Participatory Libraries and the Possibility of Making a Mess

esse art + opinions 89 (winter 2017)


Artist Cliff Eyland, who grew up in Dartmouth, will produce some 5,000 pieces of artwork for the new library in downtown Halifax. (NEIL MCARTHUR)

Cliff Eyland, preparing Library Cards, Halifax Library, 2014. Photo Neil McArthur.

Libraries are becoming leisure destinations and personal hotspots. Far from the connotations of uptight and dusty, they are now “zones” for “connecting”—to experience-driven information providers, digitally distributed publications and social media, as well as to an increased range of programs specifically designed to engage the community. Neither “patron” nor “user” seems to be the word for the clientele of the contemporary library, who may just as likely be chatting or surfing as reading or researching. Perhaps “library-goer” is more apt. It emphasizes the passage through the library space, which is no longer (and never was) a simple container for the free exchange of books but, rather, a sort of machine for defining one’s identity.


But before enumerating the gains of this paradigm shift, let’s take a brief (nostalgic) account of the losses: the loss of card catalogues, stiff-backed wooden chairs and “sexy librarians”; of adventuring through dimly-lit stacks and the spark of delight when the book right beside the one you were looking for proves to be the one you really need; of the feeling of humility when the pile of books on our desk is greater in mass and height than we are ourselves (not to mention the relative weightiness of the knowledge the books contain); of plodding through sustained arguments rather than clicking through modular, easily digestible digital sound-bites; and perhaps most notably, of actual paper and ink books, which are now disappearing into the mysterious underbelly of the new hypermodern library only to be retrieved by staff or robots.


But let’s not get all sentimental, for the times, they are a-changin’

Come writers and critics Who prophesize with your pen And keep your eyes wide The chance won’t come again And don’t speak too soon For the wheel’s still in spin And there’s no tellin’ who That it’s namin’ For the loser now Will be later to win For the times they are a-changin’[1]

And that’s a good thing. Bob Dylan meet Martha Stewart. In the rhetoric of equal access and social justice that is often attached to libraries, this hypothetical introduction is not so absurd. But the “spatial imaginary” of libraries is a far cry from their “spatial reality.” Much like the conversion of royal art collections into public museums in the nineteenth century symbolized the fall of the ancien régime and the transfer of power into the hands of the people, libraries have symbolized democracy since their first inception. However, both libraries and museums were often housed in impressive buildings that reflected the authority of the governing institution and, in reality, only a small percentage of the public passed through their doors. Only in the last few decades are they starting to shed their aura of privilege and power. Bob Dylan’s recent Nobel prize for literature is an odd harbinger of the twenty-first-century library: the rebelliousness and dissent associated with him is now bound, catalogued and shelved, effectively re-packaging 1960s oppositional politics as a style that holds mass appeal. Times have indeed changed but the question remains hanging: has any actual power been transferred from the “winners” to the “losers”?

In the visual arts, the institutionalization of critical practices continues to be met with great reservation, as does the collapse of the high/low distinction. However, not only are both co-option and collusion necessary for an artist to gain visibility and currency (monetary and cultural), but also, the possibility of launching a critique from an external position is now theoretically suspect. The oppositional practice of “institutional critique” now operates as a genre within the art world, not extrinsic to it. As Jennifer Tobias of MoMA asks, “What is the nature of ‘messing’ in the fully participatory museum? How do contemporary ideas about the social role of art museums change relationships between participant and observer, between collusive and critical actions, between what can and can’t be messed with?”[2] The growing list of artist-in-residence programs in libraries (recently including the Stuart Hall Library as well McGill’s Osler Library), speaks to their openness to being messed with and the same questions apply: in the new “participatory” library, what is the nature of the participation? Is it possible to intervene in the library’s procedures in more than a symbolic way?

Cliff Eyland has been making a “mess” in libraries since the early 1980s, long before their holdings began to be digitalized. Since then he has been inserting drawings the size of standard file cards for library-goers to find by surprise when perusing the card-catalogues.[3] Library-goers were given no instructions as to what to do with the cards should they chance upon them; they could keep them, leave them or move them to another book or another library. In 1997, Eyland was invited to insert File Card Works Hidden in Books at the Raymond Fogelman Library at the New School University in New York. In 2005, he was asked to stop by a new librarian who said, “We pay people to take out what people like you put in.”[4] Indeed, like the unwanted marginalia of a weary or distracted student, Eyland’s drawings annotate the books in which they are inserted and speak to everyone who comes across them in an intimate and unpredictable way. According to one reviewer,

Eyland’s endless intellectual curiosity has been channeled into an artistic bibliophilia that recognizes the book not only as a repository of ideas but also as an object, with its own look, feel, even smell. Eyland’s work celebrates the eroticism of ideas, challenging cultural stereotypes of libraries as hushed, sterile centres of controlled and regulated information. In Eyland’s view, libraries are places of chaos and entropy, home to sudden, idiosyncratic urges, quirks of taste and all kinds of fertile and promiscuous knowledge-swapping.[5]

In the new Halifax Central Library, these intimate “promiscuous” encounters have been turned into an official public display: five thousand file card sized paintings are permanently installed on the library’s wall as part of the provincial art in architecture program (Library Cards, 2014). The library, which includes a couple of cafés and a space for people coming off the street, has become an active social hub in the downtown core and has succeeded in drawing in people who would not previously have gone to libraries. In this context, Eyland’s conceptual practice can no longer be thought of as an intervention; rather, the artist is one of the many participants invited to mingle in the new library space among the new library-goers.

The understated sensuality of Eyland’s hidden file cards is one of the losses incurred when libraries switch to automated storage and retrieval systems that are kept out of view. Elisa Lee and Adam Hinshaw’s intervention at the library of University of Technology, Sydney (UTS), is an interesting “digital” counterpoint to Eyland’s “analogue” work. During their residency at the library, the artists asked themselves how they could make visible the workings of the university’s state-of-the-art underground Library Retrieval System (LRS), which stores books in 11,808 steel storage bins. They asked, “What happens when you visualize the interaction between organic human behaviour and a rigid mechanical storage system?” The answer came in the form of 11-808 (2014–15), a playful video installation of the comings and goings of books requested from the LRS. Each time an item is moved, a virtual catalogue card flies in or out of the bin where it’s located. The books’ titles also appear on the screen, allowing viewers to track what subjects are most in demand. Interestingly, even though the books are classified according to topic using the standard Dewey Decimal System, they are stored in the LRS according to the height of their spine. Consequently they may land in many different bins among books of many different topics. As such, 11-808 imaginatively questions what new types of “promiscuous knowledge-swapping” might occur between the books themselves as they mingle beyond the limits of their colour-coded classifications.[6]

Similar to Eyland’s, Lee’s and Hinshaw’s work, Julia Weist’s understated interventions use humour to question the library’s procedures, specifically that of deaccessioning books. In an early project titled With Drawn I (2007), she collected discarded library books and displayed them on a simple shelf in the gallery. With Drawn II (2007) is a modified discarded wooden card catalogue filled with the file cards of five thousand books deaccessioned from the libraries of twenty-five states. In a similar project she exhibited discarded and borrowed copies of her own romance novel, Sexy Librarian.[7] More recently, Weist questioned Google’s feature called “In-depth articles,” which was launched in 2013 after a study reporting that “only 10 percent of searches required more than a quick, fact-based answer… Algorithmically speaking, content should be homogenous, popular, recent, shallow, and short.”[8] Weist asks,

What could this mean for art? I’d like to think that an art history major turned software engineer is having a private chuckle somewhere in California. Because how could someone at Google not have realized? With the In-depth feature, the company has essentially created a math machine for determining canonization.

Jeff Koons has In-depth results, Janine Antoni does not. Cindy Sherman, yes, Robert Gober, no. I Googled a few new names, which turned into making a list, which turned into creating a database. I wanted to know what the Google canon looked like.[9]

In Industry vs. Machine: Canonization, Localization, and the Algorithm (2014), Weist organized her research in a wheel-like “information visualization” organized according to how artists appear to have been selected by the “in-depth” algorithm. As you scroll around the wheel, the statistics of specific artists appear in pop-up text boxes. Just like the Library of Congress can decide whether or not a subject is important enough to merit its own subject heading, thereby impacting the circulation of ideas on that subject, recognition by Google—or the lack thereof—can significantly impact an artist’s career. In both cases, it is the interface that determines what does and what does not get sanctioned as “important knowledge.”

Rather than idealizing the library as a quintessential democratic space, each of these interventions showed it to be a site of both rigid order and creative invention. They also demonstrate the art world’s current interest in participation and social engagement, and its institutionalization of critical practices. Ultimately, for these artists the library functioned more like a “muse” for their work than a site of contestation. Hal Ingberg’s 1% commission at the new NDG Cultural Centre bypasses critique altogether and engages library-goers in a more sensorial way. As you walk through the space you may notice the shifting colours of a large glass wall, which has a film installed on it that refracts the light in variable ways according to the viewer’s position. The installation, titled Chromazone (2016) suggests that libraries and their “goers” are in a constant state of transformation and mutual invention.

According to Joseph Pine and James Gilmore, who first published The Experience Economy in 1999, we have now entered the next phase, the “transformation economy.”[10]  That is, customers want to be personally transformed (physically, emotionally, intellectually or spiritually) by the products, services or experiences they invest in. Libraries have been apt to embrace this cultural shift (or business strategy) and offer a plethora of ways to transform oneself. In this light, Ingberg’s Chromazone functions like a signpost for participatory libraries: it envelops library-goers in a quiet phenomenological experience that suggests a spectrum of reciprocity between the space and the viewer. On the spectrum between criticality and collusion, however, it is resolutely the latter.

Quasi-spiritualism aside, the idea of personal transformation is not new to libraries, given their long-standing, almost mythical association with bottom-up self-directed learning. But whether or not the new participatory libraries are now, at last, actualizing this imaginary upward transformation is still up for debate. Certainly they have responded to the economic shift toward “transformation,” as well as the ideological shifts toward “openness” in education and “participation” in general. The egalitarian, highly utopian rhetoric that equal access somehow equates equal opportunity creates a “spatial imaginary” in which all participants are innately self-defining and “all participants’ voices will be equally valued, and that the working of systemic power and privilege around categories such as gender, class and sexuality will be suspended.”[11] However, as Lesley Gourlay argues, unfettered access to library resources does not in itself critique or challenge the power dynamics at play in any particular institution. The interventions by Eyland, Lee, Hinshaw, and Weist provide us with opportunities to identify, visualize and question certain aspects of how libraries function, yet they make no real mess. In the new participatory library, there may be more participants than before in both number and diversity, however, at the end of the day, their participation is more symbolic of agency than actually catalyzing the transfer of power from “winners” to “losers.”


[1] Bob Dylan. “The Times They Are A-Changin.’” Song Lyrics. 1963.

[2] Jennifer Tobias, “Messing with MoMA: Critical Interventions at the Museum of Modern Art, 1939–Now,” May 26, 2016,

[3] NSCAD Library, 1981; Raymond Fogelman Library, 1997–2005; National Gallery of Canada Library & Archives, 2013.

[4] Cliff Eyland, in conversation with the author, November 2016.

[5] Alison Gillmor, “Cliff Eyland,” Border Crossings 34, no. 2 (May 2015): 90–91.

[6] In conjunction with 11-808, the artists recorded an imaginary conversation between the books in the LRS titled Conversations (2015).

[7] Julia Weist. Discarded library books I collected; Library books I wrote; Library books I discarded; Discarded library books I wrote; Discarded library books I collected, plus diplomas (2006–2013).

[8] Julia Weist, “Industry vs. Machine: Canonization, Localization, and the Algorithm,” Red Hook Journal, March 3, 2015,

March 3, 2015.

[9] Ibid.

[10] Joseph Pine and James Gilmore. The Experience Economy [updated edition]. London and New York: Harvard Business Review Press, 2011.

[11] Lesley Gourlay, “Open education as a ‘heterotopia of desire.’” Learning, Media and Technology 40, no. 3 (2015): 314.

This entry was posted in Articles. Bookmark the permalink.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s