Thursday, September 07, 2006

A collection of thoughts on curating and libraries

My wee little mind was blown this morning as I learned about two particular libraries from the if:book blog: The Prelinger Library and The Reanimation Library. Both are new libraries dedicated to preserving visually rich material for the purposes of repurposing by artists, historians, scholars, writers and other cultural workers.

From the overview and philosophy section of the Reanimation Library:

Of particular interest to the Reanimation Library is the loss of visual information that occurs during the aforementioned process of weeding. Even though text is often accompanied by images, collection development policies generally assign little weight to the graphic dimension of a work, unless that work happens to be graphically driven (i.e. a book on a visual artist, graphic design, or an atlas). Most library collection development policies place priority on acquiring items with current textual information and replacing items where that information is lacking or outdated. This priority, coupled with the continual production of new editions as fields of knowledge evolve, create the growing fossil record of outdated books—a veritable feast for image archaeologists. The Reanimation Library is committed to building a collection of materials that are rich in visual information, regardless of the currency of their textual information. The Library serves as a repository and, more pertinently, an access point for such materials.

This is beautiful, mad genius.

Libraries, like the academic library where I am employed, must weed their Reference collections in order to give these collections meaning as a Reference Collection is defined as useful works that one refers to frequently. But if one saves the visually rich detritus of the Reference Collection and then turns this material into a collection unto itself, then these useless works become a unique collection that gains value through a new community.

I was so captivated by the idea of these libraries that over the course of the day I kept thinking about libraries and collections. When does a collection of books become more valuable than when its part of a larger library or works? Are libraries just troves of unprocessed ore? Should we think of libraries in terms of collections of items instead of concentrating on the individual items themselves?

Library exhibitions blur the line between the library and the museum. When you select items from a large collection and display them to demonstrate an idea that brings them all together, it begins sounds to me like you are curating an museum.

What's the difference between a library and a museum anyway? Well coincidently, also today Richard Akerman posted this succinct comparison:
library = community access to reusable stuff
museum = community access to unique stuff
archive = nobody/privileged access to important stuff
He also makes this important point: "'Reusable stuff' is practically the definition of online content".

The Tate Museum offers a very limited means to "curate" your own museum. Perhaps libraries should allow users to create their own online "collections" from our holdings. We could even hold contests for the best collections. To me, this would be more egalitarian than the book collecting contests that are held annually at three dozen libraries, including Cornell and Michigan State University, that culminate in the Collegiate Book-Collecting Championship.

Both The Prelinger Library and The Reanimation Library chose to be libraries of physical books as opposed to dedicating efforts to digitize their collected works. They still have faith in browsing and papery goodness. Libraries don't have to be completely re-purposed.

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