The Library in the Age of Digital Reproduction (for Artspace New Haven)

Artspace New Haven has an upcoming exhibition about libraries, and a curatorial assistant there asked some library bloggers if they would like to contribute a piece of writing or a photograph for an accompanying volume of some sort, as well as blog about the exhibit. I like art and I like libraries, so I thought it was a great idea. Below is the information about the exhibit (and submission information for librarians who might want to write something), followed by my contribution, a brief essay with a couple of photographs of my personal library. Pity I won’t be in New Haven to see it.

“Library Science” at Artspace New Haven

“Artspace New Haven is a non-profit organization that presents local and national visual art, providing access, excellence, and education to the benefit of the public and the greater arts community. Its upcoming exhibition is titled Library Science, conceived by New York-based curator Rachel Gugelberger. The exhibition contemplates our personal, intellectual and physical relationships to the library, with a focus on how these interactions are changing as libraries adapt to the digital world. From its socio-cultural meaning to its architectural space and classification tools, the library informs the methodology and practice of the artists in Library Science, presenting the work of 17 artists in a variety of media including drawing, photography, sculpture, installation, painting and web-based projects. In conjunction with the exhibition at Artspace, Connecticut artists were invited to submit proposals for research residencies towards creating site and situation-specific projects at local libraries. Library Science seeks to encourage librarians to forge relationships with artists and support the creation and presentation of new artwork by providing assistance with research and access to information. The project will also reach out beyond New Haven to library patrons throughout Connecticut via an online exhibition catalogue.

In a further exploration of personal libraries, Artspace has been contacting librarians (especially those who blog!) to see if they would like to contribute anything written, or even photographs of their personal libraries or top-ten shelves (ten favorite books) and also if they could spread the word about the upcoming exhibition!

Submissions can be sent to sinclaire@artspacenh.org by November 1 (the show opens November 12.) For further information about Artspace, please see www.artspacenh.org.”

The Library in the Age of Digital Reproduction

I barely remember a time when I wasn’t an active library user. From the first grade I recall trips to the school library, where the librarian would seat us at common tables and place a number of books at the center for us to choose among. Instead of choosing one of those books, I always got permission to wander the shelves and find one on my own. Even then, my relationship to the library was active, questing, questioning, and the library was a place I enjoyed visiting. The library was the place with knowledge. It had an aura.

As I grew older the libraries grew larger and my explorations deeper. I found my high school library far too limiting, but I spent a lot of time in the city library reading about whatever passion had lately seized me. My university library was larger than that, with floors of stacks to wander. My graduate school library (the third largest academic library in the country) overwhelmed me, and was the first library that gave me a good picture of just how damn many books there were in the world and how relatively few I would ever be able to read. I spent countless hours in all of those libraries, back in the day when in-depth information about anything was hard to come by without going to the library building.

Even though I’m now a librarian, most of my library use has been as something else—an avid reader, a student, a scholar, a curious human being. People who know libraries but not librarians probably think librarianship is mostly concerned with reading books (or else shelving them, something else I don’t do). When I tell people I’m a librarian, they often say something like, “oh, you must love to read,” or maybe, “you must love books.” Check, and check, but neither has much to do with my daily job. The majority of my work consists of sitting in front of a computer interacting with some form of information technology. The rest of the time is usually spent showing students how to do the same. So my work as a librarian often removes me from direct contact with books, but also with direct contact with the library as place. I could do most of my work from anywhere with an Internet connection. For many people, work no longer describes a place (i.e., I’m “going to work”) but an activity. I might “go to work” in an office or sitting at my dining table. I work for, but not always in, a library. When I’m working, I don’t use the library as a place, the way non-librarians do.

Evolving information technology has altered my relationship to libraries, including the one I now work for. No matter what I’m doing, whether it’s reading for pleasure or doing research for a project, a lot of what I need will be online, available only through my library’s website perhaps, but requiring no visit to the library. Even if it does require a visit to the library stacks, I discover the book through an online catalog. Thus, while my relationship to the library as information provider is as strong as ever, my relationship to the library as a physical place to get information has dwindled. If it weren’t for the library funding and organizing access to information, my life would be significantly poorer, because contrary to popular belief, not everything is free online. But the digital resources of a well funded academic library are significant.

My relationship to the library has changed in this age of digital reproduction, much like our relationship to art that Walter Benjamin examined. In his essay on “The Work of Art in the Age of its Technological Reproducibility,”*  Benjamin argued that technological reproducibility eliminates the “aura” of a unique work of art.

One might focus these aspects of the artwork in the concept of the aura, and go on to say: what withers in the age of the technological reproducibility of the work of art is the latter’s aura. This process is symptomatic; its significance extends far beyond the realm of art. It might be stated as a general formula that the technology of reproduction detaches the reproduced object from the sphere of tradition. By replicating the work many times over, it substitutes a mass existence for a unique existence. And in permitting the reproduction to reach the recipient in his or her own situation, it actualized that which is reproduced.

The aura of a work of art has rarely existed for books. While there are unique books and editions, books for the most part are made to be reproduced, and the reproduction doesn’t detract from them at all. Books need a mass existence.

Printed books physically embody that mass existence. Everyone reading a printed book interacts with the same layout and font.  Digital books are very different objects. Escaping the physical instantiation in a mechanically reproducible printed book means the end of the mass experience of the book as we have known it. Though they will no doubt evolve, current ebook readers remove us from the mass experience of the codex, leaving only the mass experience of the text, but that text is now experienced in numerous different ways, sometimes by the same person. I can read the “same” book in print, on my Kindle, or on the Kindle app on my laptop or my smartphone. Ebooks increase the variety of reading by allowing us to read on different devices, but they also homogenize reading by reformatting every book to the same font and text size. Ebooks dilute the mass experience of reading a book, making it too fluid and changeable to have even a minimal aura.

But our relationship to libraries is, or was, more like our relationship to a work of art. Each individual library has an aura in the Benjaminian sense. It is unique, it is embedded in a tradition, and our relationship to the space is different from that in other libraries. While they all have books, their books are different and in different arrangements. But just as text has escaped the printed book, it has escaped the physical library. Text wants to be free. What was always a relationship with a unique space is now just as often an interaction with a standardized online interface.

My relationship to my personal library (pictured at the end of the essay) is necessarily more intimate than that to a public or academic library, but even it has changed. I check out lots of books from libraries, but other libraries can’t (yet) supply me with instant access to every book with which I have developed a lasting relationship. My library also tells a story about my life. It grounds me in times and places. When using my library, I not only recall a passage or reread a story. I also recollect and reminisce. For most of my library of 2,000 or so volumes, I can recall where I got the book, when I read it, and what else I was reading at the time. In the days before the Internet revolutionized the used book trade, I remember the days of searching through the jumbled shelves of dusty bookshops and the joyful serendipity of finding a book that I had been wanting, or better yet one that I didn’t realize how much I wanted until I saw it. Benjamin also wrote that, “in even the most perfect reproduction, one thing is lacking: the here and now of the work of art—its unique existence in a particular place. It is this unique existence—and nothing else—that bears the mark of the history to which the work has been subject.” My library has a unique existence in a particular place. It has an aura, and it bears the mark of my history.

Technology has altered my relationship to my personal library as well, though. For example, Shakespeare is a favorite author of mine, but good editions of Shakespeare tend to be huge, cumbersome folio editions like the Riverside and the Oxford Shakespeares, or else pricey multi-volume editions like the Arden. Many years ago at a library book sale I rejoiced to find a complete set of the old Yale edition of Shakespeare at a bargain price, not that gigantic reprint sometimes found in the bargain section of chain bookstores, but the French blue octavo editions of each play. They were aging, but still tight copies, easy to hold in a single hand or place in a jacket pocket, and they’re on the shelves behind me as I write this. On many occasions I would pick up a favorite play and reread passages or acts or even the entire play. I still do this, but I’m more likely to read the play on my Kindle or my smartphone. It’s just so much more convenient, and for classics cheaper even than my bargain Yale edition. I’ve got hundreds of Kindle ebooks, most of which I paid little or nothing for (often free downloads of individual works in the public domain from Amazon or munseys.com). For contested works like those of Shakespeare, the cheap digital editions don’t have the best texts, or any notes, but they’re good enough for casual reading. I still prefer printed books, especially if I’m referring to many of them simultaneously or reading for long periods, but I also like the convenience of having not just one volume but a large library in my pocket at all times.

Nevertheless, my library, the Library, has expanded beyond any given space or physical collection.  The Library can no longer be confined to one place, or a few places. Libraries can no longer have the sacred aura they once had for a lot of us, because the Library has expanded beyond the building downtown or the bookshelves in my home. Whereas a trip to the library was once always a unique interaction, the equivalent trip to my laptop isn’t. The variety of a printed collection is homogenized into a web browser. The Library is that big building I work in, those shelves along my living room wall, that laptop with access to millions of articles, and that smartphone with a lifetime of casual reading hiding inside an ebook app. Not everything is or will be digitized, meaning the Library will be a hybrid for a long time to come. The Library in the age of digital reproduction is still a place, but now it’s also everyplace. The library has lost its uniqueness, but has achieved ubiquity. For avid readers, it seems a small price to pay.

*For forty years the essay was known to English-speaking readers as “The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction,” but the 2008 Harvard edition has a better translation of the German “Kunstwerk im Zeitalter seiner Technischen Reproduzierbarkeit,” and allows me to distinguish between things mechanically reproduced—e.g., printed books—and things technologically reproducible—e.g., digital books.

My Library in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction

My Library in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction

The Rest of My Library in the Age of Digital Reproduction

The Rest of My Library in the Age of Digital Reproduction

 

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