Interview: Library Science: Notes on a Conversation with Rachel Gugelberger
by Claire Ruud
In the paragraphs that follow, I recall an hour-long Skype conversation with Rachel Gugelberger, curator of Library Science at Artspace, New Haven. In the context of the exhibition, it is fitting that my computer did not save the majority of our conversation; technology’s memory having failed, I was left to rely on my own. Gugelberger points out that a work in the show by David Bunn explores this reliance on the analog in the event of digital failure. When the library of the Brooklyn Museum invited Bunn to do a project with its recently discarded card catalogue, he arrived to find that the replacement online catalogue (Voyager) had crashed and the electronic backup had been erased. Bunn’s No Voyager Record (2008), included in Library Science, projects the physical cards marked with the librarians’ annotations to restore the lost and missing entries. The work captures the digital’s continued reliance on the analogue, despite rapidly advancing technology.
It’s not news that the library is undergoing a critical period of change. Library Science is curator Rachel Gugelberger’s meditation on this personal, physical and intellectual relationship to the library at this moment, a meditation on what the physical library can do, what the virtual library can do and how the shift from the former to the latter encapsulates a larger cultural shift. Now is the moment to reconsider the library, Gugelberger suggests, because of the simultaneous exuberance and anxiety about the shift from physical to virtual archives. As an illustration of this ambivalence, Gugelberger relates two anecdotes: Brewster Kahle, founder of the Internet Archive, is attempting to collect one hard copy of every book ever published in order to preserve them forever, and the Association of College and Research Libraries blog has encouraged librarians to prepare a cyberwar contingency plan. Gugelberger suggests that this cultural attitude toward the internet and our portal into it (the computer screen) echoes the suspicion that once surrounded the television. Ever since “the box” entered our homes, waves of panic and volleys of incrimination for societal problems have been directed against it. Now, Gugelberger sites, and recognizes in herself, a similar fear of the repercussions of the internet on our brains and behavior. Weak memories, a lack of inquisitiveness, a reliance upon spell check, endless citations, outright plagiarism and ADHD or antisocial behavior—are these the fruit of our wired lives?
Gugelberger happily admits to the show’s nostalgic, anxious and political impulses because, I think, she is using herself as a case study of the larger cultural feelings and ideas surrounding the library’s adaptation to today’s technologies. She is of the generation that witnessed the shift towards the digital, and her connection to the library is extremely personal; her mother was a librarian. She recognizes some longing within her generation for a past in which physical libraries provided access to information, community identity and public resources. At the same time, Gugelberger points out, as libraries adapt, they find new ways to provide these same public benefits.
The politics of information and control run throughout much of the work in the show, whether more explicitly as in Melissa Dubbin and Aaron S. Davidson’s actualization of the CIA’s suggested reading list for children, or more subtly through Mickey Smith’s found portraits of sitters in front of libraries or library backdrops in photography studios. (Gugelberger points out that Ted Kaczynski appears in one photograph—a rephotographed wedding portrait with a fake bookshelf as a backdrop. The FBI later used his library records to track him down). For Gugelberger, these politics are most interesting in the context of the personal relationship between an individual and an archive. Much of the work in the show is quirky and rather intimate. Madeline Djerejian’s photograph of a researcher engrossed in a large tome and Allen Ruppersberg’s online version of his studio library represent a personal connection between a particular individual and a particular archive; playful works by Erica Baum memorialize the humorous, poignant or even disturbing moments created by serendipitous juxtapositions of subject headings, and Nina Katchadourian’s arrangements of book spines serve as portraits of the library or library-holder.
In fact, Gugelberger’s investment in connection with the library is such that she organized artist projects at five New Haven libraries. She wants people to experience the library. For her, the exhibition isn’t just about libraries in some abstract sense. Library Science is Gugelberger’s prompt to viewers: get inside the library, be inquisitive. Encounter the possibilities and experience the limitations of the archive, both physical and virtual. Obviously, Gugelberger says, there’s no such thing as a perfect library; universal libraries have been the impossible dream of kings and the utopian subject of writers. Yet, there is a tinge of activist intent in the way Gugelberger speaks about the exhibition. She sees the library and the knowledge it holds as a source of power for all kinds of people, if only we choose to use it.
Claire Ruud has an M.A. in art history from The University of Texas at Austin and is pursuing an M.B.A. at The Yale University School of Management. She thinks a lot about feminism, queer theory and financing contemporary art production.