Intellectual Furnishing: The Physical and Conceptual Architectures of our Knowledge Institutions

The bot-powered book storage area in the University of Chicago's Mansueto Library
The bot-powered book storage area in the University of Chicago’s Mansueto Library

Next week I’m giving two talks — one on “the future of the library” in a colleague’s undergraduate “intro to media studies” lecture class, and another on “Conceptual Units: How Our Knowledge Institutions Materialize Intellectual and Cultural Values” for the “Media, Materiality, Infrastructure” workshop convened by Nicole Starosielski and Arjun Appadurai at NYU. I ultimately realized that I couldn’t create two separate presentations on top of all my regular class prep and meetings — so I wrote a talk that’ll serve both purposes. I’m calling it “Intellectual Furnishings”: it proposes that we think about the literal furniture of our knowledge institutions — and how those material objects inform how we organize our media, structure our thoughts, and cultivate our values. I’ll post my slides immediately below, and the text — with all my slide-change cues — below that.


Mattern, Intellectual Furnishings by shannonmattern

[SLIDE 2] Melville Dewey – he of the library classification system that bears his name – was the quintessential Progressive-era entrepreneur. He founded the Lake Placid Club and helped to bring the Winter Olympics to town; [SLIDE 3] he founded the American Metric Bureau, which advocated for the adoption of the metric system; [SLIDE 4] he was founding editor of the Library Journal, contributed to the founding of the American Library Association, served as director of the New York State Library, and was chief librarian at Columbia University, where he established the first library school – whose first class was, notably, 85% female. His ambition manifested itself early in his life: shortly after graduating from Amherst College, where he was hired to work in the library, [SLIDE 5] he developed his new classification scheme, which he copyrighted in 1876. And while still a student [SLIDE 6] he founded the Library Bureau, a company that sold – and contributed to the standardization of – library supplies, [SLIDE 7] including the hanging vertical file, which he also purportedly, and not surprisingly, invented.[i]

[SLIDE 8] The bureau’s catalog (this cover image is from the 1900 edition, but the following images are drawn from the 1890 edition) – a veritable wonderland for organizational dorks like me – featured [SLIDE 9] furniture; [SLIDE 10] media display and storage devices; equipment for managing the circulation of collection materials, [SLIDE 11] including call slip pockets for insertion in the backs of books, [SLIDE 12] stamps for stamping in those books, and [SLIDE 13] slip cases for materially tracking what’s checked in and out. As we see here, these apparatae are commonly contextualized with long explanations regarding their proper use, complete with references to American Library Association journals and other publications attesting to their compliance with the most efficient and up-to-date library practices. [SLIDE 14] Here, the Bureau seems to be selling a bio-technical process – what we might today call “service design”: there are several pages extolling the virtues of creating a “shelf list” – and of course the Bureau has for sale the ALA-sanctioned 8×10” sheets, and a special binder to protect them from wear and tear.

The card catalog didn’t really catch on until the mid-19th century, and some libraries were still “transitioning” to the new system in the 1890s. [SLIDE 15] The Bureau sold them special typewriters that ensured legibility, uniformity, efficiency, and permanence. “No library starting a new catalog can afford to do without.” [SLIDE 16] And for those late adopters, there was a starter kit, with a case, guides, rods, cards, printed labels, blank labels, label holders, and a pen and ink. Efficiency in a box! The Bureau and all of its wares represented the library as an enlightenment and uplift “machine,” with Taylorist approaches imported into education and the provision of social services.

[SLIDE 17: BLANK] Despite various troubling dimensions of Dewey’s own social and intellectual values – particularly his racial and religious bigotry, classism, and Euro-centrism (as if we can bracket these concerns!) – [CLICK] his life’s work does exemplify the links between intellectual and material infrastructures – between classification systems and labeling standards and media storage devices and furniture designs (and of course he represents the potential for monetizing “knowledge solutions,” and other such amorphous intelligence products, too). Our archives and libraries have always served to materialize, however imperfectly, our epistemic structures. [SLIDE 18] And as the materiality of media evolve, the millennia-old institutions and systems we’ve created to collect, organize, and preserve those media have had to evolve, too. Given how much more slowly our large institutions and architectures are able to transform than are our gadgets, however – particularly now that it seems that our rate of technological progress is exceeding Moore’s law – these organizations have often struggled to keep pace. In examining how our libraries, archives, and databases strive to accommodate media of various forms, we can get a sense of how they function as both physical and intellectual infrastructures – and as systems that give shape to various epistemological, political, economic, and cultural values.

[SLIDE 19] Dewey can help us in this survey. We can draw inspiration from the Library Bureau’s catalog in exploring how library equipment and apparatae offer us “things to think with” – “intellectual furnishings,” if you will. The early pages of our catalog might feature some of our “discontinued” items: including, from our Caesar Collection, [SLIDE 20] scrinium and capsa, the cabinets and circular cases that held papyrus scrolls. [SLIDE 21] Our Roman clients with more extensive collections opted for the nidus, forulus, or loculamentum – all variations on pigeon-hole shelving.[ii] Cicero was a big fan of our Acropolis Platinum model. We also sold tags identifying the scrolls, which could be attached to the scrolls’ umbilici, the canes around which they were wound.[iii]

[SLIDE 22] Here, we were very fortunate to get Ezra, the 8th-century Jewish scribe, to pose with our Old Testament Collection book cabinet, perfectly designed to house the relatively new technology of the codex, still a precious commodity, given the tremendous labor involved in its creation. Which Ezra can of course attest to. [SLIDE 23] Our furniture and equipment had to continue serving this protective role through the late Middle Ages, as the book – and knowledge in general – continued to be a commodity primarily for the elite. We offered a variety of chains to affix books to their shelves or reading tables; here we see them in situ at Hereford Cathedral in the late 14th century.

[SLIDE 24] By Dewey’s time, the book had become much more affordable, public education had become much more widespread, and libraries had taken on a new identity, as the People’s University. Some even had open stacks, making their collection freely available to patrons to browse. [SLIDE 25] But even those, like the New York Public Library, that didn’t open their stacks to the public, aimed to open up the library, to exploit new architectural technologies – like iron and glass – to bring light and volume to the book storage and reading areas. [SLIDE 26] We didn’t sell steel bookstacks, but we sometimes referred our clients to Snead & Co. Iron Works, whose craftsmanship you see here. Books, in the mid- to late-19th century, were so plentiful that most libraries were built around them; stacks were often at the core of the building, and special provisions were made to accommodate their load. [SLIDE 27] Another building system that we didn’t handle ourselves, but which contributed to the efficiency and informed the way patrons “interfaced” with the collection, was the pneumatic tube book call system, about which I’ve written elsewhere, and which contributed tremendously to the overall character of the 42nd Street library, and to the NYPL’s Science Industry and Business Library.

[SLIDE 28] The centrality of the stacks is at the center of the current debate over the proposed renovation of the 42nd Street library. [SLIDE 29] Today, the Bureau might refer clients to companies like SpaceSaver, who provided these translucent acrylic bookcases for the innovative Seattle Public Library, which is celebrating its tenth anniversary this spring. Even something as seemingly mundane and utilitarian as bookshelves can cultivate a character, an ambience, that reflects the identity of an institution and its intellectual values: in Seattle, a luminescent glow permeates the stacks, serving, at the risk of sounding corny, as a beacon, a welcoming gesture.

[SLIDE 30] Speaking of Seattle, when Rem Koolhaas’s Office for Metropolitan Architecture was designing the building, they recognized that the diversity of media types the building would have to serve had grown tremendously – and would only continue to grow, in directions simply unpredictable for the lifespan of the building. There are still many contemporary libraries that privilege – perhaps even fetishize – the book and the bookstack: [SLIDE 31] take MVRDV’s 2012 project, Book Mountain, for a city in the Netherlands; or [SLIDE 32] TAX arquitectura’s Biblioteca Jose Vasconcelos in Mexico City. There’s opportunity in continuing to rethink and re-market the stack; we could potentially even branch out into stack consulting.

[SLIDE 33] In Seattle, whose library was the subject of my dissertation over a decade ago, I focused just as much on the design process – the debates between the architects, the librarians, various library-using publics, city officials, etc. – as I did on the building itself. And there were several key formal or programmatic shifts within the design process that had tremendous epistemological significance. If you’re familiar with the project, you probably know that one of its most frequently cited “innovations” – although it’s based on a not-so-groundbreaking precedent: the parking garage – [SLIDE 34] is the “book spiral.” The spiral could allow for a “continuous Dewey run” to facilitate book shelving and browsing and exploit adjacencies between related subject areas that, in any other library, might have been located on separate floors. While it didn’t question the model of knowledge embodied in the Dewey Decimal system, the plan did challenge the arbitrary breaks in knowledge necessitated by architectural limitations.

It also called for a collapse of subject departments – a trend that I saw in several library design projects during the building boom of the late 90s and early 2000s, which was the subject of my first book. [SLIDE 35] We see this “collapse” again in Seattle’s “mixing chamber,” where all reference librarians congregate for “one-stop” reference service. These changes posed huge epistemological challenges for librarians particularly in Seattle, which another city’s library director referred to as “the world empire of [subjec]
specialization.” The mixing chamber and book spiral, with their focus on collapsing departments, efficiency, and self-service, called on librarians to be generalists and interdisciplinarians and to provide a more proactive kind of service while helping patrons help themselves. [SLIDE 36] Ultimately, after much discussion, several service areas, each covering particular ranges of the Dewey run, were integrated throughout the book spiral, allowing for continuing subject specialization. But the debate certainly brought questions of “knowledge production” and acquisition to the fore.

[SLIDE 37] I visited 15 libraries constructed across the U.S. at the turn of the 21st century – and I found patterns in other design decisions that tacitly communicated what these institutions regarded as the components of knowledge, and how they saw knowledge being made. Their physical infrastructures embodied their intellectual infrastructures. [SLIDE 38] Some separated out A/V materials into “popular” collections, which would’ve allowed us to sell format-specific shelving solutions; while a few brave institutions considered [SLIDE 39] inter-shelving books, periodicals, audio-visual materials: any media on a particular topic, regardless of their formats, would be shelved together. Yet the standard model implies of a hierarchy of formats – typically with the “popular” DVDs and bestsellers right inside the front door, and the special collections on the top floor – which suggested which media “counted most” in the production of knowledge.

[SLIDE 40] Ten years after I toured all these buildings, we find ourselves in a very different media landscape – one that gives rise, in 2011, to Helmut Jahn’s Mansueto Library at the University of Chicago, [CLICK] which mixes diverse infrastructures to accommodate media of varying materialities: a grand reading room, a conservation department, a digitization department, and – wait for it – [SLIDE 41] a subterranean warehouse of books retrieved by robot

. ([SLIDE 42] It’s worth noting that Boston and other libraries contained book railways and conveyer belt retrieval systems – proto-robots – a century ago.) [SLIDE 43] Snøhetta’s 2013 James B. Hunt Jr. Library

at North Carolina State University also incorporated a robotic book storage and retrieval system, so that the library could meet its goal of providing seating for 20% of the student population; patrons came before collection. With the increasing popularity of off-site storage, especially on college campuses, there’s potential room for innovation and growth in the book retrieval business.

[SLIDE 44] There’s a market for other automation technologies, too. Even back in the early aughts, when I was touring libraries, several institutions expressed a rather progressive epistemological vision – one that placed a lot of faith in new technology-driven activities. Some had integrated media production facilities, suggesting that media “consumption” and “creation” lie on a gradient of knowledge production. And today, there’s a lot of talk about – and action around – integrating more spaces of making  — hackerspaces, maker labs, etc. [SLIDE 45] The Hunt Library has makerspace, a GameLab, various other production labs and studios, an immersion theater, and, rather eyebrow-raisingly, an Apple Technology Showcase.

[SLIDE 46] Back in 2012 the Carnegie Libraries of Pittsburgh – who had for years hosted film competitions, gaming tournaments, and media-making projects for its younger patrons – launched, with Google and Heinz Foundation support, The Labs, weekly workshops at three locations where teenagers can access equipment, software, and mentors. [SLIDE 47] Around the same time, Chattanooga – a city blessed with a super-high-speed municipal fiber network – opened its much-lauded 4th Floor, a 12,000+-square foot “public laboratory and educational facility with a focus on information, design, technology, and the applied arts.” “While traditional library spaces support the consumption of knowledge by offering access to media,” they state, “the 4th floor is unique because it supports the production, connection, and sharing of knowledge by offering access to tools and instruction.” Those tools include 3D printers, laser cutters, and vinyl cutters – and that instruction includes everything from tech classes, to incubator projects for female tech entrepreneurs, to business pitch competitions.

[SLIDE 48] Shortly afterward the Brooklyn Public Library, just a couple blocks from where I live, opened its Levy Info Commons, which includes a main work area with space for laptop users and lots of desktop machines featuring creative software suites; seven reserve-able teleconference-ready meeting rooms, one of which can serve as a recording studio; and a training lab, which both offers an array of digital media workshops led by a local arts and design organization and invites patrons to propose, or lead, courses of their own. [SLIDE 49] That July, Washington D.C.’s Martin Luther King, Jr., Memorial Library opened its own Digital Commons, where patrons can try out any of a variety of e-books readers, use a print-on-demand book-making machine, make use of a co-working space known as the “Dream Lab,” or try out the obligatory library accouterment du jour: the 3D printer! [SLIDE 50] That same month, the Chicago Public Library partnered with the Museum of Science and Industry to open a pop-up maker lab at the downtown library featuring open-source design software, laser cutters, a milling machine, and – you guessed it – 3D printers! Not one, but three. Dewey could’ve sold a lot of these.

The equipment in these spaces is undoubtedly new. And the furniture and spatial conditions needed to accommodate that equipment present new challenges. Of course this variety of activities, and the variety of media formats that libraries have long accommodated, require that library building incorporate a wide variety of furniture arrangements, lighting designs, acoustical conditions, etc. to accommodate a wide variety of sensory registers, modes of working, postures, etc. [SLIDE 51] Librarians and designers are starting to acknowledge and design for, rather than design out, these activities that make noise, and that can occasionally be a bit messy. I did a study a few years ago on the evolution of library sounds and found widespread recognition that [SLIDE 52] knowledge-making doesn’t readily happen when “shhh!” is the prevailing rule, as it had been in the past.

[SLIDE 53] These new physical infrastructures create space for a new epistemology embracing the integration of knowledge consumption and production, of thinking and making. Yet sometimes I have to wonder, given all the hoopla: are these tools of computational fabrication really the holy grail of the knowledge economy? Is 3D printing necessarily about knowledge? What knowledge is produced when I make, say, a keychain on a Makerbot? Furthermore, I have to wonder if the boosterism surrounding such projects – and the much-deserved acclaim they’ve received for successfully “rebranding” the library – glosses over the neoliberal values that these maker-technologies sometimes embody. While librarians have long been advocates of free and democratic access to information, I have to wonder if they’re helping their patrons to cultivate a critical perspective regarding the politics of “technological innovation” – or the potential instrumentalism of “making” things with knowledge. Sure, Dewey was part of this instrumentalist tradition, too. But perhaps our contemporary pursuit of “innovation” – the suggestion that “making new stuff” = “new knowledge,” along with the creep of Silicon Valley mentality – sells neoliberal values along with the digital literacy.

It’s particularly important to cultivate these critical capacities when the concrete infrastructures of our libraries – their technological furnishings – look like [SLIDE 54] this: San Antonio’s BiblioTech, a “bookless” library featuring [SLIDE 55] 10,000 e-books, downloadable via the 3M Cloud App; 600 circulating “stripped down” 3M e-readers; 200 “enhanced” tablets for kids; and, for use on-site, 48 computers, plus laptops and iPads. The library, which opened in September 2013, also offers computer classes and meeting space. [SLIDE 56] It’s an Apple-stylized proprietary-platform/firewally kind of experience.

In libraries like this – or even [SLIDE 57] this, the Digital Public Library of America – the collection isn’t held on-site. [SLIDE 58: BLANK] Do patrons wonder where, exactly, all those books and periodicals and cloud-based materials live? Do they think about the algorithms that lead them to particular library materials, and the conduits and protocols through which they access it? Do they consider what it means to supplant [CLICK] this with [CLICK] this – whose metal racks we can’t kick, lights we can’t adjust, knobs we can’t fiddle with? With the increasing recession of these technical infrastructures farther off-site, farther behind the interface, deeper inside the black box, how can we understand the ways in which those technical structures “furnish” our intellect? [SLIDE 59] We need to develop new critical capacities to understand the distributed physical and technical architectures that scaffold our institutions of knowledge – and program our epistemological, political-economic, and cultural values. Thinking it through, we might find that a little refurnishing is in order.

[i] The Bureau was legally established in 1881.
[ii] John Willis Clark, The Care of Books (Cambridge University Press, 1901).
[iii] Ernst Karl Guhl & Wilhelm David Koner, The Life of the Greeks and Romans: Described from Antique Monuments (New York: D. Appleton & Company, 1876): 529.

(Counter)Logics and Deep Histories of the Zone (the case of Paju Bookcity)

MRVDV / The Why Factory's "Vertical Village" @ Total Museum of Contemporary Art, Seoul, 2012; Model of Paju Bookcity, Photo by Yeong Ran Kim
Two Urban Imaginaries: MRVDV / The Why Factory‘s “Vertical Village” @ Total Museum of Contemporary Art, Seoul, 2012, Photo by me; Model of Paju Bookcity, Photo by Yeong Ran Kim

Next weekend I’m participating in a workshop, jointly organized by colleagues at The New School and NYU, on “Zonal Logics of Modernity” — or the special economic zone as a socio-cultural space, one we can perhaps better understand through the lenses of the humanities. Some of the key concerns we’ll be addressing include: whether there’s a particular connection between Asian modernity and the SEZ (given the spatial form’s early arrival and contemporary predominance in Asia); what role aesthetics and materiality play in the marketing and design of the zone; how the zone configures the urban subject and/or citizen; how “zonal logics” impact cultural production; and what epistemologies and ontologies of urbanity are embodied in the zone.

At the Moveable Type Workshop, Paju Bookcity, Photo by me; Books @ Bookcity, Photo by Yeong Ran Kim
At the Moveable Type Workshop, Paju Bookcity, Photo by me; Books @ Bookcity, Photo by Yeong Ran Kim
via Washington Post
via Washington Post

I’ll focus on Paju Bookcity, which I visited in the Summer of 2012 and wrote about for Places last year. I think Paju presents an interesting counter-example because it reflects, at least in its “philosophical” dimension, a counter-logic: rather than embracing global capitalism, technological progress, and other “neoliberal” (I wince every time I say or write that word!) values, Bookcity was conceived in the late 80s (and founded in 2007) to provide a space of exception, an alternative to South Korea’s “growth-driven ambition of the late 20th century.” While the rest of the nation seemed single-mindedly focused on achieving digital supremacy — the fastest broadband, the greatest saturation of smartphones — here we have a haven for analog books.

As I write in my Places article:

This was the complicated urban-cultural and socio-economic context that inspired Korean publisher Yi Ki-ung to found Paju Bookcity, and which shaped his decade-long battle to bring it to fruition: a publishing industry with a deep cultural history facing dramatic changes; a capital city bloated by years of top-down development that had proven unsustainable; and a national psyche recovering from what Yi described as “intense psychological confusion and disorder” brought about by decades of war, colonialism and dictatorship. As [design critic Edwin] Heathcote says, Yi envisioned an alternative future; Bookcity was “a reaction to the rapacious redevelopment of Seoul, the loss of the city’s historic fabric and its rapid embrace of the culture of bigness and congestion.” Bookcity’s self-styled exceptionalism is rooted in this origin story: it was conceived as not just another industrial estate, but as a city that would, in Yi’s words, “recover the lost humanity” of the country, a cultural project sustaining time-honored values and a commitment to the print tradition.

…The Asia Publication and Culture Information Center — one of the signature buildings in Paju and the only one whose designer, Kim Byung-yoon, was chosen by competition — embodied the project’s central values: “preserving the spiritual culture of Korea … bequeathing the value and importance of the Book to the next generation.” …For Yi, who felt “suffocated in Seoul,” Paju was intended to be a breath of fresh air; by bringing together urban designers and bookmakers outside the pressures of the capital city, he hoped to encourage a more reflective practice and richer culture.

The Story of a Dutiful Cow - a parable for Bookcity
The Story of a Dutiful Cow – a parable for Bookcity, Photos by me

Bookcity was, at least in its original conception, explicitly nostalgic; it embraced and embodied what seemed to be a zonal counter-logic. But in order to operationalize this vision, and get the necessary funding, the project’s leaders had to wrap this utopian, and seemingly “pre-modern,” vision in a late capitalist zonal package: they had to sell Bookcity as specialized industrial city that would offer particular efficiencies in national and international book distribution and provide a space for synergistic collaboration — not to mention “reflective practice” — among its publishers. All the standard zonal logics made possible its realization:

The central government provided state-owned land at a discount, built much of the infrastructure, offered low-cost financing to tenants, granted a five-year tax exemption, and funded construction of the Culture Center. [14] But if the “industrial” label was strategically necessary, Yi and other leaders found it unpalatable; as they put it: “We have attempted to overcome the uninspiring characteristics of an ‘industrial development’ by incorporating the dynamic characteristics of a ‘city.’”

The Asia Publication and Culture Information Center, Photo by Yeong Ran Kim
The Asia Publication and Culture Information Center, Photo by Yeong Ran Kim

Depending on how one looks at it, the reflective-thought-in-spite-of-digital-distraction and “old-school”-cultural-production-among-the-rice-paddies vision, along with Bookcity’s potential to serve as a node in a proposed cultural “bridge” between North and South Korea, could be the “conceptual core” of Bookcity, and its rhetorical packaging as a viable economic zone, embracing dominant forms of zonal logic, could be merely a necessary compromise in ensuring its viability. Or maybe it’s the other way around: the “recovery of lost humanity” through the rediscovery of “slow” publishing, the promise of “getting back to nature,” the prioritization of “community above capital” — and the embodiment of these values in ambitious and floridly theorized design that simultaneously embraced the clean lines of contemporary architecture and the inevitable patina and decay of natural materials — maybe this was the aestheticization and marketing of what was, at its core, just another industrial zone.

Bookcity's Architectural Gems" & Booxen Distribution Center, Photos by Yeong Ran Kim
Bookcity’s Architectural Gems” & Booxen Distribution Center, Photos by Yeong Ran Kim

Even the material landscape embodies the tensions between these ideologies: its individual “architectural gems” never coalesce into a coherent community, its workspaces don’t always prove conducive to the type of labor involved in book publishing, and its proposed workers’ housing ended up being created by a developer who priced it well above the means of your typical publishing company employee. So all the assistant editors and distribution facility workers make the half-hour trip north from Seoul every day. As I write in Places,

Some of the challenges Paju Bookcity faces in transforming itself into a “real” city, a vibrant center of literary life, can be traced in part to its urban design; but some are clearly due to its classification as a mono-functional industrial estate. There is, I would argue, a paradox in its founding premises: Paju exemplifies the effort to acknowledge book publishing as an industrial sector in need of special attention; yet it has also resulted in its physical segregation from the dynamic urban life and culture that has historically nurtured its content and reception, its authors and readers…. Book printing and distribution might benefit from consolidating resources on inexpensive land outside the city, but the more social aspects of publishing — interactions between authors, editors, translators, agents and readers; and the way these various interactions draw from and give to the city — will likely be sacrificed by a move to the wetlands near the DMZ.

What seems to distinguish Paju from so many other progress-through-sleek-modernization-oriented zones is its embrace of historical values. So I want to think a bit more about the roles of nostalgia and history in the zone. As I write in the article,

Baek Won Keun explained to me that the country has a huge market in private education, including courses to prepare students for college entrance exams — and the study guides used by private tutors comprise an astonishing 60 percent of the publishing market. This is hardly the classic republic of letters, where a broad readership hungers for great literature and philosophy and political debate; here the book industry is sustained by children cramming for standardized tests…. Perhaps there’s no longer much use romanticizing the centrality of books, periodicals, newspapers, pamphlets and posters to city life and urban form…. Today we no longer live in a world of Habermasian public spheres animated by the circulation of printed matter. The purposes and platforms of reading are changing so dramatically that publishing and literature are bound to occupy a very different physical place in our cities.

From the Moveable Type Workshop, Paju Bookcity, Photo by Me
From the Moveable Type Workshop, Paju Bookcity, Photo by me

But Paju does at least remind us that publishing and literature have long occupied critical places in our cities. Bookcity is merely the latest development in a half-millennium-long tradition of urban zones that arise around print — to support its production, distribution, and consumption; and to foster “print culture.” Jianyang, Leipzig, Lyon and Boston have served as important publishing centers. There’s a solid body of scholarship on the place of place — local institutions and resources, local and regional distribution networks, the role printing has played in constructing local identity — in historical Ming dynasty Chinese publishing centers, including Jiangnan, Yangzhou, Fujian, Sibao, and Nanjing, among others. Bronwen Wilson also writes of early modern Venice as a center of print production — of how the making of books not only shaped the economy and landscape of the city, but also how the creation of new publishing forms influenced the way people explored and experienced their cities, and informed how cities represented themselves to their own citizens and to outsiders. Rose Marie San Juan offers a similar characterization of early modern Rome, paying particular attention to how print and its interplay with the city “proved a crucial site for reworking early modern subjectivities.” And some have written about the arrival of publishers and bookshops and bazaars around mosques throughout the Islamic world in the 16th and 17th centuries: “It was a tradition that stretched across the Indian sub-continent and Central Asia – the mosque, the market square and the story-tellers,” writes Majid Sheikh.

Bookcity is also part of a much longer trajectory in which the creation of media, and the formal and aesthetic properties of those media, have shaped the morphology of urban space. While those centers of print production were cropping up, the formal “zones” of cities were often taking inspiration from the book to make urban form and facades more “legible,” and folks were using book metaphors to explain how cities worked. Anthony Vidler writes of  “the Enlightenment aspiration for the city to read like an open book,” the drive to render the city — Paris, in particular — “legible to its citizens, as if it were a three-dimensional treatise in civic virtue written on the facades of its institutions. To ‘read’ the city, to understand its apparent chaos and bewildering contrasts through the eyes of a writer, whether as topographical, historical, or critical discourse, became by the end of the century the favored mode of city lore.”

Thus, if we look at our historical printing centers, and their print-inspired urban development, as precursors to Bookcity, we might be able to situate the zone — particularly our media- and technology-oriented zones of today — within a much deeper history.


Workshop: Working with WordPress


On February 18 I’ll be leading a faculty workshop, hosted by the “Democratizing the Archives” working group (of which I’m a part) and funded by a Civic Engagement Grant, on “Working with WordPress.” As our call for participants indicated, “This workshop will explore how we can use WordPress, the highly customizable open-source blogging platform and content management system, to support our research, practice, and teaching. We’ll examine WordPress sites used as portfolios for individual scholars/practitioners, as hubs for collaborative research and design projects, and as “nerve centers” for classes — and we’ll work through the steps of setting up a WordPress site and making basic design decisions.”

We did a little survey of our audience and discovered that most of them — or, depending who’s reading this, most of you — are new to CMS’s and blogging, so I’ve pitched my presentation at a beginner-to-intermediate-beginnger level. I also want to encourage faculty to make use of their TAs and the TechShops (free, individualized tutoring sessions) offered by the Provost’s office. Remember, too, that TNS has access to, which offers software and professional development tutorials.

I’m posting my workshop agenda and notes here — in part to keep myself on track, but primarily to serve as a reference for the workshop attendees and whoever else might find this useful.

Why a class blog? Why use a course management system?

Benefits for course instructors

  1. Everything in one place — class logistical info, syllabus, readings, supplemental resources, etc (note: you can save copyrighted material behind a password-protected firewall, or password-protect pages with sensitive info)
  2. Ability to share timely information, course announcements, etc.
  3. Potential to open up the classroom beyond the classroom walls — which not only fosters (global) engagement with your course, but also creates incentives for your students to share their best work
  4. With BuddyPress: options for public or private groups, online discussion forums

Benefits for students

  1. One-stop shop for course content
  2. Access to timely updates
  3. Platform for (low stakes) multimodal engagement with course material + opportunity to develop a voice
  4. Potential Uses: reading responses; reflective exercises; resource-shares; project proposals; methodology statements; “process blogs”; event reviews; portfolios for individual students; class-wide final project showcase
  5. [Optional] Local engagement with their work, and potential for global audience

Which platform? WordPress, Edublogs, Tumblr, Github, etc.?

  • Edublogs: education-focused WordPress hosting; teacher controls security settings; wikis, forums, quizzes, etc.; access to support with institutional subscription (We’ll have a representative from New School Online present to talk about TNS’s potential partnership with EduBlogs.)
  • Tumblr: great for “scrapbooking” quotations, photos, video, etc.; lots of themes, but not easily customizable; poor platform for commenting; your content survives at the mercy of Yahoo!
  • GitHub: repository for open-source code, supports version control
  • WordPress: my choice — and our focus for this workshop. Why? It’s more than a blogging platform; it’s an entire content-management system. It supports rich content and formatted posts enhanced with multimedia. It’s relatively easy to use. Plus, it’s open-source, which means that it’s more politically kosher than some of the other options, and there’s a built-in community committed to its sustainability.


via wpmudev
via wpmudev 


Setting up / installing WP



  • You can change your security settings for, and on, you can make individual posts public, password-protected, or private; or install a plug-in to make the entire site private.
  • Do you want one class or project “home” blog, a “central clearing house” with multiple subscribers — or do you want a “hub” blog featuring info of common interest, over which you likely have sole editorial control, and which links out to contributors’ individual blogs (as with Warwick’s class, above)?



Which theme?


  • Standard (free) or Premium? Check out WP’s own Theme Showcase and the offerings from many of the commercial theme “studios.” Also, try Googling “best [free] wordpress themes 2014”; you’ll find lots of sites that highlight and describe interesting new designs.
  • Do you need a theme that’s optimized for text-heavy or image-heavy content? What look-and-feel reflects the character of your class, your group — or you?
  • You’ll find themes in the Dashboard under “Appearance” ==> “Themes”
  • I recommend trying out a few themes to see how they look and feel once populated with content, an to ensure that they’re sufficiently “responsive” across different devices — e.g., laptop, ipad, phone, etc. Create a couple sample pages and posts — you could even use lorem ipsum text and “dummy” media — and test your top-choice designs on various devices.
  • Why I like grid themes: You can see multiple posts in one glance, which allows you to gauge the extent of recent activity on the site. The grid also minimizes the implicit hierarchy built into the linear “scroll down” mode of presentation. Plus, it visually conveys action, dynamism, and organization — the latter proving particularly appealing to us OCD-afflicted folks 🙂

Customization, Widgets and Plugins?

via Jane Friedman
via Jane Friedman 
  • You can customize your menus, headers, footers, sidebars, colors, CSS style, etc. You can even add a static front page — a nice “landing page” that greets your visitors before they dig into the heavy content. Plus, some themes allow for theme-specific alterations. You’ll find these customization options in the “Appearance” section of the Dashboard.
  • Widgets (which you’ll also find in the Dashboard under “Appearance” ==> “Widgets”) allow you to add “chunks” of content and new functionality to your site. You can add RSS readers, text blocks, lists of your post “Categories,” lists of recent posts and/or comments, your Creative Commons license, etc.
  • Plug-Ins extend the functionality of your site. You can add spam filters, event calendars, photo galleries and zoom viewers, multimedia players, back-up automators, broken-link detectors, SEO optimizers, etc. BuddyPress adds a lot of social networking functionality — e.g., user profiles, groups, etc.
    • I added the event calendar to my Fall 2013 Archives/Libraries class, for example. You might also find a calendar useful in chronicling your research group or design collective’s presentations or events.
  • What information about your class is (relatively) static — e.g., the course description, semester schedule, assignments, etc. — and what is timely and/or emergent? Pages are static and not time-dependent; posts are time- and name-stamped and appear in reverse-chronological order. See this.
  • What deserves to have a permanent, easily locatable place on the page, and what could easily be searched for, our filtered through?
  • For my Archives, Libraries + Databases class, the pages include: (1) an “About” page, which features the course codes, location, and description; (2) a “Schedule + Readings” page, where I list our agenda for each class and embed links to pdfs of all the readings (which I save behind a password-protected firewall); and (2b) nested under the “Schedule” page, a page with “Supplemental Resources”; (3) a “Requirements and Assignments” page; and (3b) nested under that page, a “Policies and Procedures” page, with my plagiarism, assignment submission, and deadlines policies; and (4) a “Resources” page, with sub-pages dedicated to relevant “Artists” and “Sites” and our event calendar.
  • For my own website, I’ve dedicated pages to Publications, Presentations, Projects, Teaching, my c.v. (this page links to a pdf), Links (this page links out to my Pinboard bookmarks), and my Zotero Library (which links out to my online bibliography).



  • Categories offer a “top-level” way to sort through “emergent” content. They’re kind of like tags in that they allow for filtering — but while tags tend to be user-generated, categories rely on more of a “controlled vocabulary”; they reflect the macro-scale “conceptual architecture” of your site.
  • If, say, your students are posting reading responses, or listing relevant extracurricular events, throughout the semester, you’ll probably want, at some point (particularly at grading time), to filter all the reading response or event-related posts, provided students categorized them appropriately when posting. It’s thus important to have your categories set at the beginning of the semester — or at the outset of your project — so students and collaborators know how to categorize their different posts. This is not to say that your categories can’t evolve as time goes on; it just takes a little time to re-categorize old posts.
  • My Urban Media Archaeology class used the following categories: “Class Announcements,” “Event + Exhibitions,” “In the News,” “Map Critiques,” “Opportunities,” “Process Blogs,” and “Project Proposals.” My Emergent Infrastructures research group has classified our posts into “Courses,” “Events,” and “Publications and Productions.” And on my own site, I’ve organized my posts into the following: “Conference + Lecture Recap,” “Exhibition + Site Recap,” “Publication Previews + News,” “Reading + Listening Recap,” “Research,” “Talks,” “Teaching,” and “Tenure.” This categorization system took shape as I used WP for the first year; once I settled on a structure, I reviewed and recategorized all my old posts.


  • Theoretically, anyone can comment on a blog (you can determine whether or not they have to offer contact info; or you can turn off comments altogether) — but in order to post any content, users must be subscribed. There are different user roles: Admin, Editor, Author, Contributor, and Subscriber. For a collaborative peer blog, I make everyone an Admin, so we all can share responsibility in maintaining the site, managing users, adding content behind the firewall, etc. For a class blog, I make all the students an “Author,” which grants them authority to publish and manage their own, and only their own, posts.
  • I also encourage students to choose usernames that do not give away their identities, so as to (kinda) avoid FERPA violations.
  • Something to consider: If you teach a particular class regularly, do you create a new blog for each semester, or do you maintain a single, continuous course blog that “accumulates” users year after year? I choose to create a new website for each class, whereas Sam Ishii Gonzales maintains a single Immanent Terrain blog, and has each semester’s new students add to the posts of their predecessors.

Other Examples

Personal Portfolios

Collaborative Projects

Class Sites


Old School New School


In Tuesday’s session of my Digital Archives class, we’re meeting with two of The New School’s archivists, the fabulous Wendy Scheir and Liza Harrell-Edge, to talk about the past, present, and future of the university’s archives, including especially their ongoing collaboration with Collective Access in creating a new collection management system. Then, for the second half of the class, we’re meeting with Kit Laybourne and Peter Haratonik, two of the founding faculty of our Media Studies program — and of its precursor, the Center for Understanding Media.

In preparation for class, the students will have read a few published articles on New School history (most of which make use of archival material); and several representative archival documents from key moments in TNS history — the university’s founding in 1919; the addition of the University in Exile in 1933; the mid-70s, when the Center for Understanding Media was integrated into The New School, etc.


Pages from 7_Johnson_IdeasAreHighExplosives

As always happens — like that time I perused some old course catalogues and found a crapload of amazing courses from the 20s, 30s, 40s, and 50s,  taught by insanely awesome people — I’m tremendously impressed by the ethos and innovation of this university. Consider this: the 1919 course catalog notes that “courses of study have not been arranged under usual departmental headings — political economy, sociology, history, psychology, etc. — for this tends to obscure the constant connection and interplay of the various interests and activities of mankind.” All that recent talk about problem- or scenario-based curricula: they were on it in 1919.

I’ve also come to appreciate, anew, just how progressive our Media Studies program was, in merging courses on the historical, philosophical/theoretical, and critical study of media; the study of media from other disciplinary perspectives; and the making of media. Kickin’ it praxis-style since 1969.


The Center’s 1974 guide lists several courses that were obvious precursors to those we teach today — including our “intro to grad studies” lecture course. Their version was called “Understanding Media” — after McLuhan, of course; the contemporary version is “Understanding Media Studies.” I teach it occasionally. The Old Schoolers also offered a fascinating course on “Media and the Future,” which would certainly appeal to all the “speculative realists” and “design fiction”-ists and techie futurists of today.


We’ve offered courses in sound for a looong time — think Henry Cowell, Hans Eisler, Aaron Copeland, John Cage. In your face — err, ear, Sound Studies, people! We got here first! And in 1974 the Center was offering a class that built on the work of Tony Schwartz.


Inspired no doubt by McLuhan’s sensorium, the faculty were also looking beyond sound to address media’s appeals to the other senses. Sensory studies has certainly enjoyed a resurgence in recent years, too.


The senses were made tactile on the embossed cover of the 1975 catalog, which also included a list of regularly featured guests: from Edmund Carpenter and Bob Fosse to Eliot Noyes <sigh> and Susan Sontag.




Outtakes from Smart City Interfaces

via Things Organized Neatly
via Things Organized Neatly

It always hurts to cut laboriously researched, thoughtfully constructed, meticulously polished chunks of prose (yeah, I’m milking this) from essays and articles. Sometimes the pruning is necessary because the piece is longer than permissible or necessary — or because, after a few days or weeks of critical distance from the composition, you look back at certain sections and say to yourself, “Man, what the hell was I thinking? As expendable as the “fluff” might be to the published work, I’m still reluctant to erase it entirely. That’s why I’m lucky to have this here website, where I can post all the outtakes. So all that hard labor need not be for naught.

After getting some tremendously helpful feedback from my editors at Places — Nancy and Josh can always be counted on for smart and thoughtful critique — I’ve decided to cut several passages from my “interfaces to the smart city” article. I sensed that the literature review I did on “interface theory” and the rubric I developed for “interface critique” wouldn’t need to appear in their entirety in the final article — which is in part why I posted those sections here a few weeks ago.

And now my original intro needs to go, too. It seemed like a good idea at the time, but a month or so from now, when the article’s out, this whole thing will be January’s news. Plus, the whole story kind of forces a homology; it conflates scales — the domestic and the urban — in an unhelpful way, and suggests that we can read across variously scaled networks and their interfaces in a seamless way. That actually contradicts my argument — which is that we need to highlight the seams.

Anyway, here are the excised bits. I might add more as I continue to revise.

*   *   *   *   *


Not long ago Google announced that it had purchased a thermostat company.

Technically, that’s true. But Nest isn’t your average HVAC appliance manufacturer. For one thing, they make smoke alarms, too. And its founders, in earlier incarnations, worked on teams that created Apple’s original iPods and iPhones. Not surprisingly, the devices Nest makes are actually a cross between your standard dumb console and an iPhone; they can be controlled remotely, and they collect data about your behaviors and preferences and consumption habits. They’re plugged into the Internet of Things – and they afford Google yet another means of getting into our lives and our homes while circumventing our desktops and smartphones.



That little blue eye, with a reflective rim that allows it to mirror your wall color in order to blend in, serves as a sleek portal to a domestic operating system, which is in turn plugged into a global internet infrastructure. And mediating between those two scales – the home and the globe – is the city, which has its own sentient networks.

Google’s got a toehold at the urban scale, too. Austin, Kansas City, and Provo all benefit from Google Fiber’s gigabit-speed fiber connectivity and super-fast WiFi, a robust DVR system for consumers’ recorded media, and generous cloud storage. Conveniently, it’s all accessed and controlled through Google’s Nexus 7 tablet.

This model of corporately monopolized and vertically integrated urban systems, it seems, is our urban future (at least in the Wired West). Judging from the myriad promotional videos, renderings, marketing pitches, and vision statements – from Google and its tech compatriots – floating around out there, the defining materials of our urban futures are silicon and electromagnetic waves. And, based on those same promotional materials, it seems that one of the chief preoccupations of our future-cities is to reflect their data consumption and hyper-efficient activity back to themselves – to visualize their rational operation. Hence all the screens. So. Many. Screens.


Aesthetic Reconstruction

Li Huasheng, 0669, 2005
Li Huasheng, 0669, 2005

So this was another tough week. Dammit, love, you jerk. Do you hate me or something?

When matters of the heart get me down, I get my ass to Chelsea. Embraced by those pristinely white walls, comforted by that warm gallery light and that construction-site-meets-parfumery-scented air, delighted or challenged by all the fantastic or awful stuff hanging on the walls and nested in vitrines, I can reassure myself: “Well, at least you guys are still here for me.” TMI, I know. But what’s the use of pretending that my professional endeavors, which are ostensibly the focus of this website, are hermetically sealed off from the rest of my “being”? As if one’s intellectual pursuits are divorced from affect.

I always seem to find, retroactively, a theme for all my gallery tours. Today’s was “reconstruction.” Gee, I wonder why. Aside from my obvious personal motivations for finding messages of “rebuilding” in the work I saw today, most of it actually wasin some way or another, addressing the construction of space and/or meaning — with ink, paint, text, sound, etc.