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National Library Week: Fantasies of the Library

We are celebrating National Library Week with Fantasies of the Library, a book that imagines the library as both the keeper of books and curator of ideas—as a platform of the future. The following excerpt from Anna-Sophie Springer and Etienne Turpin's Introduction explains how and why the project came together. 

Like libraries, there are many kinds of fantasies, so which should you expect to encounter? We have set out to create a book about the library as a curatorial space—a physical knowledge infrastructure organized as the veritable index of cultural and epistemological orders and aspirations, but also as a virtual domain of possibilities for other orders, logics, and dispositions. Whether the fantasy is best characterized by the ambition for a correct and complete ordering of knowledge, or by the attempt to remake inherited orders in pursuit of less authoritarian styles of learning, we leave up to you to decide. But, before you begin, we want to share with you a few remarks about the book itself.

Originally published in a first edition under the same title, Fantasies began as a part of the intercalations: paginated exhibition series, which we edited together as members of the SYNAPSE International Curators’ Network at the Haus der Kulturen der Welt in Berlin. The project is conceived as a curatorialeditorial space to both host and critically reflect on contemporary exhibition-making practices and their modes of knowledge co-production, while also enabling explorations of the book as a form of exhibition architecture in relation to other aesthetic practices in the Anthropocene. How does this agenda relate to the library as both a curatorial space and a technology for thinking?

In 1931, the Indian mathematician and librarian Shiyali Ramamrita Ranganathan published Five Laws of Library Science as a concise guide for librarians: 1) Books are for use; 2) Every reader, her book; 3) Every book, its reader; 4) Save the time of the reader; 5) The library is a growing organism. We like these heuristics because they make it clear that the library is a fundamentally relational space—with connections and affinities distributed among the librarians and the library users, the books themselves, the interior space of the collection and the world outside its walls. While libraries have traditionally been considered systems to aggregate and access knowledge, they are no less infrastructures for thought in need of special care. We explore the library as a system and an infrastructure, but also as a curatorial space enabling custodianship, solidarity, exploration, and the promiscuity of affective and conceptual constellations. Especially influenced by ideas of praxis and change—Ranganathan’s first and fifth laws—Fantasies is a book about the ways we organize and archive culture and scholarship, and how these assemblages shape, in turn, the ways we think, read, and write.

Change has become so ubiquitous that in our present situation we can easily fail to think about the speed and consequence of even epochal shifts. When the concept of the Anthropocene can be rendered as just another theme for the perpetuation of biennales and conferences, it is hard to grasp the value of overcoming binaries. What’s really at stake when transgressing these alleged divides between nature and culture, human and non-human, if their politics and history aren’t taken seriously? We became more interested in the problems of organization and discipline. Must order and creativity be considered oppositional practices? Isn’t the overvalued estimation of creativity, especially in the register of the curatorial, often just a permissive password that allows for loose associations and the absence of rigorous engagement under the neoliberal big tent? Fantasies are not—as is so often imagined— the product of spontaneous invention; they require care, cultivation, and discipline to truly disrupt their systems of containment.

The productive unruliness of book collections and the potent “spirit of freedom” which Virginia Woolf associates with the practice of reading are taken up in Anna-Sophie Springer’s essay, “Melancholies of the Paginated Mind,” and her visual essay, “Reading Rooms Reading Machines.” Discussing medieval examples, Aby Warburg’s Hamburg reading room, and André Malraux’s imaginary museum, as well as the vulnerable but steadfast library of the Occupy movement, and a mobile library initiated by the Asia Art Archive, inter alia Springer maps how the rigid organization of knowledge can be renegotiated in pursuit of more experimental connections, arrangements, and display.

The first of the three interviews featured in Fantasies also deals with the desire for a singular arrangements among the collection. In conversation with Erin Kissane, Megan Shaw Prelinger and Rick Prelinger of the Prelinger Library speak of their love for getting lost while exploring a library’s open shelves, and how they developed their very own taxonomic imaginary for organizing their stacks. Additional reflections on the role of cultural memory and the archive are unfolded throughout our conversation with Hammad Nasar from the Asia Art Archive. The question at the center of this interview is how to inject the archive with positions from the perceived geographical or intellectual margins in order to re-calibrate hierarchies and unleash possible future trajectories by re-evaluating, in the same movement, how we read these entangled histories.

While producing these Fantasies, we encountered the artistic work of Andrew Norman Wilson; his series ScanOps (2012–14), which conjures a spectre of cultural appropriation, is intercalated throughout this volume. “ScanOps” is the internal referent for Google’s book scanning facilities in California; the series collects the errata which occur during the digitization process that produces Google Books. The images of book pages defaced by accidental stains, smears, and dirty rubber gloves are a profound reminder of the physical labor that generates the allegedly universal cognitive access to content owned and further monetized by Google. But the erratic magenta fingers also implicate the proprietary software used by Google to quickly detect these conspicuous pink digits and thereby delete any trace of the labor and laborers producing their digital investments. They reveal the processes required to format knowledge—as such, they also issue an uncanny reminder about the formidable difficulty of (ever) fully erasing its history of production.

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Books, news, and ideas from MIT Press

The MIT PressLog is the official blog of MIT Press. Founded in 2005, the Log chronicles news about MIT Press authors and books. The MIT PressLog also serves as forum for our authors to discuss issues related to their books and scholarship. Views expressed by guest contributors to the blog do not necessarily represent those of MIT Press.