A World of Books, Collections at the Crossroads

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For most students, the library is a place of work. It is a refuge from the sometimes unduly social atmosphere of a college campus — a haven in which papers and problem sets are completed under the glare of rows of computer screens and fluorescent lights. But what about the library as a maze? As a story, tucked within discarded card catalogues? What about the library as a playground?

These are the questions posed by “Library Science”, an exhibit now on display at Artspace in downtown New Haven. The exhibition features the work of 17 international artists, all of whose work explores the aesthetic and representative nature of the world of books. Together, their artwork creates a poignant narrative about the recent history of the library. Touching on the experiences that people derive from books, manuscripts, and other archival materials, “Library Science” presents the library as a canvas for observation and art.

“The staff at the Yale University Library also thinks about these ideas,” Jae Rossman, assistant director of special collections at the Robert B. Haas Family Arts Library, said. “What is important about the history of our library, and how can we bring that forward? What should the future Yale library be?”

The curator of “Library Science,” Rachel Gugelberger, said that the exhibit is the longest project she has ever worked on. As the daughter of a librarian, she remembers the moments she spent with her mother recycling and sorting the old cards that were no longer of use.

“It was a point of recognition,” Gugelberger said, when she discovered art that had been inspired by such library relics. “Both libraries and artwork have the capacity to chronicle a moment in time. They serve as cultural manifestations that reflect on our world.”

Visitors to the exhibit are drawn at once to its interactive offerings, which outline the personal connection that libraries foster between books and their readers. At the front of the gallery is a work by Mickey Smith titled “In Memoriam.” In order to view other photographs by the artist, the viewer has to ascend a platform made entirely of discarded Federal Reporters books, walking along the spines to approach the display. These volumes were once a staple at every law firm in America. Long since digitized, the volumes are virtually valueless, thus garnering their place on the ground as mere pathways to the other works on display.

According to Artspace educational curator Martha Lewis, the piece is a demonstration of how objects that were once necessary can be rendered obsolete. This is the fear of all librarians: that in a world of online encyclopedias and digital texts, books will one day be declared useless, thrown out like the volumes on which visitors are invited to step.

But for now, at least, books still hold a certain aura of sanctity.

“There is always a moment of pause for visitors standing in front of the platform,” said Lewis. “People are still nervous to step on books.”

Moving through the gallery, there are other pieces of similar whimsy and experimentalism. Blane de St. Croix’s “Library Fire: Landscapes,” for instance, includes a rolling library ladder that visitors are encouraged to climb. Once at the top of the ladder, they can pull themselves toward a bookshelf filled with ink drawings of charred landscapes, minimalist pictures meant to represent the analogous endangered state of both libraries and nature in the modern world.

De St. Croix’s installation is only one of the many works portraying an attempt to salvage things that are on the cusp of being lost.

With “Subliminal Messages,” David Bunn magnifies the personal interactions between humans and text through blown-up cards from the Los Angeles Central Library’s discarded card catalogue. Bunn compiled cards that showed evidence of being touched by a human — markings such as fingerprints, tearstains, water marks and doodles were carefully filed and preserved. The card titled “Youth U.S.” features the card catalogue entry for the book “Mexican-American Youth: Forgotten Youth at the Crossroads” with a black-ink, handwritten pronouncement of “Racist” scrawled diagonally across the bottom.

Cards such as these remind visitors of the intimacy of reading and writing that has been lost with the advent of the digital age. Despite the plethora of word-processing software now available, complete with functions that allow users to highlight, underline, and make notes on texts as if they were reading from real pages, there still exists no replacement for the immediacy of scribbling one’s thoughts across a lined page. A sentence typed in rage appears the same on the computer screen as a sentence typed in tranquility or joy.

“I think libraries are quite inspiring because they resonate both past and present; sort of a Janus,” Yale University Librarian Susan Gibbons said. “The books, manuscripts, maps, and archives in a library speak to millennia of human knowledge and endeavours.”

While some works in the exhibit mark the now-forgotten elements of libraries past, others use technology to show how the digital can merge with the material. Jorge Mendez Blake’s “Project for Pavillion/Open Library III” is a skeletal model of a library made of plexiglass. Its futuristic structure shapes the library as a dizzying yet angular labyrinth of translucent tiles. The “forking paths” are meant to convey the multiple ways in which one can interpret a text, but the hollowness of the model also demonstrates the various ways in which the library can be conceived as a space for creation, art and scholarship.

“I think libraries are a perfect space of inspiration for artists,” said Kraig Binkowski, chief librarian at the Yale Center for British Art. “Space-wise, the structured uniformity and familiarity of libraries can provide the perfect contrast to the wide-open, unpredictable expression of an artist.”

Art major Ilana Harris-Babou ’13, who helped to set up “Library Science” last summer as a Presidential Public Service Fellow, contends that the role libraries play as artistic monuments is undoubtable: “The installations in the ‘Library Science’ project augment the pre-existing visual experience of the library. The show forces us not to overlook the many aesthetic choices that go into creating our grand indexes.”

The exhibit mirrors the depth of a library: the more time you spend looking at a component of it, the more meaning you are able to derive from it. At first glance, Nina Katchadourian’s “Sorting Books” series seems to be just a compilation of photographs of books on shelves. When the book spines are read in sequence, however, they create clever word play.

One image depicts four books stacked on top of each other with their titles screaming boldly from their spines: “KINDS OF LOVE” — “ECSTASY” — “SENSATION” — “DISTEMPER”.

The most ironic work comes in the form of David Bunn’s “No Voyager Record,” a slide projection offset from the rest of the gallery by lavender curtains and presenting slides of library catalogue cards from the Brooklyn Museum of Art Library. The cards had been discarded as a part of the library’s Voyager Project, during which they replaced their entire card catalogue with digital hardware. As it turns out, the digital files crashed and librarians had to scavenge disposal boxes in search of the old cards that had previously been discarded for the project. Bunn questions the viability and practicality of transitioning into a completely digital database of knowledge.

“I cannot predict what the library of the future will look like, because I feel like it will be invisible to us. We will access information through our devices, and the physical structures may cease to exist,” said Gugelberger.

For her, the beginnings of the project stemmed from a sense of urgency surrounding the vulnerability of the library as we know it. “Library Science” is a study of the relationship between libraries and art, but most of all, it is a tribute to libraries past and present, a quiet elegy for all the catalogues, annotations, and old books that might be lost in the process of digitization.

For now, though, libraries like Sterling and Bass remain indomitable presences on campus and in our lives. As Maru Filiba ’15 commented, “The silence, the smell of old books, even examining the different types of typographies can act as inspiration for people to create.”

“Library Science” will be on display at Artspace until Jan. 28.

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