The last post related a story, my personal experience, to the thoughts behind the New NewLights Press Library Policy. In light of that post I have been thinking about libraries, about how we, as (re)searching, potential readers, interact with libraries, and how the physical space of the library affects those searches.
It is important and necessary for libraries to have Special Collections containing artists’ books and small press books. Those collections are a great service both to the public (who now have access to amazing work, for research or just because) and to the artists and publishers (economic support from collecting institutions).
But there is one downside to having one’s work in Special Collections. Although it is (in most cases) accessible, it is not “out there.” Only the librarians and a lucky few others are allowed to browse the shelves of Special Collections. (But everything “back there” is usually stored in archival boxes, so browsing the shelves isn’t really that much fun anyway.)
That browsing, that wandering, is for me one of the most important aspects of the experience of a physical library. I rarely go to the library unless I need a specific book. I look that book up online, before I even set foot in the library, and write down the call number so that I can go right to it. And when I get to the library, I do, usually, go right to it. But then I wander, in the area around that specific book, to see what other books have been grouped with it, by the subject and by the way the collection has been alphabetically distributed across the physical space of the shelves. Looking, reading, looking closer, reading closer. The experience is often overwhelming. The wanderer in the library stands in the channel of the discursive flow, with a cross-section view of that channel, able to navigate through any plane that they choose. (This is both similar and different to than standing in front of a shelf at a bookstore, where the reader is simultaneously subject to, subjected to, the flows of discourse and of economics. In the quiet land of the library, where every book is free, money fades into the background. In the pulsing land of the bookstore, money is the river that has caught everything in its current. (What about small bookstores, used bookstores?))
And so in that wandering the reader finds books that they did not know existed, that can contain and lead to new thoughts, new directions. Wandering like this has led me to unimagined books, and some of those books have become extremely important to me.
If there are artists’ books and small press books in the library, in general circulation, they have the potential of both being searched directly and borrowed and of being discovered, of being a marvelous, convulsive accident that can reorient a reader’s relation to language and to how that language is distributed through culture. Books live (they always and only live) out there, in the active hands and desiring minds of readers.