Wikipedia + Feminist Epistemology, Take 2 (Babycastles Remix)

Number 04: Actual Source (via It's Nice That)
Number 04: Actual Source (via It’s Nice That)

Early last month I was invited to take part in the Art + Feminism Wikipedia edit-a-thon at Babycastles by stopping by, “mid-thon,” to offer a little food for thought, a little epistemological interjection. I have no particular expertise in Wikipedia, but I do research and teach classes on knowledge institutions and structures: libraries, archives, exhibitions, communications infrastructures, filing systems, classification systems, etc. So the intellectual and political concerns that likely inform Wikipedians’ work also inspire my own.

Thanks to some scheduling snafus, that presentation on March 9 didn’t happen as planned, so I posted my talk online — and then Ari Spool, from Babycastles (she also happens to be a former student and my current TA), invited me to join the WikiWednesdays Wikipedia meet-up at Babycastles to share some of the ideas I would’ve shared back in March. So, here’s my script, with some small adjustments:

The March 9 Art + Feminism edit-a-thon- at MoMA resulted in the expansion of a number of female artists’ biographies — Lucy Lippard’s, Janet Cardiff’s, Hella Jongerius’s — and the creation of new ones: LaToya Ruby Frazier’s, Toshiko Mori’s, Camille Henrot’s. But on March 10 we found ourselves hosting yet another edit-a-thon in a radically different kind of space: in Babycastles, far from 53rd Street. Consider the relationship between those two institutions — MoMA and Babycastles — and how their institutional (and architectural and cultural and ideological…) differences might’ve differentiated the work that went on in those related-but-separate events:

The MoMA edit-a-thon involved the insertion of myriad “notable” feminist artists, curators, art historians, etc., into Wikipedia. Notability is, of course, a key currency in WikiWorld. The Babycastles’ crew, I hoped, would expand the notion of notability – in part by thinking about the kinds of art that MoMA had been seriously thinking about as art only relatively recently: video games, net art, and other techno-aesthetic projects. Another potential advantage, or distinction, of the Babycastles crowd, I assumed, was a widespread recognition that “art” — or, more broadly, the aesthetic — doesn’t reside merely at the level of the exhibitable: the work that hangs on a wall or plays on a monitor and gets a wall label. Art’s also in the code; it’s in the servers and conduits; it’s in the preservation strategies and archives. It’s in the myriad intertwined infrastructures that make digital art – and, really, all art – possible.

Another group of folks with a similar sensibility includes librarians and archivists and preservationists – all of whom have made key contributions to the art world, and to media and technological history, but who are often regarded as, or “reduced” to, the organizers, the sorters, the tidy-ers, the care-takers. But this care-taking, this organization-making, is intellectual and aesthetic and political work. Notable work.

Consider two women – both of whom happen to have their own Wikipedia entries already:

  • First, Megan Prelinger, one half of the Prelinger Archive and Library duo, whose collaborative work reinforces the informational and historical value of quotidian artifacts and ephemera and “occasional” publications. She and her partner, Rick, mine history’s discard pile. They also advocate for alternative means of organizing information: their library in San Francisco is organized according to scales of exploration, from the local to the intergalactic — from San Francisco to Outer Space.
  • Second, Suzanne Briet, a French librarian who lived from 1894 to 1989, who encouraged folks to consider what constitutes, and what counts as, a document. She advocated for the valuation of “grey literature,” correspondence, the information in phone calls — even animals. She suggested that even an antelope could be a “document” in a zoo, where it is made an object of study, where it’s “taxonomized” and used as evidence of something. She also noted that documents are products of culture — what counts as a document is determined in part by its cultural context, as in the case of our antelope — and that culture plays a key role in our understanding of how we interpret  Her insights pertain the edit-a-thon’s mission: they were turning female artists into subjects worthy of documentation, and creating a culture where those documents are validated and valued.

I hope their capacious approaches to historiography, epistemology, and bibliography (or, as Briet would prefer, “documentalism”) will prompt us to ask if we’re being similarly capacious in our approaches to writing WikiHistories. While I do agree that it’s critically important that females and artists — and, of course, female artists — are well represented both among the contributors to Wikipedia and the subjects of its entries, I think it’s just as significant to think about what it means to be a Wikipedia “subject.” And about what, and how, Wikipedia itself constructs meaning. I’m asking here about feminist historiography and epistemology (approaches that have not been without controversy!).

Let’s consider some of these questions:

  • How does Wikipedia structure knowledge? What does it suggest is worth knowing? Who is a “notable” figure worthy of inclusion? To be considered for inclusion, an artist, for example, might have had a “significant” exhibition. Whose “significance” are we talking about? Or she might have “originated” a “significant new technique.” Again, says who? And what does it mean to “originate” something? Don’t we all take inspiration from those who’ve come before us, and draw ideas and support from our collaborators?
  • What kinds of histories does Wikipedia promote? A biographically-focused one, judging by the historiographic methods employed in many edit-a-thons. As the late historian Roy Rosenzweig wrote in 2006, in a very prescient article in The Journal of American History, “biographies of historical figures offer a more favorable terrain for Wikipedia” – in part because biographies are popular, and because the “unit of analysis is always clear cut.” (Thanks to Trevor Owens for the reference!)
  • How does the site’s architecture – the linear text, the info box, the heading structure, the bibliographies and external links – structure how we think about and write history? And given the edit-a-thon’s focus on art, it might be worth thinking, too, about the site’s aesthetics: what roles do Wikipedia’s ascetic look-and-feel play in the conception of history and the shaping of knowledge?
  • How do we reconcile Wikipedia’s insistence on a “neutral point of view” – which Rosenzweig calls “highly conventional, even old-fashioned” – with some feminists’ acknowledgment of knowledge as “situated” and embodied?

Could we potentially intervene instead on a structural or an aesthetic level, to make Wikipedia reflect a more feminist epistemology or historiography? Could Wikipedia embody some alternative to the “Great Man Theory” of how the world works? How might we think of infusing a little feminist sensibility (again, whatever that means!) through means that go beyond creating new entries for “forgotten” or “ignored” female figures (which is itself, of course, a valuable enterprise)? What if we instead wrote women – and feminist values – into Wikipedia’s existing macro-narratives? What if we sought to reconcile “neutrality” with “situatedness”? Is such a reconciliation possible? What if we edited entries in light of the understanding that history is the product of collective action, of minute events with rippling effects, rather than the heroic acts of “notable” individuals? And what if we thought about the site’s technical architecture and protocols — the link, the citation, and other writing conventions — as processes, or acts, that could be “feminized”? And what would that even mean?

The early-April edit-a-thons involved editing existing entries for female artists, and writing new artists into Wiki-history. That’s fabulous. But let’s think also about how that history is shaped, and what politics our Wiki-historiography embodies. And if that history reflects the values that might underlie a world in which “every single human being can freely share in the sum of all knowledge.”


Library Design Workshop @ Smith


This morning — a day after I gave a public lecture on library design at Smith College — I led a faculty design workshop. I’ve participated in plenty of design workshops, but I’ve never organized one of my own. I set a few guidelines: no post-its, no play-doh, no infantilizing activities; more focus on values and epistemologies and how they relate to concrete design choices. If I were to do this again, I’d change a few things: e.g., leave more time for group reporting, and separate out — or collapse — the various conceptual “audits” that I asked the groups to do. But on the whole, I think it (not I, but the process itself) generated a really vibrant discussion, helped folks get excited for the forthcoming design process — and reminded them that librarians have unique insights, concerns, and sensibilities that must be heard in the design process.

I’ll offer a little overview of our activities, then post the “official” agenda below.

We began by reviewing a list of potential library user types that had already been drafted by a staff working group. My contacts at the Smith library had broken everyone into teams that mixed up staff from different departments, so each team had front-of-house and back-of-house folks, librarians with different specializations, etc. Each team then chose one of the user groups and fleshed out a user scenario, focusing on goals, motivations, expectations, and limitations.

We then used those scenarios to conduct a series of three audits: first, an audit of the “species of space” the user must access/navigate through in order to accomplish her goal; second, an audit of the moments of “interface” — with media, with library staff, with the building — that the user would experience in accomplishing her goal; and, third, an audit of the “flow of knowledge”: how the knowledge contained in a book or database got from its “container” into the heads or hands of the user.

After that, I asked them to review a little catalogue of library spaces — a partly-serious, partly-parodic redux of the Dewey Library Bureau catalog — and imagine how some of the items on offer in that catalog might open up new opportunities for patrons and staff and change (ideally, improve) the way they offer service. We had periodic group check-ins throughout the afternoon.

What follows is my script — a guide I created for myself — and, noted in italics, the instructional material I excerpted for an agenda I circulated to all participants:


  1.  Plenary: Introduction. 5 mins.

Over the course of the next three hours, we’ll consider how we might design a space that provides the ideal environment for library staff and patrons. We’ll pretend we’re starting from scratch and there are no budget limitations. The tabula rasa approach implies that we’re freed from historical inheritances –ingrained-but-perhaps-less-than-effective or habitual-but-not-so-efficient ways of doing our jobs, bad habits conditioned by a building that may, in some ways, be a bad influence, etc. – but of course it’s all but impossible to erase those precedents. Still, we want to do the best we can to think aspirationally: what kind of space do you need to provide the best service, to satisfy your patrons, and to allow both patrons and staff to enjoy their work? 

  1. Plenary: User Groups. 20 mins.

Our work here will focus on the experience of library users, but, in the process, as we examine how, when, and where patrons interact with staff, we’ll also be considering your needs – staff needs – too. This type of exercise could easily be executed from the staff perspective – in examining workflow, for instance. For now, however, we’ll discuss the library’s myriad patron/user groups – both those the library currently serves and new groups you’d like to attract or see more of. The Library Staff Renovation Committee has already brainstormed a list of users and use cases: Smith undergrads, School for Social Work students, Smith faculty, Five College users, Smith alums, etc., who make use of mediated instruction, general collections, and special collections; who consult with staff; who study alone and in groups; who make media and use technology; who teach; who exhibit their work, etc. We want to build on that list to identify roughly ten diverse user groups who ask very different things of the building, its staff, and its resources. For our purposes, it would be particularly useful to identify groups who are extraordinarily demanding, asking much of the building and its human and media resources; and, at the opposite extreme, those who are relatively self-contained and self-sufficient. Let’s identify ten such groups and say a bit about their demographics (if we can generalize) and purpose for using the library.

Material Needs: chalkboard, whiteboard, or computer (from which I can type groups’ responses) and projector

Brisbane City Library User Scenarios (
Brisbane City Library User Scenarios (
  1. Small Groups: User Scenarios. 10 mins. Break workshop participants into small groups of four or five. Staff will have been assigned to tables.

We’ll then break you into small groups and ask each group to choose one user-type. Your choice could be based on what kinds of service you find most rewarding or frustrating, and of course what constitutes “rewarding” or “frustrating” will likely be different for each of you. I’d advise your group to choose a user-type that likely presents a challenge – a good or bad challenge – because those cases often raise the most provocative questions about how we provide service, and how we design space for that service. We’d like to cover, collectively, a wide range of user-types – but we can also learn from varying perspectives on the same group.

Ask groups to choose user-types, and note choices on publicly visible board or screen.

Now that you’ve chosen your user-type, we’ll ask you to create what’s called a “user scenario,” a tool that user-experience designers – whom we most commonly find in digital design fields – employ in order to understand the folks who’ll be using their tools and technology. These scenarios can be manifested in the form of a narrative, a visual storyboard, a comic strip, a video, and so forth. Of course you’re limited in the time and resources you have here – but you can choose to represent your scenario and whatever form you prefer.

Consider your hypothetical user’s goals, motivation, expectations, and limitations. Describe the particular tasks she has to accomplish: a particular research problem or course assignment, or even a social goal – e.g., to study with friends.

While it’ll be most helpful to devise a relatively “realistic” scenario, I also encourage you to keep in mind various “extreme cases” (e.g., involving patrons with very specialized needs, or patrons unsure of how to articulate her needs, or patrons who are difficult to work with) – and maybe even throw a few “extreme” situations into your scenario. Speculating on the extreme, even if such cases or instances are anomalous, can help us to consider how flexible and accommodating our services and our spaces need to be to support even the most demanding patrons. 

(See’s Scenario tips and Brisbane City Library’s scenario development process)

Instructions: Above instructions projected via computer and distilled on a hand-out with examples

Material Needs: For me: computer + projector to share assignment and sample user scenarios. For groups: paper + markers at tables; large tablets on easels

User Research, via Coroflot (
User Research, via Coroflot (
  1. Small Groups: Audits. 30 mins.

Now we’ll ask you to revisit your scenario in order to create a series of audits, each of which represents an opportunity for design to intervene and potentially make things work better. This exercise will draw on your classification and cataloguing skills.

First, we’ll ask you to catalogue all the different kinds of rooms, foyers, and passageways; the programmatic areas; or what Georges Perec calls the “species of space” your patron might pass through and spend time in in order to accomplish her goal.

Second, we’ll ask you to catalogue all the moments of “interface” – with the building and its on-site resources, with staff, with library technology – that incrementally brought her closer to achieving her goal. This might include accessing the library catalog from her dorm room or phone, consulting with a librarian via a live chat, accessing a wayfinding kiosk in the building foyer, using an augmented reality app on her phone to navigate the building, chatting with a librarian at the service desk or a librarian who’s roaming the floor, consulting a map of the stacks outside the elevator, accessing an electronic periodicals database via a computer in one of the library labs, making use of specialized machines in a maker-lab or visualization studio, checking out books at the circulation desk or via a self-service machine, etc.

This list of interfaces should help you with the third audit: a “knowledge audit”: think about how the student’s desired “goods” – both material and intellectual – get into her hands or head. How do books get from where they’re stored (perhaps off-site) into the student’s hands? How can a student enter the library with a vague research topic, and leave with a pile of pdf’d articles on a thumb drive – along with a good sense of how she’ll approach her term paper? How can faculty member enter with an amorphous plan for implementing a new multimedia assignment in his art history course, and leave with a solid lesson plan and an understanding of how the library’s special collections and labs can support his students? How can a visiting scholar optimize her use of Smith’s special collections during the single day she’s able to steal away from her own campus to do research? Consider also potential bottlenecks and snafus, moments of confusion or frustration.

What technological tools (e.g., catalogues, displays), delivery systems, front-of-house and back-of-house staff are needed? Consider both human and automated service – and the hand-offs between those various service providers. For now, you can imagine these services being provided in a sort of “non-space,” like the Matrix. In a sense, you’re conceiving the map without its territory. In our next step, we’ll consider the concrete configurations of spaces or screens where those services or provided.

(See more on library “service design.”)

Instructions: Above instructions projected via computer and distilled on a hand-out with examples

Material Needs: For me: computer + projector to share assignment and sample user scenarios. For groups: paper + markers at tables; large tablets on easels

Service Design (via
Service Design (via
  1. Ten-Minute Break 
  1. Plenary: Groups Share Scenarios + Audits. 30 mins.
  1. Plenary: Kits of Epistemic Parts. 10 mins.

Now we’ll think about all the spaces and instances where and when librarians can intervene in the design process in order to promote the creation of an environment that lives up to your library’s Vision and Mission Statements – that supports research, inquiry and exploration; that optimizes the “flow of knowledge”; and that facilitate critical, self-empowered engagement with the library’s resources and services.

I’ll then distribute to each group a catalogue of library “kits of parts” (see below!), each applying to a different dimension of library experience: service points, seating, interfaces, etc.

  1. Small Groups: Furnishing Knowledge Flows. 30 mins.

I’ve given each of you a Library Bureau 2020 Catalogue – a re-launch and re-branding of the old Dewey library supply business. I’d like for you to choose at least one item from each of the seven sections, and consider how integrating that feature or service into the library would alter your user scenario and aid or impede the “flow of knowledge.” You can be constructive or destructive in your choices: you might choose items that would make the building work better, or one that would intentionally undermine your work or frustrate your users. In either case, we can learn something about the power of material conditions – of architectural, interior, interaction, and other modes of design – to shape user and staff experience, and to support or undermine your mission.

Material Needs: For groups: paper + markers at tables; large tablets on easels

  1. Plenary Discussion: Wrap-Up. 30 mins.

Groups share their designs and discuss their epistemological and phenomenological implications. If we’re pressed for time, we’ll focus on surprising revelations or instances where teams discovered that a new configuration would improve upon current conditions.


And here’s the little Library Bureau catalog / kit of parts I created for Steps 7 and 8:




I Talked About Library Design @ Smith College

I was excited to be invited to visit Smith College to talk about library design. Just last week Smith announced that Maya Lin (whose mother is an alum) and Shepley Bulfinch will be partnering on the design of their new library building. I gave my talk to a packed room — quite a heartening turnout, for which I’m very grateful, and which speaks volumes (ha! a library joke!) to the community’s commitment to the library.

Below are my slides and the text of my talk (bold-black-bracketed numbers are slide numbers; bold-hyperlinked-bracketed numbers are endnotes).

Mattern Smith by shannonmattern


Learning From the Library (Without Cracking a Book)

[2] In 2007 Bloomsbury published the English translation of Pierre Bayard’s How to Talk About Books You Haven’t Read. I’ll admit right up front that I haven’t read Bayard’s book. But I gather from excerpts, and from what other writers say about it, that Bayard is advocating for “reading” practices that we tend to dismiss as superficial or dishonest because they’re contrary to some idealized notion of a completist “cultural literacy without gaps.” Bayard condones book-skimming, sampling, cover-scanning, even abandoning and forgetting. He argues that these modes of reading-the book-without-really-reading-the-book – particularly if we put them into context within the wide-ranging discussion surrounding books – are valid and valuable means of engaging with literary culture. And, by extension, culture in general.

He writes,

[3] As cultivated people know…, culture is above all a matter of orientation (he’s obviously a bit of a structuralist). Being cultivated is a matter not of having read any book in particular, but of being able to find your bearings within books as a system, which requires you to know that they form a system and to be able to locate each element in relation to the others.

That system, of course, is a network of cultural allusions and social references, of “connections and correlations”; a web of correspondences and a history of ideas.

[4] But it’s also a library. Again, Bayard:

A book is an element in the vast ensemble I have called the collective library, which we do not need to know comprehensively in order to appreciate any one of its elements…. The trick is to define the book’s place in that library, which gives it meaning in the same way a word takes on meaning in relation to other words.

Yes, Bayard’s library is metaphorical. It’s an intellectual construct. But, I’d say, it’s also literal. A literal literary library. Those systems of correspondences and connections that generate cultural literacy are manifested on the book shelf, in the library floor plan, in the database architecture, in the interfaces – even in the access policies and furniture design and firewalls.

[5] Book historians and bibliographers appreciate the book as a material artifact with a biography, and they demonstrate for us what we can learn from a book by reading between and outside the lines. We might take a page from the bibliographers’ manuals, so to speak, and consider what we can learn about a library without cracking its books, opening its flat-file drawers, or accessing its databases.

[6] The literal library, like Bayard’s collective library, is a system with an organization and an aesthetic, an architecture that’s simultaneously intellectual and physical. We skim through the library, like the book, by navigating its floorplans. We scan the library’s “covers,” its facades and finishings. We examine how it’s all put together. And just as we have the freedom to set aside an unengaging book, we might choose to abandon the library, by simply choosing not to visit – or by underfunding or otherwise neglecting it.

[7] I’m not wholeheartedly championing Bayard’s “meta” approach to reading. I’m sure I share with all of you a conviction that there is and always will be tremendous value in close reading and meticulous textual examination, particularly in academic settings like this one. And even the mere suggestion that we don’t really read anymore, or that we don’t need to read, is, well, wrong – and politically risky because it undermines the specialized knowledge, funding, technical infrastructure, and labor required to build and maintain a collection. Such “we don’t read books anymore” claims are fodder for those who naively believe that we don’t need libraries anymore because, hey, we’ve got the Internet.

[8] So, before we move on, allow me to state one more time, loud and clear, that the library collection and the ways in which patrons engage it are central to what makes a library a library. Still, I think Bayard offers us an important reminder about the possibilities of reading between and outside the collection’s billions of lines of text. As I hope to demonstrate in the remainder of my time here this afternoon, we can learn a great deal about learning itself – and about our cultural and institutional values – from the library as place, apart from its wealth of information resources.[1] We can cultivate our own cultural literacy by orienting ourselves within the library system. It’s telling that the Smith College Libraries’ Vision Statement employs a navigational metaphor: the libraries, you say, are the “intellectual crossroads” between the community, scholarly resources, inspiring spaces, and staff; they’re the interchanges where Smith’s communities can engage in study, collaboration, discovery, and discourse.

And while we’re learning more about ourselves by learning about the library, we can also “reverse-engineer” that knowledge. We can use that cultural literacy to foster good design. Reading the library as a system of orientation and organization – as a simultaneously physical and intellectual infrastructure – better prepares us to design a library that can cultivate the literacies (or competences, skills, knowledges) that our publics both need and want, and that we want to define our institutions and societies. [9] “Design thinking” is being thoughtfully integrated into Smith’s curriculum. It’s only fitting that this sensibility should also infuse the design of Smith’s library – and that that library should ultimately promote your design-thinking initiative’s core values: one, intentional “anti-disciplinar[ity],” which acknowledges that the most pressing challenges don’t fall into the domain of any single discipline; and, two, the “[clear] articulation of ‘pathways of practice’” that allow students to “link theory to practice within and beyond the classroom.”[2] A well-designed library seems the ideal place – a commons – to support these interdisciplinary, praxis-oriented endeavors. Ideally, we can design library buildings that we learn both in and from, because the buildings themselves aren’t mere repositories of resources; they’re pedagogical devices themselves.

[10] So, looking back to Bayard, we’re going to borrow some methods and metaphors from the bibliographers and book historians so we can learn from the library without even cracking open its books. In a series of eight lessons, I’ll draw analogies between the anatomy of the book and the topography of the library – to see what we can discover without really reading:

[11] First, just as we might learn about a book based on its position on the shelf and its relationship to its neighboring titles, we might learn about a library based on its site – its placement on campus or in town – and its relationship to the landscape. [12] In the late nineteenth century many newly constructed public libraries were built in civic centers far removed from the cacophony and commerce of urban downtowns; the City Beautiful movement bracketed culture and uplift into its own rarified zone. Meanwhile, college campuses – rarified cultural centers in and of themselves – were emerging with libraries at their physical and symbolic centers. As those campuses have grown and evolved, the libraries’ prime settings have often been compromised by infill development and piecemeal renovations.

[13] Smith’s 1893 master plan by Fredrick Law Olmsted was inspired by the English landscape tradition and focused on a collection of “landscaped rooms” with “buildings approached obliquely along sloping walkways.”[3] The campus library was at its core. Over a century of development has marred that design vision, compartmentalizing the landscape into discrete quads. And that evolution has also altered the visitor’s experience, both as she approaches the library from outside – the library seems to belong to a quad rather than to the entire campus – and as she observes the campus landscape from inside the library. Shepley Bulfinch, in their spring 2014 planning document, advocate for a more “porous building” that will allow for access from Sellye and Burton Lawns, thus reinstating the library as a literal and symbolic campus connector.[4]

[14] Temple University has likewise acknowledged the symbolic and functional significance of centrally siting the library. Temple is working with Snøhetta – an international Norwegian/American firm that’s turned out to be the library architects of the 21st century, the Shepley Bulfinches of our age – to design their library. The building was originally sited on Broad Street, a major North-South thoroughfare in Philadelphia, but was moved to the campus’s core, near its iconic bell tower – a repositioning that will require the razing of several old buildings and the creation of a large quad, with the library anchoring its west side. As Philadelphia Inquirer architecture critic Inga Saffron explains,

Temple is using the $190 million library project to launch a long-overdue, place-making effort…. It will be a classic college ensemble, a stone library overlooking a green lawn, and it promises to transform Temple as we know it from an ad hoc collection of urban buildings, into a more traditional and cohesive campus environment.[5]

The library’s siting thus has tremendous implications for its symbolic value, which in turn plays a key role in refashioning Temple’s institutional identity. The idea of the library as a campus-connector is central to its function, says Temple’s dean of libraries Joseph Lucia:

Librarians are often asked why, in a world of digital information, physical libraries still matter… Libraries have never really been merely about the stuff they house; they have always been about inspiration. They are environments designed to connect people to ideas and call communities together for creative engagement with the life of the mind and the imagination. A great university will always need that kind of space – perhaps now more than ever.[6]

[15] Second, we might study a book’s cover design to discern how it’s constructed as a comprehensive “package” of knowledge or a saleable commodity, who it regards as its audience, and how it draws in that audience. Similarly, we might examine a library’s architectural wrapping, its façade – and broader stylistic choices – as emblematic of its public identity, the way it relates to its physical context, and the way it appeals to its various publics. Some campuses are committed to their Gothic or colonial “house styles,” and require even new construction to adopt “contextual” design – to blend in with the neighbors in reflecting a unified commitment to tradition. Of those libraries that aim for a more contemporary public face, however, “transparency” seems a universal aspiration: these libraries welcome natural light during the day and “glow” like “beacons” at night.

[16] Case in point: the University of Aberdeen’s new library “shimmers during the day and glows softly at night, creating a luminous landmark – a beacon – for the city of Aberdeen.” So says Morten Schmidt of schmidt hammer lassen architects, who also designed the famous “Black Diamond” Royal Library in Copenhagen and the new Urban Mediaspace library in Aarhus, Denmark. Aberdeen’s building, which opened in 2012, serves the world’s fifth oldest English-language university. [17] This rectilinear glass monolith rises from a base of Caithness stone, both referencing and distinguishing itself from nearby granite monuments (this is, after all, Granite City), and houses a twisting eight-story atrium. As Jonathan Glancey wrote in The Guardian, the “building is both icily calm yet restlessly alive, as modern as it is baroque.” The building’s character says a great deal about the contemporary role of the library on a campus with such deep history; and about the relationship between the school and its urban and even geologic contexts.

[18] A little farther south, in Worcester, England, another library opened in 2012. Feilden Clegg Bradley Studios’ The Hive, is a golden honeycombed, seven-celled building. It’s the UK’s first joint university-public library; it serves both the University of Worcester and the Worcester City Council. [19] Its form supposedly references the local pottery tradition and the landscape of the nearby Malvern Hills; [20] while its reflective skin of copper alloy distinguishes the building from its historic neighbors, while also making literal its programmatic identity as a “hive” of intellectual and civic activity. Again, we can learn from the library’s “cover” how it conveys its function and its character to its various publics.

[21] Yet a façade needn’t merely “symbolize.” Aberdeen’s and Worcester’s facades also serve functional roles – to regulate solar gain and heat loss, for instance. But facades can also engage their publics and serve as usable space. [22] Throughout 2014 I had the pleasure of working with the Architectural League of New York and the Center for an Urban Future, an urban policy think-tank, to oversee a design study of New York City’s 211 branch libraries.[7] [23] One of our five finalist teams, led by architect Andrew Berman, focused on using the façade to maximize public engagement. The team proposed enhancing the transparency of the façade – by, say, opening up interior activity to outside viewing, and lighting the exterior – and thereby emphasizing the library’s accessibility. They also promoted what they called the “occupied façade”: incorporating seating and conversation into the building’s façade, where patrons could still access the building’s WiFi, thus extending the reach of the library’s virtual resources outside its walls. From these gestures we can again learn how a library engages with its surroundings – and what aspects of “library-ness” can and can’t be contained by the building’s walls.

[24] Third, just as we might examine a book’s macro-scale structure and the layout of its pages – in other words, its intellectual, physical, and graphical architectures – we might also examine the library’s program – its various functional units and how they relate to one another – and its floorplan. [25] On the ground level of many recently designed libraries we find cafes and event spaces and galleries – active spaces with particular acoustic and circulation requirements, spaces that visitors might want to access without entering the library-proper. Not far from the entrance we usually find service points and group workspaces. Then, farther back or higher up, the stacks and media collections and labs, and, typically near the top – farthest from the public entrances – special collections and contemplative study spaces, which, like their cacophonous counterparts on the ground floor, have their own acoustic and circulation demands: in this case, quiet, calm, still.

[26] But as “libraries” have become “information commons” and “learning centers,” we’re often finding, mixed in with the stacks and tables, more writing and tutoring and advising centers, tech help desks, distance-learning rooms – a variety of spaces that serve the “whole student,” that transform the library into a space that accommodates the entire lifecycle of the research and intellectual development process.[8] The University of Pennsylvania libraries’ Weigle Information Commons, which supports collaborative activities with space and technology, partners with a variety of parallel organizations offering student services: the writing, public speaking, and tutoring centers; undergraduate advisors; the computer center; the Weingarten Learning Resources Center; the Center for Teaching and Learning; the Center for Undergraduate Research and Fellowships; and Career Services. Some institutions have incorporated such services and centers into the library building, recognizing that they’re most appropriately regarded as residing within the intellectual “Commons” of the university, that they’re perhaps best epistemologically and architecturally framed as integral components in the full “lifecycle” of students’ intellectual development.

[27] Where these particular functional units are placed within the library, and what adjacencies are exploited, says a lot about how the library embodies the life of the mind (one that’s housed in a body), how it conceives of the relationship between different pedagogies and student services, and how it gives shape to students’ personal development. We’ll talk a bit more later about specific spaces of student learning, and particularly the integration into the library of more spaces where students don’t merely access, but make media. Our current purpose is to consider what we might learn from the macro-scale structure of the building – and what pedagogies and epistemologies that system of spaces embodies.

Before we move on to our next lesson, however, I want to share another proposal that emerged from our Architectural League branch library design study that has potential implications for library programming and planning. [28] Another of our finalist teams, L+ – which consisted of designers from Brooklyn-based SITU Studio, librarians, graphic designers, and real estate consultants –

[29] offered up a platform for flexible programming, [30] a kit of parts that allows for modular deployment in various sites, [31] which might shift at different times of day or times of year. [32] Other examples of this model include the Uni Library, which has popped up in public spaces in myriad cities around the world, [33] and the Ideas Box, a portable multi-media kit designed by Libraries Without Borders to be deployed for refugee and vulnerable populations. [34] The L+ team emphasized the importance of having a strong graphic identity, strong branding, so potential patrons know they’re encountering “the library” even when those library services have taken shape in unorthodox ways or in unpredictable places. Such flexibility and extendibility also teaches us that libraries are as libraries do – that the library can exist wherever library-like activities are taking place.

Communicating the presence of “library-ness” requires plenty of signals. [35] As L+ and another of the design teams, UNION, reminded us, having a strong institutional identity – a look and feel – is key. [36] We might also look to the former Rangeview Library District, rebranded in 2009 as “anythink.” A book offers similar familiar cues to help us identify and use it. And this brings us to our fourth lesson: [37] just as we might examine the bibliographic conventions that help a reader navigate a text – tables of contents, indices, page numbers – we might also examine analogue navigation aides in the architectural realm, including, for example, wayfinding systems and service points.

[38] While some libraries remain committed to the traditional monolithic service desk – an un-missable, if also potentially off-putting, emblem of librarian-ness – other institutions have minimized their service points, both in scale and in number. [39] Libraries have played around with standing and sitting desks, kiosks, pods, poles, perches; [40] there are Pinterest pages dedicated to the diversity of forms. [41] The University of New South Wales has opted for a “Help Zone,” where patrons can help themselves with self-service check-outs and directional kiosks, yet where roaming staff are also ready to approach patrons to offer assistance.[9] The University’s Director of Information Services Janet Fletcher explains how this new zone has transformed librarians’ service:

By working side-by-side, library staff are “enablers” rather than experts and conversations are less formal and far more collegial. When using computers, library staff have relinquished the mouse and handed over navigation to the customer so that they can learn for themselves…

[42] We can learn from the design of our service points – both physical and staffed and/or virtual – how a library staff regards its professional identity and its relationships to its patrons, and how the library itself can “interface” with those patrons, with or without staff intermediation. While some academic libraries seem to believe that students are more comfortable interfacing with screens, and they have staff at the ready only in the wings or in the background, others advocate that librarians need to reassert their visibility and the vital roles they do, and can, play. Many students, and even faculty, simply aren’t aware of how a librarian can help, or what specialized expertise a librarian brings to the table.

[43] Barnard Library’s former dean, Lisa Norberg, initiated a Personal Library program, through which all first-year students – as well as all academic departments and all dormitory-based student groups – are paired with a librarian who becomes her, or their, “go-to person for all things library-related.” I realize that there are plenty of precedents for such programs – but I mention it here because services like these have spatial implications: they require private spaces for individual consultations, modes of service in which librarians meet students and faculty wherever they are amidst their information resources, whether in the library, in the classroom, or in the dorms.

[44] In a recent symposium on the future of academic libraries at McGill University, Chris Bourg, Director of MIT Libraries, issued the following caveats and advice (and I’ll quote at length):

[Y]ou should ensure that your vision for the future of research/academic libraries prominently features librarians – both symbolically and literally. Design spaces and services that showcase the full range of expertise of your librarians.

And no, I don’t simply mean ensure that the reference desk is visible from the entrance. If you want a truly great library, you have to design spaces that emphasize that librarians have expertise in a huge range of areas vital to scholarship and teaching – from data and metadata, to digital preservation, to publishing, to online learning, to software development, text-mining, project management, and yes even reference.

Ensure your library is designed to make library experts visible and accessible to scholars and students. Include in your designs plenty of information and technology rich environments for faculty and students to collaborate with library experts.[10]

[45] How can we use the library as a teaching tool, to help students and faculty and visiting scholars appreciate the wealth of expertise that librarians possess – and the wealth of resources and services that their libraries have to offer? Those of you who are joining us for the design workshop tomorrow morning will, I hope, recall Bourg’s charge in considering how we might design library spaces that serve as “architectural ambassadors” – as well as orientation tools – to library collections and services and to librarians.

[46] Fifth, we might study genres of text, like catalogs and indices and ledgers, that function primarily to “store content” – recognizing that these texts reveal much more than their data: their form and materiality, and even their “un-designed” design, tell us a great deal about the nature of publishing and bureaucracy, and about the epistemologies of record-keeping. Similarly, there’s much to be learned about our libraries from their storage spaces: open stacks, closed stacks, off-site, and beyond. This section, I’ll admit, might be a bit longer than is warranted – but it’s a current research interest of mine, so I ask you to please indulge me.

[47] That said, I’m certainly not the only person who’s perplexingly provoked by the seeming mundanities of collection storage. [48] Storage has long been a central design feature – there never seems to be enough of it – and it’s often an aesthetic focus for library buildings. [49] The light-filled iron book stacks were a central feature in Henri Labrouste’s celebrated libraries of Paris.  [50] 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, [51] including the 40-anniversary retrofit of Louis Kahn’s library for Philips Exeter Academy and [52] Rem Koolhaas’s 2004 Seattle Public Library, with its book spiral, that prioritize storage of the collection. More recently, [52] TAX arquitectura’s 2006 Biblioteca Jose Vasconcelos in Mexico City and [54] MRVDV’s Book Mountain, which opened just two years ago in a town in the Netherlands, continue to glorify – we might even say fetishize – the stacks. We see similar focus on the aesthetics of storage in some special collections, including [55] Dartmouth’s Rauner Special Collections, a project completed in 2000; and of course its formal predecessor, the [56] 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.

[57] In a new research project on “intellectual furnishings,” which I plan to begin next year, I’ll be exploring the furniture we design and build – or buy, or kludge together – to store, organize, protect, and support our media and media-making. [58] Among those furnishings is the bookshelf. I’m arguing that these structures do work that exceeds the merely functional and aesthetic. They’re

material supports for the delivery of and engagement with media resources, while they also frame organizational systems and embody technical protocols. [59] They scaffold our media technologies in particular ways, inform the way human bodies relate to those media, and give shape to knowledge. They render complex intellectual and political ideas material and empirical. Thus, we can learn from the shelf, the cabinet, the desk, and their arrangement, too.

[60] Even behind-the-scenes storage spaces – those acid-free boxes on grey shelves in the archives – have aesthetic appeal. [61] In my classes on archives and mapping, I often organize field trips in which we take my 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, if ever.

Even as collections move off-site, I’ve noticed continuing fascination with the aesthetics and politics of storage. There are several recent videos, including some expertly produced documentaries – featuring the Bodleian, [62] the Harvard Depository, [63] and the Corbis Image Vault inside Iron Mountain, a former limestone mine in Western Pennsylvania – that aestheticize remote storage and automated retrieval. Automated book retrieval – there are systems at North Carolina State’s new Hunt Library, [64] the University of Chicago’s new Mansueto Library, the University of Missouri-Kansas City, and University of Louisville – are of particular interest. The idea that there are “robots in the library” has piqued people’s interest; [65] Hunt Library actually makes a show of its automated book retrieval system via its ground-floor Robot Alley. But the perhaps perplexing interest in such mundane concerns, I think, is also related to growing academic and popular interest in the materiality of information and media archaeology. [66] We can position these “storage stories” within a larger body of work that attempts to make material, empirical, phenomenological – and thereby comprehensible – a lot of behind-the-scenes informational experiences. 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. This we can learn from the library-as-space, too.

[67] Sixth, just as we might study the reading practices through which readers engage with a book – do they sample or read continuously, do they read alone or socially, do they read in print or digital, do they take notes or not? – we might also examine how the library creates spaces that foster different kinds of reading practice, and other forms of media engagement and learning. There’s much we can say here, but I’m going to focus on one key dynamic: [68] the privacy and publicity of reading and media-engagement. Collaboration, as I’m sure you’ve heard, is all the rage. While Temple University President Neil D. Theobald declared that his university’s new library would be a “place for truly collaborative learning,” Joseph Lucia, dean of Temple’s libraries, offered a more nuanced vision: the library would offer a “varied ecosystem” with spaces for quiet study and reading, small group activities, and large-group special events.[11]

[69:B] Cambridge-based HMFH Architects was charged with designing a new library for the Roeper School, a private pre-school-through-12th-grade day school in Birmingham, Michigan. Designer Laura Wernick explains that, initially, the focus was on creating spaces for collaboration. When they shared their plans with students, however – and I can’t stress enough the importance and value of involving students in a library design process – one question emerged repeatedly: “Where do I go to be alone?”[12] [70] Wernick and her colleagues began examining recent cognitive science and psychology research that debunks the “brainstorming myth” and the collaboration-fetishization that has landed us with all these open-plan offices, like the one that I (try and fail to) work in. “We live in an era that elevates openness and connections,” she writes.

We want our workplaces to provide plentiful opportunities for meaningful interactions. We expect our institutions to be open and transparent. We shape our architecture to those goals whether in our open office plans, the transparent façades of our high-rises, or in schools with high levels of interconnectedness. [71] But maybe those students at Roeper are on to something. Maybe in the midst of all that openness and interaction we also need to be creating something else as well. Perhaps we need to be carving out both time and place for solitude.

[72] So they proposed a design that has a lot more enclosed spaces than they’d originally planned for; and they implemented a design scheme they call “The Continuum,” which provides “a spectrum of spaces from large active spaces at one end of the building through a range of small group areas and ultimately to quiet individual study spaces at the other end.” Students can enter the building at their desired “level of activity and social interaction.” The idea of an activity “gradient,” which corresponds to an acoustic gradient, has been implemented in libraries for a while; [73] I did a study several years ago on the evolution of the “sounds” of library work, and the corresponding evolution of library building acoustics.[13]

[74] Johns Hopkins’s new Brody Learning Commons in Eisenhower Library, where I had the pleasure of speaking last spring, likewise features a mix of group and solitary zones, reading spaces and tech labs, a café, as well as the university’s Rare Books and Manuscripts collection and a conservation lab. [75] Among the most popular spaces in the Commons, which was designed by Shepley Bulfinch and opened in 2012, is the 100-seat Quiet Reading Room featuring a fantastic “cabinet of curiosities” installation by Mark Dion, one of my favorite artists.

[76] That same year – 2012, you may have noticed, was a big year for academic libraries – the University of Pennsylvania opened its Education Commons in an oddly shaped “leftover” space under the bleachers of Franklin Field Stadium. Architect Joel Sanders, who took time to study college students’ work postures, designed a space that accommodates a variety of collegiate ergonomics. “Our design treats the library interior as a wired ‘loungescape’ that… is divided into a series of zones that encourage individual and collaborative learning. The library is further subdivided into a series of flexible areas” – what he calls “micro-climates” – with “different degrees of acoustic, visual, and spatial enclosure.”[14] We find here a concierge desk, a study hall with a variety of furnishing options and a color scheme that references the grassy field outside, and 11 glassed-in meeting rooms – above all of which floats a “cloud” concealing mechanical and lighting equipment. I just love the Cartesian symbolism here: a cloud of knowledge – an oasis of calm and quiet – under the carnal cacophony of the football field. Man, I’m really milking the alliteration.

[77] We can thus learn from the library-as-space how an institution conceives of intellectual labor; how it ergonomically accommodates the sensing-and-making body and intellectually supports the thinking-and-sensing mind. And we can design library spaces that offer a range of environments for holistic learning.

[78] Seventh, just as we might study how a book allows for forms of active engagement – how even historical texts, like almanacs and commonplace books, might’ve invited interaction by providing blank pages or wide margins where readers could make notes – we should also study how libraries incorporate spaces not only for accessing published, produced, and posted media, but also for the creation of new texts, new media, new knowledge. [79] Yes, this is the moment you’ve all been waiting for: this is where we talk about maker spaces and 3D printers and visualization labs and other such “pivotal” “game changers” in the “library space.” I happen to think we’ve blown the “innovation” of such tech-forward programmatic spaces way out of proportion. [80] We don’t need expensive bleeding-edge technology and dedicated labs to make anything; critical “making” can happen in an old-school print shop, in a campus radio station, or even around a seminar table, using nothing but brains and voices.

[81] That said, given that a particular kind of technologized “making” is in the zeitgeist – especially in regard to library design – I do want to acknowledge the potential value of such maker-spaces if we can find a way to thoughtfully integrate them into the library, if we can intelligently frame these programs as part of our libraries’ epistemological and pedagogical infrastructures. [82] I recently wrote an essay about this “epistemological framing,” which has the potential to champion the integration of knowledge consumption and production, thinking and making. Much of the following is drawn from that essay, “Library as Infrastructure,” which appeared last summer in Places, a landscape, architecture, and urbanism journal for which I’m a columnist:

North Carolina State University’s Hunt Library has a maker-space, [83] a GameLab; [84] visualization, theatrical, and musical production studios, a usability lab, and various other production labs and studios; [85] an immersion theater, and, rather eyebrow-raisingly,[86] an Apple Technology Showcase (named, tongue in cheek, after library donors whose surname is Apple). [87] Duke, meanwhile, has just opened The Edge, a “collaborative space for interdisciplinary, data-driven, digitally reliant or team-based research.”

We find similar spaces in public libraries. In my Places article I trace the history of the public-library maker-space and tech lab, including one of the first maker-spaces in tiny Fayetteville, NY; [88] The Labs at Pittsburgh’s Carnegie Library; [89] Chattanooga’s widely celebrated 4th floor, a 12,000-square-foot “public laboratory and educational facility” and tech incubator; [90] Brooklyn Public Library’s Levy Info Commons; [91] the Martin Luther King, Jr., Memorial Library Digital Commons in Washington, D.C., with its DreamLab co-working space; [92] and the Chicago Public Library’s pop-up maker lab, a collaboration with the Museum of Science and Industry, with the now-familiar equipment list: open-source design software, laser cutters, a milling machine, and (of course) 3D printers — not one, but three.[15]

[93] Some have proposed that libraries — following in the tradition of the Library of Alexandria’s “think tank,” and compelled by a desire to “democratize entrepreneurship” — make for ideal co-working or incubator spaces, where patrons with diverse skill sets can organize themselves into start-ups-for-the-people.[16] [94:B] Others recommend that librarians entrepreneurialize themselves, rebranding themselves as professional consultants in a complex information economy. Librarians, in this view, are uniquely qualified digital literacy tutors; experts in “copyright compliance, licensing, privacy, information use, and ethics”; gurus of “aligning … programs with collections, space, and resources”; skilled creators of “custom ontologies, vocabularies, taxonomies” and structured data; adept practitioners of data mining.[17] Others recommend that libraries get into the content production business. In the face of increasing pressure to rent and license proprietary digital content with stringent use policies, why don’t libraries do more to promote the creation of independent media or develop their own free, open-source technologies? [95] Not many libraries have the time and resources to undertake such endeavors, but NYPL Labs and Harvard’s Library Test Kitchen, have demonstrated what’s possible when even back-of-house library spaces become sites of technological praxis. Unfortunately, those innovative projects are typically hidden behind the interface (as with so much library labor). Why not bring those operations to the front of the building, as part of the public program?

[96:B] Of course, with all these new activities come new spatial requirements. Library buildings must incorporate a wide variety of furniture arrangements, lighting designs, acoustical conditions, etc., to accommodate multiple sensory registers, modes of working, postures and more. [97] These new physical infrastructures create space for an epistemology embracing the integration of knowledge consumption and production, of thinking and making. Yet sometimes I have to wonder, given all the hoopla over “making”: are tools of computational fabrication really the holy grail of the knowledge economy? What knowledge is produced when I churn out, say, a keychain on a MakerBot? I worry that the boosterism surrounding such projects — and the much-deserved acclaim they’ve received for “rebranding” the library — [98] glosses over the neoliberal values that these technologies sometimes embody. Neoliberalism channels the pursuit of individual freedom through property rights and free markets — and what better way to express yourself than by 3D-printing a bust of your own head at the library, or using the library’s CNC router to launch your customizable cutting board business on Etsy?[18] While librarians have long been advocates of free and democratic access to information, I trust that they’re helping their patrons to cultivate a critical perspective regarding the politics of “technological innovation” — and the potential instrumentalism of makerhood. Sure, Melvil Dewey himself was part of this instrumentalist tradition, too. But our contemporary pursuit of “innovation” promotes the idea that “making new stuff” = “producing knowledge,” which can be a dangerous falsehood.

[99] I talk a lot in my article about the role of entrepreneurialism in the library, and about the value of maintaining some spaces in the library as spaces of exception – spaces that embody values other than productivity, profitability, individualism. “We can accommodate both spaces for entrepreneurship and spaces of exception,” I argue, “provided the institution has a strong epistemic framing that encompasses both. This means that the library needs to know how to read itself as a social-technical-intellectual infrastructure.” [100] Smith already happens to have such a values-based intellectual framework for its own DesignLab@Smith, which is conceived as an “intentionally anti-disciplinary” space, an opportunity to imagine the laboratory, a space for the experimental, collaborative production of knowledge, outside of the sciences. Given its epistemological and methodological framing – that fact that such a resource belongs to no particular field of study; instead, it belongs to the Commons – such a lab is a prefect candidate for inclusion in the library.

[101] Some libraries and librarians are also presenting themselves as the providers of that epistemic framing for others around campus, particularly for multimedia production – what some call “multimodal scholarship” or “digital humanities” – across the curriculum. The library is a natural home for media-production facilities and labs and support services, argues Joan Lippincott of the Coalition of Networked Information, because the library as a unit “serves all of the institution’s disciplines”; some departments and programs simply don’t have the resources to provide such tools and services for themselves.[19] “Often faculty and students don’t realize what specialized technologies and expertise is available in the library,” Lippincott says, and she suggests that the library space can be designed to highlight the library’s technological and support resources – and to highlight librarians’ capacity to help faculty provide an appropriate “epistemic framing” and pedagogical strategy for “making,” both high and low-tech, across the curriculum.

[102] In this, the library is more of a pedagogical and curricular partner than a support service. Librarians can work with faculty to promote and support multimedia assignments across the curriculum, and can consult with faculty on finding new alliances between library resources and services – from data sets to archival materials – and what and how faculty teach.[20] Lippincott and colleagues from North Carolina State and the University of Pennsylvania note that collaboration between librarians and faculty on curricular innovation often “leads to in-depth discussions of pedagogical objectives and the quality of student work.”[21]

[103] These support services also have space needs in the library, and librarians’ pedagogical and curricular conversations with faculty also illuminate learning space needs – both in the library and elsewhere around campus.[22] Thus, in considering how to design a library that reflects the integration of thinking and making, that provides a solid epistemic framing for a variety of means of “making” knowledge,” planners have to consider pedagogy and curriculum, too. They might even use the occasion of library planning to spark a discussion about how – and what and where – faculty and librarians will teach in the future.

[104] Finally, we might regard a book as a historical artifact, as an emblem of the state of publishing at the time of its creation, and as a representation of the intellectual and cultural and political-economic historical contexts from which it emerged. Similarly, we might look at the library as an exhibit of its own institutional and cultural and intellectual histories. In particular, the academic library’s special collections often embody its core values and encapsulate its history. This is certainly the case at Smith, with its rich women’s history collections.

Despite the fact that these collections connect contemporary researchers to the “enduring scholarly values” and research traditions they embody, notes Francous Blouin in a 2010 issue of RBM, “the importance of these settings to scholarship has seldom been cause for much reflection.”[23] I reflected on these very issues in a plenary talk I gave at the Rare Books and Manuscripts Section gathering at the American Library Association conference last year. I met Martin at that conference, which led to my being here today. And in my talk I highlighted the importance of the aesthetic experience in the special collections library. I argued there, as I have here today, that aesthetics are an integral part of the teaching and research – as well as the “library work”: the processing and preservation, cataloging and curating – that take place in special collections. [105] I argued that even the seemingly anti-aesthetic aspects of the special collection – the gray metal shelving and study tables and conservation labs – do, or can, embody an aesthetic, a sensory experience, that enhances the various programmatic functions the institutions serves, and can even serve as a means of advocacy for those functions.

I’ve spoken already about storage spaces and about the pedagogical value of taking students into the stacks. [106] And I’ve talked about classrooms and public programming spaces, which create opportunities for the handling and activation of materials, [107] affording faculty and students the ability to bring those materials alive in group settings, via a variety of pedagogical techniques, or perhaps through performances. [108] Ideally, careful attention is paid to furnishings and lighting and display technology that lend themselves to flexible use.

[109] 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.”[24] [110] Several years ago I wrote about the renovation of Harvard’s Woodberry Poetry Room, which has become home to a variety of programs in which the collection is activated. [111] 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. [112] 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.”[25] [113] “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.”

[114] Special collections and rare book conservation spaces also have their own aesthetic appeal and pedagogical potential. [115] When I’ve taken my students to various institutions, they’ve been fascinated by the intricate, embodied labor involved in conservation. 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 [116] we handled an acid-free box custom-built 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.” [117] 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. [118] 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.

[119] Consider also spaces of exhibition. The unique, auratic objects in archive or rare book library lend themselves to presentation behind glass – [120] but exhibition spaces can serve the entire library, highlighting faculty and student work, or bringing in relevant displays from outside the institution. Of course putting materials in vitrines and display cases emphasizes the visual at the expense of the other senses, and thereby limits the pedagogical “channels” that we can use to think with or through these materials – but in some cases this is the best means to make a collection’s presence, and availability, known.

In recent renovation projects several institutions have added exhibition space or upgraded their exhibition areas. [121] 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.[26] 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.

[122] Of course there are many more lessons we can learn from the book historians – and many more ways in which we can apply those lessons to the design of our library buildings. But as someone who began, 50 minutes ago, by arguing in favor of skimming and skipping, I think I’ve demanded more than enough of your concentrated attention. So I’ll close by acknowledging one additional meta-textual element of the library whose design we should consider in relation to the design of our physical library spaces. [123] I’m talking about the library’s digital interface, which, if done well, could serve as a map to – and as public relations for – the physical collection and in-person services. You’ll note that I’m not showing any examples here, and that’s because I’m hard-pressed to find any exemplary library interfaces that are functional and attractive. There’s much work to be done in this field. A well-designed library interface might be the only space in which patrons will engage with the institution, but it could also function as a virtual welcome mat to the library, drawing patrons through its doors. The digital interface could help to render a physical space legible, navigable, enticing, inspiring; it could be, as Bayard might say, a critical “means of orientation” to the library proper, and to the epistemological and cultural systems it reflects through its on-site architecture. [124] The virtual and the physical library are entwined dimensions of that collective library, that system of knowledge, that give shape to learning, to thought, and to our core cultural values.

*   *   *

[1] As librarian and library historian David Kaser identifies four frameworks we can use to study American academic library buildings: through an archaeological lens, as “artifacts that reflect and elucidate a functional requirement of their times”; through an educational history lens, as means “to understand the shaping influences of modifications in American university pedagogy”; through an architectural and technological history lens, as products of “new building materials or innovative construction techniques”; or through an architectural history lens, or as exemplars of the “history of an art form” (David Kaser, The Evolution of the American Academic Library Building (Lanham, MD: The Scarecrow Press, Inc., 1997): 1-2).

[2] Smith Faculty, “Design Thinking and the Liberal Arts: A Framework for Re-Imagining a Liberal Arts Education” (October 7, 2014): 8.

[3] Shepley Bulfinch, Smith College, Nielson and Young Libraries and Alumnae Gymnasium, Pre-Planning Phase (May 2014): 16.

[4] Shepley Bulfinch, Smith College, Nielson and Young Libraries and Alumnae Gymnasium, Pre-Planning Phase (May 2014): 19.

[5] Inga Saffron, “Changing Skyline: Temple’s Plan Comes Together With New Focus on Library” Philadelphia Inquirer (January 24, 2015):

[6] Hillel Hoffman, “New Academic Library Will Redefine Temple Campus and Academic Experiences” [press release] Temple University News Center (December 11, 2014):

[7] See my student Laura Sanchez’s “Redesigning Libraries” (2015), a summary of major themes that emerged from the design study:

[8] Thomas Sens, “12 Major Trends in Library Design” Building Design + Construction (December 1, 2009):

[9] Janet Fletcher, “Breaking Down the Barriers – The No Desk Academic Library” (July 2011): See also Linda Gunter and Cindy Snyder, “Reference and Information Services Redesign at The Libraries of The Claremont Colleges” Council on Library and Information Resources Report 139:

[10] Chris Bourg, “The Once and Future Librarian” Feral Librarian (March 18, 2015:

[11] Hillel Hoffman, “New Academic Library Will Redefine Temple Campus and Academic Experiences” [press release] Temple University News Center (December 11, 2014):

[12] Laura Wernick, “Quiet, Please” Architecture Boston 18:1 (Spring 2015):

[13]  Shannon Mattern, “Resonant Texts: Sounds of the Contemporary American Public Library,” The Senses & Society 2:3 (Fall 2007): 277-302.

[14] Joel Sanders in Phil Morehart, “The Future Today” American Libraries (February 26, 2015):;

[15] We also now have the Tampa-Hillsborough County Hive; the Free Library of Philadephia’s Maker Jawn; and Innisfil Ontario’s ideaLAB. See Greg Landgraf, “Making Room for Informal Learning” American Libraries (February 26, 2014):

[16] Emily Badger, “Why Libraries Should Be the Next Great Start-Up Incubators,” Atlantic Cities (February 19, 2003).

[17] Stephen Abram in Joseph Janes, Ed., Library 2020: Today’s Leading Visionaries Describe Tomorrow’s Library (Lanham: Scarecrow Press, 2013): 46; Courtney Greene in Library 2020: 51.

[18] See David Harvey, A Brief History of Neoliberalism (New York: Oxford University Press, 2005).

[19] Joan K. Lippincott, “The Future of Teaching and Learning” American Libraries (February 26, 2015):

[20] The library’s promotion of multimedia class projects requires outreach to faculty who might not have otherwise considered thinking beyond the traditional seminar paper, or who might be intimidated about supporting or evaluating such work. The library’s initial outreach might include promoting experimental pedagogical strategies and assignments – and the library’s ability to support this experimentation – in faculty meetings, through visits with department curriculum committees or individual faculty members, or through faculty professional development workshops.

[21] The Weigle Information Commons also holds an annual Engaging Students through Technology symposium, where faculty highlight their innovative assignments and discuss how the library has provided, and could provide, support; and where panels of students share their own work. “This annual symposium,” Lippincott and her colleagues explain, “helps faculty understand the pedagogical objectives of new media assignments, how partnering with the library is a good strategy for achieving them, and the impact of such assignments on student learning.”

[22] Joan Lippincott, Anu Vedantham & Kin Duckett, “Libraries as Enablers of Pedagogical and Curricular Change” Educause October 27, 2014):

[23] 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”:

[24] Overholt: 17-18.

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

[26] 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.


Meta-Aesthetics: The Art of the Art Library

How to Add Meta Tags to a Website BlogI was honored to be invited to share a short keynote address at today’s New York Art Resources Consortium annual conference at the Museum of Modern Art. NYARC — a collaboration among MoMA, the Brooklyn Museum, and the Frick — aims to join these museums’ forces to improve access to their art resources and promote innovative service.

I spoke about meta-aesthetics. My slides are below, and the talk text (complete with slide cues) is farther below.



Meta-Aesthetics: The Art of the Art Library

First, I’d like to thank Lily and Milan for the invitation to join you today. I’m delighted to be here. This event represents the convergence of two of my absolute favorite things – libraries and art – so I appreciate your inviting me into your utopia for the afternoon.

For the past 15 years or so I’ve been researching how media and space interact. This work has played out at a variety of scales: [2] infrastructural, urban, [3] architectural; the scale of the interior or [4] the individual piece of furniture or designed object; and at the malleable scale of conceptual or imagined space. I really like to think about how intellectual systems or models are manifested in the way we organize space. What that means, in English, is that I’ve written about [5] libraries, [c] archives, [c] public design processes, [c] media aesthetics and sensation, [c] exhibition design, [c] material texts, [c] media infrastructures, and [c] deep histories of how our cities have been mediated. This kind-of obnoxiously interdisciplinary, and maybe at times dilettantish, research has allowed me to work across a number of academic fields: media studies, design studies, architecture, urban design, interaction design, library science, archival studies, etc. And because I tend to care about how real designers and real archivists do actual work – rather than just theorizing poetically about these fields of practice – I’ve been invited, much to my great pleasure and with much gratitude, to contribute to practical projects in the design and library worlds, too.

[6] In recent weeks I’ve been involved in a number of design conferences. At the same time – in accordance with my habit, but often against my better judgment – I happen to have seen a lot of artist’s talks. These talks, as you most likely know, typically consist of a chronological narration of the trajectory – or, if not a coherent trajectory, then at least the temporal sequence – of an artist’s work. This is a mostly foreign genre of self-representation for those of us in the humanities – who, when we present our work, are typically compelled to narrowly define our foci and have a clear argument. The “argument” for an artist’s talk often seems to be little more than “I exist, and here’s what I do.” And that’s fine. I often find myself marveling at how a particularly articulate and thoughtful artist’s discussion of her process can be so compelling and generative.

[7] So, in honor of the fact that we’re gathered here in an art museum – and the fact that all of you are likely familiar with the artist’s talk convention – I’m going do something very uncharacteristic for a humanities scholar: I’ll try my hand at the genre. In the next 20 minutes I’ll offer a meta-discussion of my research, teaching, and design collaborations – focusing specifically on the work that deals with libraries and aesthetics – in the hope that some of those projects will pique your interest, that at least one will prove in some way useful for your own work.

And, in a somewhat embarrassingly hubristic move, I also want to try to claim teaching – particularly course design – as an artistic practice. Teaching can be an intensely rigorous and creative endeavor. [8] Yet, outside of Lynda Barry’s literal aestheticizing of the syllabus, or the elevation of certain classes to canonical status – [9] like John Cage’s “Experimental Composition” course from The New School – rarely are pedagogical practices or resources cited or celebrated as aesthetic or intellectual contributions. You pretty much never see somebody citing a course syllabus in an endnote on a scholarly publication. I think that’s a shame.

[10] But here you are: arts librarians committed to research and instruction; I’d like to imagine that we share a pedagogical sympathy. You as arts librarians also, in my experience, have a [11] remarkably capacious and generous appreciation of what constitutes acquisition-worthy material – what, for example, can help us document the making of an artist or the lifecycle of an artistic work. [12] Teaching materials – in general, but I’d say that mine especially – are an integral, yet often unacknowledged, form of creative scholarly output. So I’m going to present my own teaching as an artistic/intellectual practice, and I’ll encourage you, too, to regard the pedagogical ends to which your art resources are put – and the teaching practices you’re involved in – as deeply valuable intellectual and creative enterprises.

[13] In a half-hour, when I’m through, you’ll turn your attention to lots of exciting digital initiatives and opportunities: web archiving, digital stewardship, new forms of digital scholarship made possible by the Frick’s Digital Art History Lab, and so forth. [14] Your agenda sounds much like those at many of the conferences and meetings I attend: over the past decade more and more attention has been paid to digital technologies, both as research subjects and as research tools. We talk about the shift in humanities funding to pretty much anything digital. And we discuss our apparent obligation to integrate digital technologies into the classroom so that we can keep our teaching fresh and relevant. Across these discussions, the digital is commonly associated with opportunity, accessibility, timeliness, relevance, even salvation.

While I agree that the digital has radically transformed – much for the better – our libraries and universities and other institutions, and the work we do in them, [15] I think it’s equally important to remember all the “old school” stuff, too. I’m referring not only to the analog materials in our collections – those things whose rich material properties, many of my archivist friends argue, simply can’t be properly conveyed through a digital surrogate. I’m also talking about all the heavy infrastructure – technical, administrative, and human – behind our digital resources. I’m referring, too, to the spaces – both public-facing and back-stage spaces – where knowledge work happens; and to the analog bodies we inhabit, and through which we engage with images and sounds, with prints and playback devices and other people.

[16] These are the “meta”-aesthetics of the library.

While the items in your collections have obvious aesthetic and intellectual value, your archives, libraries, and databases as institutions, and the knowledge work that you do in them, have tremendous aesthetic and intellectual value, too. They hold value not only for those of you who are sitting here today, and for your colleagues back at your home institutions – folks who are primed to be into this stuff. As I’ve attempted to demonstrate in my research and teaching for my entire professional career thus far, We – and I mean the Royal We – have a great deal to learn about our culture, our values, our politics, our ethics by looking at our knowledge institutions from a “meta” perspective – including, but also going beyond, their collections. [17] By attending to the meta-aesthetics of the art library, we can remind ourselves that sensory experience, that inhabiting physical and virtual intellectual spaces, are integral parts of the research and instruction – as well as the processing and preservation, cataloguing and curating – that take place in your institutions.

I’ll highlight three scales of these meta-aesthetics that are central to what define our institutions, and that, I think, offer tremendous pedagogical potential for our various patron groups.

[18] First, the aesthetics of digital infrastructure. Particularly given how much attention we pay to the digital in our professional gatherings, and given that a significant portion of our institutions’ patrons and visitors interact with us solely through our digital interfaces, I think it’s important to consider what’s occluded, or accidentally shielded, in our online catalogs and institutional websites and digitized archival resources. [19] Where do the data come from? Who puts it there – and where, exactly, is “there”? Who handles the scanning and copyright clearance and server maintenance? And who should care about these issues, aside from those of us in this room? I argue that more people need to care about these issues – that raising such questions highlights important epistemological and political-economic concerns that are central to the maintenance of a public culture and a democratic society.

[20] I’ve found that many of my students – even graduate students who come to grad school to think critically about media and information politics – often reduce “the library” to an interface. They rarely think about the staff members and insanely expensive database subscriptions, and data centers and copyright negotiations that enable them to download an article from October on their iPhones. [21] I can’t tell you how many times I’ve been involved in discussions in which an interlocutor’s comments were prefaced with “Now that everybody has Internet access…” or “Now that everything’s available online…” or “As soon as everything’s digitized…” Lord, help me. I just can’t let this go.

Such myopia not only under-values the work that all of you do, but it also raises important philosophical questions about what our culture collectively knows and values; and it has significant political implications. How do we debate and implement ethical and effective information policies and cultural and educational policies if they’re all negotiated from a point of privilege, and with no understanding of the crazy techno-political-legal universe behind the interface?

I’ve found that tackling these issues aesthetically – through direct experience, through sensory engagement – can help people care about what goes on behind the screens. [22] From 2010 to 2013 I co-taught, with my colleague Rory Solomon, a course called Urban Media Archaeology, in which we worked with programmers and designers in the Parsons School of Design, which is part of The New School, to create an open-source mapping platform on which our students mapped historical media infrastructures. Not only did students get to see inside the software-development process – and to experience the frictions between proprietary and open data sources – [23] but, in their own research and design projects, they were able to examine the cables and servers and switching stations and distribution centers that bring information to their phones and doorsteps. [24] I published a short book just last month that not only explores the layers of media infrastructures that have given shape to our cities, but also lays out the theoretical and methodological implications for this class – and for a longer book that is (supposedly) forthcoming in a couple years.

[25] We began every semester of Urban Media Archaeology with a field trip. For three of our four years Andrew Blum, author of Tubes, a book about the geography of the internet, took us on a walking tour of lower Manhattan to show us “where the internet lives.” Over the past few years, we’ve witnessed the rise of [26] lots of such infrastructural walking tours and sound-walks, [27] amateur “fieldwork,” hands-on technical labs, [28] and digital-network mapping projects. I’ve written about such projects – and what we can learn through empirical experience of communication infrastructure, by touching and listening to it, and even smelling it – [29] in an essay I published a few years ago in Places, an architectural and urbanism journal for which I’m a columnist.

[30] We explored some similar issues in a recent exhibition I helped to curate with some colleagues in architecture, furniture design, and history. We wanted to find a way to highlight the materiality and geography of the “The Cloud,” that seemingly boundary-less, placeless layer of data that hovers over our heads. [31] I made some preliminary stabs last fall at a new research project on the furniture we’ve designed to store and organize our media – and that project formed the basis for a Parsons furniture design studio this spring, in which students are imagining new architectures and ergonomics for storing, accessing, and processing contents of the cloud. That student work was on display in the exhibition.

[32] We talk about similar issues – from the material basis of Thomas Edison’s technological experiments, to theories of object ecologies in the Internet of Things – in the “Media and Materiality” class I’ve been teaching on and off since 2010. My students have examined the empirical dimensions of money and financial exchange, the chemical bases of photography, the epistemology of photographic slides and slide projectors, the parallels between code-writing and textile weaving, and a host of other fantastic topics. They all seem to end the semester convinced of the intellectual value – and the anti-commodity-fetishist potential – of “looking under the hood” of our media technologies and information resources.

[33] There’s a similar sensibility in my “Digital Archives” class, where we worked with The New School Archives to consider how we might design an interface that highlights newly acquired material in their collection. We wanted to reflect somehow in our public-facing interface all the intellectual and technical labor that takes place behind the scenes in the archives – and as part of our research we visited the offices of ArtStor, to impress upon students that such databases actually live somewhere, and that there are lots of machines, people, protocols, and contracts behind it – and that the physical art object or architecture or archaeological site, the referent for all those digital surrogates, still resides in an institution or on-site somewhere and requires care.

[34] Second, the aesthetics of the library as a techno-intellectual infrastructure – one built of architectures and book stacks and protocols and labor. [35] Thirteen years ago I finished my dissertation on the design of the Seattle Public Library, and then I traveled around the country looking at 14 other recently designed urban public library buildings. [36] That research formed my first book, The New Downtown Library, in which I examined library building as public spaces and media architectures. I also studied how, through their design, they embodied particular epistemologies and politics, and they gathered and gave shape to the very publics they serve. In subsequent years I’ve written about a number of other libraries and library-like spaces, [37] including Louis Kahn’s Phillips Exeter Library – a building designed in the late 60s around the module of the book and timeless symbolic geometries; I examined how the building functioned in a new media landscape at its 40th anniversary – and how light, a central element of the design, takes on a new significance and function in this new age. [38] I’ve also studied Alvar Aalto’s 1949 Woodberry Poetry Room, a room designed to celebrate the multiple forms of the poetic text – and to appeal, aesthetically, to its various material and performative properties. [39] I’ve also studied little libraries and pop-up reading rooms and library-like art projects and strategies for designing exhibitions of printed matter that afford visitors a multisensory experience of the page. [40] My little libraries work in particular enabled me to then contribute to the Architectural League of New York’s 2013 Little Free Library design competition.

Just last summer I decided to revisit my 2007 book and take a comprehensive look at new developments in the library mission, library services, and designs – [41] and that research resulted in “Library as Infrastructure,” a lengthy article in which I examine the 21st-century library as, and as part of, an infrastructural ecology: as a site where spatial, technological, infrastructural, and social infrastructures shape and inform one another. Throughout, I acknowledge the library as an aesthetic space, where humans interface with media and interact with one another. [42] Meanwhile, I once again joined up with the Architectural League to oversee a year-long design study of New York’s 211 branch libraries. We partnered with the Center for an Urban Future, a policy think tank that’s published several incisive reports over the past couple years about the critical informational and social functions played by our public libraries, and the sad physical and budgetary condition of many of those libraries. Five interdisciplinary teams were selected from among 45 applicants to propose designs that we presented at the Japan Society in December and again at The New School this past January. [43] This project partly inspired a new transdisciplinary design course, the Library Think Tank, that I’m co-teaching at Parsons in the fall with the fantastic architect Annie Barrett, leader of one of the branch library design teams.

All the exciting practical and theoretical ideas that have been swirling around these various design and research projects for years have commingled in one of my graduate courses – what is probably the most satisfying course I’ve ever taught, because it integrates so many things I love and find to be of critical importance. [44] In my Archives, Libraries + Databases seminar, which I launched in 2011, we study the history, politics, epistemologies, and aesthetics of our knowledge institutions. We read Foucault and Warburg, library manuals and technical guides. We watch Resnais and Charles and Ray Eames and historical librarian training videos. [45] And we tour backstage areas of the Municipal Archives, where students experience for themselves, in the storage rooms, the scope and diversity of materials represented in the archival record, and appreciate the expertise and equipment needed for their preservation. We also visit the Morgan Library – among the most grandly aestheticized collections we have here in the city – [46] and spend an afternoon in Gowanus at the Reanimation Library and the Interference Archive, where we experiment with fanciful, aesthetically-driven classification schemes. We also spend a good deal of time exploring what we can learn from artists – Marcel Duschamp and [47] Mark Dion, [48] Ann Hamilton and [49] Camille Henrot, Cory Arcangel and Erica Baum, Joseph Cornell and [50] Taryn Simon – about how we remember, forget, store, classify, and retrieve.

This class is in part what got me invited to the Library of Congress’s “Digital Preservation” conference last year. There, I discussed [51] what we can learn about preservation from auto-destructive art [52] (including Tinguely’s Homage to New York, which ate itself in the courtyard of this very museum in 1960) and “archival” art that highlights the limitations of what we can archive. I thought I was a very odd fit for that conference – here I was talking about exploding sculptures [53] and weird video art amidst a bunch of folks from NASA and Los Alamos – but that conference is also where I met Lily, and how I find myself here today.

And here you are today: a group of people who, I imagine, appreciate both data curation and conceptual art. [54] Which leads to my third and final take the library’s meta-aesthetics: specifically, just how much there is to be learned about archives and libraries through art. We can of course learn about art through the materials in your collections; but through art we can also raise important questions about epistemology, ontology, and the political economy of information – and disinformation. There are plenty of such artworks capable of epistemological illumination on display now (or at least until very recently) here at MoMA: [55] in the recently-closed “Cut to Swipe” exhibition, you had Hito Steyerl’s “How Not to Be Seen,” which parodically explores strategies for thwarting the preservation and distribution of our identities as datasets. [56] Just a couple weekends ago you hosted “A Sort of Joy,” a fantastic museum-metadata-driven algorithmic performance that paired the Office for Creative Research with the experimental theatre troupe Elevator Repair Service. [57] And in the 2nd floor contemporary galleries you have Camille Henrot’s magnificent “Grosse Fatigue,” a video that uses the aesthetics of the interface to contrast different materialities and aesthetics of preservation: a fish in a preservative bath, tagged bird carcasses in a drawer, proliferating browser windows and books and magazines and hard drives stuffed with gifs – and even technicians working in a natural history museum’s preservation lab.

[58] There are lots of artists who take inspiration from archival or library material, or from the archive- or library-as-institution. [59] Many such artists and artworks are featured through the Library as Incubator project. As I said last year in a conversation with the Library of Congress’s Trevor Owens, [60] “Concrete designs and art projects have the potential to crystallize and materialize informational practices and intellectual models and infrastructural negotiations that are central to archives and libraries — and for these reasons I find them very useful practices and objects to think and teach with.” [61] The meta-aesthetics of library art help patrons to better understand how they think and the learn, and how thinking and learning are necessarily aesthetic enterprises. These meta-aesthetics also, ideally, help practitioners recognize that the physical and digital environments you create and work in aren’t neutral containers of information. They give shape to information and knowledge; they make it sense-able and sensible, intelligible. They provide the meta-aesthetic to the aesthetic.

Thank you.


“Library Think Tank” Fall 2015 Graduate Course


Update: 8/4: Because of low enrollment, this course will not be running in Fall 2015. 

I’m super-excited to be partnering with the fabulous architect Annie Barrett — leader of the UNION team from our 2014 Architecture League / Center for an Urban Future branch library design study — to teach LIBRARY THINK TANK, a Fall 2015 hybrid seminar/studio [pdf]. I’m thinking of this as a hands-on extension of the Archives/ Libraries/ Databases seminar I’ve been teaching since 2011 (and which I’ve been invited to share with folks at the Library of Congress and MoMA; librarian-extraordinarire Rick Prelinger kindly bestowed his blessings, too :-). I’ll likely return to this class in Fall 2016.

For this new studio iteration, though, I’m very much looking forward to the new opportunities made possible through the collaboration with Annie, and by (ideally) bringing together methodologies and perspectives — and students! — from diverse disciplines and programs.

We’re hoping students will be excited to extend the excellent work begun by the Center for an Urban Future (an urban policy think-tank, and author of influential reports on NYC’s branch libraries, published in 2013 and 2014) and developed through our 2014-15 CUF/Architectural League design study, which attracted attention from the New York Times, CurbedNext City, City Lab, and other publications, and has informed City Council deliberations.

The Think Tank is housed in Parsons’ M.Arch. program, but it’s open to graduate students — and advanced, qualified undergraduates — from all across the university. We want to build strong interdisciplinary teams to develop strong, inventive library design proposals.

The class (PSCE 5072) meets on Wednesdays from 3:50 to 6:30pm. Here’s our course description:

Amidst radical technological, socio-political, and cultural shifts, our libraries are in a state of transformation — yet they continue to play critical roles in our civic, intellectual, and professional lives. Reassessing and redirecting the future of this vital institution requires progressive thinking from social scientists, humanists, data analysts, information scientists, and design-thinkers operating at all scales, from architecture and urbanism to creators of interiors, interactions, communication, and services. This hybrid theory-practice seminar calls on students from across the university to collaborate on the development of trans-disciplinary proposals for the future of the library. Operating as a collaborative think-tank, students will tackle some of the challenges facing this essential, yet resource-poor institution. Collectively, we’ll examine the library — past, present, and future — as a critical urban infrastructure, and study various past and current examples of libraries that are re-envisioning their missions, services, programs, and environments. Workshop participants will develop multimedia dossiers — which may take traditional or unorthodox forms: a proposal, a case history, a narrative, a campaign, a portfolio — with the goal of hypothetically soliciting city and institutional support to launch a full-scale design project in the future. Open to all university graduate degree students and upper level undergraduate students by permission only. Pre-requisite(s): none.

Join us!