To kick off National Library Week, we’re pleased to feature a beautiful and intriguing project by Bonnie Mak, Assistant Professor of Library and Information Science at the University of Illinois, and Julia Pollack, an artist and librarian-in-training at the University of Illinois Graduate School of Library and Information Science.  “A Cabinet of Curiosity: The Library’s Dead Time” is an exhibition that examines the overlooked parts of librarianship and the ways that information is prepared for consumption.  The exhibition took place for only two nights in mid-Febrary in Champaign, Illinois, and we’re grateful that Bonnie and Julia have taken the time to talk with us about their inspiring project and share some photos of the event.

"A Cabinet of Curiosity: the Library's Dead Time," by J. Pollack and B. Mak. Photo: Bonnie Mak

Please describe the project.

“A Cabinet of Curiosity: The Library’s Dead Time” is an attempt to create an alternative archive of librarianship and the library. By foregrounding the daily practices of the librarian, we hope to bring to light the ongoing processes of production that configure any engagement with information.

We conceived of the Cabinet project as an aesthetic embodiment of scholarship: the process of constructing the exhibition was itself part of the practice of research. As we were building the Cabinet, and actively formulating and shaping it for publication, we could reflect upon the ways in which information in general is carefully formulated and prepared for consumption, not only in the library, but also elsewhere.

 Julia, you are an artist and librarian-in-training.  What is your artistic background? Bonnie, have you been involved in art projects like this before?

JULIA: I am going to graduate this summer with my Masters in Library Science from the University of Illinois. I have always been involved in making art and enjoyed the freedom of stepping between paint, performance, and digital work. I do not have a degree in art but have always considered making and practising as a way of life. I guess I would call myself a painter, even though there were no paintings in this show.

Photo: Bonnie Mak

BONNIE: I haven’t been involved in exhibitions of this scale before. In my book project, How the Page Matters, I tried to experiment with ways in which an academic argument could be embodied physically —in that particular case, the material instantiation of the book itself, including its cover, layout, typeface, and so on. I see the Cabinet project as an extension of that mode of work.

How did the two of you come to work on this project together? 

JULIA: At the beginning of the academic year, the Graduate School of Library & Information Science (GSLIS) holds an orientation event during which each member of the faculty describes their research to the incoming students. After listening to Bonnie, I wrote her name down on the inside of my sketchpad so that I would remember to take every class she was teaching.

BONNIE: Julia took Libraries, Information, Society, a core course in the Master’s program at the University of Illinois with me, and subsequently took my seminar in History of the Book. In that latter course, Julia developed a final project that was a performance around the encyclopedia in the Main Library of the University of Illinois. A version of that work, “The Universal Standard Encyclopedia,” was selected for exhibition in the student-curated show, Accepted Knowing: Peer Review, in the Fall of 2011. We began working together on an Independent Study that same semester on ways to re-imagine the librarian and librarianship. The final project for the Independent Study culminated in “A Cabinet of Curiosity: the Library’s Dead Time.”

What inspired the Cabinet of Curiosity: The Library’s Dead Time? 

The Independent Study was originally conceived as a way to explore librarianship in response to shrinking budgets for public programs and a continuing rhetoric of obsolescence that surrounds traditional bricks-and-mortar libraries. Our project questions the ways that we are currently defining and measuring usefulness in the library, and explores alternate ways of accounting for productivity.

Where does the  phrase “The Library’s Dead Time” come from?

The cabinet of curiosity of the Renaissance signals a space in which meaning can be actively created and re-created —by adding different pieces, by rearranging them, by developing different narratives around them. But more significantly, the activities of collection, description, and organization in the early modern period were stimulated by aesthetic motivations, which are routinely overlooked as a possible rationale for understanding the world in a 21st-century context. Traditional scholarship offers rich metaphors and proven tools by which to examine and come to grips with new media; by recalling the cabinet of curiosity of the sixteenth century, we invite others also to look to the past to help us understand the present and future.

“Dissection: Physiology of an Object” Photo: Bonnie Mak

We borrow the notion of “dead time” from Cinema Studies. According to Mary Ann Doane, dead time is time that is edited out of the final cut, because it is considered unproductive for the narrative of the film. You can imagine a scene in which someone is depicted getting out of bed, followed by a scene in which the same person is now at work in the office. But how did she get there? Why are those two moments constructed as “events,” while the time in which she got dressed and travelled to work was not? What happened to that elapsed time?

Kathleen Biddick applied this notion of dead time to the archive: not only is dead time about selective seeing, it’s also importantly about selective archiving. We mapped these ideas onto the metrics of performance by which a librarian’s productivity is judged.  Why is her productivity marked in terms of statistical data: number of encounters with patrons, of books shelved, of documents delivered? What kind of selective archive does that create? Why privilege those metrics and not others? What of her other practices that go unmarked and unmeasured? Is there a way to draw attention to those practices that have been made invisible in the dead time of the library? And, as librarians, do we want to re-think the metrics that we’re using to evaluate performance and productivity?

Do you think there’s anything about the library at this particular point in history that caused you to bring this to life now?

We were struck by Walter Benjamin’s description of the shrivelling aura of the actor. He argued that the advent of cinema dislocated the audience from the actor —they no longer were partaking in a shared time and space —and therefore undermined the physical presence of the actor. In the same way, we suppose that librarianship appears vulnerable because the work of the librarian seems to have been displaced or made invisible. We have been using statistical data to measure performance in the library for over thirty years now, so that’s certainly not new. But it is also the case that the use of certain technologies have helped further to erode the bodily presence of the librarian. New strategies of outreach, such as virtual reference desks and online text chat, underscore that the librarian is at a physical remove. Moreover, online catalogues, databases, and digital archives enable and encourage the patron to perform queries independently, at anytime from almost anywhere. The patron hardly encounters the librarian, and begins to suspect that she may be superfluous in the transfer of information. But it’s not without reason that this has been made the case —we argue that it’s a rhetorical construction; the librarian still exists in these spaces, even in the digital ones, but her presence has been purposely made difficult to detect.

Julia performs the part of the librarian. Photo: Laura Spradlin

I understand that the Cabinet of Curiosity was presented in a series of performances, or tours.  Can you describe the night(s) of the event?  What was the response from viewers? 

“A Cabinet of Curiosity: the Library’s Dead Time” was a two-night spectacle in which Julia performed the archetype of the librarian, helping to explain the Cabinet to the audience. The guided tours were a way to re-assert the presence of the librarian, and to highlight the ways in which the librarian has always been —and continues to be —critical to the production and circulation of knowledge.

The response from the viewers was uniformly positive and enthusiastic. We reached a large and diverse group of scholars, librarians, artists, students, children, and members of the community at large. There seemed to be a genuine interest from the audience to be informed by the art; they really wanted to learn something —and they had the sense that there was something to be learned. An art gallery can sometimes be a place in which people feel like they’re not allowed to ask questions and that they should somehow “know” what is going on; by putting a librarian in that space, we created an environment in which people felt comfortable asking questions to help them come to grips with the exhibition. In this way, we were able to exploit —and indeed celebrate —that the librarian is conventionally associated with the provision of assistance. There were easily 20 to 30 people in each tour, and some viewers came back two or three times in the same night.

What will happen to the exhibit now?  Will it remain on view for a period of time?

“A Cabinet of Curiosity: the Library’s Dead Time” was only a two-night show. But versions of it will be re-performed: for instance, at the upcoming Research Showcase at the Graduate School of Library & Information Science at the end of March. We’re also creating a portable version to show at the conference, Knowledge in a Box, which takes place in July in Kavala, Greece.

Did either of you have a favorite part of the show?  Or a part that was most meaningful to you?

JULIA: The most important part of the evening for me was seeing the librarians I work with enjoy and critique the show. All of this is really to honor the work of all the librarians I know, and all those who have come before me. I think every occupation should have the chance to be art and considered artful.

"Masked Labour" Photo: Laura Spradlin

BONNIE: My favourite part was “Masked Labour,” a performance piece that was a meditation on the human costs involved in digitization. The erasure of the processes and practices that underpin the collection, classification, and curation of digitally-mediated materials is designed to generate an aura of information, lending a veneer of objectivity or neutrality to these online resources. But our information technologies depend upon human expenditures of all sorts: Apple products, among others, are manufactured by non-elite labourers at Foxconn factories in China, which saw as many as eighteen attempted suicides in 2010, with fourteen resulting in death. Google searches are powered in part by coal, a fossil fuel linked to serious environmental and health hazards that may include the increased emission of heavy metals and exposure to background radiation, as well as lung cancer.  These histories are rarely represented in narratives about the so-called digital revolution. I enjoyed being able to draw attention in —an arresting way —to the human labour that supports the cultural resources that seem to float around in a disembodied way on the Internet. The performance allowed us to embody such information starkly, and bring to light its costs.

Anything else you’d like to share?

JULIA: Every time I tell someone that I am going to be a librarian, they ask “Aren’t you afraid the internet is stealing your job?”; I always answer, “No, you need us now more than ever!”

For more photos of “A Cabinet of Curiosity: The Library’s Dead Time,” click here. For a video tour of the exhibition, click here.  

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