By Marc Fischer
|The Library Project booklet|
The Harold Washington Library Center in Chicago is the largest municipal, public, circulating library in the country. The building opened on October 7, 1991 with over six million books and periodicals ready for the public to use. The Harold Washington Library is unquestionably one of the most important, prominent, and valued cultural institutions in Chicago. Despite its great size, beautiful architecture, massive holdings, and extensive art collection, Temporary Services feels that this library should offer the public a little more.
With The Library Project, Temporary Services is adding 100 new books and artists' projects into the library holdings through a donation. The library has not been told about the gifts they are going to receive. Every title has been checked against Harold Washington's catalog to verify that each book is not already owned by the library. Several books that are already in the collection, are being added in creatively altered new versions. We are giving the Library books that it has not acquired on its own. We believe these are books that it will probably want to keep. Nearly all of the books are brand new and most of them were published or created within the last few years.
Though composed almost entirely of books by artists, this gift will infiltrate all of Harold Washington Library and not merely the floor devoted to Visual and Performing Arts. Creating new juxtapositions of materials not normally possible in common library practice is one component of this project. Another major goal is to bring obscure, subversive, self-published, hand-made, or limited edition works by underexposed artists to a wider audience.
Placing these books and projects in the Harold Washington Library may be the most democratic way of presenting this work within the City of Chicago. The Harold Washington Library is centrally located and serves a large, diverse public. An average of 6,000 people visit the library every week. The library is just two blocks away from Temporary Services' 202 South State Street office space - it is our neighborhood library. More importantly, the library is easily accessible from all parts of the city using public transportation. It is close to other major cultural institutions and it is convenient for many people that commute to the downtown area for school and work. All of these factors were major considerations when the choice was made to place books in this institution.
Every reasonable effort has been made to make the donated books look like they already belong to Harold Washington Library. They have call numbers on their spines, manila cardholders that are ready for the due date cards provided at the circulation desk, Reference stickers, and facsimiles of other Chicago Public Library stamps and markings. Supplies have been purchased from the same mail order outlets that most libraries use. In some cases, books that were originally discarded by HWL were purchased from the library's store for their bindings or stamped forms and cardholders. These tactics have been used to properly integrate the artists' works using the library's preferred methods. It is our hope that this effort will encourage the library to retain these books so that they can actually circulate or remain in the building as reference material. Ironically, due to the Library's security measures, which include book and bag inspections upon exiting the building, we anticipate that it will be easier to add a book to the collection without permission, than it would be for someone to steal a book that we have surreptitiously donated.
Putting these books in Harold Washington is not meant as an act of aggression toward the library. None of the library's current holdings have been damaged or altered in any way. We are only adding books and objects, not taking away or changing anything that was already there. The project and some of the books it includes may cause a little confusion on the part of patrons. The clerks that reshelve books or work the circulation desks may discover a few genuine oddities and surprises. No harm is intended. The addition of one hundred unsolicited donations should hardly be a nuisance when compared to much larger problems that public libraries face. Real problems the library has to contend with include people mutilating books by cutting out pictures, patrons writing and underlining in books, misshelved books that are now lost within the building, patrons tampering with or hacking into the computer systems, and deliberate acts of theft that deprive the public of access to valuable resources. Any public library in a major city has serious problems to contend with. This small gesture cannot reasonably be considered among them.
Harold Washington Library is a great place to visit, as any of The Library Project's artists that live in Chicago will attest. Many of us are now finished with college or graduate studies. We are dependent on HWL as a primary resource for reading material that we can borrow. The library has provided countless materials that have inspired and informed the art being made in this city. It is only natural that some of these artists should want to give back to the library - to such a degree that they are simply giving their work to the collection without even getting the assurance that it will stay there. Countless hours have gone into making original books for this project. The exhibition of these works at Temporary Services will be extremely brief - a total of three days. The lifespan of the books in the Harold Washington Library system remains to be seen and we anxiously look forward to monitoring their presence and locations.
The execution of this project favors browsers, not researchers. The books included in The Library Project are waiting on the shelves. They remain unaccounted for in the computer system until a clerk creates a computer record or adds a bar code sticker. Some might complain that by not having a computer record or not shelving everything on the Visual and Performing Arts floor, these books will be nearly impossible to find. This complaint partly assumes that anyone expected to find a book by these artists to begin with. Most of the artists in this project have not had books published about their work. Their contributions to the Library Project are their work. The Library Project provides public access to underexposed artists’ books and a different way to experience these artists' ideas.
The books included in this project explore a vast array of issues and topics. The breadth of the participating artists' concerns demands that their work be spread throughout the building. In many cases, once the books are placed into different genres and subject headings, it will no longer be obvious that the books ever belonged in the Art section at all.
Some of the subjects covered by books in this project include:
The organization of this project has primarily worked in two different ways. Some artists and publishers have donated previously published works. Most of these books were not produced in large quantities. Artists' books and small press publications rarely travel outside of rather limited circles. They are hardly ever available at commercial book stores like Super Crown, or giant web-based sellers like Amazon.com. It is safe to assume that most of the public does not know that these books exist and will never have an ordinary opportunity to experience them. To buy artists' books, one must often look in museum book shops, galleries, independent bookstores, and specialist stores like Printed Matter in New York City. Artists' books, when they do make it into a public library, are frequently held in a special collection. They must be specifically requested for viewing. They don't get the opportunity to rub covers with popular literature or other more commercially available and accessible books from other parts of the building. This is particularly true at Harold Washington Library where the Reference section for Art books is behind glass doors that are marked "Staff Only." You cannot browse in this area. Unless you know exactly what you are looking for, a book that is out of sight in Reference may as well not even exist.
The other way artists have participated in this project is by making new and often unique works. In these cases the library - already well known for its large collection of works by international and local artists - receives more original works for their collection. A substantial art collection that is primarily found on the walls, or as free-standing sculptures, can now also be found on the shelves. The books can be viewed in more private and intimate situations. They can be handled and touched and maybe even taken home. Artist books provide viewers with direct hands-on interaction that is usually missing from museum and gallery experiences. Leah Oates has produced a beautiful portfolio of prints with appropriated images that are derived exclusively from images found in books at Harold Washington. Her work allows viewers to pull large sumptuous ink-jet prints from an oversize envelope. The heavy sheets of paper can be spread across a massive study table to envelope the viewer. E.C. Brown has filled a commercially available binder-size photo album with nearly 250 photographs shot directly from movies he was watching on his VCR. I have never had the experience in a public library of handling something like this eighty page binder filled with bizarre hand-written additions, and strange juxtapositions of stills from dozens of films. Trevor Paglen has made a book that is not intended to be read at all. It is an electronic "ghost" book that will haunt a chosen section of the building. Trevor took an old book and used it to house a motion detector, a power supply, and a small speaker. The "ghost" book will "speak" to visitors in an eerie voice as they roam the aisles. The library already has listening areas and records and CDs that circulate. Now it will have a visitor-activated sound piece right on the shelves.
Rob Kelly and Zena Sakowski have produced a three-part book series "White Lame Eh" that consists of a coat, pair of pants, and a balaclava mask each contained between two hard covers. These are not simply articles of clothing attached to books, they are wearable books! The horrendously uncomfortable articles of clothing are hand-made from a while plastic-coated material. They can still be worn, however, as a nearly naked Rob Kelly demonstrates in photos where he models with the books on on the back of each cover. Another very different project that encourages a particular course of action is Nance Klehm's "Seed Ledger." This book contains eighteen packets of seeds that can be removed from the book and planted in urban areas. A peel off pad provides printed information about the various useful applications of the plants that can be grown with these seeds.
A number of artists have creatively recycled and reused old books, or made their work using new books that they have purchased. Chemi Rosado Seijo, Helidon Gjergji, Paul Gebbia, Kathleen Kranack, and Pedro Velez have all purchased or acquired books that they have thoughtfully transformed. Rosado Seijo has performed a critical razor attack on a book of modern art history to beautiful sculptural effect. Hidden inside the book is a cut out section near the spine that holds an exacto knife - inviting the reader to edit the text even further. In "Read By Color", Helidon Gjergji has inserted excerpts from Borge's story "The Library of Babel" inside a thick book of literary criticism by another author. He has used colored markers to highlight each printed word, character, and punctuation mark needed to insert this text into the preexisting book. Sections from a ten page story now unfold slowly and deliberately over the course of two hundred pages. The librarian's nightmare of finding a book ruined by highlighting now suggests a way of getting two books for the price of one! Paul Gebbia has purchased eight popular hardback books from thrift shops and switched their covers to create four pairs of mismatched books. Inside each book is one carefully chosen quote taken from the text of the wrongly applied cover. The quote uses a statement by the cover's author to comment on the book it is housing. Adding to the chaos, is the detail that Paul has primarily used books that the library already owns. A 'wrong' copy has been placed alongside the original versions of each book. In one particularly inspired pair of swaps, Rush Limbaugh’s writings might momentarily be mistaken for the words of Jean Genet - and vice versa! Using careful redesign and professional digital printing, Kathleen Kranack has meticulously changed the titles of two Pop Psychology books so that the covers more accurately reflect their content. Pedro Velez has purchased a book on conceptual artist Lawrence Weiner and literally added a new perspective to some of his wall texts. He did this by using pen drawing to add shadow perspective and dimension to his famous block lettering font. In another section he used an eraser to remove the walls in some images, allowing the texts to be appreciated away from their architectural integration. Velez has not altered all the images in this book, and some of the drawing is subtle enough to appear printed rather than drawn. Again it should be noted that all of these transformations have been made to books that are being added to the collection.
Several 'zines are included in The Library Project. Thick portfolios of Jocelyn Superstar 2001's Super Propaganda and Tara Zanzig's Auscar Morbid are featured. Each portfolio contains numerous issues of these 'zines as well as a variety of printed ephemera by each artist. The sheer quantity of material these artists have provided lets the viewer become totally immersed in the artists' street smart ideas and idiosyncratic aesthetics. These portfolios are self-contained archives that collect several years of printed output.
This project allows Hans-Peter Feldmann's photo-based books much greater placement possibilities than exclusive representation in the Photography section. His powerful book "Die Toten," a collection of images of people that have died as a result of German terrorism between 1967-1993, will be shelved among other books on the subjects of the Baader-Meinhof, the RAF, and others. Jennifer Ramsey has taken photographs that call attention to many particular nuances within the Harold Washington Library. She has filled a blank book with nearly 100 of these photos, creating a site-specific work that uses the library as its subject. The photos capture numerous beautiful details from a close up of an old-fashioned pencil sharpener to the collection of coins in the library's fountain. The book quietly encourages viewers to pay closer attention to their surroundings, and to seek out the sources of her images throughout the building. I purchased an autographed copy of Ervin Stuntz's self-published autobiography "The Life of Ervin Stuntz" from the Library's second-hand book shop several years ago. The book was not discarded, nor had it ever been cataloged. I think that Ervin Stuntz himself may have submitted his book for addition to the library's collection, but the book was rejected. Who reserves the power to reject the life story of Ervin Stuntz? I read this book and I found Ervin's life story and travels interesting. I think others will enjoy this book too so I have added it to the library's collection.
All of the artists in this project understand that the Harold Washington Library Center reserves the right to accept, decline, discard, or sell, any of the unsolicited materials that we have donated. If one of these donated books or projects goes home with a staff member of the library, or is sold to the public for a donation of fifty cents, this should not be written off as a loss. The library primarily uses the proceeds from selling discarded books to purchase new books. The books Temporary Services is adding will find a new audience whether they are cataloged and checked out fifty times, or seen by just one person on staff. Some of these books are so thrillingly strange that library staff might talk about their discovery for years. Some of these books might generate open debates about the title's value when it is discovered that they were placed in the collection surreptitiously. Who gets to decide which gifts are retained and what books are discarded? It seems unlikely that the library will simply throw an unwanted book in the garbage. Some discarded books are cut up and used to add images to the Library's vast publicly accessible picture files. This is yet another way that this project might quietly permeate the library’s collections for many years to come.
One way that this project should be viewed is as a massive gift to the Harold Washington Library Center. The library is being given a number of books that would easily cost over $1000 to purchase. This does not begin to account for the many one of a kind objects that are also being donated. If the library allows some of the books to circulate, they can collect overdue fines and benefit that way. Some of the measures that they would need to have taken to shelve or circulate a book will have already been done for them. For example, I had a variety of rubber stamps custom-made in order to duplicate the markings favored by the library. The words "Chicago Public Library" have been stamped along the page edges of each book. Cindy Loehr had her book professionally bound. Other artists have purchased sturdy blank books, or enlisted the help of friends with expert book-binding skills. The action of putting their work into the library - which might seem subversive to some patrons - has been treated with real consideration on the part of the participants. Samuel Torres lives in Puerto Rico. He used the library's website to navigate the building and to determine specifically where his 'zines should be placed. Many of the artists that are based in Chicago have made repeated visits to Harold Washington since I first contacted them. They have thoroughly explored the building and considered the collection in new ways.
Until artists' books are as demanded and well distributed as anything pumped out by the mainstream publishing houses, new tactics have to be devised to get these works out into the world. Using a public library allows many people to see these works at a cost of just one book per library. In some cases artists have generously donated multiple copies of the same book. When it was possible, we placed one book where you might expect to find it, and the other copies in less conventional locations. Most of the artists involved in this project have recommended specific locations for their books. Some have invented their own call numbers. Others have allowed me the liberty of placing the books in whatever section I felt was most appropriate.
I wish it would have been possible to include copies of every favorite book I own. I wish I could have added every great book that I want the Harold Washington Library to have. In this respect this project feels incredibly small, incomplete, and insufficient. It should include a thousand books. It should include every single book I can’t find, afford, or have only heard about but that I’d love to borrow from a public library. I wish there had been money to go on a clandestine buying spree for the library. I would have purchased every outrageous, brilliant, obscure, and extraordinary book that I always dreamed of checking out. Instead, this project is an elaborate gift from over sixty people. Individually everyone has given a little. Collectively we have given a lot.
Some people have asked why I didn't try to go through official channels and get permission to add these books. This issue was often raised with regard to books that it seemed certain the library would want to own. I firmly believe the library will keep some of these books. I think they'd be crazy not to. But as any librarian knows, cataloging certain items is highly subjective - especially if you only have one copy of the book. How often have you gone to a video rental store and found a movie in Comedy that you felt should have been in Drama, or a film that was in Science Fiction that you expected to find in Horror? Categorizations are flimsy. Lots of books address multiple subjects simultaneously. I believe that artists should have a voice in how their work is presented. If their book is going into a library, they should be able to decide which section will provide the strongest experience of their work, and which audience should be favored for access. I believe that hand-made and fragile books should be available for people to discover and touch. If the book gets damaged and only lasts two months instead of twenty years, so be it. Van Harrison has made a "book" that is a solid block of plaster. It weighs about eight pounds and is extraordinary to handle because it looks much lighter than it feels. If someone drops it on the ground, it will probably shatter and that will be the end of that.
I believe it is better for people to have a vital experience of these objects in the short term, than for them to rot away unseen for years behind the "Staff Only" doors of Art Reference. Many people developed new work just for this project. Artists that are doing extraordinary work shouldn't have to be famous or widely-published before they can have their work in the city's public library. For once let's take bureaucracy out of the equation. Let's allow a few books to enter the collection without a passport, a permission slip, an acquisition number, or an RSVP. If the library really does have six million books and periodicals available to the public, how disruptive is the addition of a hundred more?
These books have things to tell you, they have ideas to share, and they won't mind being touched and read. If you need a call number or two, contact Temporary Services and we'll let you know where you can find these books if they are still in the library. If you find any of them on your own, go ahead and try to check them out. Go to the circulation desk and ask the clerk to create a computer record for one of these books. Tell them you'll be happy to wait a few minutes while they catalog it. Tell them you don't care how the book got there but you want it to stay. Give them a list of all the books you'd like to see added to the library. If they don't have money in the budget for obscure books, volunteer to find ways to get the books donated to the library for free. Get the books you want people to see and put them in a library yourself.