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.

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