“Stacks, Platforms, Interfaces: A Field Guide to Information Spaces” @ Pratt, ACRL, Yale

I was invited to speak about “information spaces” at the 2017 Association of College and Research Libraries conference in Baltimore on March 23, 2017. I tested my talk at Pratt, as part of their Pratt ALA speaker series on March 9, then reprised the talk at the Yale School of Architecture, as part of their “Spatial Metaphors” symposium, on March 31. This was a tough one: I tried to speak to practicing librarians and archivists, LIS students, and architects — and to balance my obligations to the ACRL, who asked me to discuss library spaces and my library-related classes, and to the Yale folks, who asked me to address spatial metaphors and the potential applications of some pretty highbrow theory.

Long story short: this talk’s a Frankenstein. I aimed to impart some consistent graphic identity through the slides — which took me, like, a thousand hours — to help make it all cohere. I hope it works! You’ll find everything below:

Stacks, Platforms + Interfaces: A Field Guide to Information Spaces

Because I am not a librarian, and I’m new to this conference, I thought I’d start by telling you a little bit about myself. I work on information architectures and infrastructures, and the media we create to try to make sense of those complex systems. [2] I’ve written a few books – one on library design, another on maps, and a third on the loooong history of cities as mediated places. But I much prefer writing essays; I’ve written articles and book chapters about everything from [3] pneumatic tubes to index cards, [4] from sound archives to multisensory exhibition design, [5] from library logistics to the history of bookshelves and server racks. [6] I also occasionally find myself working with designers and programmers on library design, information architecture, and exhibition projects. And I teach courses at The New School, in New York, on [7] maps, [8] sound, [9] architecture, [10] smart cities, and [11] the history, politics, and aesthetics of organizing information in various material and immaterial forms.

Speaking of organizing information…: [12]: the field guide as a genre has long fascinated me. [13] As a kid, I crafted colored-pencil-and-masking-tape “field guides” to flora indigenous to Central Pennsylvania – particularly the region within a 20-minute bike ride of my house. [14] I built little wunderkammern of tree nuts and all the interesting seashells I collected on our beach vacations. When I moved to New York in 1998, my “field” transformed dramatically. I began collecting a new genus of guide: [15] directories to notable architecture and the city’s best ethnic food. As I became more and more amazed that New York “worked,” that it didn’t simply succumb to entropy, [16] I turned my attention to the city’s infrastructural systems – its subways and electric networks and telecommunications systems – [17] and I taught a class in which we dug into the city’s archives to map its historic media networks and created a “field guide” of sorts to their layered histories.

(18) In recent years we’ve witnessed the arrival of guides to all kinds of enigmatic systems that exceed our capacity for empirical exploration: container shipping, Internet infrastructure, drones, and even algorithms. There seems to be something resonant, perhaps even reassuring, about a document that tells us precisely where something as big and amorphous as The Cloud lives. [19] So, a couple years ago, I decided to situate all these recent variations on the theme in relation to the field guide’s long history as a publication form, an epistemological structure, and an embodiment of colonialist ideology. [20] I aimed to show that those 18th-century herbaceous handbooks and 19th-century bird bibles reflected a desire to know, and a way of knowing, that inform our contemporary curiosities about infrastructural landscapes and digital domains.

(21) The guide is a necessarily reductive format, but it offers a convenient means to situate oneself in a new and shifting terrain – [22] much like the ground we find ourselves standing on today. So that’s why I figured I’d use my time with you to share a sort of “performative” field guide to the spatial topologies of our contemporary information ecology – more specifically, the habitat in which our libraries reside. [23] You’ve undoubtedly encountered a few such guides to librarianship and libraries over the years.[1] But I hope to offer a new framing: one that connects the field outside your field – [24] one defined by geopolitics, activated by information, inhabited by architecture, shaped by media technologies – to the field inside your library buildings. I’ll examine how that expansive habitat shapes the spaces you work in; how environmental shifts inform morphology, if you will.

(25) The traditional field guide is often criticized for its lack of broader context. Birding historian Spencer Schaffner laments the “binocular vision” of most guides: their tendency to “sanitize the representations of birds” and to focus on individual specimens, rather than their relationship to their habitats, to other creatures, or to us.[2]Guides rarely offer a discussion of the larger systemic factors contributing to the evolution or endangerment of the specimens under examination. [26] Recognizing, and aiming to rectify, those limitations, we’ll begin our field guide with an examination of today’s libraries’ spatial habitat, mapped expansively.


(27) It wasn’t long ago that we still imagined ourselves living in a post-national world – a world of free trade agreements and supranational coalitions, of World Cups and Star Alliances and global villages, of boundary-defying flows of media and capital. We were digital nomads traversing a flat globe. So much for that. [28] Not only have we recognized the privilege inherent in those fluid spatial models, but we’ve also learned that, even for those with access to all the right passports and protocols, globalism isn’t a universal aspiration. Nationalism is back. Or, rather, strains of nationalism, xenophobia, and protectionism have proven themselves quite resilient. They’ve long been simmering outside our liberal urban centers and mainstream media.

(29) We’ve also recognized that some information doesn’t really want to be free – and that our globe-enveloping Web is actually segmented into terrains defined by data sovereignty, censorship, surveillance practices, and restrictive copyright policies. Even clouds are beholden to terrestrial geopolitics. [30] Meanwhile, walls, borders, and checkpoints – which some of us likely assumed had long ago been vaporized, metaphorized, into the digital realm – are again showing their resolute, architectural materiality.

To comprehend this convoluted terrain, we wield mixed spatial metaphors. [31] Those mental models are propped up on long-standing internationalist hopes, colonialist visions, neoliberal ambitions, and Silicon Valley reveries of freedom, openness, and opportunity. [32] And at the same time they’re anchored by weary refugee bodies, crumbling infrastructures, tariffs, and regulations, all of which make our “flows” a lot more viscous. [33] It’s notable that many of the prevailing spatial theories of our time embrace the unevenness, the mixtures of smoothness and striation, we find in our physical and digital landscapes. [34] For example, architectural theorist Keller Easterling’s zones – free trade zones, special economic zones, and the like – are legal and economic spatial instruments operating both alongside and outside of the state, exempt from many of its laws and obligations.[3] [35] Then we have “the stack,” which is of course a long-standing conceptual model in various technical fields. [36] But Benjamin Bratton presents his version of the stack as an “accidental,” planetary-scale “megastructure” scaffolding both technical and governmental operations, comprised of everything from hardware and software, to physical architectures and natural resources.[4] [37] We’ve also seen a lot of recent interest in supply chains and logistics, the art-and-science of managing flows across uneven terrains.[5] [38] And philosopher Peter Sloterdijk’s Spheres trilogy – which began in 2011 with a treatise on the intimacy of Bubbles (a term with new resonance in today’s epistemological universe), [39] then continued in 2014 with a study of Globes – has recently culminated with [40] a work on “foams,” which exist ontologically in-between bubbles and globes.[6] A foam is essentially a globule of bubbles; and a “foamy” terrain is an agglomeration of individual, intimate capsules, islands, and conservatories.

(41) Contemporary spatial theory is grappling with migrant flows, cloud geographies, nomadic infrastructures, informal urbanisms, post-planetary topographies, anthropocenic landscapes, extreme and marine terrains, indigenous cartographies, feminist and post-human geographies. None of this readily lends itself to representation in [42] your standard Peterson field guide or grade-school wall map – yet that’s precisely where our elected officials seem to be plotting out foreign affairs. In the past few months, we’ve observed strained rhetorical realignments of territory, policy, and governance. [43] A new regime is “taking back” the country, securing our borders, protecting us from dangerous refugees hailing from six predominantly Muslim countries. Our leaders are saving our “inner cities” both from and forall the people of color who live there. Governance, from the global to the local scale, is a matter of neoliberal “deal-making.” These are the “metaphors [our leaders and legislators now] live by.”[7]

(44) On the ground, meanwhile, many folks are working off a much more nuanced map, with a much more robust spatial typology. [45] They’re creating “sites of exception,” like protest camps, assemblages of dissent, safe spaces, and sanctuary cities and campuses – many of which are species of space distinguished by protected flows of information.[8] Common among many of the spatial models I’ve mentioned thus far is a recognition that space is defined – delimited, activated, infused – by and with data.

(46) We’ve also seen the power of misinformation and misleading metaphors to partition spaces and communities, to create epistemological camps, “filter bubbles” and separate partisan discourse networks. In response to this splintering, many information professionals, educators, scholars, journalists and other public advocates have vowed to [47] reinvigorate and reinvent the pedagogical tradition of “media [or information] literacy,” long buried under the avalanche of STEM education.[9] News organizations have created special “confidential tip” hotlines. Archivists, librarians, and concerned scholars have joined forces to save threatened government datasets and websites.[10]

(48) Today’s information politics are often about undoing modernist spatial models – hacking the neatly ordered stack, finding “back doors,” exploiting structural vulnerabilities, weighing the risks and values of circumventing barriers one knows to be unjust. Ours is the age of WikiLeaks and Panama Papers, of rogue national park Twitter feeds and state-sponsored hacking, of dark webs and doxxing, of virtual private networks and encrypted streams, of the Google Cultural Institute and citizen archivists. [49] If you’ll pardon the mixed metaphors, we might say that “foaming up” around us are new information “zones” and “channels” – an insurgent logistics – designed either to defend or destroy the free flow of information, to reinforce or infiltrate boundaries.[11] Geographer Deb Cowen calls such sites and systems “fugitive infrastructures,” which are “assembled to do different things, for different people, and according to different systems of value. In doing all this, they offer a different orientation to space, time, and legality.”[12]

(50) This is the habitat in which our libraries operate. What morphological traits have they adopted in adapting to these conditions? And what new shapes and spatial forms might they evolve into?


(51) Over the past century and a half, the library has been conceived variously, and often simultaneously, as a clinic, a cathedral, an anchor, a bridge, the people’s university, a laboratory, an office, a warehouse, a bazaar, a shelter, and so forth.[13] That is not to say that they’ve taken on the form or appearance of these other species of space, but that there’s something comparable in their operation or ethos. This cycling through of metaphors is not merely a matter of semantics or poetics, of course. [52] Metaphors shape policy and modes of governance. They inform how we define and design our institutional missions, services, publics, collections, and orientation within broader intellectual, cultural, and political ecologies. As Lackoff and Johnson remind us, metaphors unite “reason and imagination,” and newmetaphors “are capable of creating new understandings and, therefore, new realities.”[14] What I’m aiming to do here is not to extend this long-running debate over whether the library is a “cathedral” or a “clinic,” but to translate contemporary spatial metaphors into morphologies – to see how they’ve been materialized and spatialized in the library, and how new spatial models might conjoin reason and imagination to produce new realities.

(53) Architectural design projects afford institutions an unparalleled opportunity to grapple with hard questions about their missions and values, publics and program, and to concretize their answers to those questions in physical form. In what follows, I’ll highlight several library design projects that have afforded institutions and communities opportunities to tackle changes in the field: to embrace new technologies, pedagogies and epistemologies, even to engage with new cultural and political forces in the world.

(54) Yet it’s a great privilege to be able to work in facilities that perfectly express our ideals and perfectly accommodate our preferred modes of working. Not every college or community enjoys such opportunity. Not every library building is an ideal specimen. Nor does the provision of vital library collections and services depend on fancy, expensive design. [55] So, we’ll also discuss ways that our libraries-as-they-are – in all their imperfection, without all the ornate plumage – can adapt modestly in response to our shifting climates and evolving fields of operation. Any library specimen, we’ll see, has the potential to serve as an object lesson: as a model of the intellectual literacies, ethical engagement, and sustainable practices we want to see in the world. Any library space can offer us opportunities to learn both in and from it – that is, both from the resources in its collections and staff; and from the building itself, as a pedagogical device.

(56) We’ll take a look at three different morphologies that libraries have both adopted in response to their evolving field of operations, and that they’ve adapted torespond to those environmental changes (not, as the title of my talk implied, stacks, platforms + interfaces – but pretty close!). We’ll also consider some speculative morphologies that libraries could adopt as they both engage with the precarious, nefarious conditions of the world, and offer a vital space apart from it.


(57) First, the platform: In 2012 two Davids – Lankes and Weinberger – called for libraries to recognize themselves as platforms. [15] Platform, as you likely know, is a term of art in the tech world: a base upon which developers create new applications and technologies. While Lankes’s conception embraced the library’s myriad facets, physical and digital, as tools for transformation, [58] Weinberg’s model hewed to the techy vision: he wanted libraries to open up their digital content and metadata in order to enable to production of new products and services. We see examples of such work in the Library Innovation Lab, which Weinberger himself once directed at the Harvard Law School; and in the late, great NYPL Labs. MIT’s recent “Future of Libraries” task force report likewise calls for the library to lead in the creation of a “networked set of global platforms replete with content, data, metadata, images, audio files, laboratory notebooks, course materials, and more”; a “repository of knowledge and data that can be exploited and analyzed by humans, machines, and algorithms” [16]

(59) The platform – in many of these models, and in much entrepreneurial and technological discourse – is conceived as a virtual entity, whose parts consist of databases and interfaces and the liminal zones of middleware. But what are its morphologies, its spatial demands, aside from servers and workstations for all the staff? “A library as platform,” Weinberger argues, “is more how than where, more hyperlinks than container, more hubbub than hub.” [60] But building and maintaining a virtual platform for hyperlinks and hubbub is a labor- and expertise- and storage- intensive endeavor. What’s more, if you make that platform public-facing – and you recognize that the library is a venue for the collective creation, preservation, and dissemination of knowledge in myriad forms – we start recognizing that platforms create new programmatic and spatial demands.

(61) The library-as-a-generative-platform is not a new concept: the ancient Library of Alexandria, part of a larger museum with botanical gardens, laboratories, living quarters and dining halls, was a platform not only for the translation and copying of myriad texts and the compilation of a magnificent collection, but also for the launch of works by Euclid, Archimedes, and their peers. [62] In the progressive era, the public library was a platform for uplift and enlightenment (and all the hegemonic baggage that came along with those pursuits). [63] Over the past several years, it seemed, when one heard the word “platform,” the phrases “makerspace” or “fab lab” weren’t long to follow.

I imagine you’ve all heard about Chattanooga’s widely celebrated 4th floor, a 12,000-square-foot “public laboratory and educational facility” and tech incubator; [64] Brooklyn Public Library’s Levy Info Commons; [65] 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. [66] Last year we were introduced to the paradigmatic platform: Dokk1 in Aarhus, by Schmidt hammer lassen, winner of the International Federal of Library Associations and Institutions’ 2016 Public Library of the Year Award. It features a media ramp that spirals through the building and connects platforms dedicated to exhibitions, gaming, interactive workshops, reading and special events.

(67) I’m quite sure you’re familiar, too, with North Carolina State University’s Hunt Library, with its maker-space, [68] GameLab; [69] visualization, theatrical, and musical production studios, usability lab, and various other production labs and studios; [70] immersion theater, and [71] Technology Showcase. [72] Snohetta, Hunt’s architects, are now designing for Temple University a library with many of the same features. Of course, with all these new platforming activities come new spatial requirements. Library buildings have to address structural engineering and ventilation, and incorporate a wide variety of furniture arrangements, lighting designs, and acoustical conditions. [73] The purported payoff of all this effort and investment is that the library becomes a platform for both knowledge consumption and production, both thinking and making.

(74) A few years ago, I worried that we were blowing the “innovation” of such tech-forward programmatic spaces way out of proportion. [75] It seemed that we were often glossing over the instrumentalism of maker-hood, and the neoliberal values these technologies sometimes embody.  It seemed that some folks had forgotten that we didn’t need expensive, bleeding-edge technology and dedicated labs to “platform” anything; [76] critical “making” could happen in an old-school print shop, in a campus radio station, a laptop loaded with open-source software –or even around a seminar table, to which contributors bring nothing but their brains and voices.

(77) Fortunately, the discourse has shifted in recent years. Librarians, administrators, and faculty have found new ways to position these platforms as part of our libraries’ epistemological and pedagogical frameworks. [78] MIT’s recent task force report is exemplary in explaining how the university’s technological resources and expertise should be both reflected in its collections and used to facilitate broader access to, and make more expansive use of, those collections. What’s more, the task force acknowledges that a well-resourced library within a well-resourced university has an opportunity, and perhaps even an obligation, to serve as global platform to elevate other institutions. [79] One other example: I’m fortunate to serve on the board of the Metropolitan New York Library Council; which has long provided digitization services to its roughly 280 member organizations and served as New York’s service hub for the Digital Public Library of America. But the council also serves as a physical meeting spot for nearly 20 special interest groups, whose interests range from social justice to web archiving. [80] And Metro’s new headquarters features plenty of spaces for members to host events and gather, as well as a studio for demo’s and workshops featuring new tools and software, a podcasting booth, and a file-transfer station – resources that some member organizations might not be inclined to, or might not have the means to, exploit on their own. So, Metro is fashioning itself as a knowledge and service hub.


(81) Providing strong epistemic and political-economic framing for the library-as-platform – encompassing myriad forms of knowledge-production, presentation, and dissemination – requires that the library be able to orient itself within a habitat reshaped by all those geopolitical and informational changes we discussed earlier. Those same forces – global supply chains and geo-engineering, financial speculation and cloud computing – have likewise called for new epistemic frames within a variety of academic disciplines and in popular discourse. [82] The concept of “infrastructure” has proven particular useful. Over the past several years, we’ve witnessed the rise of several scholarly studies – and, as I noted earlier, even popular field guides – to cloud computing, global logistics, surveillance, secret ops, e-waste, energy, you name it. Infrastructure has proven a productive and capacious framework.

(83) Various infrastructures serve as the metaphorical skeletal, circulatory, and digestive systems of our libraries: these are facilities composed of plumbing and wiring and ventilation systems, of stacks and network architectures. [84] But as sociologists Susan Leigh Star and Geoffrey Bowker remind us, infrastructures also extend to intellectual and institutional operations, including measurement standards, naming conventions, classification systems, technical protocols and bureaucratic forms.[17] Libraries have it all; they are, we might say, the infrastructural apotheosis.

(85) A few years ago I wrote an essay about libraries as infrastructures – or, rather, as “networks of integrated, mutually reinforcing, evolving infrastructures: architectural, technological, social, epistemological, and ethical.”[18] I offered the infrastructure model as an alternative to the “library as platform” metaphor, which, I argued, smacked a bit of Silicon Valley entrepreneurialism. Start-up values don’t always mesh with those of the library. [86] What’s more, the term “platform” evokes an image of a flat, 2-D stage on which other people can build stuff. That generativity is great, but it’s also important to know what’s holding up the stage – what “givens” are built into the scaffoldings and protocols that constitute the base on which staff and patrons can operate.

(87) Particularly since the presidential election, we’ve come to realize that many of our cultural “givens,” those presumably shared values, aren’t axiomatic after all; and, furthermore, that many of the infrastructures critical to our democratic values are in precarious condition. [88] Individual librarians and professional organizations have issued bold statements and manifestos about their commitment to openness, accessibility, diversity, equity, privacy, social responsibility, and free intellectual inquiry and expression – [89] and some have explicitly acknowledged the palpable misalignment of these core values with those of a regime averse to civil discourse, facts, and reason.[19]

(90) Understanding those scaffoldings and protocols beneath our platforms (further down the technical stack) is, arguably, just as important as being able to generate beautiful visualizations and text-mining tools to process the data that lie atop our library platforms. [91] Such an expanded pedagogical mission is encompassed in the ACRL’s 2016 “Framework for Information Literacy” (which I realize has not been without controversy).[20] That framework addresses “the reflective discovery of information, the understanding of how information is produced and valued, and the use of information in creating new knowledge and participating ethically in communities of learning.”[21] It recognizes that information creation is a process; that authority is constructed and contextual; and that knowledge is not pure and nonpartisan, but is instead shaped by money, power, and privilege. [92] These propositions have become maxims in in today’s political discourse (I mean, just look at this mess!), which makes critical information literacy that much more crucial. Tracing the production process, and following the money and power, require looking under the platform at the infrastructures propping it up.

(93) The library’s spaces can serve as object lessons, pedagogical devices, in promoting infrastructural and information literacies. Students making use of Temple University’s or Connecticut College’s new visualization screens, for example, could explore not only the data, but also the methods and software and hardware, behind slick data visualizations, allowing them to reverse-engineer palatably presented truth claims [94] But you don’t need big screens to deconstruct a data visualization; tiny screens, or even Post-Its, will do. [95] Offering students a peek into the automated book storage and delivery systems at North Carolina and Grand Valley State, the University of Chicago, or Liberty University could pique their interest in robotics and AI. [96] Even less-sexy static stacks might prompt questions about collection management strategies and classification: about whose voices and what disciplines are afforded privileged positions, and which are relegated to off-site storage, for example.[22] [97] Such design elements, even of the most mundane variety, can pose material questions about the conventions of visual representation and classification and methodology.

(98) Meanwhile, several recently redesigned libraries have incorporated teaching gardens on their roofs and patios, and have proposed incorporating interfaces to building information management systems and environmental monitors, so students can use the building itself as a lab for sustainable infrastructural management. Here, building-infrastructure-as-teaching-tool has the potential to reframe environmental science and climate change, thought by some to be a Chinese conspiracy, into an immediately palpable phenomenon. As they pose questions through their material infrastructures, these facilities scaffold spaces of critique and embodied learning.

(99) Yet of course libraries aren’t the only spaces where such critical literacies are espoused. Libraries are part of larger infrastructural ecologies – networks of sites in which spatial, technological, intellectual and social infrastructures shape and inform one another. Public libraries have to consider their position in relation to other social support services and educational and cultural institutions. On college campuses, academic librarians also have to consider their relationship to different academic departments and labs, and to allied services and programs. Both need to consider context.

(100) As “libraries” have become “information commons” and “learning centers” – Grand Valley State University’s Mary Idema Pew Library Learning and Information Commons has decided to do it all – we’re often finding, mixed in with the stacks and seats, more writing and tutoring and advising centers, math emporia, tech help desks, distance-learning rooms – a variety of infrastructures that accommodate the entire lifecycle of the research and intellectual development process. [101] 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. [102] Alongside the makerspace and innovation lab at Temple University, the architects plan to incorporate a writing center, a digital scholar’s studio, a math and science center, a graduate scholars’ studio, and classrooms. [103] And Grand Valley’s library features a Knowledge Market (we might question the implications of that name), a peer-to peer-consulting service that helps students with research, writing, and presentation skills, and through its Data Inquiry Lab, promotes data literacy. [23]

(104) The Coalition of Networked Information’s Joan Lippincott argues that the library is a natural home for such media-production facilities and labs and support services, because, as a unit, it “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. “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 its technological and support resources – and to highlight librarians’ capacity to help faculty provide an appropriate “epistemic infrastructure” and pedagogical framework for all forms of knowledge-production, both high and low-tech, across the curriculum. [105] 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.

(106) Yet we don’t need dedicated virtual-reality labs and robots to promote informational and infrastructural literacy. If an institution is fortunate to have such facilities, it would do well to reflect on the ACRL’s information literacy frameworks, and acknowledge the power and privilege – and commercial technological dependencies – such resources represent. Cultivating critical thinking does not require expensive, proprietary technologies. In fact, such privileges, if not acknowledged as such, can be a detriment to the valuable empathic dimension of information literacy. [107] In a poignant piece she wrote shortly before the inauguration, social media scholar danah boyd lamented the failures of traditional media literacy – and the blind spots introduced by her own privilege as a scholar at an elite university. “Media literacy asks people to raise questions and be wary of information that they’re receiving,” boyd writes. And “[p]eople are [doing just tha]
. [108] Unfortunately, that’s exactly why we’re talking past one another…” [24] The recent election has driven home the fact – again, acknowledged in the ACRL’s frameworks – that expertise and epistemology, trust and respect are constructed differently in different communities. Those differences sort themselves out into a balkanized public sphere and partisan “bubbles.”

(100) Relying on Facebook or Buzzfeed or the Russian government! – or even librarians – to flag fake news isn’t enough, boyd says.

We need to enable people to hear different perspectives and make sense of a very complicated – and…overwhelming – information landscape. We cannot fall back on standard educational approaches…[or] assume that information intermediaries can fix the problem for us… [110] We need to get creative and build the social infrastructure necessary for people to meaningfully and substantively engage across existing structural lines.[25]

Libraries have long served as social infrastructures for those in search of intellectual camaraderie, for the disenfranchised and marginalized, for communities in crisis. And many libraries are “getting creative,” fashioning themselves as social infrastructures to confront and repair our civic rifts.


(111) This is where we transition to our third morphological form, the zone. We’re co-opting this species of space from Keller Easterling, to whom I introduced you about 25 minutes ago. [112] Easterling’s zone, the free trade zone, is a space of juridical and political-economic exception – an optimized, segregated enclave immune to local regulations and taxes, a space of secrecy and segregation. As Easterling describes it, it’s an emblem of the collapse of civil society and social responsibility.

(113) But what if that collapse is endemic to the whole habitat? Given that our political terrain, media landscapes, and cultural climate are so tragically polluted, perhaps we can reframe Easterling’s zone not as an enclave of corruption, but as a site of aspiration, of ethical exception. The library-as-zone could represent another “fugitive infrastructure,” which, you’ll remember, is “assembled to do different things, for different people, and according to different systems of value” – values defined not by profit, by the “growth machine,” by protectionism or patriarchy. [26] [114] Libraries can even serve as zones of resistance to dominant epistemological and pedagogical goals; they might offer alternatives to the institutionalization and naturalization of disciplinary divisions and the commodification of knowledge. [27] In embracing democratic values and ideals of social justice under threat in our broader culture, the library might represent a haven, a sanctuary, in which we can creatively re-envision and nurture our social and intellectual infrastructures.

(115) I’ve come to learn over the years that librarians are often a sober, acutely self-critical bunch, quick to acknowledge their institution’s failures, hypocrisies, and ignoble histories. So I feel compelled to note that framing the library as a zone of exception – or, if you’d prefer a more modest metaphor, [116] a Sloterdijkian “foam” unifying disparate cultural “bubbles” – needn’t be a hubristically heroic affair. Rather than building a utopia, you’re making cultural “insulation” – whatever metaphor works for you.

(117) Consider the Skokie Public Library’s CIVIC LAB, a space dedicated to building civic discourse around major issues: Black Lives Matter, climate change, immigration and executive orders, income inequality, LGBTQIA issues. After the election, they discussed “what Americans should know to be civically and culturally literate.” [28] Skokie’s librarians have curated mini-collections of multi-format materials examining these issues from a variety of perspectives, and for a range of age groups. They’ve created resource lists and designated a wall where patrons can vote on the salience of particular issues in their own lives. They’ve hosted a series of ongoing conversations, and organized workshops that let people know how to reach out to their elected officials. Some events even feature those local officials. Skokie’s lab lives in the corner of the library’s audio-visual space, and its conversations pop-up in various locations throughout the library. Its physical infrastructure consists mostly of standard library shelves, post-its, and chairs for interlocutors to sit in. Nothing fancy. What could academic librarians do in their own facilities – or what are they already doing – to build connections between civic engagement and critical information literacy in their own communities? [29]

I have one idea. [118] Archives and special collections are exceptional zones within the library that, despite the non-immediacy of their collections and the deliberate friction in their operating procedures, speak urgently to our contemporary concerns about the making of facts and authority. [119] They reveal which voices and whose artifacts get to constitute history; they show how certain people’s material cultural heritage is then transformed into widely accessible digital resources; [120] they highlight the labor and expertise through which resources are preserved and processed, and through which data are encoded and made accessible to researchers from around the world. Recalling the ACRL’s frameworks, they (and their knowledgeable staff, of course) offer a window onto information creation and valuation as a process, and they have the potential to reveal the systems of power and privilege that shape those processes.

The architecture of the archive and special collections can support these pedagogical goals. [121] Making space in the special collection for greater public access – both for a greater variety of publics, and a greater variety of aesthetic experiences, as many libraries have recently done – opens up the collection to innovative uses and unanticipated applications. [122] Special collection and rare book conservation spaces also have their own pedagogical potential. [123] When I’ve taken my students – those mythical “digital natives” – to various institutions, they’ve been fascinated by the intricate, embodied labor involved in conservation. [124] 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 file formats – is illuminating for students (when I shared this presentation with Pratt students, they suggested highlighting the digital labor of federated platforms, like DPLA, too). 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 and digital archives.

(125) Consider also spaces of exhibition. [126] In recent renovation projects several institutions have added exhibition space or upgraded their exhibition areas, or placed exhibits outside the special collections “security perimeter,” so as to potentially draw in visitors who wouldn’t otherwise be compelled to enter. [127] If you don’t have a dedicated gallery, even a simple vitrine will do. Such exhibitions, elaborate or modest, 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.

(128) At the risk of romanticizing the archives, which I realize humanities scholars are wont to do, much to your likely annoyance, I’ll say that archives and special collections require a different mode and pace and spirit of engagement than does, say, a JStor search or a 3D-printing session. [129] Libraries offer an array of such zones, which remind us that there are myriad ways for us to use our minds and bodies, to engage with others and with ideas. A library constitutes an assemblage of arenas for the performance of various subjectivities and the validation of different methodologies and epistemologies. [130] Consider Johns Hopkins’s Brody Learning Commons in Eisenhower Library, which 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. [131] Among the most popular spaces in the Commons is the 100-seat Quiet Reading Room featuring a fantastic “cabinet of curiosities” installation by Mark Dion, (132) representing the assemblage of tools through which knowledge can be made.

(133) In 2012, the University of Pennsylvania opened its Education Commons in an oddly shaped “leftover” space under the bleachers of Franklin Field Stadium. Architect Joel Sanders designed a series of “micro-climates” with “different degrees of acoustic, visual, and spatial enclosure.” We find here 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. [134] I imagine that many of your leftover spaces are more dungeon than cloud. But even with minimal investment, they can be made into functional “micro-climates” that expand the means by which your library ergonomically accommodates the sensing-and-making body, intellectually supports the thinking-and-sensing mind, and brings people together into a society.

(135) The library’s morphology can help to guide researchers and students through these environments. It can encourage them to try on the different subjectivities, ideologies, and epistemologies accommodated in its various zones; to explore and critically assess the intertwined infrastructures through which knowledge gets made and collected and disseminated; to exploit the library’s technological and architectural platforms in their own knowledge-production. But there’s only so much the building can do alone. Another critical species in this habitat – one in mostly mutualistic relationship with the library – [136] is the librarian. The library is the primary habitat for librarians, and it should provide the conditions for them to do what they’re best equipped to do. How can we ensure that these spaces allow librarians to do their best work; that our libraries are, to quote Vitruvius, commodious, firm, and delightful workspaces?

(137) In a 2014 symposium on the future of academic libraries, Chris Bourg issued the following advice: “[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.” [30] How we might design library spaces that serve as “architectural ambassadors” – as well as orientation tools – to library collections and services and to librarians? [138] 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? [139] How might librarians deterritorialize and reassemble the library’s parts to allow for new work patterns, new services, new applications – perhaps even “fugitive infrastructures” of information and education – to emerge?[31] [140] How might librarians and their partners push the institution to adopt new morphologies, new material assemblages, so that it can not only respond to, but might also help to reshape and repair its wounded habitat?

(141) I’ve read plenty of blog posts and articles from librarians arguing that the library simply has too much baggage – it’s too deeply steeped in its colonialist, patriarchal, and white supremacist histories; inextricably entangled in neoliberal agendas – to serve as a zone of resistance, as a fugitive infrastructure, a platform for emancipation.[32] [142] Yet I know of few other institutions that are more self-aware and self-critical of their injustices, both past and present. [143] Few places more knowledgeable about where we can find the evidentiary and historical anchors we need to reground our discourse in reason, empathy, and care. [144] I know of few other places or people better equipped to set the groundwork for all those reconciling and recalibrating discussions that need to happen. Few institutions that are themselves, essentially, architectural and programmatic “field guides” to finding our better selves in a reckless, uncivil world. There are few institutions in which I, for one, have more faith. [145]

[1] Laura Damon-Moore and Erinn Batykefer, The Artist’s Library: A Field Guide (Minneapolis: Coffee House Press, 2014); David Lankes, The New Librarianship Field Guide(Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2016); Bryce Nelson, The Academic Library Administrator’s Field Guide (ALA Editions, 2014); Mita Williams, “Hackerspaces, Makerspaces, Fab Labs, TechShops, Incubators, Accelerators … Where Do Libraries Fit In?” New Jack Librarian (February 2, 2015),

[2] Spencer Schaffner, Binocular Vision: The Politics of Representation in Birdwatching Field Guides (Amherst: University of Massachusetts Press, 2011): 3.

[3] Keller Easterling, Extrastatecraft: The Power of Infrastructure Space (New York: Verso, 2014).

[4] Benjamin Bratton, The Stack: On Software and Sovereignty (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2015).

[5] Jesse LeCavalier, The Rule of Logistics: Walmart and the Architecture of Fulfillment (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2016); Clare Lyster, Learning from Logistics: How Networks Change our Cities (Basel: Birkhäuser, 2016); Ned Rossiter, Software, Infrastructure, Labor: A Media Theory of Logistical Nightmares (New York: Routledge, 2016).

[6] Peter Sloterdijk, Bubbles Spheres (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2011); Globes Spheres II (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2014); Foams Spheres III (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2016).

[7] George Lakoff and Mark Johnson, Metaphors We Live By (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, [1980] 2003).

[8] Lisa Peet, “Academic Libraries Respond to Immigration Ban,” Library Journal (February 2, 2017):

[9] See Shannon Mattern, “Public In/Formation,” Places Journal (November 2016),, as well as Marcus Banks, “Fighting Fake News,” American Libraries (December 27, 2016),; danah boyd, “Did Media Literacy Backfire?” Medium: Points (January 5, 2017), See also Day of Facts,; the Trust Project,; the February 2017 MisInfoCon,; and the NYC Media Lab and Daily News Innovation Lab’s fake news conversation, Brian Kelley warns against using the terms “information of media literacy” in such programming; instead, he says, librarians need to engage patrons “where they are,” and to infuse pedagogy into organic interactions with online materials (Brian Kenney, “Three Critical Issues Facing Librarians in Trump’s America,” Publishers Weekly, January 13, 2017,

[10] Zoë Schlanger, “Rogue Scientists Race to Save Climate Data from Trump,” Wired, January 19, 2017,

[11] Deborah Cowen, “Infrastructures of Empire and Resistance,” Verso Blog, January 25, 2017,

[12] Deborah Cowen, “Infrastructures of Empire and Resistance,” Verso Blog, January 25, 2017,

[13] Alistair Black, “The Library as Clinic: A Foucauldian Interpretation of British Public Library Attitudes to Social and Physical Disease, ca. 1850-1950,” Libraries & Culture40:3 (2005): 416-34; Joan Giesecke, “Finding the Right Metaphor: Restructuring, Realigning, and Repackaging Today’s Research Libraries,” Journal of Library Administration 51:1 (January 2011): 54-65; Robert F. Nardini “A Search for Meaning: American Library Metaphors, 1876-1926,” The Library Quarterly 71:2 (April 2001): 111-40; Danuta A. Nitecki, “Conceptual Models of Libraries Held by Faculty, Administrators and Librarians: An Exploration of Communications in the Chronicle of Higher Education,” Journal of Documentation 49:3 (1993): 255-77; Richard A. Stoddart, “’Straight to the Heart of Things’ – Reflecting on Library Metaphors for Impact and Assessment,” The Journal of Creative Library Practice, October 29, 2013,

[14] George Lakoff and Mark Johnson, Metaphors We Live By (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1980 [2003]): 193, 235.

[15] David Lankes, “Library as Platform,”; David Weinberger, “Library as Platform,” Library Journal, September 4, 2012,

[16] Institute-Wide Task Force on the Future of Libraries, Preliminary Report, October 24, 2016, 6.

[17] Susan Leigh Star & Geoffrey C. Bowker, “How to Infrastructure,” in Leigh A. Lievrouw & Sonia M. Livingstone, eds., Handbook of New Media: Social Shaping and Social Consequences of ICTs (Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage, 2006): 230–44.

[18] Shannon Mattern, “Library as Infrastructure,” Places Journal (June 2014),

[19] “ACRL Board of Directors Affirms Commitment to Equity, Diveristy, Inclusion, Access,” ALA News, Press Release, January 31, 2017,;“ALA Opposes New Administration Policies that Contradict Core Values,” ALA News, Press Release, January 30, 2017,; American Library Association, Libraries Respond: 2016 Edition,

[20] Eamon Twell, “A Decade of Critical Information Literacy,” Communications in Information Literacy 9:1 (2015): 24-43; Melissa Gustafson, “Critical Pedagogy in Libraries: A Unified Approach,” Journal of Critical Library and Information Studies 1 (2017),

[21] Association of College and Research Libraries, “Framework for Information Literacy for Higher Education,” January 11, 2016,

[22] MIT librarian Lorrie McAllister asks: “How do we ensure equity and inclusion and a multi-perspective cultural history? A pitfall to avoid in collections is sidelining certain contributions, or arguing that books not in use should be stored off campus. People who have been marginalized in certain disciplines may continue to be overlooked if their work is off site. We want to avoid just housing the greatest hits in each discipline. We want to include other perspectives that enrich the view of the subject. It’s a self-fulfilling prophesy that if it’s off site, it will get less use.” (Sharon Lacey, “The Once and Future Library,” MIT News, April 19, 2016, See also Emily Drabinski, “Queering the Catalog: Queer Theory and the Politics of Correction,” Library Quarterly83:2 (2013): 94-111.

[23] See Tami Oliphant, “A Case for Critical Data Studies in Library and Information Studies,” Journal of Critical Library and Information Studies 1 (2017),

[24] danah boyd, “Did Media Literacy Backfire?” Medium, Data & Society Points, January 5, 2017,

[25] For examples of tech/app means to “escape the bubble,” see Amanda Hess, “How to Escape Your Political Bubble for a Clearer View,” New York Times, March 3, 2017,

[26] See, for instance, Marika Cifor and Jamie A. Lee, “Towards an Archival Critique: Opening Possibilities for Addressing Neoliberalism in the Archival Field,” Journal of Critical Library and Information Studies 1 (2017), and other works in the JCLIS.

[27] Ian Beilin, “Beyond the Threshold: Conformity, Resistance, and the ACRL Information Literacy Framework for Higher Education,” In the Library with the Lead Pipe, February 25, 2015,

[28] Miguel Figueroa, “Library Service in a World That’s Getting Closer,” American Libraries, January 23, 2017,; Amy Koester, personal communication, February 22, 2017; Amita Lonial, “Welcome to the Civic Lab,” Skokie Public Library Blog, September 6, 2016,; “Civic Lab,”

[29] Chris Bourg calls upon technologists and designers to design opportunities for serendipitous discovery into our digital platforms: “We need serendipity now more than ever – and we need it for as many people as possible. Because encountering new, unexpected ideas and information – being exposed to data, arguments, concepts – through books, for example — that we didn’t know existed, just might be the key to helping us all think in new ways, see the world through a different lens, and see new ways to solve old and sticky problems.” Chris Bourg, “Serendipity as Prick,” Feral Librarian, February 11, 2017,

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

[31] Natasha Gerolami, “The Library as Assemblage: Creative Institutions in an Information Society,” Journal of Documentation 71:1 (2015): 165-74.

[32] See, for example, Nina de Jesus, “Locating the Library in Institutional Oppression,” In the Library with a Lead Pipe, September 24, 2014,

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