Loving/Hating Library Art/Nostalgia

I was browsing through Rhizome.org and came across the Public Library of American Public Library Deaccession. And then I saw the website for the Proteus Gowanus gallery and reading room. And then this Reanimation Library. It’s always good to be on the lookout for when library stuff intersects with art or popular culture. Partially for nice “your-job-is-cool” affirmations and partially to police co-opters and poseurs out of a sense critical ownership of the profession.

Projects like these get me really excited and I think they are totally endearing. But as much as I like to envision myself as a character in some French new wave film, most days I feel more like that shoe store lady in the ZZ Top video for Legs (pre-makeover). Things like the Reanimation Library and this Proteus Gowanus thing seem to intentionally divorce themselves from the realities of library work. Through the romantic haze, one forgets that your average branch library is really not very cute, but rather gross.

Reanimation also invokes Ranganathan, which in the context of its mission, is appropriate. But something about the Ranganathan pin , especially when paired with the self-described “mysterious” logo pin, wants me to pull out the Edward Said. (But I am loving the hot dog.) The more I think of it, this Victorian conjuring and the focus on library as theme further fills me with a sense of dread over the death of the profession. The focus on deaccessioning, weeding, and recontextualizing allow the actual library space to be effectively, deconstructed, and suggest that a classic library experience is better attained by a visit to a museum, gallery, or arty website.


11 Responses to Loving/Hating Library Art/Nostalgia

  1. Mimi says:

    I find artists/art groups’ recent fascination with libraries and librarians odd and not really a sign of solidarity. Especially when you consider that arts administration, with its overwhelmingly educated female ranks , ridiculously low pay, and crisis in funding, has most of the problems of the library world in spades. The aesthetics are another issue altogether, although I wonder sometimes when libraries are really going to wake up to them.

  2. Hello. My name is Andrew Beccone and I started the Reanimation Library. I will fess up to the guilty pleasure of tracking visitors to the Library’s website through statcounter, and I was delighted to welcome a number of visitors from your post today. So thank you for that. I am interested, however, in clarifying a few of your points, and I do have some questions of my own.

    I am curious to know how you arrived at the conclusion that the Reanimation Library is “intentionally divorc[ing] [itself] from the realities of library work.” While you evidently took the time to read some of the Reanimation Library website, it seems that you may have missed the part where I describe my experience of working in libraries since 1994. Or where I mention the M.I.L.S. that I received from the Pratt Institute in 2005. Or the part about my mother being a reference librarian; I was practically weaned on librarianship. I can assure you that I am all too aware of the “realities” that you mention, which is one reason why I decided to start my own library in the first place. I would also point out, for the sake of clarification, that the Reanimation Library is a labor of love. What that means is that after working a 40-hour week as a librarian, I must find the time and energy to go the Reanimation Library and turn on a computer and start to catalog books, or type up call number labels, or work on building the online catalog, or write grants, or send correspondence, or scan images, or coordinate events, or update my arty website, or one of the numerous other little things that are involved in building and running a small library that has no funding and no employees.

    I also object to your passive implication of Orientalism by conveniently name-checking Edward Said. The evidence that you present amounts to the fact that I used the word “mysterious” to describe the Reanimation Library logo and that it is “paired” with the Ranganathan pin. You will note that I didn’t describe Ranganathan as “mysterious” (“brilliant” was the adjective I used for him); rather, I used the word “mysterious” to describe an ambiguous arrangement of lines. You seem to have confused two different images on two different pins that have two different descriptions. They happen to be “paired” together because—ta-da—they’re both pins! And they’re being sold on the “pins” page of the website! I always forget how much I enjoy a little poorly conceived post-colonial criticism. There is a reason (as you rightly noted) that I have chosen to represent Ranganathan on the Reanimation Library website and on a pin: his contributions to the field of Library Science are unparalleled. As I am sure that you can relate, I get sick of having to explain to non-librarians that there are other figures in the history of Library Science besides Melvil Dewey.

    I’m not exactly sure what you mean by “this Victorian conjuring”, but I do apologize that the Reanimation Library (and the Proteus Gowanus exhibit that I co-curated) “fills [you] with a sense of dread over the death of the profession.” I find it more than slightly amusing that my act of building an actual, physical library (albeit, one that does indeed engage with the processes of deaccession and recontextualization) that is comprised of actual, physical books, leads you to the conclusion that “the actual library space [is] effectively, deconstructed, and [it] suggest[s] that a classic library experience is better attained by a visit to a museum, gallery, or arty website.” I am endlessly confused by the inability of so many librarians that encounter the Reanimation Library to appreciate the fact that I am championing a medium (the book) at the precise moment that they are lamenting its imminent demise. By the way, what exactly, is the “classic library experience” that you hope to protect? Is it the one that you described as “not very cute, but rather gross?”

    I would like to thank “your sense [of] critical ownership of the profession” for “policing us co-opters and poseurs.” I am reminded of how much I like cops. And blogs. Do you want to know what fills me with a sense of dread over the death of the profession? Watching the wagons get circled.

    Please forgive me for feeling more than a little slighted by a breezy blog post. They’ve always told me that I’m sensitive. I do welcome the dialog, though – crave it even. And I am more than willing to listen to criticism of my project, of which I am sure there is plenty to be made. I would simply prefer that it have some substance behind it – but this would require having an idea of what the project is in the first place, which is something that I’m not convinced you do. If you happen to live in Brooklyn, or ever find yourself here, please stop by and see the Reanimation Library for yourself. You might learn something about it. You might even find it inspiring.

    Kind Regards,

    Andrew Beccone

  3. annesimmons says:

    Dear Andrew,

    Thanks for your post. First of all let me say that I do really like your project, the website, the gallery, the whole bit. And you are right, my post was breezy. And I used your site as an example while I could have just as easily referenced things like the Vice spread with the Swedish librarians or those KNOCK KNOCK novelty library kit thingers they sell in gift shops. I also realize that a lot of these projects are created by librarians or folks with library backgrounds (Swedish librarians! Who knew!) May aim was not to critique individual projects but address a general atmosphere. What I’m lamenting is not so much the origins or efforts of such endeavors but that many times the library as concept can be overly distilled for gallery-goers, or Internet surfers, or magazine skimmers who absorb the cuteness of libraries over their love of say, reading or research. And I defiantly do not believe that there is an “authentic library experience,” but fear that people who are not “regular” library goers will feel that they are encountering something “classic” or “vintage” while my old boss at a branch of the New York Public Library is cleaning human shit off the floor. Which is gross, but doesn’t mean that I didn’t love going to work everyday.

    And I definitely did not want to imply that you are a co-opter or poseur. And, ew, really I never ever use these words seriously ever. I was just trying to be funny and address the personal drama of wanting to feel like my profession is cool. And my “implication of Orientalism” was absolutely intended to be “passive” and is “poorly conceived.” Which is why I did not want to use the terms “Orientalism” or “post-colonial.” Honestly, when I first saw the Ranganathan pin, I thought it was charming, but got a tad uncomfortable when I asked myself why. I’m sure that if I wanted to, I could construct an elaborate non-poorly-conceived argument, but I’m unwilling to devote as much time to my extra-curricular library activities as you are to yours. But if you ever need any volunteers, you can count me in.


  4. Well, I’d also like to weigh in as the Founder/Director of Proteus Gowanus. Your description of Proteus Gowanus as a “thing” is somewhat accurate because PG is hard to describe or to catagorize, and I urge you to come see. You have relegated Proteus Gowanus to the catagory of “art” or “arty” and, though we do have a few artists exhibiting here, we are decidedly interdisciplinary, with as many objects, artifacts and books displayed from other disciplines like mathematics and science. Proteus Gowanus was founded partly in reaction to the accepted notion of “art” and “arty” today. We value associative thought, reading, study and contemplation, all qualities that derive from libraries and early museums. “Library” has been an incredibly interesting theme to explore from the vantage point of a number of disciplines and we’ve had many librarians from around the country involved and visiting. You can see a pdf archive of our related events at the bottom of our workshops/events page. My co-curator this year, Andrew Beccone is, as he says above, not an artist, but a trained librarian, and we have spent seven months – and four to go – celebrating the existence of libraries past, present and future.

    Best, Sasha

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