ELASTIC SYSTEM: How to Judge a Book by its Cover

After working as researcher and artist-in-residence at the British Library for the last year, I am getting ready to launch my main project, the “Elastic System”.

The question the project tried to answer was how to take the library’s own digital infrastructure – its catalogue databases and electronic requesting networks – and use it to make art. Or something outside of their normal functioning. What could you use a modern library system for apart from just retrieving items?

In order to help me answer this question library staff have been incredibly generous with their time and the whole experience has been endlessly fascinating. I thnk it is probably the most rewarding project I have ever worked on!

The initial direction in my research was prompted by one of the earliest experiences I had when I came to the library – seeing the iconic Kings Library Tower in the centre. The only complete part of the collection still on permanent public display. This lead me to question how and why allowing the public to just walk in and browse the bookshelves had become more and more difficult under the pressures of an enormously increasing collection and eventually lead to the development of todays electronic systems of cataloguing and requesting.

My response to this is the “Elastic System” – a database portrait of the librarian Thomas Watts that is also a work about how we try to allow access to massive quantities of information. It was in 1838 that Watts invented his innovative “elastic system” of storage in order to deal with the growth of the British Library’s holdings. The mosaic image has been generated from 4,300 photos of books currently stored in the basements at St Pancras. Each one is connected live to the library’s electronic requesting system.

The “Elastic System” also functions like a catalogue, allowing people to visually browse part of the British Library’s collections, something which has not been possible since Watts’ time. By clicking on a book visitors can find out more about the item and how to request it from the British Library. When a book is requested it is removed from the “shelf” to reveal a second image underneath, an image that represents the work that goes on in the library’s underground storage basements, the hidden part of the modern requesting system.

In order to produce the basement image I spent two days working with the basement staff at St. Pancras, photographing them according to their suggestions about how to represent the work they did, their favourite ailes or items in the collection. In all I took 383 photographs of 31 members of staff, nearly half of the total workforce. In doing this, I tried to show that with a collection as large and as diverse as the British Library’s, its successful operation depends on a well tuned human element in the system, which although it is as essential as the electronic networks, is probably less visible and less appreciated, existing literally under the ground. Ironically, Thomas Watts himself began his career at the library in a similar role of “Placer”. It was said that he personally placed a total of 400,000 items on the shelves of which he could recall the exact location of 100,000!

My work is part of a research project called “The Internet of Cultural Things”, a partnership between me (Richard Wright), Dr Mark Cote (KCL) and Professor Jussi Parikka (WSA) with wide representation from the British Library, including Jamie Andrews, Head of Culture and Learning, Dr Aquiles Alencar Brayner and David Waldock. The aim of this research is to make visible the cultural data generated in public institutions and to illuminate and transform the way both people and cultural institutions interact. “Elastic System” encapsulates the many layers of an information ecology that makes up the British Library: visual, data and infrastructural systems in co-operation as a living organism of data.

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