Observation of The NYPL Stephen A. Schwarzman Research Library

The Stephen A. Schwarzman Building, located on Fifth Avenue between Forty-Second and Fortieth Street, stands as a centerpiece for the New York Public Library. It is a grand marble building that has remained a spectacle since 1911. Few things have been changed in the library, beyond modern updates and fixes, and most people want it to stay that way. But what about what goes on inside the marble? 

Are the librarians the same people that checked out the first books?

Have librarian practices remained the same?  

Is information still circulated through the same stacks that were built in 1911?

Do people still use the research library?

What type of people actually participate in library offerings?

Just how old is this library? 

To catch a glimpse at the answers to these questions, I spent a day observing researchers and patrons at the New York Public Library Stephen A. Schwarzman Building, as well as interviewing library staff.


I decided to spend most of my time in a smaller research room instead of the main Rose Reading Room for multiple reasons. First, tourists flock to the Rose Reading Room, and they are not the focus of my inquiries. Second, the Local History and Genealogy Milstein Division where I took up shop, allowed me to view researchers, librarians, and staff all at the same time. Third, this division of the library was broader than some of the other research rooms and as a result I would be able to observe a wider range of questions, requests, and interactions.


From the start I notice that everyone who enters the research room has one two reactions. They either straighten up and constantly check with the librarian visually to make sure they are not breaking any rules (similar to how people react to seeing a police officer), or they smile and say hello as if they feel welcomed. Both reactions indicate that librarians on title alone have a level of respect from the general public. It is for this reason that they have a certain code of ethics and an obligation to their community to keep the information in the library safe. It is also why diversity among library staff, and inclusion for all is so important in a library. As respected figures, librarians set a standard for others. 

Staff & Diversity

It is not difficult to see that the New York Public Library places value on diversifying their staff. The Local History and Genealogy division (LHG) in particular represents varying races, sexes, languages, genders, ages, and sexual orientations. The library publicly puts valuable information into all types of people’s hands, which I believe is an effort to normalize the idea that information professionals can be anyone.

Interestingly, I also noticed that most of the librarians in LHG were male. In my personal experience it has often been that most librarians are women. Despite this, I noticed, unsurprisingly, that there was no change in how the librarians interacted with patrons or researchers, or how their work got done. Overall, based on the ALA Manual definition of diversity- “race, age, sex, sexual orientation, gender identity, gender expression, creed, color, religious background, national origin, language of origin or disability”, the NYPL has kept up with ethical and responsible hiring standards. 


If the librarians are the brain of the library, and the books are the lungs, the patrons are the heart. Without the people that wander the stacks looking for information, nothing would be read or investigated. The librarians would be out of job, and the books would be useless. It is for this reason that I found it interesting that not everyone has equal access to the library.

The key to everything NYPL has to offer is a library card. It is a simple plastic thing with a barcode number that can reveal a world of opportunity. Want to check out a book? Better grab your library card. What if you want to browse the internet for a bit? Got to use your library card. It seems the only thing you can do without a library card is stare out the window and enjoy the climate controlled building. 

To get a library card you need two things: an address, and an ID with that address on it. For most people that come to the NYPL this isn’t an issue. Even if your ID has a different address on it, you can pull up a bill or a piece of mail with your name and place of residence on it and they’ll welcome you to the club.

For a smaller, but still very relevant group of visitors, however, having an address is not easy. According to the Coalition for the Homeless, there are 62,391 people without permanent homes in New York City. That is 62,391 people who cannot use the library to find jobs on the computer, or check out a book to develop marketable skills. This exclusion of a group of people that would benefit significantly from library services is definitely a flaw in the NYPL system. 


After spending some time observing in LHG, I sat down with one of the librarians so that I could learn about the things I couldn’t see. Contrary to stereotypes, he had a demanding voice and stature and I felt compelled to listen to him.  

Information Overload

One of the more important topics revolving around librarianship, in my opinion, is how these professionals handle data or information overload. Not long ago librarians often had to fight against having too little information available to them. With the internet, digitization of thousands and thousands of records and collections, as well as increased patron contributions, librarians have an overwhelming amount of resources. When asked about this, the LHG librarian explained that he had to learn how to research more effectively. Databases have helped narrow down search results, but he mostly relies on his own ability to filter out the extra stuff. He also mentioned that in the research libraries in particular, patrons use the online catalog and databases to find their own materials before bringing it to him for assistance. This means, however, that his job also now includes teaching patrons how to use the library website, its databases, catalog, and other little overly complicated bits. 

With all of this new digital content and information floating along above our heads in the cloud, an important question is; Who owns it, and why do libraries have it? The librarian had a quick answer to this, which was if the library had to own everything it circulated, no one would know anything of importance. He pointed out a feature of LHG that was pretty popular with researchers; a file system of researcher-created records of families, places, and things. The library doesn’t necessarily own any of the findings in those files, but it keeps them and cares for them because it’s the library’s obligation to to do so. 


Naturally our conversation concerning piles and piles of information lead straight into my next question. Did he ever feel burnout? Was he ever tired of his job and did he ever feel like the work wasn’t worth the punishment? He had been quick to respond before, but was slower this time. Yes, he did sometimes feel the effects of burnout, but not in a way that made him feel like his work wasn’t worth it. Rather, he felt that sometimes the institution thought his contribution was less than what it was in reality, and that was the frustrating part, reasonably. I found this interesting considering I had previous overheard two librarians gossiping about how the people making important organizational decisions knew nothing about the system. The conclusion from this is that the NYPL administration may not fully consider the insight of those who work in the very trenches they are redesigning. 

Politics, Neutrality & Librarianship

I managed to end my inquiry on the most difficult topic; Librarianship and neutrality. The librarian I spoke to had little trouble forming an opinion, ironically. He suggested that librarians can be neutral until there is a political or ideological thought that threatens the overall well-being of the library’s patrons or the collection. Generally, politics can’t play a part in researching a topic for someone, because that could limit what information you can give. Same goes for controversial ideas. He did mention at the end of our talk that he believes that it’s impossible to stifle your own beliefs completely, and that its the responsibility of the person to control how those beliefs come out. 


As I learned about the ins and outs of the library during my observation and conversation, I found the answer to my biggest question. Despite being old on the outside, most of the inside of the library was young and new. The librarians were informed and up to date on the pressing matters of their profession. The staff was diverse and welcoming. The exclusion of some groups in the city needed some work, but I feel as if the library is aware of this issue and is working on solutions. Overall, the NYPL Stephen A. Schwarzman Building is blazing into 2020 as a leader of library practices. 


Birdsall, William F. “A Political Economy of Librarianship?” Progressive Librarian, no. 18.

Cope, Jonathan. “Neoliberalism and Library & Information Science Using Karl Polanyi’s Fictitious Commodity as an Alternative to Neoliberal Conceptions of Information.” pp. 67–80.

Gehner, John. “Libraries, Low-Income People, and Social Exclusion.” Public Library Quarterly, vol. 29, 15 Mar. 2010, pp. 39–47., http://dx.doi.org/10.1080/01616840903562976.

Nauratil, Marcia J. “The Alienated Librarian.” New Directions In Information Management, vol. 20, 1989.

Rosenzweig, Mark. “POLITICS AND ANTI-POLITICS IN LIBRARIANSHIP.” Progressive Librarian, no. 3, 1991.

Rosenzweig, Roy. “Scarcity or Abundance? Preserving the Past in a Digital Era.” The American Historical Review, vol. 108, no. 3, June 2003, pp. 735–762., doi:10.1086/529596.

Vinopal, Jennifer. “THE QUEST FOR DIVERSITY IN LIBRARY STAFFING: FROM AWARENESS TO ACTION.” In The Library With The Lead Pipe, 13 Jan. 2016.

A Person, Place, and a Thing


Photo: Hilary Wang 2019

My Place is New York City’s smallest museum, the Mmuseumm, housed in a decommissioned freight elevator shaft at 4 Cortlandt Alley. Free to the public.
The Mmuseumm is a “style of storytelling about the modern world. It is a contemporary natural history museum. It is a design museum about people. It is Object Journalism.” Founded by Alex Kalman, Benny and Joshua Safdie in 2012, the Mmuseumm frames itself as a contemporary Wunderkammern composed of artifacts, ephemeral objects, and evidence of human existence. Every shelf is a curated collection of objects accompanied with a red label noting provenance and a collection statement. 

These objects are like records “disembedded from their creation and extracted into systems that allowed them to be used,” in this case viewed within a museum setting (Caswell, 2016, p.5). As information professionals we create networks of relationship between documents within collections and fonds. We assess the value of documents and attempt to predict its usefulness for an imagined future user. One of the exhibitions, Objects of Collapse, in collaboration with Patricia Laya (2018), features items purchased in Venezuela. When isolated, the knock-off Oreo cookies (Oieo Cookies) seem like an endearing rip-off. However, when placed on a shelf amongst fourteen other knockoff products, the visual evokes a darker narrative about counterfeits, economics, and social-political environments. 

My fascination with the Mmuseumm model is their focus on curating “non-art objects,” questioning the value of artwork displayed in traditional institutions of authority. Is this form of radical cataloging? Mmuseumm turns the lens to banal objects that once placed amongst a collection become imbued with meaning and significance. The elevator shaft becomes a microcosm of the world as well as an actualized metaphor of an archive, instead of a database, users step into an elevator shaft and visually scrolls through the rows of documents.

Olia Lialina

Photo: Rhizome

My Person is Olia Lialina, a net artist, archivist, and co-author of Digital Folklore (2009) a book about various facets of amateur digital culture from meme’s to DIY electronics. 

I first came across Lialina through a video interview in Quartz about early amateur websites from the 90’s. Lialina uses the Internet as a medium while at the same time analyzing the relationship between users and the changing digital landscape. Having a background in fine arts, I’m drawn to Lialina’s practice that blends the line between art and digital archiving. Sometimes labeled as a “net-crusader,” she advocates for the importance of early Internet culture. This includes examples of personal web pages in the 90’s and DIY websites before the rise of subscription site creators like Squarespace and Wix. By preserving these “amateur” websites, Lialina creates context for how the relationship between the user and the World Wide Web has evolved. 

She co-created One Terabyte of Kilobyte Age, a Tumblr feed that posts screenshots of GeoCities websites every 20 minutes. The screenshots are sourced from one terabyte of GeoCitie sites archived by The Archive Team in 2009 when Yahoo announced it was no longer hosting the web service. This Tumblr feed is an image bank and resource for users to access the early internet through digital surrogates of GeoCities. It should be noted that Yahoo acquired Tumblr in 2013, bringing into question how long will Tumblr continue to be hosted?  

Digital Folklore is composed of essays exploring digital vernacular and the evolution of the “user.” Lialina and co-author Dragan Espenschied define Digital Folklore as:

“[E]ncompassing the customs, traditions and elements of visual, textual and audio culture that emerged from users’ engagement with personal computer applications during the last decade of the 20th and the first decade of the 21st century.”

(Lialina 2009)

We’ve discussed in our Information Foundation class, the powerful role archivists have in determining our social memory and assigning value to what is preserved and what is not. Yahoo’s decision to no longer host GeoCities, potentially driven by the lack of economic profit, reflects a devaluing of early Internet culture. Without archivists like the Archives Team, acknowledging the cultural value of this niche Internet world, we as a culture would have lost evidence of how the early World Wide Web was utilized. Through her work and application of these digital archives, Lialina demonstrates similar tenants of archival theory to create diverse and inclusive collections.

The Future Library

My Thing is The Future Library by Katie Paterson. 

Photo: Katie Paterson

This work of art that will span one hundred years began with planting one thousand trees in a forest outside of Oslo, Norway in 2014. The forest “will supply paper for a special anthology of books to be printed in 100 years time. Between now and then, one writer every year will contribute a text, with the writings held in trust, unread and unpublished, until the year 2114” (Paterson). Patterson is known for creating works of art that utilize time as a material, creating tangible expressions of geological and deep time. Check out the The Fossil Necklace for another example.  

An aspect of the information profession that intrigues me is the duality of information and time. Archivists try to determine methods of preserving documents for future users while simultaneously negotiating what documents a future user will want to access. This piece has created an archive of unknown contents where authors are writing manuscripts for an unknown audience. The manuscripts will be housed in the New Deichmanske Library, opening in 2020 in Bjorvika where “the authors’ names and titles of their works will be on display, but none of the manuscripts will be available for reading– until their publication in one century’s time” (Paterson). I keep thinking of Sue McKemmish’s quote, “records [are] always in a process of becoming” (Caswell 2016). 

I wonder what guidelines or ethical “value” systems the Future Library Trust follows to nominate authors and how the charge reflects our information role to select, retain, record, archive, and promote. How will this project be passed along to the next generation of caregivers maintaining the forest and the stewards of this evolving library?


Mmuseumm. (n.d.). Retrieved from http://www.mmuseumm.com/

Wyman, Annie, J. (2014, November 10). Cabinet of Wonder. The Paris Review. Retrieved from https://www.theparisreview.org/blog/2014/11/10/cabinet-of-wonder/

Lialina, Olia. (2015, November). Not Art&Tech: On the role of Media Theory at Universities of Applied Art, Technology and Art and Technology. Retrieved from http://contemporary-home-computing.org/art-and-tech/not/

Olia, Lialina. Espenschied, Dragan. (2009). Preface: Do you believe in Users? Retrieved from https://digitalfolklore.org/

Quartz. (2019, July 18). The early internet is breaking – here’s how the World Wide Web from the 90s on will be saved. Retrieved from https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=2LzyRcLJdlg

Future Library, 2014 – 2114 (n.d.). Retrieved from https://www.futurelibrary.no/#/ 

Paterson, Katie (n.d.). Retrieved from http://katiepaterson.org/portfolio/future-library/ 

By Hilary Wang

#NoHateALA: What’s next for our community? – Event Review

On October 16th, the group Racial and Social Justice in the Library hosted a meeting titled “#NoHateALA: What’s next for our community?” for librarians and information professionals. Two organizers, one librarian from the New York Institute of Technology and one librarian from the NYPL Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture, spoke to a small group of three information professionals from various libraries. I agreed to keep the names of the organizers and attendees anonymous.

The meeting, held at the Metropolitan New York Library Council’s Midtown office, was organized to discuss the the American Library Association’s recent decision to put forth an amendment to the Library Bill of Rights that sanctioned hate groups meeting in public libraries. This decision sparked outrage among those in the library and information profession as well as among community members. Due to this outrage, the amendment was rescinded and a new version will be released. Nevertheless, ALA’s decision to allow hate groups to meet in public libraries has created a crisis in the profession. This meeting was organized to discuss what this amendment means for the profession and how we should respond as a community.

The meeting began with an introduction to the amendment and a recap of the events surrounding the passing of the amendment. The amendment was initially brought up when a librarian approached the ALA Intellectual Freedom Committee about the KKK being given meeting space in their library. The IFC discussed the issue and ultimately decided that, based on the First Amendment right to free speech, the ALA should officially allow hate groups to have a presence in libraries. The amendment passed, only to be rescinded in August after information professionals on Twitter expressed their anger at the amendment with the hashtag #NoHateALA.

The two organizers posed several questions pre-written on posters to generate discussion among meeting participants. As we discussed each question, post-it notes were added to the posters. The questions were:

  1. What or who is ALA for? Is it for librarians?
  2. Is ALA working for us? How can ALA work better for us?
  3. Are there other professional organizations doing this better? How so?
  4. Can neutrality [in libraries] be an instrument for violence? For prejudice?

In response to the first question, one organizer immediately replied with a definitive “No, it’s not for librarians.” As an African American woman and a librarian, she explained that as soon as hate groups were allowed into the library, they were terrorizing her existence. Overall, the group agreed that hate groups probably shouldn’t be allowed in library spaces if ALA and libraries want to continue to promote “diversity” among their staff and patrons and keep the staff and patrons safe.

ALA was described during the meeting as a “guiding force” of the profession, and it was acknowledged that acting counter to the wishes or rules of ALA could be basis for losing a job, particularly for librarians that are already vulnerable (whom are often the same librarians that are affected by the presence of hate groups in libraries!). The professional risk involved in defying ALA can be more than symbolic.

There was a lot of discussion about the legality of the actions of hate groups and the ALA, but I and others argued that purely legal pathways to social change are quite often not the most effective, nor do they necessarily reflect the moral or ethical choice. There is a great social context of racism, hate, and discrimination that ALA is willfully ignoring by projecting neutrality.

A large part of the meeting was spent discussing the fourth question about neutrality. While the ALA believes itself to be neutral because it sanctions the presence of hate groups in library spaces just as it does other religious and political groups, in reality, neutrality is an impossibility. As Robert Jenson explains in “The Myth of the Neutral Professional,”

…a society is moving in a certain direction—power is distributed in a certain manner, leading to certain kinds of institutions and relationships, which distribute the resources of the society in certain ways. We cannot pretend that by sitting still—by claiming to be neutral—we can avoid accountability for our roles (which will vary according to one’s place in the system). A claim to neutrality means simply that one is not taking a position on that distribution of power and its consequences, which is a passive acceptance of the existing distribution. Even this is a political choice and thus inherently non-neutral. (2006: 4)

In other words, as one participant said, when the ALA projects neutrality, it is shying away from responsibility to make a moral choice that may not be wildly popular among free speech advocates, but would protect library staff and patrons that often see the library as a safer space. The first step, according to the meeting organizers, is recognizing that some expression is oppressive to others, and that neutrality is a myth. A second step is for ALA to more precisely define “hate groups” so that a more precise and productive conversation can be had about this issue.

The meeting was concluded with the question: “What can we do immediately?”. It was suggested that less vulnerable librarians (white men and women in particular) could support their colleagues in more vulnerable positions in standing up against hate groups in the libraries, though ultimately it would be in the hands of administrators with the power to hire and fire employees to stand up against such policies. There will be a Part 2 of this meeting following the release of the new ALA amendment to discuss more concrete action steps.   



Jensen, R. (2006). The Myth of the Neutral Professional. Electronic Magazine of Multicultural Education, 8(2), 1-9. Retrieved October 15, 2018 from https://www.eastern.edu/publications/emme/2006fall/jensen.pdf.

ASIS&T Speakeasy: Assistive Learning Technologies

Staircase picture

“The world is disabling to people in a wheelchair only if the people building it are filling it with stairs.” – Marc Castellini, Pratt Institute student


The way we design our physical and digital worlds can promote social inclusion if done well, or social exclusion if done poorly. It may not always be a designer’s intent to purposefully exclude certain people, but even ignorance is a choice. If a designer doesn’t consider accessibility or universality to be a part of their approach, more often than not, the resultant products restrict people in unanticipated ways.

On Tuesday, November 7, the ASIS&T student organization at Pratt Institute sponsored a speakeasy on Assistive Learning Technologies. Three students in the Information Technologies core curriculum class –Marc Castellini, Arushi Jaiswal, and Hanyu Zhang— presented a research-based web guide on assistive learning technologies, geared towards universities. I think that much of what they discussed can be applied more broadly to libraries, and to UX design principles for any product.


Why LIS professionals need to care

First, let’s highlight the problem in more detail. As Library and Information Science students, we have a responsibility to promote equity and inclusion. Social exclusion, after all, is just another form of powerlessness. (Gehner 41) Compound this with the ALA’s official position: in December 2006, the ALA implemented the “Library Services for People with Disabilities Policy,” a policy that recognized that “many people with disabilities face economic inequity, illiteracy, cultural isolation, and discrimination in employment and the broad range of societal activities” (ALA 2006). As part of the policy, it recommends proactive integration of assistive technology in libraries. A wonderful sentiment, only, there are two issues afoot here:

  • The policy was approved and published 10 years after the Americans with Disabilities Act. This is not a matter to ignore; it tells us much about the prioritization of assisting those with disabilities.  And of all organizations, why would the ALA, an organization devoted to equal, unfettered access to information, respond in such a latent manner? This surprised me greatly.
  • The policy states that library staff “should be aware of how available technologies address disabilities and know how to assist all users with library technology.” (ALA 2006) “Should” is always hard to implement and track – “must” is usually much more effective, as it implies some sort of consequence. But surely there are guidebooks on the ALA website to assist librarians with their education and integration of assistive technologies? Well, the only tool on the ALA website dedicated to serving adults with disabilities is the “ASCLA Professional Tools – Standards and Guidelines – Resource List” link, and when selected, it returned a ‘404 – Page Cannot Be Found’ error. There are two other resource links, but these serve a very specific audience: children with disabilities that affect their ability to read print materials.
  • This resources page was last updated in 2007. March 29, 2007. I’m sure I don’t need to tell all of you how much technology has changed in 10 years.

It all begs the question: as a profession, how serious are we about providing services to people of all ages with all kinds of disabilities? How serious can we be when our own flagship organization offers this level of service?


How big is this problem, anyway?

I know, I know, in principle, it shouldn’t matter how many people this issue impacts, but it seems to matter nonetheless. ADA-PARC (ADA Participatory Action Research Consortium) made 2014 American Community Survey data available in interactive format.  (ADA-PARC 2014) It shows us that 12.3% of the total U.S. population self-declares as having a disability of some kind. That equates to approximately 43.5 million people. I don’t know about you, but it’s hard for me to conceptualize a picture of how many people that figure truly represents. What if I told you that 43.5 million people is the number of people living in the entire country of Canada…. if it had 10 million more people! The level of social exclusion here is huge by any means – whether you’re measuring by numbers or principle.


Equalizing power through assistive technology tools

Our responsibility as LIS professionals escalates when you consider that, “Social exclusion is not simply a result of ‘bad luck’ or personal inadequacies, but rather a product of flaws in the system that create disadvantages for certain segments of the population.” (Gehner 2010) So what can we do? What Castellini, Jaiswal, and Zhang have created is a great start. The web toolkit provides a wide overview of cognitive and physical impairments and maps them to the specific LT (low-tech) and HT (high-tech) assistive technologies that can help. Low-tech can include things that are low-cost, and low-barrier of entry: highlighters, pencil grips, raised line paper. High-tech is the cool stuff we read about in Wired: speech-to-text programs or voice recognition are good examples, both of which limit the need for a keyboard. For dyslexic students, it’s even possible to use symbol-based learning, such as Widget symbols on SymbolWorld, or Makaton symbols, to improve understanding and absorption. Last but not least, web accessibility is another area that incurs massive reward without incurring massive expense. Simple changes can include: using the W3C’s HTML tag best practices to assist with read-aloud services, avoiding dropdown menus, and eliminating Javascript use. There are many, many ways to get started, and I encourage you to view their site to learn more.


Looking ahead

So, how can we escalate this issue to more LIS professionals’ attention? Here are a few things I’ve done so far, and a few thoughts of what else we might do:

  • I’ve privately corresponded with the student group that created the Assistive Learning Technologies site, and asked if they would consider submitting their work to the ALA for linking. Considering the paucity of information on the site, I felt that it would be a worthy contribution to the ALA Diversity group’s page. Even if they don’t include the site itself, my hope is that it brings to the ALA’s attention the lack of updated information available on their site.
  • I’ve emailed the Diversity committee at ALA to request that the broken link to their outreach toolkit is addressed, and that they consider updating their page to reflect current resources and technologies.
  • Next time you’re at an industry event or surfing a group’s website, get curious. See what you can find about assistive technology integration, or accessibility issues in general. How is the group addressing these issues? Do you agree with their approach? How can it be improved? If you can’t find anything at all, what a great opportunity to begin the conversation!
  • If you are an information professional currently working in an organization, assess the ways in which your organization (its website, its programs, etc.) are inclusive or exclusive of people with disabilities. If it can do better (and it usually can), can you adopt some of these technologies or re-design the website in a way that facilitates universal use?

Last but not least, look at the world around you with a critical eye. Sometimes all it takes to start moving things in the right direction is the different point of view.



ADA-PARC. (2014). “Percentage of Total Population with Disabilities.” Retrieved from http://centerondisability.org/ada_parc/utils/indicators.php?id=43&palette=3

American Library Association. (2006 December 4). “Library Services for People with Disabilities Policy.” Retrieved on November 8, 2017 from http://www.ala.org/ascla/resources/libraryservices

American Library Association. (2007 March 29). “Outreach Resources for Services to People with Disabilities.” Retrieved from http://www.ala.org/advocacy/diversity/outreachtounderservedpopulations/servicespeopledisabilities

Castellini, M., Jaiswal, A., Zhang, Hanyu. (2017). “Assistive Learning Technologies.” Retrieved from http://mysite.pratt.edu/~ajaiswal/homepage.html

Gehner, John. (2010). “Libraries, Low-Income People, and Social Exclusion.” Public Library Quarterly, 29:1, 39-47

Graphic Novels in Collection Development: Two Kinds of Equality

– tylerdnns

Webinar Title: “Comics and Libraries: A No-Fear Graphic Novel Reader’s advisory.

This webinar, hosted by Krista King and Cathy Crum, took place in February of this year. King and Crum begin with a brief overview of comic books and their history. This means the format’s trajectory from merely popular and “cheap” to one that is taken seriously. This reminded me of the ways in which technology went from a humble, small subset to something for everyone. Listening to this webinar, I noticed several ways in which technology and graphic novels seem to have direct parallels–one of which is a historical habit of excluding women.

King begins by explaining the difference between comic and graphic novel. This section of the webinar is for an older set of librarians. The hosts explain that they often get asked by librarians if graphic novels are “explicit or taboo” books. This presentation is for people who don’t know what a graphic novel is, but it is also skillfully informative enough to appeal to someone with more knowledge as well. A lot of ground is covered.

“Graphic novels are a natural extension of the comic book,” King defines. “They tell a story using pictures and sequence panels, speech bubbles, and other conventions of the comic book format.”

Much of the webinar is Cook and King discussing the variety of ways in which graphic novels are effective learning tools. They often bolstered this continued theme with lesser-known insider “fan” knowledge (related, in one instance, to the evolution of the paper-thickness). As a fellow comic fan, I appreciated this marriage of “scholarly info” that both hosts threw in with “cool facts.” This webinar allowed the hosts to speak effectively both as educators and fans.

A third into the webinar’s 90 minutes, the speakers went into an age-based break-down of the genre. In the last five years, we are informed, graphic novels have begun to be marketed towards even the earliest readers. The youth coordinators monitoring the talk discuss how educators help publishers make sure language in these books is appropriate for “nurturing minds.” We are recommended ALA-approved titles for readers as young as four to adult readers who read Alan Moore.

Graphic novels are described in depth as being a helpful tool to bridge a literacy gap; for example, someone who is not a strong a reader can be “met halfway” by images in a panel. Following this general idea, the webinar also combines word and text to give listeners a comprehensive overview of their topic. Throughout the talk, numerous slides were devoted to picturing notable graphic novels for each audiences. Other slides linked to relevant book lists and awards for the genre. There really is no excuse for coming away from this webinar without a laundry list of great titles.

Graphic novels, our hosts explain, are a well-established format in their own right. They work well in an adult collection, a teen collection, or a children’s collection. Graphic novels can be gritty with adult themes or they can cater to children making the leap from picture book to chapter book.

A continued thread throughout the webinar is discussion of inequity in the comic industry. Our hosts explain that the genre is historically created by, about, and marketed towards males. Female representations are often sexist–back in the day, they mostly were, I’d surmise.

An interesting paint was made about how modern franchises like Spiderman and Thor re-brand their titles using female characters. The hosts bring up various female comic creators throughout the talk, so there is definite cause to hope for progress in this matter. Also, the recent crop of female superheroes with hopefully get more girls into graphic novels. This, I’m confident, can only lead to the next generation having more female comic creators.

A lot of firsts seem to be happening as far as social issues in comics. Cook and King describe many of these. But there is still a ways to go. The ratio of male-to-female creators or title/main characters is still overwhelmingly male. All the ways in which females are marginalized in the tech world eerily apply to the comic world, both on and behind the pages. The hierarchy of exclusion that exists in both worlds are similar, just short of identical.

Which is why this webinar was so refreshing. Both an overview of comics was given, but also the context of the comic book industry, particulars that reflect where we are socially. Many of our readings have been about the importance of understanding an object, but also it’s social and historical context. This webinar’s creators understand the importance of this as well.

Finally I loved all the ways in which the hosts were inclusive. For example, mangas are treated as something akin to the cheap Harlequin romance novels by the high brow. In this presentation, though, graphic novels are literature. The implication coming away from this webinar is that librarians should have Watchmen just as high on the shelf as David Copperfield. This presentation was all about equalizing all aspects of the genre. How many people, for example, would by thoughtful enough to call a graphic novelization of Twilight a learning tool? I appreciated how inclusive and informed the hosts were in this way. I agree with them.

As long as you’re reading something, isn’t that all that matters?


“Archives, Advocacy, and Change” at the New York Academy of Medicine

“The archival profession is inherently an activist profession.” -Rich Wandel

Last night, the New York Academy of Medicine hosted a panel called “Archives, Advocacy, and Change” as part of their Changemakers series. The panelists were Jenna Freedman, founder of the Barnard Zine Library; Steven Fullwood, founder of In the Life Archive; Timothy Johnson, director of NYU’s Tamiment Library and Robert F. Wagner Labor Archives and co-director of Tamiment’s Cold War Center; and Rich Wandel (quoted above), founder of  The Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual & Transgender Community Center National History Archive.  Continue reading

Librarianship for Social Justice

Personal note: in this blog post, I am trying to think my way through an issue on which I know I need to educate myself more. I am white, with a legacy that includes Southern slaveholders on my father’s side and German Nazis on my mother’s. It is my intention not to center Black Lives Matter around white people or the predominantly white professional fields discussed here, nor to suggest that White Saviors can step in to fix things, nor to pass the buck of responsibility to black activists, but instead to develop some kind of context for using this library degree in a transformative way. I don’t know if I’ve done this well, but I hope it’s better than not addressing the question at all. Continue reading

Bringing (Un)dead Books Back to Life at Reanimation Library

Reanimation Library's Reading Room, via reanimationlibrary.org
Reanimation Library’s Reading Room, via reanimationlibrary.org

The shelves of Brooklyn’s Reanimation Library are lined with bowling manuals, guides to Gregg shorthand, outdated biology textbooks, a tech-savvy fitness book called “computercise,” and even a thick tome containing nothing but random series of numbers. Browsing the collection feels more like inhabiting a vaguely retro-futurist cabinet of curiosities than a library in the traditional sense. But through this hybrid library and conceptual artwork, Reanimation Library founder Andrew Beccone challenges us to rethink systems of knowledge and cultural value.

Located in the Proteus Gowanus complex since 2006, Reanimation Library serves primarily as a visual resource to inspire artists and individuals to create new work. Though the collection does not circulate, visitors are encouraged to scan and reuse images that they find – in Beccone’s words, to “pan for gold in the sediment of visual culture.” Among Reanimation Library’s audience are book artists, animators, collectors, writers and students. Beyond Brooklyn, Reanimation installs “branch libraries,” which are temporary, site-sourced versions of the library, at art and cultural spaces as far afield as Lebanon. Additionally, the library invites writers to critically respond to works from the collection on its Word Processor blog.

Reanimation Library started out as an extension of Beccone’s personal interests. A practicing visual artist, he worked in libraries for years and studied library science at Pratt. The collection’s scope reflects his interest in the print and visual culture of the era spanning from the ‘40s to the ‘70s, eschewing high-art texts for vernacular subjects. He delights in the “popular modernism” of this atomic-age visual culture, which seems to promise everyone the possibility of transforming his or her world, even through mundane pursuits. The books function more as artifacts than as texts, giving us insight into the era’s mode of visual/textual reproduction and embodying its cultural mindset. Reanimation Library allows visitors to perform their own “archaeology of knowledge,” gleaning understanding of the past’s (failed) promises through its detritus – and reclaiming its visual potential for the future.

A Million Random Digits with 100,000 Normal Deviates, a Reanimation Library book
A Million Random Digits with 100,000 Normal Deviates, a Reanimation Library book

Owing to the project’s focus on generating new work, I asked Beccone how he tracked and displayed the art created in response to the collection. While he originally attempted to include the works in his digital catalog and link them to the books they referenced, this proved to be too much of an administrative burden, even with occasional volunteer help. Also, attempting to meticulously track and record every artwork felt a bit authoritarian – patrons actively share in the project, and once the images enter their hands, they are theirs to transform. The library negotiates an interesting space between private and public collection – in some sense, it’s a portrait of Beccone’s own interests, but he’s offering it up to everyone.

Reanimation Library has drawn an ambivalent reaction from library professionals, perhaps because it calls attention to the materials libraries eliminate through weeding. Collection development policies prioritize currently relevant textual information, often assigning little weight to the visual dimension of the work. In our conversation, Beccone noted that there’s something conservative to the way libraries consider useful information, often de-privileging visual information that’s not easily classified and pushing it away from access. His perspective on the library’s power in determining culturally useful knowledge resonates with Foucault’s definition of the archive:

“[The archive is not] that which collects the dust of statements that have become inert once more, and which may make possible the miracle of their resurrection; it is that which defines the mode of occurrence of the statement-thing, it is the system of its functioning,” (Foucault 129).

While Reanimation Library may aim to make this “miracle” possible once more, it is still, resolutely, a library, with books cataloged according to the Library of Congress system. For Beccone, the choice of Library of Congress was a bit arbitrary – it suited his purposes, and was the classification system he was most familiar with. Still, many librarians have refused to see Reanimation Library as something more than an art project, despite the fact that Beccone embraces the library’s spirit of providing free, democratic access to information.

From Reanimation Library's digital image collection
From Reanimation Library’s digital image collection

The project has received a more enthusiastic response in the art world, where it resonates with recent interests in social practice and relational art. Particularly since the 1960s, the art world has showed a continued interest in questioning hierarchies and breaking down disciplinary boundaries. Artworks such as Marcel Broodthaers’ “Department of Eagles” have emphasized the strangeness of the archive, its gaps and its visual repetitions. Artistically, Reanimation Library has found a community at Proteus Gowanus, a gallery and reading room that hosts residents interested in cross-disciplinary inquiry and collaboration. Its neighbors at the space have included Morbid Anatomy Museum, focusing on art, science, and death, and Observatory, a group of “oddball para-academics” who present lectures and events.

Marcel Broodthaers' fictitious museum, Department of Eagles, 1968
Marcel Broodthaers’ fictitious museum, Department of Eagles, 1968

While Reanimation Library encourages engagement with books as physical and material objects, it also offers a full digital catalog and online collection of thousands of images. For Beccone, print and digital are not mutually exclusive – rather, they offer different modes of understanding and searching for information that can support and mutually reinforce one another. The digital archive allows people outside of New York to access part of the collection, as well as offering a browsing experience that’s distinct from the physical space. However, he has no intent of fully digitizing the collection – because of resource limitations, conceptual intentions, and because this may infringe on fair use.

Beccone finds that many people of the younger generation that has grown up with the Internet have taken a strong interest in the collection, and in book arts more generally. Citing the success of the New York Art Book Fair, he notes that there has been an embrace of print objects and analog technologies, in reaction to the ephemerality and intangibility of the digital. Books have a medium-specific way of conveying information, speaking as much through the feel of their pages and the visual quality of color, ink and image reproduction as they do through their content. While techniques of collage, remix and juxtaposition are nothing new, they are the dominant modes of cultural production in the digital environment.

From 1985 B-horror classic,  Reanimator, which you should all watch
From 1985 B-horror classic, Reanimator, which you should all watch

Reanimation Library’s books may be “dead” in one sense, bearers of bunk knowledge and outmoded cultural trends – but they encourage the mad scientist in all of us to give them life, to make their zombie-like moans reverberate through the cracks in the “official” archive’s walls.

Interested in Reanimation Library? Check out these other alternative library projects:

Work Cited:

Foucault, M. (1972). The archaeology of knowledge. New York: Pantheon Books.