In Rare Fashion: My RBMS Plenary Presentation

"Archive Wall" from the 2013 “Nam June Paik: Global Visionary” exhibition @ the Smithsonian American Art Museum
“Archive Wall” from the 2013 “Nam June Paik: Global Visionary” exhibition @ the Smithsonian American Art Museum

I was delighted to be invited to deliver one of the closing plenary talks at the 2014 preconference for the American Library Association’s Rare Books and Manuscripts Section, on the theme of “Retrofit,” in Las Vegas. I was joined on the plenary panel by Jim Reilly, Founder and Director of the Image Permanence Institute, and Emily Gore, Content Director of the Digital Public Library of America, both of whom gave fantastic presentations. Unfortunately, we had far too little time for discussion.

What follows are my slides and the text of my talk:

In Rare Fashion: Special Collections Infrastructural Aesthetics

In Rare Fashion: Special Collections’ Infrastructural Aesthetics

I come from Brooklyn, the land of archival aesthetics. I realize this is kind of old news, but those of us who live the antiquarian lifestyle are quite happy to be behind the curve. [S2] We’re committed to canning, [S3] letterpress, [CLICK] suspenders, [CLICK] and classic cocktails. [S4] We mix our vinyl with taxidermy. [S5] This coming weekend we’re opening a new museum, Morbid Anatomy, that’s dedicated to spirit photography, embalming, and 19th-century medical and mourning practices. [S6: Blank] We’re into performing our preservation, too; we can make anything “heritage” or artisanal – [S7] including our faces. (I should note that recent research has shown that [S8] we may recently have reached “peak beard.”)

[S9]Rare book and manuscript libraries certainly have their own aesthetic of “rarity” – but it’s not often manifested in the same way that we Brooklynites do it, [S10] with reclaimed wood and Edison bulbs. In a 2007 article in RBM, Gerald Beasley described what one might see if one approached the archive as an aesthetic place:

[S11]rows and rows of acid-free boxes and acid-free folders on inert gray metal shelving in climate-controlled storage… – not what you call ‘eye candy.’ …[W]hat goes on inside those boxes is often a far more riotous mix of material culture than anything a row of books or periodicals can provide. But in marketing terms, archives in storage suffer from an image problem.[1]

In my comments here I’m not going to focus on the [S12] riotous content of those boxes and books– on the woodcuts and gold leaf embellishments and marginalia on their enclosed pages; or on the stories and arguments and information conveyed through their words and images. Andrew Stauffer’s beautiful plenary talk from Wednesday acknowledged much that can be gained from the textual and material-aesthetic dimensions of archival artifacts.

[S13]Instead, I’m going to focus on the boxes themselves, and that inert gray metal shelving – and the study tables and the conservation labs and vitrines and online catalogues and drably lit rooms – all the architectural and technological infrastructures that enable archives and rare book and manuscript libraries to do what they do. For the sake of brevity, I’ll heretofore lump these spaces together and call them “special collections.” I’ll argue that even the seemingly anti-aesthetic aspects of the special collection actually do – or can – embody an aesthetic, an experience, that enhances the various programmatic functions the institution serves; and can even serve as a means of advocacy for those functions. These aesthetics can, as John Overholt argued in last spring’s issue of RBM, serve to “demystify special collections, to convey the message: ‘Please touch. This is here for you” – and, I would add, this is how we made it possible for this to be here for you, to touch and read and listen to and learn from.[2]

[S14]By “aesthetics,” I don’t mean beauty or sublimity, or a taste-based assessment of “look and feel.” I mean sensory contemplation, which is not separate from or opposed to the realm of the intellectual. Rather, aesthetics are an integral part of the teaching and research – as well as the processing and preservation, cataloguing and curating – that take place in special collections. We need to acknowledge these aesthetics of experience, for both patrons and staff – as well as both on-site and online communities, both the local and distributed.

There are cases in which intellectual labor and aesthetic experience are balkanized. [S15] This was made especially clear to me several years ago, when I was working on an essay about the 2006 renovation – a controversial retrofitting – of Alvar Aalto’s Woodberry Poetry Room at Harvard’s Lamont Library. [Warning: this account will involve an embarrassing number of “air quotes.”] The room was founded with a gift from Harry Harkness Flager in honor of his friend and former Columbia professor George E. Woodberry, who aimed to afford undergraduates an opportunity to experience the “delight and entertainment” of poetry outside the “chore of the curriculum,” where, under the influence of new approaches to criticism, poetry was increasingly analyzed with a “rigorous empiricism” and mined for “facts.” [S16] My study examined how Aalto’s forward-thinking and fluid design – a humanistic variation on Modern design – accommodated and symbolized the myriad material forms of poetry represented in the collection: manuscripts, little magazines, records, printed books, even poetry-inspired artwork. One of the reviewers of my article, however, claimed that my focus on “delight” and “entertainment” precluded poetry’s “significance”; to highlight aesthetic experience was to suggest that poetry is devoid of “intellectual or political engagement,” and to fail to acknowledge that “poets even think rationally.”

Of course in my revision I took great pains to demonstrate that feeling – even, heaven forbid, pleasure and delight – is not inimical to rational thought. [S17] I also had to spend some time explaining, contra many preservationists’ claims, why computers weren’t superfluous technologies that could be moved off-site to as to preserve the room’s classic aesthetic. At just over 1000 square feet the Poetry Room was the smallest media space I’ve ever worked with, and its focus on poetry made its mission and audience particularly delimited. But even this small case study illustrates what I’ve tried to do with all of my research on media architectures: [S18] that is, to demonstrate how entwined infrastructures – architectural, technological, social, etc. – embody certain politics and epistemologies. And this embodiment happens in large part through their aesthetics.You see here a related piece I published a couple weeks ago.

[S19]Francois Blouin acknowledges in a 2010 issue of RBM that many notable special collections are often sited in privileged places, apart from more pedestrian collections, and housed in monumental spaces, which connect contemporary researchers to the “enduring scholarly values” and research traditions they embody. Yet he claims “the importance of these settings to scholarship has seldom been cause for much reflection.”[3]

[S20]I noticed that what seems to be a key text in the design of archival and special collections, Michele Pacifico and Thomas Wilsted’s 2009 Archival and Special Collections Facilities, frames the special collection as an architecture primarily for objects. There are chapters on the building site, environmental control, fire protection, security, materials and finishes, storage equipment, prohibited materials, etc.[4] A paper presented at the 2012 IFLA conference acknowledged that the 2009 study needed to expanded – but the proposed areas of development included sustainable design; environmental standards for storage, including design for buildings in extreme climates; planning for disasters; and the design implications of electronic records and digitization.[5]  Aside from considering accessibility issues, once again very little attention seems to be paid to the aesthetics of experience, both for patrons and staff. [S21]The recent translation of Arlette Farge’s The Allure of the Archives has attracted a great deal of attention precisely because she addresses both the delights and miseries of people’s embodied, multisensory interaction with collection materials and the collection’s physical space.[6]

[S22]In the time that remains, I’ll discuss the aesthetics of five intertwined infrastructures that compose the special collection, and many of which have undergone recent retrofits in light of technological and curricular and pedagogical change. I’ll offer some brief comments regarding their political and epistemological significance, as well as their potential to serve as tools for pedagogy or advocacy for the importance of special collections. There are certainly more than five infrastructures I could talk about, but, in the interest of time, I’ll need to limit my focus. This means, unfortunately, that much is left out, including perhaps the one area of special collections whose aesthetics are most commonly recognized — namely, the reading room. You could turn to Farge’s text for a discussion of reading-room aesthetics.

[S23] I’ll start with the aesthetics of storage infrastructures. Collection storage has long been a central design feature – there never seems to enough of it – and it’s often an aesthetic focus for libraries. [S24]Storage spaces played a central role in the controversy of the planned renovation of the NYPL’s Schwartzman Library. I’ve written about a few other designs, [S25]including the 40-anniversary retrofit of Louis Kahn’s library for Philips Exeter Academy and [S26]Rem Koolhaas’s 2004 Seattle Public Library, with its book spiral, that prioritize storage of the collection. More recently, [S27]TAX arquitectura’s 2006 Biblioteca Jose Vasconcelos in Mexico City and [S28]MRVDV’s Book Mountain, which opened just two years ago in a town in the Netherlands, continue to fetishize the stacks. We see similar focus on the aesthetics of storage in some special collections, including [S29]Dartmouth’s Rauner Special Collections, a project completed in 2000; and of course its formal predecessor, the [S30]Beinecke at Yale. The epistemological implications of this aesthetic are obvious: these architectures put on display, and make empirical, if not navigable, the wealth of knowledge that the collection represents.

[S31]Even behind-the-scenes storage spaces – those acid-free boxes grey shelves – have aesthetic appeal. Many conceptual artists have worked with what art historian Hal Foster calls the “aesthetics of administration.” [S32]There’s also been a lot of fantastic recent scholarship on the history of paperwork and filing – [S33]I wrote something last year, too – that attests to the deeper social and cultural implications of back-stage storage systems. [S34]And in my classes on archives and mapping, I often organize field trips in which we take these media studies and design students behind the scenes at various museums and archives and special collections. Amidst the beige and grey, the students not only begin to grasp the scope of an institution’s collection and the breadth of formats it contains, but they also begin to appreciate how value is attached to those materials – and just how much of it lives only in material form, and will likely not be digitized any time soon.

Even as collections move off-site, I’ve noticed continuing fascination with the aesthetics of storage. There are several recent videos, including some expertly produced documentaries – featuring the Bodleian, [S35]the Harvard Depository, North Carolina State’s new Hunt Library, the University of Chicago’s new Mansueto Library, [S36]and the Corbis Image Vault inside Iron Mountain, a former limestone mine in Western Pennsylvania – that aestheticize remote storage and automated retrieval. I situate these projects in relation to growing interest in the materiality of information and media archaeology. We can also position these “storage stories” within within a larger body of work that attempts to make material, empirical, phenomenological – and thereby comprehensible – a lot of behind-the-scenes informational experiences. [S37]It’s part of the trend toward “making visible the invisible,” calling attention to the distribution of information, which has tended to be eclipsed by interest in production and consumption.

[S38] Second, the aesthetics of conservation, also typically behind-the-scenes. But, again, when I’ve taken my students to various institutions, they’ve been fascinated by the intricate, embodied labor involved in conservation. [S39] At the New York City Municipal Archives, we watched a photography conservator peel apart 80-year-old homicide scene photos from the NYPD; we watched a print conservator “float” a 400-year-old Dutch document in a tub of wood pulp; we [S40] we observed a staff member custom-build an acid-free box for a rusty switchblade found amongst the police department’s records. The organic materiality of media is quite a revelation to many of these supposed “digital natives.” [S41] And even the material work of preserving the digital – of practicing digital forensics, making sure to regularly spin the back-up hard drives, or reformatting video archives to keep pace with evolving best practices – is illuminating for students to observe. These backstage activities have such great pedagogical potential – and there’s demonstrated interest. What’s more, making this activity visible has the potential to manifest, and thereby advocate for, the critical, specialized work that takes place in special collections. [S42] Not all institutions have beautiful conservation facilities like the Morgan Library’s Thaw Conservation Center, but there have to be ways to allow different publics to experience the aesthetics, and thus the politics, of the work of conservation.

[S43] Third, the aesthetics of exhibition. This may be the most obvious example: the curation of special collections’ materials is intended primarily to create an aesthetic frame for those materials, and to render them experiential. In recent renovation projects several institutions have added exhibition space or upgraded their exhibition areas. [S44] The Robert B. Haas Family Arts Library at Yale repositioned its exhibition spaces outside the special collections “security perimeter,” so as to potentially draw in visitors who wouldn’t otherwise be compelled to enter.[7] Such exhibitions not only highlight collection materials, but they also have the potential to model scholarly methodology and intellectual frameworks; they can show students how to put objects in conversation with one another and make inferences or draw conclusions from historical texts and primary resources.

Of course putting those special collections materials in a vitrine or display case typically emphasizes the visual at the expense of the other senses, and thereby limits the pedagogical “channels” that we can use to teach with or through these materials. [S45] There are other special collections infrastructures – classrooms and programing spaces, for instance – that allow for different aesthetic and epistemological experiences. These spaces – which constitute our fourth aesthetic infrastructure – [S46] create opportunities for the handling and activation of materials, and offer the ability to bring those materials alive in group settings, via a variety of pedagogical techniques, or perhaps through performances. Ideally, careful attention is paid to furnishings and lighting and display technology that lend themselves to flexible use. In some cases, however, as we see here, teachers simply commandeer whatever space they have for communal use.

Yale’s Arts Library, as part of their renovation, also integrated a classroom, which grew their instruction program over 900 percent. Years earlier, the Beinecke Library underwent a multimillion-dollar renovation, which involved converting conventional shelving into compact storage, and transforming some storage space into classrooms and a [S47] Digital Studio. As Ellen Cordes wrote, “This choice to build classrooms in preference to both storage space and a conservation studio is a very concrete demonstration of the library’s commitment to access, and not just to the preservation of collections.”[8] The library hosted a record number of classes in 2004-5 and [S48]launched a bunch of extra-curricular programs, including non-credit classes, lectures, musical performances, and poetry events inspired by the collections.

Making space in the special collection for greater public access – both for a greater variety of publics, and a greater variety of aesthetic experiences – opens up the collection to innovative uses and unanticipated applications. This is in keeping with John Overholt’s proposal that the future of special collections will encompass both “disintermediation” – the collections’ “unmooring” from librarians’ “organizational and interpretive contexts – as well as their creative “transformation.”[9] [S49] The Woodberry Poetry Room, for instance, has become home to a variety of programs in which the collection is activated. When poet Christina Davis became curator of the room in 2008, she introduced group listening sessions and a works-in-progress series, among other events. When these open events are not in session, the uses of the room range from “quiet study, perusal of literary magazines, the research of rare material (broadsides, manuscripts, chapbooks), listening to archival recordings,… and (yes) writing poems.”[10] “The latter is, to my mind,” Davis told me, “the surest sign of the success of the room: It means that scholarship and the art-form it hopes to perpetuate have come full circle.

[S50]And over the past few days at this conference we’ve seen myriad other creative uses to which special collections materials have been put – everything from Burrough’s Reality Studio to Booktraces to Tumblrs and student Omeka exhibitions and Neatline timelines to physical, on-site exhibitions. These transformations might take shape within the physical confines of the special collections space, or without. And the fact that, increasingly, interactions with special collections do happen outside the facilities themselves highlights the centrality of a [S51]fifth aesthetic infrastructure: the digital interface. The aesthetics of the special collections interface – in the form of online catalogues, finding aids, and digital exhibitions – has received continued attention, particularly from institutions like the University of Michigan, the NYPL, Princeton, and Brigham Young. [S52] Interface aesthetics, and how we critique them, were our chief concerns in a Digital Archives graduate studio I taught this past spring at The New School [S53].

Given the centrality of place to this panel, we might wonder what distinctive conceptions of place these intertwined physical and virtual infrastructures represent.[11] We’ve seen some attempts to [S54] recreate our physical infrastructures online – to simulate stack views and virtual shelves; or to digitally “mirror” our on-site exhibitions – but this might not make sense when patrons won’t likely ever encounter special collections materials on those insert grey shelves, and some might not encounter those materials in-person at all. Why adopt these skeuomorphic tropes, why adhere to the “each book (or box) its place on the shelf” structure, when the physical and virtual are separate, if intertwined, places, with distinctive, if mutually informing, aesthetics?

[S55]Perhaps one way to reconceive “place” in the special collections interface would be to acknowledge the object’s provenance, which has been a recurring theme in our discussions over the past few days. Or, in the case of distributed, federated collections, like the DPLA, place might refer, as Blouin recommends, to an object’s institutional home. Highlighting these distributed institutional responsibilities again serves to advocate for the integral and complementary roles that different institutions play in maintaining our seemingly seamless, placeless web of content.

[S56]We need to acknowledge these myriad, intertwined interfaces and their aesthetics, because we inevitably need to negotiate among them. Those negotiations are driven by space and budget limitations, and stakeholders’ diverse interests. Prioritizing one – as Beinecke did with spaces of instruction, for example – usually means compromising on others, like storage or conservation. Yet it’s important to recognize that we needn’t undertake expensive architectural renovations or massive technological overhauls in order to retrofit our institutions’ functionality. [S57]A retrofit can involve new, creative, resourceful, economic ways of framing aesthetic experience – physical and/or virtual; small interventions, kits of parts – to accommodate new pedagogies, new approaches to scholarship, and new politics of knowledge.[12]

[1] Gerald Beasley, “Curatorial Crossover: Building Library, Archives, and Museum Collections” RBM 8:1 (Spring 2007): 23.

[2] John Overholt, “Five Theses on the Future of Special Collections” RBM 14:1 (Spring 2013): 15-20.

[3] Francis X. Blouin, Jr., “Thoughts on Special Collections and Our Research Communities” RBM 11:1 (Spring 2010): 25. The 2014 World Library and Information Congress promises to feature a session focusing on “innovative design solutions for the use, presentation, teaching and exhibition of special collections as well as address appropriate security issues and storage facilities”; see “Call for Papers: Session Title: Special Places for Special Collections: for 80th World Library and Information Congress, Lyon France, August 16-22, 2014”:

[4] Michele F. Pacifico & Thomas P. Wilsted, Eds., Archival and Special Collections Facilities: Guidelines for Archivists, Librarians, Architects, and Engineers (Chicago: Society of American Archivists, 2009).

[5] Diane Vogt-O’Connor, “Archival and Special Collections Facilities: Guidelines for Archivists, Librarians, Architects, and Engineers,” Helsinkis: IFLA – International Federation of Library Associations and Institutions, 2012:

[6] Arlette Farge, The Allure of the Archives, Trans. Thomas Scott-Railton (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2013).

[7] Jae Jennifer Rossman “Build It and S/He Will Come: A Reflection on Five Years in a Purpose-Built Special Collections Space” RBM 14:2 (Fall 2013): 111-120.

[8] Ellen R. Cordes, “A Response to Traister” RBM 7:2 (Fall 2006): 107.

[9] Overholt: 17-18.

[10] C. Davis, personal communication, October 1, 2009.

[11] Beasley acknowledges that, while these distributed digital resources do enhance access, there are certain aesthetic experiences that they preclude, including the object’s “provenance, its design, its weight, its size, its color under different light, its smell, its texture, its material, its watermarks, its structure, its binding, its evidence of age, its evidence of use, its evidence of misuse.” Sure, you could create metadata for all these variables – but why not also consider the distinctive affordances and limitations of this digital infrastructure, and allow the digital surrogate to drive patrons to the physical object for the fully embodied aesthetic experience?

[12] This year I’m partnering with the Architectural League of New York and the Center for an Urban Future to organize a design study of New York’s three public library systems’ branch libraries; we’re encouraging our competing design teams to consider modular “kits of parts” that can transform the aesthetics and functionality of branches without requiring major renovations and budgets that the libraries simply don’t have.

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