All Things Considered

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  • “I am unpacking our library, yes I am. In borrowing this framework, ex post facto, from Walter Benjamin, I am not starting as he did, in the state of boxed and crated books—“not yet touched by the mild boredom of order”—but with the large and functioning library of the University of Alberta, where books are on the shelves, and I can, for the time being, “march up and down their ranks to pass them in review” (Benjamin, p. 59). I’m not unpacking the books of the Rutherford Library, but the traces of readers that remain with these books—a daily practice of wandering the stacks, flipping through books, and finding the evidence of previous human interactions. Unlike the systematic principles that order the library at large, the items I’ve found are unregulated, uncategorized, and delinquent from the oversight of the catalogue. However, as Homi Bhabha says of disordered collections in his response to Benjamin, Unpacking My Library Again, “that disorder challenges the shelved order of the study, and displaces the Dewey decimal system […] it is the contingency of these ‘un-packed books,’ through their concatenation and contestation, that produce a shared belief in the need for Benjamin's ethical and aesthetic imperative: ‘the renewal of life’ through relocation, dislocation, and re-situation”(Bhabha 2, p. 5-6). Removed from the particulars of their origins, and juxtaposed strangely to new eyes, these lost items engender new meanings, opening those who find them up to narratives the library catalogue could not have anticipated.

    My speculation on the objects I find each day, though, is grounded in a geography that is rapidly shifting. Around the world, libraries and other depositories of public knowledge are facing fiscal cuts, ideological reframing, and physical closure. The networks through which items lost in the archives can operate are becoming scrambled, their stories irretrievable as institutions are forced to downsize, deaccession, and move remaining collections to high density storage. The dismantling of the ways in which stories have been told for millennia, from the disruption of oral tradition through to the foretold demise of the printed book, cuts us off not only from the historic flow of information and documents, but also their context––how each story comes to be told, maintained, and interacted with over its lifetime. Now more than ever, it is important to take care of the stories that have not, and perhaps cannot, be digitized.
    In his Fantasia of the Library, Foucault declares that “the imaginary is not formed in opposition to reality as its denial or compensation; it grows among signs, from book to book, in the interstice of repetitions and commentaries; it is born and takes shape in the interval between books. It is a phenomenon of the library” (Foucault p. 91). The word ‘intercalation’ usefully describes this ‘phenomenon’, where amidst one set of structures something new can be inserted. As a polysemic concept, intercalation offers a useful lens with which to view the space of possibility Foucault finds within the site of the library. If we are to continue our ability to weave together new meanings and speculate possible futures, we must maintain the frameworks that allow such interstices.”

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  • Type of Item
    Research Material
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    Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivatives 4.0 International