Issue 13 : Fall 2007








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Ecology of Libraries

by Megan Shaw-Prelinger

15 Sep 2007

1. Ecology of Libraries

A library is a self-regulating, relatively self-contained system of organizing books: an Ecology of Books. I'm interested in using the notion of an ecology to talk about libraries not just because of the topicality of Earth Day events and recent conversations with colleagues about the meaning and portability of the term, but also because it's well-suited to frame my idea of a library as a system. An ecological system has inputs and outputs: ecologies are fluid; they're transactional; they exist to enable growth and new life. They ultimately don't exist without synergy between producers and users. In borrowing these senses to apply to libraries I'm thinking of libraries as existing to enable new work to be made by makers of all kinds: words, images, media.

Libraries are better positioned than archives to work for makers: Libraries have access at the core of their existence. Librarians are at the forefront of standing up to censorship and agitating for new modes of access.

There are different kinds of library ecologies:

What we need to learn from institutional libraries is to inter-operate -- to form a real network of resources for makers that function as a system. Imagine a future where all iconoclastic collections contain not only their own materials but keys to the collections of others. This future is part of a hybridized future, where divisions in use and sensibility between analog and digital libraries and collections will collapse and combine, and the characteristics and attributes of digital data sets and dusty shelves will converge and form a new hybrid analog-digital landscape of ideas.

3. Taxonomy

Small independent libraries have more fluidity in their ecologies, as I said. In the soft zone between official-dom and unofficial-dom we have the latitude to PLAY with the core structural element of taxonomy -- the system by which we arrange our collections. We have the freedom to declare: I am a Library, a Sculpture, a Social Act.

Institutional libraries have been defined by the Library of Congress cataloging system and the Dewey Decimal system for so many decades -- nay, centuries -- that those systems are losing their direct relationship to the contents of libraries:

Help me find sections -- defined sections -- on:

Online, the accidental archives formed by image- and memory-sharing websites and blogs have cultivated the user-generated tagging preferences referred to as folksonomies -- folksonomies are now flourishing while older taxonomies stagnate. Now some institutional libraries are debating whether, and how, to engage in folksonomic practice: They know, as we do, that the future of libraries is in analog-digital hybridization. Institutional libraries are constrained in their ability to innovate taxonomically: their inter-operability relies on their common language of the familiar and established hierarchies of knowledge. So adding, and integrating, a folksonomy is one possible way of bringing a born-digital mode of resource annotation (in this case user-generated tags) into the ecology of a large historic collection.

But it remains to be seen whether large libraries can incorporate folksonomic practice while avoiding developing undifferentiated “soups” of user-generated tags. These make SETS of information, but not systems.

For independent libraries, though, taxonomies have the freedom to be indigenous: they can be based on local knowledge, they can be fluid, they can co-habit with folksonomies, and they can respond to their users’ new discoveries of uses for materials. That is, they can benefit from the very short feedback loop between collector and access-provider -- who in a small independent library can be the same person. That person, as Librarian, can track user-preferences that they have noted, from when those notes start out looking like tags (Such as: “This was used for a movie still,” “this has been pulled six times this year,” “this was used for a collage -- twice!”) to when they evolve toward a curatorial act: This book on camp-out cookery has been pulled three times from the “food” section by people working on roadside cultural history -- so I’ll re-file it in that section. Or we can just stick a physical bookmark in a book to mark an interesting place for others to turn when they open a volume.

This kind of freedom lets independent libraries be self-regulating systems. It also lets libraries be responsive to their communities and better meet the needs of the reader/makers who visit them. And who knows what new meanings and associations will arise from works arranged in a manner dissimilar to how they are arranged anywhere else? A taxonomy that is indigenous to the collection that it describes may be representational in that direct sense, but it will enable new associations among old works -- associations that would seem abstract in another context -- almost “hypertext through physical arrangement.”

These are a few ways that small libraries can engage in the aesthetics of information. Library-building is about making resources available to artists; it can also be its own work of art.

5. Libraries and Users

All libraries are sites of transaction. The ecology of book collections has transactionality at the heart of its coherence as a system.

The hallowed process of academic research and writing is an older version of an activity now more familiar to us as creating user-generated content. Without new materials produced based on the old, libraries would become static warehouses.

Libraries are justified by their use; appropriation makes the repository richer. As Rick says, "make a quilt, not an advertisement."

Libraries have had copy machines for decades. The advent of scanning technology and digital photography and their use in libraries are natural extensions of a kind of library use that has been familiar for forty years.

Unfortunately, as we all know, the series of changes in copyright law since the 1970s has had a chilling effect on what were once everyday uses of libraries. Those changes have yielded an altered transactional landscape: Between the late 60s and mid-80s, libraries were open fields of works that could be copied and handed around a classroom or meeting room or incorporated into a poster. These days those meetings and transactions around the copier -- and now the scanner and the camera too -- are too often circumscribed with concern.

Libraries are ultimately user-generated places: So what is the future of libraries if users arrive to make work with their creativity pre-adjusted by fear of copyright prosecution? The ecology of libraries has to self-regulate to adapt to these changes in the external legal environment: They can do that by sticking with the organic process of creative production that is a foundation of their process in the first place. Access is more important than copyright! Most work made by artists will never run afoul of the authorities in the first place! We say: Come to the library, access its resources. Make work first, and worry later (if ever).

That is, meet, and make work. Because libraries are spaces of transaction not just between makers and materials but between makers and one another. When we opened, we had a provisional, experimental motto: "Build Community Around Collection!" It sounded like a good idea, but we didn't really know whether it would work until we tried it. What has happened is community has converged around the library more powerfully than we imagined. This has been an interesting counterpoint to some thoughts that the future of communities is in the digital world. And it has been intergenerational. We have had people from teens to seniors meet one another in the library and swap remarks about their finds.

Community building is another place where the ecology of small independent libraries functions differently than large institutional libraries due to a difference in their scale and their nature: The highly structured social spaces of research libraries follow a formula, while small independent libraries have a chance to dabble in alchemy and find gold.

We can meet users in unusual places: WE can install library cabinets in galleries; WE can make sets of books perform like miniature idea landscapes; WE can put tables at book fairs. -- last weekend at the Nature in the City Eco-Fair in McLaren Park we installed a literature table that resulted in more people looking at the history of the water supply of San Francisco in one day than had previously looked at it in two-and-a-half years! And, like Radical Reference does, WE can take to the streets and meet library users right where they are building their questions and formulating their new ideas.

4. The Analog-Digital Library

We believe that the current distinctions between analog and the emerging digital libraries are, if not exactly false, then temporal and therefore ultimately temporary.

Currently, analog libraries are browsable, local, and not generally digitally retrievable.

While digital libraries, by contrast, are un-stuck in cyberspace and free of sticky restrictions such as closing hours -- and yet they are often laden with barriers to entry; query-based; and therefore virtually unbrowsable. That little dialog box has hidden costs.

The cultural discourse vascillates over whether digital collections are rescuing analog collections by fixing their deteriorating contents in multiple copies in migratable formats, or destroying them by making them obsolete and justifying the discard of original materials. Too many electrons have been squandered on expounding this debate.

Rather than seeing digital books as active agents of either of these extremes, we prefer to see them as a form of media like (though not exactly like) any other form of media. Reading agency into a form of media -- as was done by early viewers of film who worried that film would destroy painting -- is a symptom of fresh encounters with new media that historically has tended to wear off after a decade or a generation.

A more useful model for visualizing the future of libraries is the idea that analog and digital collections can converge and hybridize. It is already happening that small, independent libraries are moving toward becoming analog-digital hybrids. Holt Labor Library is digitizing ephemera before books -- and has built a fantastic online scrolling ephemera museum; Provisions Library has built a resource agglomerator into their website, so that a search for materials on the website yields results from many media sources clustered together. In those cases the digital access portal of the library provides an added value over a physical site visit. These kinds of initiatives push libraries into a hybrid analog-digital future in advance of broad accessibility of book digitization technology.

In our library we have been very lucky to be able to digitize 2000 books in an ongoing project with the Internet Archive. For libraries like ourselves that are able to digitize whole books, the challenge becomes to resolve the puzzle that was well-put by Bob Stein of the Center for the Future of the Book: That we now know what digital books can look like, but we don't yet know what a digital bookshelf looks like.

This is where we see the near future of our library: We want to build an answer to the question of, How do you replicate in a digital environment the physical experience of browsing a bookshelf? How can you simulate the experience of finding something you weren't looking for, just because it was next to something else that caught your eye? How do you skin a library?

The answer may lie in a browsable movie, or it may be a video game. Gaming has become the default media interface for millions of people, yet it is still a bit transgressive. We're interested in it because it allows for the incorporation of surprise, adventure, and discovery into an online world -- qualities that are central to the library browsing experience.

Gaming environments allow synthetic geographies, and even ecologies, to flourish; they allow multi-user access, and allow users to meet one another and interact. Like our physical library they are social, customizable, and hackable. We don't yet know what our digital bookshelf will look like, but these are some of the things we're looking for it to become.

When we started library-building, we couldn't have imagined that where we find ourselves now would be such an exciting place. We want to encourage library-making as a normal, everyday, but very exciting activity -- some of the small independent libraries we've mentioned, including some that are the most innovative -- have only a few hundred books. The barrier to entry is low! Their library-building work has been not about numbers of books but about the same kinds of ideas that brought us to our project: reimagining the landscape of ideas; building community; putting ordinary people in touch with extraordinary materials. And rejecting digital determinism. We are not going to throw our books away! We are going to keep them installed, on shelves, for you to come visit and make new work from.

Megan Shaw-Prelinger is a San Francisco-based librarian, media archeologist, and cultural activist. She (with Rick Prelinger) will present, in a multi-media performance, a version of this essay at Other Cinema, on November 10th, 2007.