeting tenure of information on the World Wide Web. And yet Reading Room for Kids gains resonance with each iteration and pronouncement by the American intelligence community: The hidden messages in Baden-Powell’s deceptive butterflies would most likely escape detection by the most eagle-eyed among us, even after the 2010 launch of the national “If You See Something Say Something” campaign by the Department of Homeland Security. And the Boy Scouts’ famous motto “Be Prepared” (a phrase whose abbreviation fittingly shares Baden-Powell’s nickname, “B-P”) has become even more relevant in our disaster-focused environment.

Disaster preparedness applies to our increasingly digital and virtual lives as well, and library blogs are revealing an increased focus on the topic of dangers posed to digital collections by electronic espionage and the possibility of cyber-warfare. “There are many good reasons to maintain strong print collections, and the potential for a total network collapse should remind us that doing so is just one of our many important responsibilities.”[14] But “books are earthquake proof,” as Dubbin and Davidson note in the introduction to Fallen Books (2008), which they describe as “a book project that brings together images of toppled books housed in seismically active libraries” and exists as “both an archive and a forecast.”[15]

The forces of the natural world permeate the work of Chris Coffin, an avid swimmer and surfer, whose conceptual practice has been greatly informed by extreme weather forecasts and the conditions of the sea in projects that range from ephemeral situations to indexical documentation. In Seaweed Circle #1 (1996), Coffin realized an earthwork on the beach immediately following a storm, subsequently documenting its erasure by the tides. In Water Drawing (2001), a performance in which the artist swam while towing a 300-foot-long chain of buoys, Coffin’s endurance is transformed into an animated drawing that maps his movement through the ocean and in Buoy Portraits (2001), a photographic archive of individual buoys collected at sea, clinically depict their diversity in shape, color and pattern as weathered by exposure to the elements.

Chris Coffin
Hurricanes 551.55 D, 2003
Graphite on library card
3 x 5 inches
Courtesy of the artist

Included in the exhibition are a series of drawings of cartographic wave patterns sourced from wave mapping programs and satellite photos transmitted by NASA, and rendered onto the surfaces of content-specific library catalogue cards. Subject headings such as “Hurricanes,” “Meteorology” and “Water” serve as meta-classifications that refer at once to the location of titles in the original library from where the cards came, as well as the primary themes of Coffin’s drawings. Registering extreme weather conditions—storm activity in the Atlantic Ocean basin or the churning storm that would become Hurricane Katrina, for example—onto the small surface of a standard 3 x 5 inch library catalog card (a size popularized by Otlet), Coffin’s archive of notational entries on entropy and decay serve as anti-monuments to knowledge.

Card catalogues have been central to the practice of David Bunn, who has produced extensive projects employing the discarded catalogues of such libraries as the Liverpool Central Library, the Mütter Museum Library at the College of Physicians of Philadelphia and the Los Angeles Central Library. For his series Subliminal Messages, Bunn scanned cards that retained evidence of their use, transforming images of fingerprints, stains, tears and graffiti into large-scale prints that are displayed next to the original card. In earlier works, he has reorganized cards to create concrete poetry out of particular sequences of book titles.

More recently, Bunn was invited to do a project with the discards of the Brooklyn Museum of Art Library only to discover that Voyager, the library’s new online catalog, crashed and all the backup files had been erased. In an ironic twist, the library was forced to return to its discarded system, which had already been boxed for its disposal. No Voyager Record (2008), presents a 35-mm slide projection of a selection of library cards marked with annotations of lost and missing entries. The presentation of the catalog cards as a 35mm slide projection speaks to the continuing viability of analog technologies.

David Bunn
Youth U.S., 2004 (detail)
Unique Iris print, Los Angeles Central Library catalogue file and plexiglass
Print 29 x 40 inches framed; Library card 5 x 7 x .25 inches framed
Courtesy of the artist and Angles Gallery, Los Angeles

In addition to uncovering the physical effects of human interaction, Bunn has highlighted the active engagement with a card catalog’s content. In Youth U.S. (2004), for example, the magnified handwritten word “Racist” indicates a patron’s response to the book title Mexican-American Youth: Forgotten Youth at the Crossroads, pointing perhaps to the controversy surrounding the 1966 ethnological text in which author Celia S. Heller argued that Mexican-American youth were the nation’s most “un-Americanized” minority groups.

Bunn uncovered a much more extensive case of active engagement under the subject heading “Art,” where he discovered the work of another artist placed subversively between the cards:

This ‘cute’ piece of miniature art was hidden by Rosalea to suit mass tastes and to remind the public to have a heart and support living artists. This art may not be sold because the artist received nothing for creating and distributing it, but it may be collected or traded for others (one million) that are hidden in unusual places throughout the country. Edition of 2,300. Copyright 1979 by Rosalea c/o Rosalea’s Hotel, Harper, Kansas 67058.

Responding to this discovery and humble call for action, Bunn located his fellow artist, interviewed her and is currently working on a film about her. Like Rosalea before him, Bunn has found new uses for the traditional library card catalog, challenging its obsolescence: These works would not exist without it, nor would their stories.

The idea of obsolescence vis-à-vis libraries and their artifacts is explored with pristine accuracy by Philippe Gronon, whose studious use of black-and-white film produces precise renderings of the surface details—and thus the evidence of past human use—of such outmoded utilitarian objects as chalkboards and library card catalogs. In Catalogue des manuscrits, Bibliothèque Vaticane, Rome (1995), five unframed photographs, each depicting a life-sized single card catalogue are spatially arranged to mimic their relative position in their actual location at the Vatican. The installation is not merely a reproduction of the objects it portrays, but a rumination on their purpose, for while the image of a card catalog may affirm its physical existence, it is the evidence of its use that confirms its raison d’être.

Philippe Gronon
Catalog de manuscrits, Bibliothèque Vaticane, Rome, 1995 (detail)
Photographs mounted on aluminum panel
Five pieces at 28 x 40 inches each
Installation 28 x 197 inches
Edition 2/3
Courtesy of the artist and Yossi Milo Gallery, New York

Using a conceptual, site-oriented and decidedly non-nostalgic approach, Gronon’s highly technical practice underscores his engagement with the conventions of his medium, what he calls a “photographic meditation with a particular material consistency.”[16] And yet, dealing with the issues of traditional film photography as an ultimately illusory and imprecise medium, Gronon preserves objects from the history of information as well as proof of their use with the very materials—sheet film, gelatin silver prints, medium- and large-format cameras—that belong more to the analog past.

There are those who, in spite of the “googlization of everything,”[17] choose to visit libraries to use that very analog of technologies: the book. Madeline Djerejian trains her lens on these increasingly rare individuals, the library patrons, quietly immersed in a book, the very models of concentration. Referencing paintings of readers by various artists including Rembrandt, Vermeer and Corot, Djerejian’s series of photographic portraits in Reading (1996-98), attempt to depict states of reverie and introspection.

Madeline Djerejian
Untitled (Bibliophile) from the series Reading, 1996-98
20 x 16 inches
Edition 2/5
Courtesy of the artist

Untitled (Bibliophile), for example, captures the focused physicality of one particularly engrossed reader, his nose pressed to the paper as he holds a spectacle eyeglass and a page of the book in a single hand. Taken at the Grolier Club in New York, the nation’s oldest and largest society for bibliophiles and graphic arts enthusiasts, Djerejian plays with contrasting light and shadow, conjuring both illumination and mystery to produce a cinematic effect, turning us into voyeurs, wondering what subject, what text, what image, could grip his attention so tightly. By denying the viewer the actual source of his undivided attention, the moment remains a private one, between reader and book.

José Hernández shares his personal experience of browsing the stacks at the George T. Potter Library at Ramapo College, New Jersey. In The Books on the Shelf (2005), he presents composites of individual photographs, ready-made “still lifes” in which isolated text, images, forms and color share both topical and conceptual relationships. Through the use of tight cropping and varying angles, Hernández presents order as confusion, classification as relative and knowledge as individual.

In Critical Thinking Sux (2005), the emphasis is on human use and a certain disregard for the library. Underneath a book that shows an image of men wrestling on its cover, someone very much unlike Djerejian’s bookish subject has inscribed “critical Thinking SUX!” onto the shelf. A cubicle desk is plastered with chewing gum and to the far right a shelf stands empty of books. Two titles compiled to read “a book Sanctuary” describe a contrasting picture.

In Before History (2005), the black spines of books on “Negro” history (The Negro Is a Man, Black Folk: Then and Now, The Negro: A Beast) are juxtaposed with the white pages of unidentified titles. On the left is an image of a rocking horse. To the right, an image of a nude white male supported and framed by a metal bookend. Reading “between the images,” the composite image suggests a treatise on race, perhaps on volatile relations as is evoked the whirling image of smoke on the right edge.

José Hernández
Before History, 2005
Archival inkjet print
15 x 46 inches
Courtesy of the artist

The titles of Hernández’s works refer not to the subject headings at the George T. Potter Library catalog, but to permutations in meaning and matters of thought achieved through his interplay of the physical library, the contents within and signs of use. If the library is to be understood as a universe of knowledge, then the shifts in context that Hernández sets into motion only highlight the extent to which the organization and management of knowledge determines insight and experience. Whether finding contrary meaning by way of accident or intent, what emerges is the power of debate in shaping knowledge.

Nina Katchadourian browses the stacks of private libraries and specialized book collections. In her ongoing series Sorting Books, Katchadourian selects particular books based on their titles and arranges them into sequences that read as micro-stories, strange aphorisms or poetry. In Relax from Composition (1993), an arrangement of motivational titles sends mixed messages, suggesting either an individual’s obsessive-compulsive behavior, or a culture of attention deficit at large:

When I say no, I feel guilty
God Always Says Yes!
Don’t Say YES When You Want To Say NO

In Primitive Art from Akron Stacks (2001), art book titles provide an illuminating answer to the call to define the controversially named genre “Primitive Art:”

Primitive Art
Raised by Wolves

Nina Katchadourian
Primitive Art from Akron Stacks, 2001
12.5 x 19 inches; 13.5 x 20 inches framed
Collection of Ben Yalom

Exhibited as clusters or as a series of photographs, each “sorting” serves as a distilled representation of an individual or collection, examining the focus, idiosyncrasies and inconsistencies of the collections and providing a glimpse of what libraries may say about us.

Like Katchadourian, Erica Baum offers a kind of conceptual poetry based on found juxtapositions of subject headings within the drawers of card catalogues. These intimately scaled black-and-white photographs are an early example of an ongoing practice that considers the printed text and materials of outmoded systems of knowledge.

In the series Card Catalogues, Baum unearths social or political meaning through the documentation of found juxtapositions of alphabetized subject headings. Framed strategically and captured cinematically through the use of receding focus, Baum’s cropping isolates text in a manner that returns unexpected concrete poetry, in which the arrangement of words is as important as the formal elements. Like much of Baum’s work, these formal compositions are meant to be read: rhythms of subject headings encourage the viewer and reader to ponder the power dynamics between words.

Erica Baum
Untitled (Suburban Homes), 1997
Gelatin silver print
20 x 24 inches (Card Catalogue)
Edition 6/6 + 2 AP
Courtesy of the artist and Bureau, New York

In Untitled (Secretaries) (1996), the subject heading “Secretaries” in high-focus precedes “Self (Philosophy),” out of focus, positioning the selfless nature of the profession of secretary in contrast to the selfish quality implied by “Self (Philosophy).” And in Untitled (Suburban Homes) (1997), the categories of “Suburban Homes” and “Subversive Activities” suggests a relationship that may have more in common than mere alphabetical proximity, as foreclosures at an unprecedented rate in the United States are transforming the semiotics surrounding the once utopian concept of suburban housing. Baum’s black-and-white silver gelatin prints capture the idiosyncrasies of an analog classification system that is facing extinction, and with it, the serendipitous contextual play that it inspires.

Power dynamics also lie at the core of the work of Jorge Méndez Blake, who, in his ongoing investigation of the role of the library as a cultural institution, has devised fictional monuments of spaces that are inhabited by a non-existent collection of books inspired by literature. In Project for Pavilion/Open Library III (2011), informed by Jorge Luis Borges’ “The Library of Babel” (an infinite library) and “The Garden of Forking Paths” (a labyrinth, or multiple ways of reading a single text), Méndez Blake has crafted a universe in which the scale of the infinite is reduced to a utopian illusion of cultural perspective.

Jorge Méndez Blake
Project for Pavilion / Open Library III, 2011 (study)
Courtesy of the artist and Galeria OMR

Looking at Project for Pavilion/Open Library III—a colorful open-air maquette made of Plexiglas resting atop a mirrored base—the viewer is confronted with infinite reflections that reveal endless doorways and shelves devoid of books. The reflection in each module that multiplies the interior of the library also returns our image. Expanding the library’s architecture into an imagined modernist shrine, Méndez Blake questions the social function of the library in order to examine such deeply rooted dichotomies as nature/culture and inside/outside.

“The library will endure; it is the universe,” writes author James Gleick in his 2010 book The Information, forming a self-defining connection between libraries and mirrors and countering Borges’ Babel. “As for us, everything has not been written; we are not turning into phantoms. We walk the corridors, searching the shelves and rearranging them, looking for lines of meaning amid leagues of cacophony and incoherence, reading the history of the past and of the future, collecting our thoughts and collecting the thoughts of others, and every so often glimpsing mirrors in which we may recognize creatures of the information.”[18]

In site-specific wall paintings, Méndez Blake looks for such “lines of meaning amid leagues of cacophony,” gathering a selection of texts that are rendered in the reductive minimalist form of color-coded compositions to evoke libraries. In Study for a Marx Library (2011), the artist has shaped a wall painting into a triangle. Each pantone-colored, vertically-oriented rectangle is based on an actual book cover, representing both the spine of a book and the space the book occupies on a shelf. While his simulation of libraries are, in fact, impossible libraries that extend far beyond our traditional forms of engagement with knowledge, Méndez Blake’s fictional spaces are permeated with imagined narratives and interpretations as well as spaces that generate new possibilities for communicating ideas.

Further challenging the idea of a universal tome, Allen Ruppersberg has selected from his own library, converting his SoHo studio library (occupied from 1986-2001) into an interactive Web-based project for the Dia Center for the Arts website. Ruppersberg, one of the first generation of American Conceptual artists to draw from all sources of mass media in his use of language as art in its own right, collects from myriad sources and critically re-arranges content, prominent features of his text-based practice.

Allen Ruppersberg
The New Five Foot Shelf, 2001
Online website
Courtesy of the artist and Greene Naftali, New York

The New Five Foot Shelf: Memoir/Novel/Index (2004) is titled after Dr. Eliot’s Five Foot Shelf of Books (1909), a Harvard Classics anthology of 50 books that attempted to provide “the essentials of a liberal education” (and that could fit on a five-foot shelf), including such classics as Adam Smith’s The Wealth of Nations, Charles Darwin’s The Origin of Species, Miguel de Cervantes’ Don Quixote and Plutarch’s Lives of the Noble Greeks and Romans. “Dr. Eliot’s original Five Foot Shelf turns into The New Five Foot Shelf, a different kind of catalog for ideas, memories, and themes,” says Ruppersberg. “A telescoping view of my studio from exterior to interior presented in books, photographs and posters. One shell inside of another getting smaller and smaller.”[19]

This Russian Doll metaphor or mise-en-abyme, while personal and retrospective, can also be understood as a distillation of the idea of a universal library. Ruppersberg’s encyclopedic “shelf” includes a facsimile of the original introduction by Dr. Eliot, some 800 pages of text written by the artist, photographs of his studio, reproductions of postcards, greeting cards, pages from pulp novels and sheets of music, and is accompanied by a soundtrack of films tapes and other recordings in his library. A replica of Eliot’s 50 spines function as links that take the user into Ruppersberg’s novels, which are organized into five narratives: statements based on his 2001 work Honey I rearranged the collection (comic references to collecting and artistic re-arrangements); reflections on his work (others and his own); quotations and descriptions, some from his 1977 The Secret of Life and Death (on categorization and entropy); references to influences (The Three Marcels: Broodthaers, Duchamp, Proust); and private musings, snippets from obituaries and personal correspondence. Memoir, novel and index, the volumes of Ruppersberg’s digital tome, while a generation removed from Dr. Eliot’s classic, achieves the same purpose: a classification of a specific universe of knowledge and memory preserved and presented for public consumption.

Mining the physical repositories of knowledge as well as the virtual archive, Mickey Smith explores the dichotomous relationship between the obsolescence of printed materials and the fixed standing of the book as a sign of status and mobility. In the series Volume (2006-2010), Smith captured in larger-than-life-scale the bound journals on the shelves of academic libraries that were being replaced with digital versions. In the series Forever Govern Ignorance (2010), she captured the decaying microfilm and microfiche documents in the shrinking Federal Depository Libraries. These discursive images memorialized objects of literary culture and access, and in the case of the latter, indicate a hint of the political. Lengthy titles that classify the content include Real Growth and Decline in Defense Operating Costs/President Carter’s Energy Proposal: A Perspective, Recovery with Inflation/The Food Stamp Program.

Smith’s recent series Believe You Me (2010) consists of photographs found on- and off-line that examine the use of books as backdrops (real and fake) as signifiers of status in popular culture. Contemporary photographs and screen-stills appropriated from online sources are subversively cropped, questioning what value a wall of books can convey about scandalized political figures, porn stars, terrorists, Sesame Street’s Cookie Monster and even a house cat. In Corroborating Information (2010), re-photographed Olin Mill studio portraits depict sitters in front of library props.

Mickey Smith
Corroborating Information, 2010 (detail)
Five archival pigment prints in vintage frames
4 framed photographs: 8 x 10 x 1 inches each
1 framed photograph: 11 x 14 x 1 inches
Ed. 1/3
Courtesy of the artist and INVISIBLE-EXPORTS

Presented in vintage frames, Smith accentuates their 1970’s patina and cookie-cutter image: a businessman in a suit, wedding portraits, a nuclear family. Coincidentally—and finding resonance with Dubbin and Davidson’s Reading Room for Kids—one of the images is Ted Kaczynski’s wedding portrait. Shattering the ideal presented by the wall of books behind him, the library also foreshadows Kaczynski’s fate: the FBI used his library records to track him down. The fact that “The Unabomer” was a child prodigy and social critic, accepted into Harvard at the age of 16 and held a PhD in mathematics provides the corroborating information to debunk, rather than affirm, the romanticized ideals associated with the aura of books.

An apt metaphor for our increasingly complex relationship with books, In Memoriam consists of a floor installation of 1,201 Federal Reporters—books from a series of legal case law and decisions of the United States appellate and federal claims courts going back to 1880—that have been sourced from the discards of New Haven-area law firms. To enter the gallery, visitors must step onto the books and walk across them in order to view the works on the wall, becoming active participants in the desecration of legal knowledge.

If, as many predict, the culture of the library is to be replaced by a digital tome, the work of many of the artists in Library Science may come to serve as a repository of past repositories of knowledge, “artifacts” of cultural anthropology from a material pre- digital era. The library, like the book, has ultimately been transformed by technologies. The ancient concept of a universal library has also persisted throughout history, manifesting itself in many forms. In his 1941 short story "The Library of Babel," Jorge Luis Borges conceives of a library as an infinite universe that includes books that contain every possible sequence of words, and thus, all written knowledge, past or future. In the 1995 pastiche "The Net of Babel," David Langford imagines how Borges’ library might be revolutionized by information technology. Preceding "The Net of Babel," E. M. Forster’s 1909 short story "The Machine Stops" presaged our digital methods of communication and means of sharing information, imagining a world in which all of our needs are met by an omnipotent machine.

Today, some estimates predict that the majority of the world’s knowledge will in fact, be contained in a global virtual library within two years. Can the library survive the digitization of its most prized possession, books? Will there still be a need for a brick-and-mortar house of books? The quest to digitize books has not only spawned multiple copyright lawsuits, but has also prompted widespread soul searching. American author Nicholson Baker has been a fervent critic of the digitization of library materials and is known for his extensive musings on discards in The New Yorker as well as his controversial book Double Fold: Libraries and the Assault on Paper, in which he recounts his quest to uncover the fate of thousands of books and newspapers that were replaced or destroyed during the transition to microfilm in the 1980s and 1990s, accusing libraries of failing to preserve the world’s cultural heritage.

Some say that the Web has broadened people’s reading, others that it provides endless distractions. Undoubtedly, the online experience has homogenized our physical relationship to information: We move from one screen to another, either a desktop, laptop, tablet or smartphone (replacing some of the same fears about television viewing). The advent of the Web has contributed to a decline in reading skills, an inability to synthesize information, an decreased attention span and an increase in plagiarism. And there is growing concern about its effects on children, so much so that many employees of some of the leading digital technology firms are sending their children to Waldorf schools, which do not utilize computers in the classroom.

Discussions about what is lost or gained by the ever-growing digitization of our analog history rarely take into consideration the ever-widening digital divide. Technology is, after all, only as powerful as it is accessible. Academic library use is down as students access online materials remotely from their nearest Starbucks or in their own homes. The Association of Research Libraries statistics center shows a decline in reference transactions (4.5 average annual decline from 1991 to 2005) and in circulation transactions (1.2 percent annual decline).[20] And yet, the public library serves a crucial function, providing access to information, employment resources, free computer and Internet access and a safe haven to many.

However, as the need for its services increases during economic downturns, it is plagued by budget cuts and lack of public support. According to a 2010 “State of America’s Libraries” report by the American Library Association, a survey conducted in 2009 found that 17 members of the Chief Officers of State Library Agencies “reported they believed a majority of libraries in their states had sustained cuts in local funding in fiscal 2010, compared with fiscal 2009, while only two reported that a majority of libraries in their state had received funding increases.”[21] “As the economy has worsened...people are coming to libraries to look for jobs, they’re coming to libraries to access government services and government assistance, and they’re coming to libraries because libraries are a great deal for people that are trying to stretch a dollar,” said ALA Executive Director Keith Michael Fiels in May. “So we have a situation nationally where we’re seeing library usage increasing 10 percent, 20 percent, in some instances almost 30 percent, while at the same time, library budgets are threatened and library budgets in some instances are being reduced.”[22]

While there are indeed fewer resources today, some organizations and individuals around the world are doing their part: Books for Cameroon, for example, founded in 2008 by a Peace Corps volunteer, builds libraries in over 35 Cameroonian schools and communities via the donation of new or used books, used computer hardware and accessories. Biblioburro: The Donkey Library, a 2008 film directed by Carlos Rendón Zipagauta, tells the story of Colombian teacher Luis Soriano, who brings a circulating library of donated books to children of the poor and violence-ridden Magdalena Province with the help of two hard-working donkeys.[23] In his article “Rescued by Design,” New York Times writer Michael Kimmelman describes how architecture and urban design are providing simple solutions to alleviate social problems, citing floating community lifeboats in Bangladesh that serve as schools, libraries and health clinics.[24] It's clear that in some instances, the need for a physical book is still very important.

And yet the digitization of books and entire libraries continues apace. How libraries will ultimately adapt and respond to the digital revolution remains to be seen. With one foot in the physical past and the other in the digital future, the artists in Library Science contemplate our personal, intellectual and physical relationship to the library, exploring the sociocultual meaning of the library from the physical stacks to the ever-growing “cyber-library.” Each of them "library scientists" in their own right, they reveal that all taxonomic classifications, no matter how large or small, are ultimately a means of making sense of it all.

Rachel Gugelberger
Library Science
November 11, 2011

Rachel Gugelberger is Senior Curator at Exit Art, New York. Recent projects include What is left at Curatorial Research Lab/Winkleman Gallery and exhibitions at Sara Meltzer Gallery that investigated the notion of landscape as a social construction (Landscapes for Frankenstein); examined the art world with irony and humor (Ceci n’est pas…) and explored the notion of “climate” as both a weather condition and a characterization of our moment in time (Prevailing Climate). She has curated exhibitions at School of Visual Arts, Cuchifritos Art Gallery/Project Space, Marvelli Lab, PS122 Gallery, Artists Space, Center for Curatorial Studies and the inaugural Brewster Project. Rachel is currently co-curating the exhibition Data Deluge, a presentation of works that utilize data as source material, opening in 2012 at Ballroom Marfa, Marfa, Texas. Rachel holds an M.A. in Curatorial Studies in Contemporary Art and Culture from the Center for Curatorial Studies at Bard College.


[1] Constance Glenn, Virginia Heckert, and Mary-Kay Lombino, Candida Höfer: Architecture of Absence. New York: Aperture, 2004.
[2] Otlet, P. “Les Sciences Bibliographiques et la documentation [The Science of bibliography and documentation].” Brussels: Institut International de Bibliographie bulletin 8, 1903: 84-4, translated by W. Boyd Rayward, as quoted by Rayward, W. Boyd. European Modernism and the Information Society. Surrey, United Kingdom: Ashgate, 2008: 15. Google Books. Web. 9 Nov. 2011.
[3] Wray, Richard. “Internet data heads for 500bn gigabytes.” The Guardian. 18 May 2009. Web. 9 Nov. 2011 .
[4] Google mission statement. Web. 9 Nov. 2011 .
[5] Madsen, Loren. Artist website. 11 Nov. 2011 .
[6] Dangl, Benjamin. “Why I’ll Never Buy a Kindle,” Alternet.org, 19 Nov. 2009. Web. 11 Nov. 2011 .
[7] Wood, James. “Shelf Life: Packing up my father-in-law’s library,” The New Yorker, 7 Nov. 2011: 42.
[8] De St. Croix, Blane. Artist website. 9 Nov. 2011 .
[9] See Andrew Beccone’s essay on Library Science in which he discusses Lucy Lippard’s 1972 book, Six Years: The Dematerialization of the Art Object from 1966 to 1972.
[10] Stewart, Garrett. Bookwork: Medium to Object to Concept to Art. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2011.
[11] Mahl, Tom E., Espionage’s Most Wanted: Top Ten Book of Malicius Moles, Blown Covers, and Intelligence Oddities. Dulles, Virginia: Potomac Books, 2004.
[12] Baden-Powell, Lieut.-Gen. Sir Robert. My Adventures As a Spy. London: C. Arthur Pearson, Ltd., 1915. Project Gutenberg. Web. 8 Nov. 2011.
[13] USA Patriot Act. 107th Cong., 1st sess. Washington: GPO, 2001. Web. 8 Nov. 2001. .
[14] “Add Cyberwar to Your Contingency Plan,” posted by StevenB in Technology Issues, Worth Reading, June 29, 2010.
[15] Dubbin, Melissa and Aaron S. Davidson. Fallen Books. Artist website. 8 Nov. 2011 .
[16] Interview with the artist by Régis Duran in Philippe Gronon. Sète, France: Centre Regional D'Art Contemporain, 2001: 107.
[17] After the title The Googlization of Everything (And Why We Should Worry), Siva Vaidhyanathan, Berkeley: University of California Press, 2011.
[18] Gleick, James. The Information: A History, a Theory, a Flood. New York: Pantheon, 2010: 426.
[19] Ruppersberg, Allen. The New Five Foot Shelf, Volume 6, p. 6.
[20] Applegate, Rachel. “Whose Decline? Which Academic Libraries are ‘Deserted’ in Terms of Reference Transactions?” American Library Association: Reference & User Services Quarterly, vol. 48, no. 2, 2008: 177.
[22] Ibid.
[23] The film Biblioburro: The Donkey Library will be screened as part the Library Science Film Festival at Prosser Public Library, Bloomfield, CT., on January 6, 2012 at 11am. See Film Festival.
[24] Kimmelman, Michael. “Rescued By Design,” New York Times, 21 Oct. 2011.