Retracing the Library

© Amy Butt

In November 2022, Noriko Suzuki-Bosco, Amy Butt, and I ran a workshop at Winchester School of Art called ‘Retracing the Library’. The workshop was part of the UK’s Being Human Festival, an annual event that showcases work across the Arts and Humanities.

We came together to try and find ways to make something new and collaborative out of our shared interests in artists’ books, critical making, science fiction, environment, and the institutional spaces we occupy. For the first workshop we settled on Winchester School of Art library as a location, both because Noriko and I are based in Winchester, and because the library here has a particularly interesting environment and history.

Over the course of two hours, participants traced the library’s journey from the overflow shelves at its current location, to the gallery space it was rescued from during the flood of 1999, to the moated glass Rotunda where it began life in 1965. In each space participants were asked to remake and reimagine the library in a way that was meaningful to them.

The day of the workshop donned grey and gloomy, broken by torrential rains. Because we wanted to keep the workshop small and intimate, with lots of space for discussion and reflection, it was capped at 12 participants. The rain deterred a few participants on the day, and we ended up with seven people in total—an ideal number for us.

We started in the current library, formerly a studio space but then converted to hold books after a flood over the winter months of 1999–2000 necessitated a new, more elevated space. The move was originally meant to be temporary, but the library remains in the converted studio space today. In this part of the workshop, Noriko asked our participants to consider the book as an object, within the library as a space. Each person was asked to explore the library and select three books that reminded them of water, however they wanted to interpret that prompt.

Some chose books based on colour of their dust jackets (blue). Others chose based on the books’ titles or contents, and still others chose books for their size and shape, mimicking the structure of a wave. The books stacked on the libraries overflow shelves mimicked this shape as well. In selecting and discussing these books, participants questioned the appropriateness and validity of curation and cataloguing systems. After all, how we slice up a collection changes the way we understand each book within it.

After participants had selected 2-3 books each, we moved to the second space of the workshop—WSA Gallery. This space hosted the library before the flood forced it to move, and (as the name implies) now serves as the school’s gallery space and base of operations for the MA in Contemporary Curating. At the time of the workshop, the exhibition ‘What Colour is Metal?’ was on display. As we moved to this new space, we asked participants to consider what it means to relocate a library or a collection, whether in terms of the labour required, or in terms of how different spaces evoke different atmospheres and identities.

Our own move necessitated leaving a great number of books behind in WSA library, but we arrived in WSA Gallery with a new library collection, curated between the seven of us. In the gallery space, participants were asked to reflect on these ideas of collection and curation. They were asked to think about their own personal relationship to library spaces, or with the books they have at home. The library is held within our own homes, dispersed across many locations. The library is also held within ourselves—as we enter into a book, and as we collect texts in our minds, it reframes and reshapes the way we understand the world.

As prompt to the next activity, Amy read out a section from Sally Miller Gearhart’s The Wanderground, which describes a space lined with books, a personal library, to allow us to think about how books reshape space:

She remembered the floor very well from the summer when Seja had been re-arranging it. Books. Hundreds of them, stacked at different thicknesses within rectangular wooden sections… Now she noted that Seja’s reading had rendered the floor pretty uneven in places. Two children’s books, open by the door, had left a gap that a French grammar was failing to fill and next to two texts on plant diseases right near her reach was a long hole whose bottom, Alaka could see, was the dark earth itself. (Gearhart, 1979 [1978]: 19)

In this space is a room lined with books, and where the books are removed, we can glimpse the earth beneath. In the gallery space of the workshop, the display of experimentations with metals—materials extracted and mined—offered another kind of curated collection of ‘dark earth’.

Participants formed groups of 2-3 people. Each group then select an artwork, and arranged the books they had in relation to that artwork. In arranging the books, participants established different relationships between the books, themselves and their bodies, and the artworks on display. They commemorated these relationships through photographs, creating mementos of those relationships that remained after the workshop had finished and the exhibition was taken down the following month.

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Finally, participants moved together into the third and final space of the workshop: the Rotunda, a hexagonal glass room across the road that was also the library’s original home, before it outgrew the space. In this last space we participants were asked to think about endings, but also about beginnings. And about the space in between those two things. On one wall in the third and final workshop space, images of WSA library from different moments in its history were projected in rotation. In the Rotunda, the original space of the WSA library, raised up and fortified and surrounded by a watery moat, Megen asked participants to reflect on what remained of the library, and of the workshop. Was it the structures participants would take with them, metaphorically speaking? The photographs? The memories themselves? Participants were also asked to think about what would not remain, what would be lost or left behind after the workshop.

As a prompt for reflection, Megen read an excerpt from Caitlin DeSilvey’s Curated Decay: Heritage beyond Saving, which details local residents’ efforts to save stones from a ruined harbor following a storm:

Perhaps the act of gathering the stones and placing them at the top of the harbor could be understood as a way of keeping open the possibility of the structure’s recovery while also acknowledging its mortality, and in doing so gradually coming to terms with the specter of loss. The stockpiled stones gave witness to, in Judith Butler’s terms, “the vulnerable or precarious nature of embodied existence” and made tangible “forms of sociality and belonging” linked to the recognition of this shared vulnerability. The act of salvage formed a loose collective of people linked through their care for the harbor; this collective formation existed apart from any individual differences of opinion about the structure’s desired future. Meaning arose from the encounter with the materials and the unscripted, instinctive impulse to recover what had been lost. By doing the obvious and necessary thing, the people involved in reclaiming the stones created an open monument. They performed preservation as a “provisional and situated response that makes the objects it requires.” The salvage occurred at the point where narrative failed. (DeSilvey 2017: 67)

Participants were then given a stack of remaindered books—books that had been removed from the library and no longer travelled with it. They were instructed to take an A4 sheet of card and use it to salvage something meaningful from these books, reuniting it with the new library. To do so, they could photocopy, write, cut out of remaindered books, paste, stamp, paint, and use any of a variety of other materials provided in the space.

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At the end of this making session, we photocopied each sheet and cut it into 5 bookmarks. The copies went back into the library books, to be returned to the library’s shelves following the workshop. Any originals and leftovers participants could keep, or share with each other as a memento of the session. By the end of the workshop, the group had created a new library collection together, the experience secretly commemorated in WSA’s library and archives through the bookmarks hidden in the pages of participants’ chosen books.

This post was written incorporating workshop notes compiled by Amy Butt, Noriko Suzuki-Bosco, and Megen de Bruin-Molé.

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