Post-Digital Living Bookshelves

The book has always been studied within a wide variety of fields, from (book) history, bibliography and literature, to library and information science, publishing, and media studies. However, the latter—media studies—has been quite slow in its uptake of the book as an object of study, where as a field it has predominantly focused on audio-visual media. Yet recently media theorists have shown a growing interest in the book as a medium and hence an object of study. Katherine Hayles’s work has been incremental in paving the way—as has been Johanna Drucker’s research for example—but lately some very interesting new work has emerged that positions itself at the intersection of book history, media studies, and the digital humanities, sparked on by people such as Lisa Gitelman, Jessica Pressman, Whitney Trettien, Lori Emerson and Matthew Kirschenbaum. These scholars all combine insights from a variety of humanities’ disciplines—but mainly also media theory and book history—to study the book as a material medium in and through its myriad forms, relations and contexts. This coming together of previously rather disconnected subject areas has been taking place alongside a what has been called ‘(re)turn’ to a focus on the materiality of media (which rather underestimates the continuous tradition of attention to the material (i.e. Foucault, Haraway)). This ‘(re)turn’ is characterised by the growing popularity of theories such as new materialism and media archaeology.[i]

9781501307348In this context of overlapping fields and attention to materiality—in which I would also situate my own work—it then doesn’t surprise that the material relations and objects that scaffold the book, be it publishers’ distribution practices or the architecture of the page, also receive increased recognition. One subject (or rather object) has in specific caught my eye lately within this context: the humble bookshelf—which has been gathering some (deserved) academic appreciation. For example, Lydia Pyne’s incredibly readable ‘Bookshelf’ has recently been published in Ian Bogost’s and Christopher Schaberg’s new, beautifully designed, Object Lessons series for Bloomsbury. This seemingly inconspicuous book touches on some of what I deem the most important aspects in the study of the book, namely issues of access, of fixity and fluidity, and of the material conditioning of knowledge. But Pyne has not been alone in focusing her attention to the bookshelf as a material phenomenon structuring the book’s materiality. Shannon Mattern’s highly innovative work (which I have been following with great interest too) has been addressing the subject of book support for quite some time, under the rubric of ‘intellectual furnishings’ or ‘cabinet logic’, to cite just two of her recent papers on the topic.

I want to discuss some of the ideas related to bookshelves that Pyne and Shannon bring forward in their work, and I want to juxtapose them with a video I recently encountered by the experimental design collective Astrom/Zimmer (Anthon Astrom and Lukas Zimmer) who, through their projects (most notably their recent one, ‘Werkbank’, about which more later) have been pushing and challenging our ideas around access, the fixity of the book, and the organisation of knowledge, by virtually extending the physical bookshelf in innovative ways.

However, if we take a closer look at the history of the bookshelf, we can see that this dynamic is not a-typical. Both Pyne and Mattern emphasise how bookshelves have always been dynamic objects, continuously adapting to and at the same time shaping the materiality of the book. Pyne sets out how the bookshelf has been fundamental to how we create categories of knowledge (based on how we order books on a bookshelf for example), but also to how we provide access to that knowledge. In this respect Mattern explains that media furnishings, such as bookshelves, ‘are material supports for the delivery of and engagement with media resources, while they also frame organisational logics, access policies and technical protocols’. For Mattern then, bookshelves function as a ‘spatial framework’ that mediates access to and shapes the conceptual frameworks for knowledge. These specific aspects of the bookshelf enable its functioning as a material container or as a force of binding for the book, ‘embodying’ knowledge in a sense. Yet the bookshelf has throughout its history been able to simultaneously create space for the mobility and fluidity of the book, and with that of knowledge.


The chained library, Hereford Cathedral, by pellethepoet CC-BY-NC

To explain these seeming contradictions between providing both access and preservation, and fixity and mobility, Pyne zooms in on the example of the chained library at Hereford Cathedral (an example also mentioned by Mattern), which forms a very literal metaphor for how bookshelves have negotiated access to books (or not). Chains prevented theft of the highly valuable books, but beyond that, as Pyne states, ‘chaining was a practice that reinforced a relationship of power and access between those who curated the books and those who read them (11).’ The chains made accessing books difficult, and meant participation in a power dynamic, with the bookshelf mediating between the book and its reader. Chaining books meant that libraries and librarians became custodians of or gatekeepers to knowledge, with the power to determine who was granted access to these books and in what way. As this example makes clear, the way we store books (be it in cubicles, on shelves, or in cabinets), implies, as Mattern argues, ‘different politics of access’, where it ‘frames the “unit” of knowledge distinctively’.


Apple iPad iBooks by Mike Lee (CC-BY-2.0)

However, Pyne explains that in a digital age the politics of access have not necessarily been radically renegotiated within the space of the bookshelf, where the chains attaching books to their shelves have not automatically gone off. Although less directly visible (and less literal), digital books tend to be chained too, in this case to their devices, which function as both book and bookshelf. As Pyne states, instead of reinventing the very notion of book and bookshelf in a digital context, in many ways we are recreating the historical relationship of chaining a book to a bookshelf. She mentions familiar examples such as Digital Rights Management on e-books and ereaders (disabling the sharing of e-books between devices) and Amazon’s removal of Animal Farm and 1984 from users’ Kindle libraries (‘unchaining’ them from their devices). Thus, digital rights tend to tether a book to a tablet device, storing it on a digital shelf. Yet the reason why we continue to chain books to their ‘bookshelves’, fundamentally differs nowadays, as Pyne astutely remarks: ‘For readers in earlier centuries, a book was chained because it had value; books where chained because duplicating them was extremely expensive, so there were few copies. E-books are chained now because duplicating them is basically free; chaining digital books insures that the text is still monetarily valuable and artificial scarcity encourages readers to pay (27).’


Biblioburro, traveling library in Colombia CC-BY-SA 3.0

Beyond regulating access however, bookshelves have also ensured the preservation and with that the ‘fixity’ of books, tethering ‘a moveable object to an unmoveable one’ as Pyne writes. Bookshelves have been fundamental in this respect to how we fix our knowledge, store it, and organise it. Extending from this idea, Mattern is interested in how architecture shapes and determines our thinking. How does the design of our intellectual furnishings inform our environments and how do we as ‘bodies’ interact with these structures (from bookcases to libraries) and thus relate to the media stored there? Yet although bookshelves obviously have the potential to fix and frame knowledge and with that to define us in our relationship to the books positioned on a shelf, both Pine and Mattern also show that neither the bookshelf nor the book itself are static objects, and have never been so: witness the existence of libraries on boats and on the backs of donkeys, for example. In this respect bookshelves should be seen as dynamic objects, living entities in constant motion, where our knowledge is also continuously re-organised and re-filled.

Pyne is especially interested in this respect in the decisions that underlie the positions of a book on a bookshelf. Bookshelves, she states, are mediating objects between persons and books. The mobility of a bookshelf depends on technology (from e-readers to rolling and sliding bookshelves and cases) but also on social and cultural expectations and needs. Cataloguing systems, she argues, are a good example of a cultural system defining the mobility of the book for instance. The Dewey Decimal system offers a suggestion of mobility for both the books in its collection as well as their bookshelves. Where the Dewey Decimal system works with fixed categories and relative locations (instead of fixed positions for a book on a shelf), this means that the books within a category can expand organically. As Pyne explains, ‘these differences underscore the very complex aspect of the book and bookshelf relationship. Where an archive uses a fixed location cataloguing system, the archive will tend to use moving bookshelves. When the cataloguing system is flexible, bookshelves are fixed and immovable (54).’ The central relationship that the movement of bookshelves hinges on therefore, follows the relationship between a reader and a book, Pyne argues. In this respect, as Mattern explains, the mobility of the book affords the user a sense of control over its use, and with this potentially comes greater intellectual liberty. Yet the same can be implied with respect to the (lack of) mobility of the bookshelf. Mattern discusses in this respect the dynamism of current collection management systems, which embody an all-together different relation between book and reader. Increasingly collections are no longer organised on shelves for humans or human browsing, but according to what she describes as a ‘machine logic’, which ‘depends on a comprehensive database linking catalog records to shelf locations and a swarm of robots who can link those two pieces of information together in navigating the shelves.’

Yet there also exist collection management systems in which neither book nor shelf, nor even the catalogue itself, are fixed. In the video above Astrom/Zimmer describe the archive established at the Sitterwerk Art Library, founded by collector Daniel Rhoner. The hybrid and inherently post-digital constellation they have created in his memory with the aid of RFID technology, is an amalgam of personal, subjective, user-led decisions and algorithmic robot-driven management systems. As they describe it, Rohner, in a very idiosyncratic manner, used to rearrange and regroup his collection continuously in new ways, moving books around the shelves and foregrounding small personal collections and dynamic compilations based on subjective relationships. To extend his work, Astrom/Zimmer and colleagues made use of RFID tags (also fuelling Mattern’s ‘machine logic’) placed inside the books in the archive, which are then scanned and positioned continuously by robots moving up and down the shelves. This frees the books from their fixed positions and enables users to continuously redefine the catalogue as nothing has a predetermined place any more.


The creation of the “werkbank” (workdesk), an interactive table or ‘library workstation prototype’, as they call it, allowed them to make these subjective relations as they were being established within the archive even more visible and accessible—in the process extending and freeing the shelves from their (especially in this small archive) limited physical materiality too. Books and objects (which can be in or outside of the collection) can be laid out on the werkbank—which functions as a personal workspace—and can then be scanned, digitised and displayed on a virtual workdesk (another bookshelf of some sort), allowing complex forms of organisation, tagging and annotation to emerge. This hybrid online/offline and inherently post-digital workflow enables the curation of relationships between books and objects, but at the same time it provides enhanced access to these objects and their relationships. The reflexive database enables these personal collections to be inserted into the catalogue again, to promote sharing with others, both virtually but—in an interesting twist!—also physically, as there is the option to print out your own ‘catalogue’. This ‘bibliozine’, a printable booklet format, allows one to physically place one’s personal compilations or notebooks on the archive’s shelves again.

This system allows users to untether the books from their shelves, where these shelves are themselves virtually extended, and the inherently posthuman catalogue, mediating access between users, shelves and books, can be continuously remixed and updated. This enables users to trace the journey of books and objects through the library, visualising networks of books and interlinking knowledge systems, which can then be continuously regrouped on both physical and virtual bookshelves—it doesn’t get more dynamic!

[i] See Dennis Bruining (2013) ‘A Somatechnics of Moralism: New Materialism or Material Foundationalism’. Somatechnics 3 (1), 149–168, and Sarah Ahmed (2008) ‘Open Forum Imaginary Prohibitions Some Preliminary Remarks on the Founding Gestures of the `New Materialism’’. European Journal of Women’s Studies 15 (1), 23–39.


One comment on “Post-Digital Living Bookshelves

  1. mocksimMicheál
    April 24, 2016

    This is really interesting. I often wonder about the mundane subject of scale: most screens and interfaces in use are quite small. There’s a digital divide on this front it seems to me. What is possible depends on what sorts of resources a company or institution provides or what one personally has access to. It’s not just about impressive tools and innovations but having convenient access to quality hardware (larger scale screens, higher resolutions, quality haptics and so on).

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