From the Written Memory to Social Space

Sylvette Babin
The democratization of libraries, begun during the Enlightenment, flourished in the twentieth century when public libraries came into existence. Far from being implicitly reserved for a bourgeois or intellectual elite, these facilities have become sites of convergence for increasingly diversified publics.

In fact, for the past twenty years, the spread of digital media and devices providing access to the Internet, with its proliferation of available books and archival documents, has forced yet another reconsideration of the role of libraries as physical spaces. Can we still conceive of the library as an institution for the deposit and preservation of written memory? Aware of the need to adapt quickly to this change of paradigm, most public libraries have paid particular attention to developing “third places”1 1 - “In the early 1980s, Ray Oldenburg, professor emeritus of urban sociology at the University of Pensacola in Florida, conceived of the ‘third place,’ which he distinguished from the ‘first place,’ the home, and the ‘second place,’ the workplace. The third place is a complementary space devoted to the community’s social life and refers to places where individuals may meet and have informal exchanges.” Mathilde Servet, “Les bibliothèques troisième lieu: Une nouvelle génération d’établissements culturels,” Bulletin des bibliothèques de France, no. 4 (July 2010): 57–63, that enhance user experience (fab labs, or digital fabrication workshops, are a good example of this). At the same time, citizens themselves have contributed to different forms of democratization of knowledge by circulating books through a wide variety of participatory library projects and ephemeral libraries based on the notion of exchange and sharing.2 2 -  Examples include the Occupy Wall Street movement’s People’s Library ( and the Nuit Debout movement’s BiblioDebout ( Thus artistic interventions around the theme of the library are inscribed within a world bursting with interactions.

Although this thematic section originated with an invitation to examine both the idea of the library and the new forms of digital archives and big data, it seems that many authors and artists are drawn, rather, to the “traditional” library and its book collections. These are not nostalgic approaches aimed simply at deploring the death of the printed book, but expressions of a desire to explore, among other things, the unifying potential of the library as an agent of mediation, a social space, or a performance space. The book itself is considered as much for its relational power as for its role in the transmission of knowledge. A number of the artists featured in this issue, in fact, have assumed the role of librarian or archivist by producing works or formulating classification systems that provoke reflections on the value granted to books and the consequences of certain choices on what will become official knowledge. Remember that the content of a library is based on a collection formed through a series of selections and rejections. While new books are published, the obligation arises to slough off some older or “less pertinent” ones; the effect is to influence the construction of cultural memory. As Zsófia Bene and Olindo Caso note, “The scope and mechanisms of a library’s mission and programming cannot be dissociated from the current ideological context.” These abandoned, forgotten, or discarded books — as well as those that, to the contrary, have resisted the passage of time by continuing to feed the collective imagination — provide the underlying motivations for the practices highlighted in these pages.

All of the essays and portfolios in this thematic section feature books, archives, and collections (of words, texts, and even water!). The projects, infiltrating practices, personal libraries, and book-like works presented here are an invitation to rediscover and read books forgotten in the stacks of libraries. “The death of reading has been as pervasive a fear as the death of the book,” Paulina Mickiewicz emphasizes. Thus, reinventing the library of today and tomorrow brings reading back to its proper place, at least for a time.

Translated from the French by Käthe Roth

This article also appears in the issue 89 – Library - Library

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