Archives, Libraries + Databases, Round 2

Miler Lagos, via

I’m teaching my Archives, Libraries & Databases class again this coming fall (here’s last year’s course website). And once again, I’m a bit concerned that students might think it’s a research skills class. As I pointed out last year,

I’m not going to teach people how to use a library or build a database. Instead, we’re going to talk about the politics and aesthetics and ethics of organizing information…or media…or data…or knowledge — these four terms are not interchangeable, and we’re going to talk about that, too — through these different intellectual architectures. And given my interests, we’ll of course talk about some physical architectures as well.

The course title‘s a bit different this year. Last spring it was Libraries, Archives + Databases — but only because the timing of our various field trips dictated that we start with the libraries section and put archives in the middle. This year, I’m not going to allow field trips to dictate our schedule; I think it’s important for the conceptual integrity of the class to start with archives, then move along  historically (although not teleologically!) as we go through the semester.

Anyway, here’s the course description:

“There has been more information produced in the last 30 years than during the previous 5000.” We’ve all heard some variation on this maxim. As U.S. publishers add 250,000 printed books and close to 300,000 print-on-demand books to our libraries each year; as we find ourselves wading through over 200 million websites; as we continue to add new media – from Tweets to Apps to geo-tagged maps – to our everyday media repertoires, we continually search for new ways to navigate this ever more treacherous sea of information. Throughout human history we have relied on various institutions and politico-intellectual architectures to organize, index, preserve, make sense of, and facilitate or control access to our stores of knowledge, our assemblages of media, our collections of information. This seminar looks at the past, present, and future of the library, the archive, and the database, and considers what logics, priorities, politics, audiences, contents, aesthetics, physical forms, etc., ally and differentiate these institutions. We will examine what roles the library, archive, and the database play in democracy, in education, in everyday life, and in art. Throughout the semester we’ll examine myriad analog and digital artworks that make use of library/archival material, or take the library, archive, or database as their subject. Some classes will involve field trips and guest speakers. Students will have the option of completing at least one theoretically-informed creative/production project for the class.”

As we did last spring, we’ll probably go on field trips to the Reanimation Library, the Morgan Library, and the Municipal Archives. I’ll try to find a couple other sites, too. And I’ll bring in some interesting guest speakers.

Here’s a rough outline of what we’ll do throughout the semester:

  • Historicizing Information Overload: we’ll read some Clay Shirky, Ann Blair, and Borges.
  • Ordering Media’s “Innumerable Species”: We’ll read some Georges Perec (ah, my favorite!), David Weinberger, and some classification and ontological theory.
  • Exploring the Archives: We’ll read some Foucault and Derrida and some archive theory from Terry Cook. We’ll also visit the Municipal Archives this day.
  • What’s in the Archive: For this week we’ll read Wolfgang Ernst and some other stuff TBD.
  • Who’s in the Archive: We’ll read some Ann Stoler and Diana Taylor, and we’ll examine the work of Raqs Media Collective and the Atlas Group.
  • Archival Aesthetics: We’ll read Hal Foster on the “archival impulse” and Susan Stewart on the Wunderkammer, we’ll listen to ta Tate Modern conference on “The Archival Impulse,” and we’ll study the work of some archive-minded artists like Ann Hamilton, who happens to be my hero.
  • Plug-In: We’ll save a week or two in the middle of the semester where we can talk about things, or visit sites, or talk with people, that reflect students’ interests.
  • Libraries: From Mesopotamia to Madison Avenue: This day we’ll visit the Morgan Library, and we’ll read both about that specific library and about the general history of libraries in Matthew Battles’ excellent Library: An Unquiet History.
  • Idiosyncratic and Unorthodox Libraries: We’ll read more Perec, and we’ll examine the Warburg and Prelinger libraries.
  • The Future Library: Because there’s always new material being written on this topic, our specific readings will probably be drawn from current media. It’s likely we’ll talk about the Digital Public Library of America and a couple recently constructed library buildings — and we might read the article I’m currently writing on pop-up libraries.
  • Tabula of Relationships, Orders of Things: Here we’ll read more Foucault and Manuel DeLanda (not my favorite), and we’ll introduce ourselves to Paul Otlet and Vannevar Bush.
  • A Database Episteme: We’ll read some theoretical and practical stuff on databases — including Ted Byfield’s intellectual history of “information,” Alan Liu’s work on “transcendental data,” Eugene Thacker’s work on bioinformation, and some basic histories of databases.
  • A Database Aesthetic: We’ll read Lev Manovich and Christiane Paul, and we’ll examine the work of a few database artists.
  • Final Presentations: We’ll save the final two weeks for students to present their semester projects.

4 replies on “Archives, Libraries + Databases, Round 2”

Hi Shannon!

The summer is winding down and I’m beginning to gear up for the Fall semester. This is one of the courses that I will be taking and I have a few thoughts related to or brought about by your latest e-mail. I’m interested in the overlap between museums and libraries – works like Duchamp’s boite-en-valise or Cornell’s boxes seem able to function as portable archives, or an interstice between everyday life and the container of order. Is it possible to consider such endeavors in this class? Perhaps it is more relevant to a single class discussion, but I wanted to voice that interest just in case.

I’m also very interested in learning about certain archival critiques and/or strategies of artistic intervention; I’m not sure if that’s the proper phrasing for the matter I wish to convey; even if it’s something as simple as talking about Jane Wodening and Stan Brakhage’s (a personal favorite) scrapbooks (I remember you had mentioned these briefly in last Fall’s UMS course).

One theme that seemed to be reflected in some of the work of last semester’s students was the idea of place/“site” as archive and I would be interested in exploring this concept more in depth.

I think your texts for this class sound very comprehensive. I’m having a hard time coming up with anything to suggest in that department – can’t wait to dive in!

Wonderful suggestions! Thanks for taking the time to formulate such a helpful response, Andrea.

We’ll dedicate a few lessons to archive/library art, and during at least one of those lessons we’ll talk about wunderkammer. This should allow us to insert some discussion about Cornell and Duchamp. And the day we address “idiosyncratic” collections might be a good time to talk a bit about scrapbooking as archiving. “Place” is definitely a bit theme in the class, but I’ll think more about how we can focus specifically on site-as-archive.

I’ll do my best to incorporate some of these topics into the syllabus and my prepared lessons — but you might also consider dedicating one of your class projects to Duchamp, Cornell, Brackhage, etc., and then sharing your findings with us during an in-class presentation.

Again, thanks!

Hi Shannon!

I hope I’m not too late with some input! I’m interested in a text that I read for the literature review assignment in UMS: Techniques of Forgetting? Hypo-Amnesic History and the An-Archive by Benjamin Hutchens ( It has been over a year since I read it, so my understanding of the text is a little vague, but I think it would be interesting to discuss a “postanarchist” perspective on the archive and the possible relations to a community such OWS (and their own archives).

I’m also interested on learning know a bit about preservation, and NYC organizations who do preservations (some in mind are Electronic Arts Intermix, and Anthology Film Archives).

See you soon!


Thanks, Angelica! I’ll try to work in some of these themes, or perhaps the class can collaboratively organize activities responding to some of these themes for one of our “plug-in” weeks.

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