Public Library, a Fighting Concept!

In November of 2014 Public Library saw another iteration in the form of a conference and an exhibition organized by Württembergischer Kunstverein Stuttgart and Akademie Schloss Solitude. Public Library is the synergy of two efforts. First, it makes the case for the institution of public library and its principle of universal access to knowledge. Second, it is an exploration and development of distributed internet infrastructure for amateur librarians. Public Library was initiated by Marcell Mars and Tomislav Medak. – Here they write about the crisis of a social institution & the dream of Public Library in the age of Internet.

In the catalog of history the institution of public library is listed in the category of phenomena of which we humans are most proud of. Along with free public education, public healthcare, the scientific method, Universal Declaration of Human Rights, Wikipedia, free software… It’s one of those almost invisible infrastructures that we start to notice only once they go extinct. A place where all people can get access to all knowledge that can be collected seemed for a long time a dream beyond reach – until the egalitarian impetus of social revolutions, the Enlightenment idea of universality of knowledge, and the exceptional suspension of the commercial barriers of copyright made it possible.

The Internet has, as in many other situations, completely changed our expectations and imagination about what is possible. The dream of a catalog of the world – a universal access to all available knowledge for every member of society – became realizable. A question merely of the meeting of curves on a graph: the point at which the line of global distribution of personal computers meets that of the critical mass of people with access to the Internet. Today nobody lacks the imagination necessary to see public libraries as part of a global infrastructure of universal access to knowledge for literally every member of society. However, the emergence and development of the Internet is taking place precisely at the point at which an institutional crisis — one with traumatic and inconceivable consequences — has also begun.

Forces of Reaction are Staging a Thermidor

The reactionary forces of the »old regime« are staging a »Thermidor« to suppress the public libraries from pursuing their mission. Today public libraries cannot acquire, cannot even buy digital books from the world’s largest publishers. The small amount of e-books that they were able to acquire they must destroy after only twenty-six lendings. Libraries and the principle of universal access to all existing knowledge that they embody are losing, in every possible way, the battle with a market dominated by new players such as, Google, and Apple.

In 2012, Canada’s Conservative Party led government cut financial support for Libraries and Archives Canada (LAC) by Can $ 9.6 million, which resulted in the loss of 400 archivist and librarian jobs, the shutting down of some of LAC’s Internet pages, and the cancellation of the further purchase of new books. In only three years, from 2010 to 2012, some 10 percent of public libraries were closed in Great Britain. The phenomena of which we people are most proud of are being undercut and can easily go extinct.

Public Library – Exhibition, Württembergischer Kunstverein 2014

In the Libraries of Political Learning

For over 41 years Herman Wallace, a Black Panther activist sentenced to life imprisonment for murder under questionable circumstances, lived in solitary confinement in Louisiana’s state prison system. In 2003, artist Jackie Sumell asked Herman a question: »What kind of house does a man who has lived in a 6’ x 9’ box for over 30 years dream of?« The answer to this question was made manifest in a remarkable project called The House that Herman Built. For this dream house Herman composed a list of books that were the foundation of his political learning while in prison. Although Herman passed away in 2013, the project has transitioned from building a virtual home to building Herman’s actual dream home in his birth city of New Orleans. Whilst Herman’s home is being built, the library with the books on that list remains physically in the Akademie Schloss Solitude. But also in the form of a Digital Herman’s Library.

Public library as a social institution is premised on the notion of universal access to knowledge. But as Herman Wallace’s example teaches us, the universality is contested and access is denied to many. It has to be fought for and fought for starting from the circumstances of which we, the librarians, are not the master. How and what knowledge is made accessible cannot be easily thought away from the fact that it should be made accessible, in practical terms these questions are co-extensive. They give the concept of universality of access a fighting, disobedient, transformative relief.

Learning to become a Librarian

In Akademie Schloss Solitude there’s a scanner for digitizing books. Public Library has set up similar scanners in Ljubljana, Zagreb, Belgrade, Berlin, London, Calafou. Every modern day copier is a scanner, too. All that a librarian needs is a workflow and tools. And everybody can learn to be a librarian, too. A good one.

In the catalog of History, the emancipatory revolutions are listed in the category of phenomena of which we humans are most proud of. They empower the oppressed and give them the means to reach their dreams: That the dream of the public library in the age of the Internet, the dream of universal access to all human knowledge, should not be relinquished. We cannot let this happen. And artists and hackers and potentially everyone else can take it upon themselves to make this dream a reality.

Melvil Dewey would be happy. »Free schools & free libraries for every soul« shall never wither away.

Text by Tomislav Medak & Marcell Mars

Public Library – Conference, Württembergischer Kunstverein 2014