Medak, Mars & WHW
Public Library

Public Library

may • 2015
price 50 kn

This publication is realized along with the exhibition
Public Library • 27/5 –13/06 2015 • Gallery Nova • Zagreb
Izdavači / Publishers
Tomislav Medak • Marcell Mars •
What, How & for Whom / WHW
ISBN 978-953-55951-3-7 [Što, kako i za koga/WHW]
ISBN 978-953-7372-27-9 [Multimedijalni institut]
A Cip catalog record for this book is available from the
National and University Library in Zagreb under 000907085

With the support of the Creative Europe Programme of the
European Union

ZAGREB • ¶ May • 2015

Public Library

Marcell Mars, Manar Zarroug
& Tomislav Medak


Public Library (essay)
Paul Otlet


Transformations in the Bibliographical
Apparatus of the Sciences
(Repertory — Classification — Office
of Documentation)
McKenzie Wark


Metadata Punk
Tomislav Medak
The Future After the Library
UbuWeb and Monoskop’s Radical Gestures


Marcell Mars,
Manar Zarroug
& Tomislav Medak

Public library (essay)

In What Was Revolutionary about the French Revolution? 01 Robert Darnton considers how a complete collapse of the social order (when absolutely
everything — all social values — is turned upside
down) would look. Such trauma happens often in
the life of individuals but only rarely on the level
of an entire society.
In 1789 the French had to confront the collapse of
a whole social order—the world that they defined
retrospectively as the Ancien Régime — and to find
some new order in the chaos surrounding them.
They experienced reality as something that could
be destroyed and reconstructed, and they faced
seemingly limitless possibilities, both for good and
evil, for raising a utopia and for falling back into
The revolution bootstraps itself.
01 Robert H. Darnton, What Was Revolutionary about the
French Revolution? (Waco, TX: Baylor University Press,
1996), 6.
02 Ibid.

Public library (essay)


In the dictionaries of the time, the word revolution was said to derive from the verb to revolve and
was defined as “the return of the planet or a star to
the same point from which it parted.” 03 French political vocabulary spread no further than the narrow
circle of the feudal elite in Versailles. The citizens,
revolutionaries, had to invent new words, concepts
… an entire new language in order to describe the
revolution that had taken place.
They began with the vocabulary of time and space.
In the French revolutionary calendar used from 1793
until 1805, time started on 1 Vendémiaire, Year 1, a
date which marked the abolition of the old monarchy on (the Gregorian equivalent) 22 September
1792. With a decree in 1795, the metric system was
adopted. As with the adoption of the new calendar,
this was an attempt to organize space in a rational
and natural way. Gram became a unit of mass.
In Paris, 1,400 streets were given new names.
Every reminder of the tyranny of the monarchy
was erased. The revolutionaries even changed their
names and surnames. Le Roy or Leveque, commonly
used until then, were changed to Le Loi or Liberté.
To address someone, out of respect, with vous was
forbidden by a resolution passed on 24 Brumaire,
Year 2. Vous was replaced with tu. People are equal.
The watchwords Liberté, égalité, fraternité (freedom, equality, brotherhood)04 were built through
03 Ibid.
04 Slogan of the French Republic,, n.d.,


M. Mars • M. Zarroug • T. Medak

literacy, new epistemologies, classifications, declarations, standards, reason, and rationality. What first
comes to mind about the revolution will never again
be the return of a planet or a star to the same point
from which it departed. Revolution bootstrapped,
revolved, and hermeneutically circularized itself.
Melvil Dewey was born in the state of New York in
1851.05 His thirst for knowledge was found its satisfaction in libraries. His knowledge about how to
gain knowledge was developed by studying libraries.
Grouping books on library shelves according to the
color of the covers, the size and thickness of the spine,
or by title or author’s name did not satisfy Dewey’s
intention to develop appropriate new epistemologies in the service of the production of knowledge
about knowledge. At the age of twenty-four, he had
already published the first of nineteen editions of
A Classification and Subject Index for Cataloguing
and Arranging the Books and Pamphlets of a Library,06 the classification system that still bears its
author’s name: the Dewey Decimal System. Dewey
had a dream: for his twenty-first birthday he had
announced, “My World Work [will be] Free Schools
and Free Libraries for every soul.”07
05 Richard F. Snow, “Melvil Dewey”, American Heritage 32,
no. 1 (December 1980),
06 Melvil Dewey, A Classification and Subject Index for Cataloguing and Arranging the Books and Pamphlets of a
Library (1876), Project Gutenberg e-book 12513 (2004),
07 Snow, “Melvil Dewey”.

Public library (essay)


His dream came true. Public Library is an entry
in the catalog of History where a fantastic decimal08
describes a category of phenomenon that—together
with free public education, a free public healthcare,
the scientific method, the Universal Declaration of
Human Rights, Wikipedia, and free software, among
others—we, the people, are most proud of.
The public library is a part of these invisible infrastructures that we start to notice only once they
begin to disappear. A utopian dream—about the
place from which every human being will have access to every piece of available knowledge that can
be collected—looked impossible for a long time,
until the egalitarian impetus of social revolutions,
the Enlightment idea of universality of knowledge,
and the expcetional suspenssion of the comercial
barriers to access to knowledge made it possible.
The internet has, as in many other situations, completely changed our expectations and imagination
about what is possible. The dream of a catalogue
of the world — a universal approach to all available
knowledge for every member of society — became
realizable. A question merely of the meeting of
curves on a graph: the point at which the line of
global distribution of personal computers meets
that of the critical mass of people with access to
the internet. Today nobody lacks the imagination
necessary to see public libraries as part of a global infrastructure of universal access to knowledge
for literally every member of society. However, the
08 “Dewey Decimal Classification: 001.”,, 27 October 2014,


M. Mars • M. Zarroug • T. Medak

emergence and development of the internet is taking place precisely at the point at which an institutional crisis—one with traumatic and inconceivable
consequences—has also begun.
The internet is a new challenge, creating experiences commonly proferred as ‘revolutionary’. Yet, a
true revolution of the internet is the universal access
to all knowledge that it makes possible. However,
unlike the new epistemologies developed during
the French revolution the tendency is to keep the
‘old regime’ (of intellectual property rights, market
concentration and control of access). The new possibilities for classification, development of languages,
invention of epistemologies which the internet poses,
and which might launch off into new orbits from
existing classification systems, are being suppressed.
In fact, the reactionary forces of the ‘old regime’
are staging a ‘Thermidor’ to suppress the public libraries from pursuing their mission. Today public
libraries cannot acquire, cannot even buy digital
books from the world’s largest publishers.09 The
small amount of e-books that they were able to acquire already they must destroy after only twenty-six
lendings.10 Libraries and the principle of universal
09 “American Library Association Open Letter to Publishers on
E-Book Library Lending”, Digital Book World, 24 September
10 Jeremy Greenfield, “What Is Going On with Library E-Book
Lending?”, Forbes, 22 June 2012,

Public library (essay)


access to all existing knowledge that they embody
are losing, in every possible way, the battle with a
market dominated by new players such as Amazon.
com, Google, and Apple.
In 2012, Canada’s Conservative Party–led government cut financial support for Libraries and
Archives Canada (LAC) by Can$9.6 million, which
resulted in the loss of 400 archivist and librarian
jobs, the shutting down of some of LAC’s internet
pages, and the cancellation of the further purchase
of new books.11 In only three years, from 2010 to
2012, some 10 percent of public libraries were closed
in Great Britain.12
The commodification of knowledge, education,
and schooling (which are the consequences of a
globally harmonized, restrictive legal regime for intellectual property) with neoliberal austerity politics
curtails the possibilities of adapting to new sociotechnological conditions, let alone further development, innovation, or even basic maintenance of
public libraries’ infrastructure.
Public libraries are an endangered institution,
doomed to extinction.
Petit bourgeois denial prevents society from confronting this disturbing insight. As in many other
fields, the only way out offered is innovative mar11 Aideen Doran, “Free Libraries for Every Soul: Dreaming
of the Online Library”, The Bear, March 2014, http://www.!free-libraries-for-every-soul/c153g.
12 Alison Flood, “UK Lost More than 200 Libraries in 2012”,
The Guardian, 10 December 2012, http://www.theguardian.


M. Mars • M. Zarroug • T. Medak

ket-based entrepreneurship. Some have even suggested that the public library should become an
open software platform on top of which creative
developers can build app stores13 or Internet cafés
for the poorest, ensuring that they are only a click
away from the catalog or the Google
search bar. But these proposals overlook, perhaps
deliberately, the fundamental principles of access
upon which the idea of the public library was built.
Those who are well-meaning, intelligent, and
tactfull will try to remind the public of all the many
sides of the phenomenon that the public library is:
major community center, service for the vulnerable,
center of literacy, informal and lifelong learning; a
place where hobbyists, enthusiasts, old and young
meet and share knowledge and skills.14 Fascinating. Unfortunately, for purely tactical reasons, this
reminder to the public does not always contain an
explanation of how these varied effects arise out of
the foundational idea of a public library: universal
access to knowledge for each member of the society produces knowledge, produces knowledge about
knowledge, produces knowledge about knowledge
transfer: the public library produces sociability.
The public library does not need the sort of creative crisis management that wants to propose what
13 David Weinberger, “Library as Platform”, Library Journal,
4 September 2012,
14 Shannon Mattern, “Library as Infrastructure”, Design
Observer, 9 June 2014,

Public library (essay)


the library should be transformed into once our society, obsessed with market logic, has made it impossible for the library to perform its main mission. Such
proposals, if they do not insist on universal access
to knowledge for all members, are Trojan horses for
the silent but galloping disappearance of the public
library from the historical stage. Sociability—produced by public libraries, with all the richness of its
various appearances—will be best preserved if we
manage to fight for the values upon which we have
built the public library: universal access to knowledge for each member of our society.
Freedom, equality, and brotherhood need brave librarians practicing civil disobedience.
Library Genesis,, Monoskop, UbuWeb
are all examples of fragile knowledge infrastructures
built and maintained by brave librarians practicing
civil disobedience which the world of researchers
in the humanities rely on. These projects are re-inventing the public library in the gap left by today’s
institutions in crisis.
Library Genesis15 is an online repository with over
a million books and is the first project in history to
offer everyone on the Internet free download of its
entire book collection (as of this writing, about fifteen terabytes of data), together with the all metadata
(MySQL dump) and PHP/HTML/Java Script code
for webpages. The most popular earlier reposito15 See


M. Mars • M. Zarroug • T. Medak

ries, such as Gigapedia (later, handled
their upload and maintenance costs by selling advertising space to the pornographic and gambling
industries. Legal action was initiated against them,
and they were closed.16 News of the termination of
Gigapedia/ strongly resonated among
academics and book enthusiasts circles and was
even noted in the mainstream Internet media, just
like other major world events. The decision by Library Genesis to share its resources has resulted
in a network of identical sites (so-called mirrors)
through the development of an entire range of Net
services of metadata exchange and catalog maintenance, thus ensuring an exceptionally resistant
survival architecture., started by the artist Sean Dockray, is
an online repository with over 50,000 books and
texts. A community of enthusiastic researchers from
critical theory, contemporary art, philosophy, architecture, and other fields in the humanities maintains,
catalogs, annotates, and initiates discussions around
it. It also as a courseware extension to the self-organized education platform The Public School.17
16 Andrew Losowsky, “, Book Downloading Site,
Targeted in Injunctions Requested by 17 Publishers,” Huffington Post, 15 February 2012, http://www.huffingtonpost.
17 “The Public School”, The Public School, n.d.,

Public library (essay)


UbuWeb18 is the most significant and largest online
archive of avant-garde art; it was initiated and is lead
by conceptual artist Kenneth Goldsmith. UbuWeb,
although still informal, has grown into a relevant
and recognized critical institution of contemporary
art. Artists want to see their work in its catalog and
thus agree to a relationship with UbuWeb that has
no formal contractual obligations.
Monoskop is a wiki for the arts, culture, and media
technology, with a special focus on the avant-garde,
conceptual, and media arts of Eastern and Central
Europe; it was launched by Dušan Barok and others.
In the form of a blog Dušan uploads to Monoskop.
org/log an online catalog of curated titles (at the
moment numbering around 3,000), and, as with
UbuWeb, it is becoming more and more relevant
as an online resource.
Library Genesis,, Kenneth Goldsmith,
and Dušan Barok show us that the future of the
public library does not need crisis management,
venture capital, start-up incubators, or outsourcing but simply the freedom to continue extending
the dreams of Melvil Dewey, Paul Otlet19 and other
visionary librarians, just as it did before the emergence of the internet.

18 See
19 “Paul Otlet”, Wikipedia, 27 October 2014,


M. Mars • M. Zarroug • T. Medak

With the emergence of the internet and software
tools such as Calibre and “[let’s share books],”20 librarianship has been given an opportunity, similar to astronomy and the project SETI@home21, to
include thousands of amateur librarians who will,
together with the experts, build a distributed peerto-peer network to care for the catalog of available
knowledge, because
a public library is:
— free access to books for every member of society
— library catalog
— librarian
With books ready to be shared, meticulously
cataloged, everyone is a librarian.
When everyone is librarian, library is

20 “Tools”, Memory of the World, n.d.,
21 See
22 “End-to-End Catalog”, Memory of the World, 26 November 2012,

Public library (essay)


Paul Otlet

in the Bibliographical Apparatus
of the Sciences [1]
Repertory — Classification — Office
of Documentation
1. Because of its length, its extension to all countries,
the profound harm that it has created in everyone’s
life, the War has had, and will continue to have, repercussions for scientific productivity. The hour for
the revision of the old order is about to strike. Forced
by the need for economies of men and money, and
by the necessity of greater productivity in order to
hold out against all the competition, we are going to
have to introduce reforms into each of the branches
of the organisation of science: scientific research, the
preservation of its results, and their wide diffusion.
Everything happens simultaneously and the distinctions that we will introduce here are only to
facilitate our thinking. Always adjacent areas, or
even those that are very distant, exert an influence
on each other. This is why we should recognize the
impetus, growing each day even greater in the organisation of science, of the three great trends of
our times: the power of associations, technological
progress and the democratic orientation of institutions. We would like here to draw attention to some
of their consequences for the book in its capacity

Transformations In The Bibliographical
Apparatus Of The Sciences


as an instrument for recording what has been discovered and as a necessary means for stimulating
new discoveries.
The Book, the Library in which it is preserved,
and the Catalogue which lists it, have seemed for
a long time as if they had achieved their heights of
perfection or at least were so satisfactory that serious
changes need not be contemplated. This may have
been so up to the end of the last century. But for a
score of years great changes have been occurring
before our very eyes. The increasing production of
books and periodicals has revealed the inadequacy of
older methods. The increasing internationalisation
of science has required workers to extend the range
of their bibliographic investigations. As a result, a
movement has occurred in all countries, especially
Germany, the United States and England, for the
expansion and improvement of libraries and for
an increase in their numbers. Publishers have been
searching for new, more flexible, better-illustrated,
and cheaper forms of publication that are better-coordinated with each other. Cataloguing enterprises
on a vast scale have been carried out, such as the
International Catalogue of Scientific Literature and
the Universal Bibliographic Repertory. [2]
Three facts, three ideas, especially merit study
for they represent something really new which in
the future can give us direction in this area. They
are: The Repertory, Classification and the Office of


Paul Otlet

2. The Repertory, like the book, has gradually been
increasing in size, and improvements in it suggest
the emergence of something new which will radically modify our traditional ideas.
From the point of view of form, a book can be
defined as a group of pages cut to the same format
and gathered together in such a way as to form a
whole. It was not always so. For a long time the
Book was a roll, a volumen. The substances which
then took the place of paper — papyrus and parchment — were written on continuously from beginning to end. Reading required unrolling. This was
certainly not very practical for the consultation of
particular passages or for writing on the verso. The
codex, which was introduced in the first centuries of
the modern era and which is the basis of our present
book, removed these inconveniences. But its faults
are numerous. It constitutes something completed,
finished, not susceptible of addition. The Periodical
with its successive issues has given science a continuous means of concentrating its results. But, in
its turn, the collections that it forms runs into the
obstacle of disorder. It is impossible to link similar
or connected items; they are added to one another
pell-mell, and research requires handling great masses of heavy paper. Of course indexes are a help and
have led to progress — subject indexes, sometimes
arranged systematically, sometimes analytically,
and indexes of names of persons and places. These
annual indexes are preceded by monthly abstracts
and are followed by general indexes cumulated every
five, ten or twenty-five years. This is progress, but
the Repertory constitutes much greater progress.

Transformations In The Bibliographical
Apparatus Of The Sciences


The aim of the Repertory is to detach what the
book amalgamates, to reduce all that is complex to
its elements and to devote a page to each. Pages, here,
are leaves or cards according to the format adopted.
This is the “monographic” principle pushed to its
ultimate conclusion. No more binding or, if it continues to exist, it will become movable, that is to
say, at any moment the cards held fast by a pin or a
connecting rod or any other method of conjunction
can be released. New cards can then be intercalated,
replacing old ones, and a new arrangement made.
The Repertory was born of the Catalogue. In
such a work, the necessity for intercalations was
clear. Nor was there any doubt as to the unitary or
monographic notion: one work, one title; one title,
one card. As a result, registers which listed the same
collections of books for each library but which had
constantly to be re-done as the collections expanded,
have gradually been discarded. This was practical
and justified by experience. But upon reflection one
wonders whether the new techniques might not be
more generally applied.
What is a book, in fact, if not a single continuous line which has initially been cut to the length
of a page and then cut again to the size of a justified
line? Now, this cutting up, this division, is purely
mechanical; it does not correspond to any division
of ideas. The Repertory provides a practical means
of physically dividing the book according to the
intellectual division of ideas.
Thus, the manuscript library catalogue on cards
has been quickly followed by catalogues printed on
cards (American Library Bureau, the Catalogue or


Paul Otlet

the Library of Congress in Washington) [3]; then by
bibliographies printed on cards (International Institute of Bibliography, Concilium Bibliographicum)
[4]; next, indices of species have been published on
cards (Index Speciorum) [5]. We have moved from
the small card to the large card, the leaf, and have
witnessed compendia abandoning the old form for
the new (Jurisclasseur, or legal digests in card form).
Even the idea of the encyclopedia has taken this
form (Nelson’s Perpetual Cyclopedia [6]).
Theoretically and technically, we now have in
the Repertory a new instrument for analytically or
monographically recording data, ideas, information. The system has been improved by divisionary cards of various shapes and colours, placed in
such a way that they express externally the outline
of the classification being used and reduce search
time to a minimum. It has been improved further
by the possibility of using, by cutting and pasting,
materials that have been printed on large leaves or
even books that have been published without any
thought of repertories. Two copies, the first providing the recto, the second the verso, can supply
all that is necessary. One has gone even further still
and, from the example of statistical machines like
those in use at the Census of Washington (sic) [7],
extrapolated the principle of “selection machines”
which perform mechanical searches in enormous
masses of materials, the machines retaining from
the thousands of cards processed by them only those
related to the question asked.

Transformations In The Bibliographical
Apparatus Of The Sciences


3. But such a development, like the Repertory before it, presupposes a classification. This leads us to
examine the second practical idea that is bringing
about the transformation of the book.
Classification plays an enormous role in scientific thought. If one could say that a science was a
well-made language, one could equally assert that
it is a completed classification. Science is made up
of verified facts which are organised in a structure
of systems, hypotheses, theories, laws. If there is
a certain order in things, it is necessary to have it
also in science which reflects and explains nature.
That is why, since the time of Greek thought until
the present, constant efforts have been made to improve classification. These have taken three principal directions: classification studied as an activity
of the mind; the general classification and sequence
of the sciences; the systematization appropriate to
each discipline. The idea of order, class, genus and
species has been studied since Aristotle, in passing
by Porphyrus, by the scholastic philosophers and by
modern logicians. The classification of knowledge
goes back to the Greeks and owes much to the contributions of Bacon and the Renaissance. It was posed
as a distinct and separate problem by D’Alembert
and the Encyclopédie, and by Ampère, Comte, and
Spencer. The recent work of Manouvrier, Durand
de Cros, Goblot, Naville, de la Grasserie, has focussed on various aspects of it. [8] As to systematics,
one can say that this has become the very basis of
the organisation of knowledge as a body of science.
When one has demonstrated the existence of 28 million stars, a million chemical compounds, 300,000


Paul Otlet

vegetable species, 200,000 animal species, etc., it is
necessary to have a means, an Ariadne’s thread, of
finding one’s way through the labyrinth formed by
all these objects of study. Because there are sciences of beings as well as sciences of phenomena, and
because they intersect with each other as we better
understand the whole of reality, it is necessary that
this means be used to retrieve both. The state of development of a science is reflected at any given time
by its systematics, just as the general classification
of the sciences reflects the state of development of
the encyclopedia, of the philosophy of knowledge.
The need has been felt, however, for a practical
instrument of classification. The classifications of
which we have just spoken are constantly changing, at least in their detail if not in broad outline. In
practice, such instability, such variability which is
dependent on the moment, on schools of thought
and individuals, is not acceptable. Just as the Repertory had its origin in the catalogue, so practical
classification originated in the Library. Books represent knowledge and it is necessary to arrange them
in collections. Schemes for this have been devised
since the Middle Ages. The elaboration of grand
systems occurred in the 17th and 18th centuries
and some new ones were added in the 19th century. But when bibliography began to emerge as an
autonomous field of study, it soon began to develop
along the lines of the catalogue of an ideal library
comprising the totality of what had been published.
From this to drawing on library classifications was
but a step, and it was taken under certain conditions
which must be stressed.

Transformations In The Bibliographical
Apparatus Of The Sciences


Up to the present time, 170 different classifications
have been identified. Now, no cooperation is possible if everyone stays shut up in his own system. It
has been necessary, therefore, to choose a universal
classification and to recommend it as such in the
same way that the French Convention recognized
the necessity of a universal system of weights and
measures. In 1895 the first International Conference
of Bibliography chose the Decimal Classification
and adopted a complete plan for its development. In
1904, the edition of the expanded tables appeared. A
new edition was being prepared when the war broke
out Brussels, headquarters of the International Institute of Bibliography, which was doing this work,
was part of the invaded territory.
In its latest state, the Decimal Classification has
become an instrument of great precision which
can meet many needs. The printed tables contain
33,000 divisions and they have an alphabetical index consisting of about 38,000 words. Learning is
here represented in its entire sweep: the encyclopedia of knowledge. Its principle is very simple. The
empiricism of an alphabetical classification by subject-heading cannot meet the need for organising
and systematizing knowledge. There is scattering;
there is also the difficulty of dealing with the complex expressions which one finds in the modern terminology of disciplines like medicine, technology,
and the social sciences. Above all, it is impossible
to achieve any international cooperation on such
a national basis as language. The Decimal Classification is a vast systematization of knowledge, “the
table of contents of the tables of contents” of all


Paul Otlet

treatises. But, as it would be impossible to find a
particular subject’s relative place by reference to
another subject, a system of numbering is needed.
This is decimal, which an example will make clear.
Optical Physiology would be classified thus:
5 th Class
3rd Group
5th Division
7th Sub-division

Natural Sciences
Optical Physiology

or 535.7
This number 535.7 is called decimal because all
knowledge is taken as one of which each science is
a fraction and each individual subject is a decimal
subdivided to a lesser or greater degree. For the sake
of abbreviation, the zero of the complete number,
which would be 0.5357, has been suppressed because
the zero would be repeated in front of each number.
The numbers 5, 3, 5, 7 (which one could call five hundred and thirty-five point seven and which could
be arranged in blocks of three as for the telephone,
or in groups of twos) form a single number when
the implied words, “class, group, division and subdivision,” are uttered.
The classification is also called decimal because
all subjects are divided into ten classes, then each
of these into at least ten groups, and each group
into at least ten divisions. All that is needed for the
number 535.7 always to have the same meaning is
to translate the tables into all languages. All that is
needed to deal with future scientific developments

Transformations In The Bibliographical
Apparatus Of The Sciences


in optical physiology in all of its ramifications is to
subdivide this number by further decimal numbers
corresponding to the subdivisions of the subject
Finally, all that is needed to ensure that any document or item pertaining to optical physiology finds
its place within the sum total of scientific subjects
is to write this number on it In the alphabetic index
to the tables references are made from each word
to the classification number just as the index of a
book refers to page numbers.
This first remarkable principle of the decimal
classification is generally understood. Its second,
which has been introduced more recently, is less
well known: the combination of various classification numbers whenever there is some utility in expressing a compound or complex heading. In the
social sciences, statistics is 31 and salaries, 331.2. By
a convention these numbers can be joined by the
simple sign : and one may write 31:331.2 statistics
of salaries.01
This indicates a general relationship, but a subject also has its place in space and time. The subject
may be salaries in France limited to a period such as
the 18th century (that is to say, from 1700 to 1799).
01 The first ten divisions are: 0 Generalities, 1 Philosophy, 2
Religion, 3 Social Sciences, 4 Philology, Language, 5 Pure
Sciences, 6 Applied Science, Medicine, 7 Fine Arts, 8 Literature, 9 History and Geography. The Index number 31 is
derived from: 3rd class social sciences, 1st group statistics. The
Index number 331.2 is derived from 3rd class social sciences,
3rd group political economy, 1st division topics about work,
2nd subdivision salaries.


Paul Otlet

The sign that characterises division by place being
the parenthesis and that by time quotation marks
or double parentheses, one can write:
33:331.2 (44) «17» statistics — of salaries — in
France — in the 17th century
or ten figures and three signs to indicate, in terms
of the universe of knowledge, four subordinated
headings comprising 42 letters. And all of these
numbers are reversible and can be used for geographic or chronologic classification as well as for
subject classification:
(44) 31:331.2 «17»
France — Statistics — Salaries — 17th Century
«17» (44) 31:331.2
17th Century — France — Statistics — Salaries
The subdivisions of relation and location explained
here, are completed by documentary subdivisions
for the form and the language of the document (for
example, periodical, in Italian), and by functional
subdivisions (for example, in zoology all the divisions by species of animal being subdivided by biological aspects). It follows by virtue of the law of
permutations and combinations that the present
tables of the classification permit the formulation
at will of millions of classification numbers. Just as
arithmetic does not give us all the numbers readymade but rather a means of forming them as we
need them, so the classification gives us the means

Transformations In The Bibliographical
Apparatus Of The Sciences


of creating classification numbers insofar as we have
compound headings that must be translated into a
notation of numbers.
Like chemistry, mathematics and music, bibliography thus has its own extremely simple notations:
numbers. Immediately and without confusion, it
allows us to find a place for each idea, for each thing
and consequently for each book, article, or document and even for each part of a book or document
Thus it allows us to take our bearings in the midst
of the sources of knowledge, just as the system of
geographic coordinates allows us to take our bearings on land or sea.
One may well imagine the usefulness of such a
classification to the Repertory. It has rid us of the
difficulty of not having continuous pagination. Cards
to be intercalated can be placed according to their
class number and the numbering is that of tables
drawn up in advance, once and for all, and maintained with an unvarying meaning. As the classification has a very general use, it constitutes a true
documentary classification which can be used in
various kinds of repertories: bibliographic repertories; catalogue-like repertories of objects, persons,
phenomena; and documentary repertories of files
made up of written or printed materials of all kinds.
The possibility can be envisaged of encyclopedic
repertories in which are registered and integrated
the diverse data of a scientific field and which draw
for this purpose on materials published in periodicals. Let each article, each report, each item of news
henceforth carry a classification number and, automatically, by clipping, encyclopedias on cards can


Paul Otlet

be created in which all the results of international
scientific cooperation are brought together at the
same number. This constitutes a profound change
in the technology of the Book, since the repertory
thus formed is simultaneously a constantly up-dated book and a cooperative book in which are found
printed elements produced in all locations.
4. If we can realize the third idea, the Office of Documentation, then reform will be complete. Such an
office is the old library, but adapted to a new function. Hitherto the library has been a museum of
books. Works were preserved in libraries because
they were precious objects. Librarians were keepers.
Such establishments were not organised primarily
for the use of documents. Moreover, their outmoded
regulations if they did not exclude the most modern
forms of publication at least did not admit them.
They have poor collections of journals; collections
of newspapers are nearly nonexistent; photographs,
films, phonograph discs have no place in them, nor
do film negatives, microscopic slides and many other “documents.” The subject catalogue is considered
secondary in the library so long as there is a good
register for administrative purposes. Thus there is
little possibility of developing repertories in the
library, that is to say of taking publications to pieces and redistributing them in a more directly and
quickly accessible form. For want of personnel to
arrange them, there has not even been a place for
the cards that are received already printed.

Transformations In The Bibliographical
Apparatus Of The Sciences


The Office of Documentation, on the contrary, is
conceived of in such a way as to achieve all that is
lacking in the library. Collections of books are the
necessary basis for it, but books, far from being
considered as finished products, are simply materials which must be developed more fully. This
development consists in establishing the connections each individual book has with all of the other
books and forming from them all what might be
called The Universal Book. It is for this that we use
repertories: bibliographic repertories; repertories of
documentary dossiers gathering pamphlets and extracts together by subject; catalogues; chronological
repertories of facts or alphabetical ones of names;
encyclopedic repertories of scientific data, of laws,
of patents, of physical and technical constants, of
statistics, etc. All of these repertories will be set up
according to the method described above and arranged by the same universal classification. As soon
as an organisation to contain these repertories is
created, the Office of Documentation, one may be
sure that what happened to the book when libraries
first opened — scientific publication was regularised
and intensified — will happen to them. Then there
will be good reason for producing in bibliographies,
catalogues, and above all in books and periodicals
themselves, the rational changes which technology and the creative imagination suggest. What is
still an exception today will be common tomorrow.
New possibilities will exist for cooperative work
and for the more effective organisation of science.


Paul Otlet

5. Repertory, Classification, Office of Documentation are therefore the three related elements of a
single reform in our methods of registering scientific discoveries and making them available to the
greatest number of people. Already one must speak
less of experiments and uncertain trials than of the
beginning of serious achievement. The International Institute of Bibliography in Brussels constitutes
a vast intellectual cooperative whose members are
becoming more numerous each day. Associations,
scientific establishments, periodical publications,
scientific and technical workers of every kind are
affiliating with it. Its repertories contain millions of
cards. There are sections in several countries02 . But
this was before the War. Since its outbreak, a movement in France, England and the United States has
been emerging everywhere to improve the organisation of the Book. The Office of Documentation has
been suggested as the solution for the requirements
that have been discussed.
It is important that the world of science and
technology should support this movement and
above all that it should endeavour to apply the new
methods to the works which it will be necessary to
re-organise. Among the most important of these is
the International Catalogue of Scientific Literature,
that fine and great work begun at the initiative of the
Royal Society of London. Until now, this work has
02 In France, the Bureau Bibliographique de Paris and great
associations such as the Société pour l’encouragement de
l’industrie nationale, l’Association pour l’avancement des
sciences, etc., are affiliated with it.

Transformations In The Bibliographical
Apparatus Of The Sciences


been carried on without relation to other works of
the same kind: it has not recognised the value of a
card repertory or a universal classification. It must
recognise them in the future.03 ❧

03 See Paul Otlet, “La Documentation et I’information au service de I’industrie”, Bulletin de la Société d’encouragement
de l’industrie nationale, June 1917. — La Documentation au
service de l’invention. Euréka, October 1917. — L’Institut
International de Bibliographie, Bibliographie de la France,
21 December 1917. — La Réorganisation du Catalogue international de la littérature scientifique. Revue générale des
sciences, IS February 1918. The publications of the Institute,
especially the expanded tables of the Decimal Classification,
have been deposited at the Bureau Bibliographique de Paris,
44 rue de Rennes at the apartments of the Société de l’encouragement. — See also the report presented by General
Sebert (9] to the Congrès du Génie civil, in March 1918 and
whose conclusions about the creation in Paris of a National
Office of Technical Documentation have been adopted.


Paul Otlet

Editor’s Notes
[1] “Transformations operées dans l’appareil bibliographique
des sciences,” Revue scientifique 58 (1918): 236-241.
[2] The International Catalogue of Scientific Literature, an enormous work, was compiled by a Central Bureau under the
sponsorship of the Royal Society from material sent in from
Regional Bureaus around the world. It was published annually beginning in 1902 in 17 parts each corresponding to
a major subject division and comprising one or more volumes. Publication was effectively suspended in 1914. By the
time war broke out, the Universal Bibliographic Repertory
contained over 11 million entries.
[3] For card publication by the Library Bureau and Library of
Congress, see Edith Scott, “The Evolution of Bibliographic
Systems in the United States, 1876–1945” and Editor’s Note
36 to the second paper and Note 5 to the seventh paper in
International Organisation and Dissemination of Knowledge; Selected Essays of Paul Otlet, translated and edited by
W. Boyd Rayward. Amsterdam: Elsevier, 1990: 148–156.
[4] Otlet refers to the Concilium Bibliographicum also in Paper
No. 7, “The Reform of National Bibliographies...” in International Organisation and Dissemination of Knowledge; Selected
Essays of Paul Otlet. See also Editor’s Note 5 in that paper
for the major bibliographies published by the Concilium
[5] A possible example of what Otlet is referring to here is the
Gray Herbarium Index. This was “planned to provide cards
for all the names of vascular plant taxa attributable to the

Transformations In The Bibliographical
Apparatus Of The Sciences


Western Hemisphere beginning with the literature of 1886”
(Gray Herbarium Index, Preface, p. iii). Under its first compiler, 20 instalments consisting in all of 28,000 cards were
issued between 1894 and 1903. It has been continued after
that time and was for many years “issued quarterly at the
rate of about 4,000 cards per year.” At the time the cards
were reproduced in a printed catalogue by G. K. Hall in 1968,
there were 85 subscribers to the card sets.
[6] Nelson’s Perpetual Loose-Leaf Encylcopedia was a popular,
12-volume work which went through many editions, its
principle being set down at the beginning of the century.
It was published in binders and the publisher undertook to
supply a certain number of pages of revisions (or renewals)
semi-annually after each edition, the first of which appeared
in 1905. An interesting reference presumably to this work
occurs in a notice, “An Encylcopedia on the Card-Index System,” in the Scientific American 109 (1913): 213. The Berlin
Correspondent of the journal reports a proposal made in
Berlin which contains “an idea, in a sense ... already carried
out in an American loose-leaf encyclopedia, the publishers
of which supply new pages to take the place of those that
are obsolete” (Nelsons, an English firm, set up a New York
branch in 1896. Publication in the U.S. of works to be widely
circulated there was a requirement of the copyright law.)
The reporter observes that the principle suggested “affords
a means of recording all facts at present known as well as
those to be discovered in the future, with the same safety
and ease as though they were registered in our memory, by
providing a universal encyclopedia, incessantly keeping
abreast of the state of human knowledge.” The “bookish”
form of conventional encyclopedias acts against its future
success. “In the case of a mere storehouse of facts the in-


Paul Otlet

finitely more mobile form of the card index should however
be adopted, possibly,” the author goes on making a most interesting reference, “in conjunction with Dr. Goldschmidt’s
Microphotographic Library System.” The need for a central
institute, the nature of its work, the advantages of the work
so organised are described in language that is reminiscent
of that of Paul Otlet (see also the papers of Goldschmidt
and Otlet translated in International Organisation and
Dissemination of Knowledge; Selected Essays of Paul Otlet).
[7] These machines were derived from Herman Hollerith’s
punched cards and tabulating machines. Hollerith had
introduced them under contract into the U.S. Bureau of
the Census for the 1890 census. This equipment was later
modified and developed by the Bureau. Hollerith, his invention and his business connections lie at the roots of the
present IBM company. The equipment and its uses in the
census from 1890 to 1910 are briefly described in John H.
Blodgett and Claire K. Schultz, “Herman Hollerith: Data
Processing Pioneer,” American Documentation 20 (1969):
221-226. As they observe, suggesting the accuracy of Otlet’s
extrapolation, “his was not simply a calculating machine,
it performed selective sorting, an operation basic to all information retrieval.”
[8] The history of the classification of knowledge has been treated
in English in detail by E.C. Richardson in his Classification
Theoretical and Practical, the first edition of which appeared
in 1901 and was followed by editions in 1912 and 1930. A
different treatment is given in Robert Flint’s Philosophy as
Scientia Scientarium: a History of the Classification of the
Sciences which appeared in 1904. Neither of these works
deal with Manouvrier, a French anthropologist, or Durand

Transformations In The Bibliographical
Apparatus Of The Sciences


de Cros. Joseph-Pierre Durand, sometimes called Durand
de Cros after his birth place, was a French physiologist and
philosopher who died in 1900. In his Traité de documentation,
in the context of his discussion of classification, Otlet refers
to an Essai de taxonomie by Durand published by Alcan. It
seems that this is an error for Aperçus de taxonomie (Alcan,
[9] General Hippolyte Sebert was President of the Association française pour l’avancement des sciences, and the Société d’encouragement pour l’industrie nationale. He had
been active in the foundation of the Bureau bibliographique
de Paris. For other biographical information about him see
Editor’s Note 9 to Paper no 17, “Henri La Fontaine”, in International Organisation and Dissemination of Knowledge;
Selected Essays of Paul Otlet.

English translation of the Paul Otlet’s text published with the
permission of W. Boyd Rayward. The translation was originally
published as Paul Otlet, “Transformations in the Bibliographical
Apparatus of the Sciences: Repertory–Classification–Office of
Documentation”, in International Organisation and Dissemination of Knowledge; Selected Essays of Paul Otlet, translated and
edited by W. Boyd Rayward, Amsterdam: Elsevier, 1990: 148–156.


Paul Otlet



public library


McKenzie Wark

Metadata Punk

So we won the battle but lost the war. By “we”, I
mean those avant-gardes of the late twentieth century whose mission was to free information from the
property form. It was always a project with certain
nuances and inconsistencies, but over-all it succeeded beyond almost anybody’s wildest dreams. Like
many dreams, it turned into a nightmare in the end,
the one from which we are now trying to awake.
The place to start is with what the situationists
called détournement. The idea was to abolish the
property form in art by taking all of past art and
culture as a commons from which to copy and correct. We see this at work in Guy Debord’s texts and
films. They do not quote from past works, as to do
so acknowledges their value and their ownership.
The elements of détournement are nothing special.
They are raw materials for constructing theories,
narratives, affects of a subjectivity no longer bound
by the property form.
Such a project was recuperated soon enough
back into the art world as “appropriation.” Richard
Prince is the dialectical negation of Guy Debord,

Metadata Punk


in that appropriation values both the original fragment and contributes not to a subjectivity outside of
property but rather makes a career as an art world
star for the appropriating artist. Of such dreams is
mediocrity made.
If there was a more promising continuation of
détournement it had little to do with the art world.
Détournement became a social movement in all but
name. Crucially, it involved an advance in tools,
from Napster to Bitorrent and beyond. It enabled
the circulation of many kinds of what Hito Steyerl
calls the poor image. Often low in resolution, these
détourned materials circulated thanks both to the
compression of information but also because of the
addition of information. There might be less data
but there’s added metadata, or data about data, enabling its movement.
Needless to say the old culture industries went
into something of a panic about all this. As I wrote
over ten years ago in A Hacker Manifesto, “information wants to be free but is everywhere in chains.”
It is one of the qualities of information that it is indifferent to the medium that carries it and readily
escapes being bound to things and their properties.
Yet it is also one of its qualities that access to it can
be blocked by what Alexander Galloway calls protocol. The late twentieth century was — among other
things — about the contradictory nature of information. It was a struggle between détournement and
protocol. And protocol nearly won.
The culture industries took both legal and technical steps to strap information once more to fixity
in things and thus to property and scarcity. Inter-


McKenzie Wark

estingly, those legal steps were not just a question of
pressuring governments to make free information
a crime. It was also a matter of using international
trade agreements as a place outside the scope of de­
mo­­cratic oversight to enforce the old rules of property. Here the culture industries join hands with the
drug cartels and other kinds of information-based
industry to limit the free flow of information.
But laws are there to be broken, and so are protocols of restriction such as encryption. These were
only ever delaying tactics, meant to shore up old
monopoly business for a bit longer. The battle to
free information was the battle that the forces of
détournement largely won. Our defeat lay elsewhere.
While the old culture industries tried to put information back into the property form, there were
other kinds of strategy afoot. The winners were not
the old culture industries but what I call the vulture
industries. Their strategy was not to try to stop the
flow of free information but rather to see it as an
environment to be leveraged in the service of creating a new kind of business. “Let the data roam free!”
says the vulture industry (while quietly guarding
their own patents and trademarks). What they aim
to control is the metadata.
It’s a new kind of exploitation, one based on an
unequal exchange of information. You can have the
little scraps of détournement that you desire, in exchange for performing a whole lot of free labor—and
giving up all of the metadata. So you get your little
bit of data; they get all of it, and more importantly,
any information about that information, such as
the where and when and what of it.

Metadata Punk


It is an interesting feature of this mode of exploitation that you might not even be getting paid for your
labor in making this information—as Trebor Scholz
as pointed out. You are working for information
only. Hence exploitation can be extended far beyond
the workplace and into everyday life. Only it is not
so much a social factory, as the autonomists call it.
This is more like a social boudoir. The whole of social
space is in some indeterminate state between public
and private. Some of your information is private to
other people. But pretty much all of it is owned by
the vulture industry — and via them ends up in the
hands of the surveillance state.
So this is how we lost the war. Making information free seemed like a good idea at the time. Indeed, one way of seeing what transpired is that we
forced the ruling class to come up with these new
strategies in response to our own self-organizing
activities. Their actions are reactions to our initiatives. In this sense the autonomists are right, only
it was not so much the actions of the working class
to which the ruling class had to respond in this case,
as what I call the hacker class. They had to recuperate a whole social movement, and they did. So our
tactics have to change.
In the past we were acting like data-punks. Not
so much “here’s three chords, now form your band.”
More like: “Here’s three gigs, now go form your autonomous art collective.” The new tactic might be
more question of being metadata-punks. On the one
hand, it is about freeing information about information rather than the information itself. We need
to move up the order of informational density and


McKenzie Wark

control. On the other hand, it might be an idea to
be a bit discreet about it. Maybe not everyone needs
to know about it. Perhaps it is time to practice what
Zach Blas calls infomatic opacity.
Three projects seem to embody much of this
spirit to me. One I am not even going to name or
discuss, as discretion seems advisable in that case.
It takes matters off the internet and out of circulation among strangers. Ask me about it in person if
we meet in person.
The other two are Monoskop Log and UbuWeb.
It is hard to know what to call them. They are websites, archives, databases, collections, repositories,
but they are also a bit more than that. They could be
thought of also as the work of artists or of curators;
of publishers or of writers; of archivists or researchers. They contain lots of files. Monoskop is mostly
books and journals; UbuWeb is mostly video and
audio. The work they contain is mostly by or about
the historic avant-gardes.
Monoskop Log bills itself as “an educational
open access online resource.” It is a component part
of Monoskop, “a wiki for collaborative studies of
art, media and the humanities.” One commenter
thinks they see the “fingerprint of the curator” but
nobody is named as its author, so let’s keep it that
way. It is particularly strong on Eastern European
avant-garde material. UbuWeb is the work of Kenneth Goldsmith, and is “a completely independent
resource dedicated to all strains of the avant-garde,
ethnopoetics, and outsider arts.”
There’s two aspects to consider here. One is the
wealth of free material both sites collect. For any-

Metadata Punk


body trying to teach, study or make work in the
avant-garde tradition these are very useful resources.
The other is the ongoing selection, presentation and
explanation of the material going on at these sites
themselves. Both of them model kinds of ‘curatorial’
or ‘publishing’ behavior.
For instance, Monoskop has wiki pages, some
better than Wikipedia, which contextualize the work
of a given artist or movement. UbuWeb offers “top
ten” lists by artists or scholars which give insight
not only into the collection but into the work of the
person making the selection.
Monoskop and UbuWeb are tactics for intervening in three kinds of practices, those of the artworld, of publishing and of scholarship. They respond to the current institutional, technical and
political-economic constraints of all three. As it
says in the Communist Manifesto, the forces for social change are those that ask the property question.
While détournement was a sufficient answer to that
question in the era of the culture industries, they try
to formulate, in their modest way, a suitable tactic
for answering the property question in the era of
the vulture industries.
This takes the form of moving from data to metadata, expressed in the form of the move from writing
to publishing, from art-making to curating, from
research to archiving. Another way of thinking this,
suggested by Hiroki Azuma would be the move from
narrative to database. The object of critical attention
acquires a third dimension, a kind of informational
depth. The objects before us are not just a text or an
image but databases of potential texts and images,
with metadata attached.


McKenzie Wark

The object of any avant-garde is always to practice the relation between aesthetics and everyday
life with a new kind of intensity. UbuWeb and
Monoskop seem to me to be intimations of just
such an avant-garde movement. One that does not
offer a practice but a kind of meta-practice for the
making of the aesthetic within the everyday.
Crucial to this project is the shifting of aesthetic
intention from the level of the individual work to the
database of works. They contain a lot of material, but
not just any old thing. Some of the works available
here are very rare, but not all of them are. It is not
just rarity, or that the works are available for free.
It is more that these are careful, artful, thoughtful
collections of material. There are the raw materials here with which to construct a new civilization.
So we lost the battle, but the war goes on. This
civilization is over, and even its defenders know it.
We live in among ruins that accrete in slow motion.
It is not so much a civil war as an incivil war, waged
against the very conditions of existence of life itself.
So even if we have no choice but to use its technologies and cultures, the task is to build another way
of life among the ruins. Here are some useful practices, in and on and of the ruins. ❧

Metadata Punk



public library


Tomislav Medak

The Future After the Library
UbuWeb and Monoskop’s
Radical Gestures

The institution of the public library has crystallized,
developed and advanced around historical junctures
unleashed by epochal economic, technological and
political changes. A series of crises since the advent
of print have contributed to the configuration of the
institutional entanglement of the public library as
we know it today:01 defined by a publicly available
collection, housed in a public building, indexed and
made accessible with a help of a public catalog, serviced by trained librarians and supported through
public financing. Libraries today embody the idea
of universal access to all knowledge, acting as custodians of a culture of reading, archivists of material
and ephemeral cultural production, go-betweens
of information and knowledge. However, libraries have also embraced a broader spirit of public
service and infrastructure: providing information,
01 For the concept and the full scope of the contemporary library
as institutional entanglement see Shannon Mattern, “Library
as Infrastructure”, Places Journal, accessed April 9, 2015,

The Future After the Library


education, skills, assistance and, ultimately, shelter
to their communities — particularly their most vulnerable members.
This institutional entanglement, consisting in
a comprehensive organization of knowledge, universally accessible cultural goods and social infrastructure, historically emerged with the rise of (information) science, social regulation characteristic
of modernity and cultural industries. Established
in its social aspect as the institutional exemption
from the growing commodification and economic
barriers in the social spheres of culture, education
and knowledge, it is a result of struggles for institutionalized forms of equality that still reflect the
best in solidarity and universality that modernity
had to offer. Yet, this achievement is marked by
contradictions that beset modernity at its core. Libraries and archives can be viewed as an organon
through which modernity has reacted to the crises
unleashed by the growing production and fixation
of text, knowledge and information through a history of transformations that we will discuss below.
They have been an epistemic crucible for the totalizing formalizations that have propelled both the
advances and pathologies of modernity.
Positioned at a slight monastic distance and indolence toward the forms of pastoral, sovereign or
economic domination that defined the surrounding world that sustained them, libraries could never
close the rift or between the universalist aspirations
of knowledge and their institutional compromise.
Hence, they could never avoid being the battlefield
where their own, and modernity’s, ambivalent epis-


Tomislav Medak

temic and social character was constantly re-examined and ripped asunder. It is this ambivalent
character that has been a potent motor for critical theory, artistic and political subversion — from
Marx’s critique of political economy, psychoanalysis
and historic avant-gardes, to revolutionary politics.
Here we will examine the formation of the library
as an epistemic and social institution of modernity
and the forms of critical engagement that continue
to challenge the totalizing order of knowledge and
appropriation of culture in the present.
Here Comes the Flood02
Prior to the advent of print, the collections held in
monastic scriptoria, royal courts and private libraries
typically contained a limited number of canonical
manuscripts, scrolls and incunabula. In Medieval
and early Renaissance Europe the canonized knowledge considered necessary for the administration of
heavenly and worldly affairs was premised on reading and exegesis of biblical and classical texts. It is
02 The metaphor of the information flood, here incanted in the
words of Peter Gabriel’s song with apocalyptic overtones, as
well as a good part of the historic background of the development of index card catalog in the following paragraphs
are based on Markus Krajewski, Paper Machines: About
Cards & Catalogs, 1548–1929 (MIT Press, 2011). The organizing idea of Krajewski’s historical account, that the index
card catalog can be understood as a Turing machine avant
la lettre, served as a starting point for the understanding
of the library as an epistemic institution developed here.

The Future After the Library


estimated that by the 15th century in Western Europe
there were no more than 5 million manuscripts held
mainly in the scriptoria of some 21,000 monasteries and a small number of universities. While the
number of volumes had grown sharply from less
than 0.8 million in the 12th century, the number of
monasteries had remained constant throughout that
period. The number of manuscripts read averaged
around 1,000 per million inhabitants, with the total
population of Europe peaking around 60 million.03
All in all, the book collections were small, access was
limited and reading culture played a marginal role.
The proliferation of written matter after the invention of mechanical movable type printing would
greatly increase the number of books, but also the
patterns of literacy and knowledge production. Already in the first fifty years after Gutenberg’s invention, 12 million volumes were printed, and from
this point onwards the output of printing presses
grew exponentially to 700 million volumes in the
18th century. In the aftermath of the explosion in
book production the cost of producing and buying
books fell drastically, reducing the economic barriers to literacy, but also creating a material vector
for a veritable shift of the epistemic paradigm. The
03 For an economic history of the book in the Western Europe
see Eltjo Buringh and Jan Luiten Van Zanden, “Charting
the ‘Rise of the West’: Manuscripts and Printed Books in
Europe, A Long-Term Perspective from the Sixth through
Eighteenth Centuries”, The Journal of Economic History 69,
No. 02 (June 2009): 409–45, doi:10.1017/S0022050709000837,
particularly Tables 1-5.


Tomislav Medak

emerging reading public was gaining access to the
new works of a nascent Enlightenment movement,
ushering in the modern age of science. In parallel
with those larger epochal transformations, the explosion of print also created a rising tide of new books
that suddenly inundated the libraries. The libraries
now had to contend both with the orders-of-magnitude greater volume of printed matter and the
growing complexity of systematically storing, ordering, classifying and tracking all of the volumes
in their collection. An once almost static collection
of canonical knowledge became an ever expanding
dynamic flux. This flood of new books, the first of
three to follow, presented principled, infrastructural and organizational challenges to the library that
radically transformed and coalesced its functions.
The epistemic shift created by this explosion of
library holdings led to a revision of the assumption
that the library is organized around a single holy
scripture and a small number of classical sources.
Coextensive with the emergence and multiplication of new sciences, the books that were entering
the library now covered an ever diversified scope
of topics and disciplines. And the sheer number of
new acquisitions demanded the physical expansion of libraries, which in turn required a radical
rethinking of the way the books were stored, displayed and indexed. In fact, the flood caused by the
printing press was nothing short of a revolution in
the organization, formalization and processing of
information and knowledge. This becomes evident
in the changes that unfolded between the 16th and
the early 20th in the cataloging of library collections.

The Future After the Library


The initial listings of books were kept in bound
volumes, books in their own right. But as the number of items arriving into the library grew, the constant need to insert new entries made the bound
book format increasingly impractical for library
catalogs. To make things more complicated still,
the diversification of the printed matter demanded
a richer bibliographic description that would allow
better comprehension of what was contained in the
volumes. Alongside the name of the author and the
book’s title, the description now needed to include
the format of the volume, the classification of the
subject matter and the book’s location in the library.
As the pace of new arrivals accelerated, the effort to
create a library catalog became unending, causing a
true crisis in the emerging librarian profession. This
would result in a number of physical and epistemic
innovations in the organization and formalization
of information and knowledge. The requirement
to constantly rearrange the order of entries in the
listing lead to the eventual unbinding of the bound
catalog into separate slips of paper and finally to the
development of the index card catalog. The unbound
index cards and their floating rearrangement, not
unlike that of the movable type, would in turn result in the design of filing cabinets. From Conrad
Gessner’s Bibliotheca Universalis, a three-volume
book-format catalog of around 3,000 authors and
10,000 texts, arranged alphabetically and topically,
published in the period 1545–1548; Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz’s proposals for a universal library
during his tenure at the Wolfenbüttel library in the
late 17th century; to Gottfried van Swieten’s catalog


Tomislav Medak

of the Viennese court library, the index card catalog and the filing cabinets would develop almost to
their present form.04
The unceasing inflow of new books into the library
prompted the need to spatially organize and classify
the arrangement of the collection. The simple addition of new books to the shelves by size; canonical
relevance or alphabetical order, made little sense
in a situation where the corpus of printed matter
was quickly expanding and no individual librarian
could retain an intimate overview of the library’s
entire collection. The inflow of books required that
the brimming shelf-space be planned ahead, while
the increasing number of expanding disciplines required that the collection be subdivided into distinct
sections by fields. First the shelves became classified
and then the books individually received a unique
identifier. With the completion of the Josephinian
catalog in the Viennese court library, every book became compartmentalized according to a systematic
plan of sciences and assigned a unique sequence of
a Roman numeral, a Roman letter and an Arabic
numeral by which it could be tracked down regardless of its physical location.05 The physical location
of the shelves in the library no longer needed to be
reflected in the ordering of the catalog, and the catalog became a symbolic representation of the freely
re-arrangeable library. In the technological lingo of
today, the library required storage, index, search
and address in order to remain navigable. It is this
04 Krajewski, Paper Machines, op. cit., chapter 2.
05 Ibid., 30.

The Future After the Library


formalization of a universal system of classification
of objects in the library with the relative location of
objects and re-arrangeable index that would then in
1876 receive its present standardized form in Melvil
Dewey’s Decimal System.
The development of the library as an institution of
public access and popular literacy did not proceed
apace with the development of its epistemic aspects.
It was only a series of social upheavals and transformations in the course of the 18th and 19th century
that would bring about another flood of books and
political demands, pushing the library to become
embedded in an egalitarian and democratic political culture. The first big step in that direction came
with the decision of the French revolutionary National Assembly from 2 November 1789 to seize all
book collections from the Church and aristocracy.
Million of volumes were transferred to the Bibliothèque Nationale and local libraries across France.
In parallel, particularly in England, capitalism was
on the rise. It massively displaced the impoverished rural population into growing urban centers,
propelled the development of industrial production and, by the mid-19th century, introduced the
steam-powered rotary press into the book business.
As books became more easily, and mass produced,
the commercial subscription libraries catering to the
better-off parts of society blossomed. This brought
the class aspect of the nascent demand for public
access to books to the fore. After the failed attempts
to introduce universal suffrage and end the system
of political representation based on property entitlements in 1830s and 1840s, the English Chartist


Tomislav Medak

movement started to open reading rooms and cooperative lending libraries that would quickly become
a popular hotbed of social exchanges between the
lower classes. In the aftermath of the revolutionary
upheavals of 1848, the fearful ruling classes heeded
the demand for tax-financed public libraries, hoping
that the access to literature and edification would
ultimately hegemonize the working class for the
benefits of capitalism’s culture of self-interest and
The Avant-gardes in the Library
As we have just demonstrated, the public library
in its epistemic and social aspects coalesced in the
context of the broader social transformations of
modernity: early capitalism and processes of nation-building in Europe and the USA. These transformations were propelled by the advancement of
political and economic rationalization, public and
business administration, statistical and archival
procedures. Archives underwent a corresponding and largely concomitant development with the
libraries, responding with a similar apparatus of
classification and ordering to the exponential expansion of administrative records documenting the
social world and to the historicist impulse to capture the material traces of past events. Overlaying
the spatial organization of documentation; rules
06 For the social history of public library see Matthew Battles,
Library: An Unquiet History (Random House, 2014) chapter
5: “Books for all”.

The Future After the Library


of its classification and symbolic representation of
the archive in reference tools, they tried to provide
a formalization adequate to the passion for capturing historical or present events. Characteristic
of the ascendant positivism of the 19th century, the
archivists’ and librarians’ epistemologies harbored
a totalizing tendency that would become subject to
subversion and displacement in the first decades of
the 20th century.
The assumption that the classificatory form can
fully capture the archival content would become
destabilized over and over by the early avant-gardist
permutations of formal languages of classification:
dadaist montage of the contingent compositional
elements, surrealist insistence on the unconscious
surpluses produced by automatized formalized language, constructivist foregrounding of dynamic and
spatialized elements in the acts of perception and
cognition of an artwork.07 The material composition
of the classified and ordered objects already contained formalizations deposited into those objects
by the social context of their provenance or projected onto them by the social situation of encounter
with them. Form could become content and content
could become form. The appropriations, remediations and displacements exacted by the neo-avantgardes in the second half of the 20th century pro07 Sven Spieker, The Big Archive: Art from Bureaucracy (MIT
Press, 2008) provides a detailed account of strategies that
the historic avant-gardes and the post-war art have developed toward the classificatory and ordering regime of the


Tomislav Medak

duced subversions, resignifications and simulacra
that only further blurred the lines between histories
and their construction, dominant classifications and
their immanent instabilities.
Where does the library fit into this trajectory? Operating around an uncertain and politically embattled universal principle of public access to knowledge
and organization of information, libraries continued being sites of epistemic and social antagonisms,
adaptations and resilience in response to the challenges created by the waves of radical expansion of
textuality and conflicting social interests between
the popular reading culture and the commodification of cultural consumption. This precarious position is presently being made evident by the third
big flood — after those unleashed by movable type
printing and the social context of industrial book
production — that is unfolding with the transition
of the book into the digital realm. Both the historic
mode of the institutional regulation of access and
the historic form of epistemic classification are
swept up in this transformation. While the internet
has made possible a radically expanded access to
digitized culture and knowledge, the vested interests of cultural industries reliant on copyright for
their control over cultural production have deepened the separation between cultural producers and
their readers, listeners and viewers. While the hypertextual capacity for cross-reference has blurred
the boundaries of the book, digital rights management technologies have transformed e-books into
closed silos. Both the decommodification of access
and the overcoming of the reified construct of the

The Future After the Library


self-enclosed work in the form of a book come at
the cost of illegality.
Even the avant-gardes in all their inappropriable
and idiosyncratic recalcitrance fall no less under
the legally delimited space of copyrightable works.
As they shift format, new claims of ownership and
appropriation are built. Copyright is a normative
classification that is totalizing, regardless of the
effects of leaky networks speaking to the contrary.
Few efforts have insisted on the subverting of juridical classification by copyright more lastingly than
the UbuWeb archive. Espousing the avant-gardes’
ethos of appropriation, for almost 20 years it has
collected and made accessible the archives of the
unknown; outsider, rare and canonized avant-gardes and contemporary art that would otherwise remained reserved for the vaults and restricted access
channels of esoteric markets, selective museological
presentations and institutional archives. Knowing
that asking to publish would amount to aligning itself with the totalizing logic of copyright, UbuWeb
has shunned the permission culture. At the level of
poetical operation, as a gesture of displacing the cultural archive from a regime of limited, into a regime
of unlimited access, it has created provocations and
challenges directed at the classifying and ordering
arrangements of property over cultural production.
One can only assume that as such it has become a
mechanism for small acts of treason for the artists,
who, short of turning their back fully on the institutional arrangements of the art world they inhabit,
use UbuWeb to release their own works into unlimited circulation on the net. Sometimes there might


Tomislav Medak

be no way or need to produce a work outside the
restrictions imposed by those institutions, just as
sometimes it is for academics impossible to avoid
the contradictory world of academic publishing,
yet that is still no reason to keep one’s allegiance to
their arrangements.
At the same time UbuWeb has played the game
of avant-gardist subversion: “If it doesn’t exist on
the internet, it doesn’t exist”. Provocation is most
effective when it is ignorant of the complexities of
the contexts that it is directed at. Its effect starts
where fissures in the defense of the opposition start
to show. By treating UbuWeb as massive evidence
for the internet as a process of reappropriation, a
process of “giving to all”, its volunteering spiritus
movens, Kenneth Goldsmith, has been constantly rubbing copyright apologists up the wrong way.
Rather than producing qualifications, evasions and
ambivalences, straightforward affirmation of copy­
ing, plagiarism and reproduction as a dominant
yet suppressed mode of operation of digital culture re-enacts the avant-gardes’ gesture of taking
no hostages from the officially sanctioned systems
of classification. By letting the incumbents of control over cultural production react to the norm of
copying, you let them struggle to dispute the norm
rather than you having to try to defend the norm.
UbuWeb was an early-comer, starting in 1996
and still functioning today on seemingly similar
technology, it’s a child of the early days of World
Wide Web and the promissory period of the experimental internet. It’s resolutely Web 1.0, with
a single maintainer, idiosyncratically simple in its

The Future After the Library


layout and programmatically committed to the
eventual obsolescence and sudden abandonment.
No platform, no generic design, no widgets, no
kludges and no community features. Only Beckett
avec links. Endgame.
A Book is an Index is an Index is an Index...
Since the first book flood, the librarian dream of
epistemological formalization has revolved around
the aspiration to cross-reference all the objects in
the collection. Within the physical library the topical designation has been relegated to the confines of
index card catalog that remained isolated from the
structure of citations and indexes in the books themselves. With the digital transition of the book, the
time-shifted hypertextuality of citations and indexes
became realizable as the immediate cross-referentiality of the segments of individual text to segments
of other texts and other digital artifacts across now
permeable boundaries of the book.
Developed as a wiki for collaborative studies of
art, media and the humanities, took
up the task of mapping and describing avant-gardes and media art in Europe. In its approach both
indexical and encyclopedic, it is an extension of
the collaborative editing made possible by wiki
technology. Wikis rose to prominence in the early
2000s allowing everyone to edit and extend websites running on that technology by mastering a
very simple markup language. Wikis have been the
harbinger of a democratization of web publishing
that would eventually produce the largest collabo-


Tomislav Medak

rative website on the internet — the Wikipedia, as
well as a number of other collaborative platforms. embraces the encyclopedic spirit of
Wikipedia, focusing on its own specific topical and
topological interests. However, from its earliest days has also developed as a form of index
that maps out places, people, artworks, movements,
events and venues that compose the dense network
of European avant-gardes and media art.
If we take the index as a formalization of cross-referential relations between names of people, titles
of works and concepts that exist in the books and
across the books, what emerges is a model of a relational database reflecting the rich mesh of cultural
networks. Each book can serve as an index linking
its text to people, other books, segments in them.
To provide a paradigmatic demonstration of that
idea, has assembled an index of all
persons in Friedrich Kittler’s Discourse Networks,
with each index entry linking both to its location
in the digital version of the book displayed on the archive and to relevant resources for
those persons on the and the internet. Hence, each object in the library, an index
in its own right, potentially allows one to initiate
the relational re-classification and re-organization
of all other works in the library through linkable
Fundamental to the works of the post-socialist
retro-avant-gardes of the last couple of decades has
been the re-writing of a history of art in reverse.
In the works of IRWIN, Laibach or Mladen Stilinović, or comparable work of Komar & Melamid,

The Future After the Library


totalizing modernity is detourned by re-appropriating the forms of visual representation and classification that the institutions of modernity used to
construct a linear historical narrative of evolutions
and breaks in the 19th and 20th century. Genealogical
tables, events, artifacts and discourses of the past
were re-enacted, over-affirmed and displaced to
open up the historic past relegated to the archives
to an understanding that transformed the present
into something radically uncertain. The efforts of in digitizing of the artifacts of the
20th century avant-gardes and playing with the
epistemic tools of early book culture is a parallel
gesture, with a technological twist. If big data and
the control over information flows of today increasingly naturalizes and re-affirms the 19th century
positivist assumptions of the steerablity of society,
then the endlessly recombinant relations and affiliations between cultural objects threaten to overflow
that recurrent epistemic framework of modernity’s
barbarism in its cybernetic form.
The institution of the public library finds itself
today under a double attack. One unleashed by
the dismantling of the institutionalized forms of
social redistribution and solidarity. The other by
the commodifying forces of expanding copyright
protections and digital rights management, control
over the data flows and command over the classification and order of information. In a world of
collapsing planetary boundaries and unequal development, those who control the epistemic order


Tomislav Medak

control the future.08 The Googles and the NSAs run
on capturing totality — the world’s knowledge and
communication made decipherable, organizable and
controllable. The instabilities of the epistemic order
that the library continues to instigate at its margins
contributes to keeping the future open beyond the
script of ‘commodify and control’. In their acts of
re-appropriation UbuWeb and are
but a reminder of the resilience of libraries’ instability that signals toward a future that can be made
radically open. ❧

08 In his article “Controlling the Future—Edward Snowden and
the New Era on Earth”, (accessed April 13, 2015, http://www., Elmar
Altvater makes a comparable argument that the efforts of
the “Five Eyes” to monitor the global communication flows,
revealed by Edward Snowden, and the control of the future
social development defined by the urgency of mitigating the
effects of the planetary ecological crisis cannot be thought

The Future After the Library



public library


Public Library

What, How & for Whom / WHW
Slovenska 5/1 • HR-10000 Zagreb
+385 (0) 1 3907261 •
ISBN 978-953-55951-3-7 [Što, kako i za koga/WHW]
Multimedia Institute
Preradovićeva 18 • HR-10000 Zagreb
+385 (0)1 4856400 •
ISBN 978-953-7372-27-9 [Multimedijalni institut]
Tomislav Medak • Marcell Mars • What, How & for Whom / WHW
Copy Editor
Dušanka Profeta [Croatian]
Anthony Iles [English]
Una Bauer
Tomislav Medak
Dušanka Profeta
W. Boyd Rayward
Design & layout
Dejan Kršić @ WHW
MinionPro [robert slimbach • adobe]

English translation of the Paul
Otlet’s text published with the permission of W. Boyd
Rayward. The translation was originally published as
Paul Otlet, “Transformations in the Bibliographical
Apparatus of the Sciences: Repertory–Classification–Office
of Documentation”, in International Organisation and
Dissemination of Knowledge; Selected Essays of Paul Otlet,
translated and edited by W. Boyd Rayward, Amsterdam:
Elsevier, 1990: 148–156. ❧
format / size
120 × 200 mm
Agrippina 120 g • Rives Laid 300 g
Printed by
Tiskara Zelina d.d.
Print Run
50 kn
May • 2015

This publication, realized along with the exhibition
Public Library in Gallery Nova, Zagreb 2015, is a part of
the collaborative project This Is Tomorrow. Back to Basics:
Forms and Actions in the Future organized by What, How
& for Whom / WHW, Zagreb, Tensta Konsthall, Stockholm
and Latvian Center for Contemporary Art / LCCA, Riga, as a
part of the book edition Art As Life As Work As Art. ❧

Supported by
Office of Culture, Education and Sport of the City of Zagreb
Ministry of Culture of the Republic of Croatia
Croatian Government Office for Cooperation with NGOs
Creative Europe Programme of the European Commission.
National Foundation for Civil Society Development
Kultura Nova Foundation

This project has been funded with support
from European Commision. This publication reflects
the views only of the authors, and the Commission
cannot be held responsible for any use which may be
made of the information contained therein. ❧
Publishing of this book is enabled by financial support of
the National Foundation for Civil Society Development.
The content of the publication is responsibility of
its authors and as such does not necessarily reflect
the views of the National Foundation. ❧
This project is financed
by the Croatian Government Office for Cooperation
with NGOs. The views expressed in this publication
are the sole responsibility of the publishers. ❧

This book is licensed under a Creative
Commons Attribution–ShareAlike 4.0
International License. ❧

Public Library

may • 2015
price 50 kn

The Indexalist

## The Indexalist

### From Mondotheque


[Matthew Fuller](/wiki/index.php?title=Matthew_Fuller "Matthew Fuller")

I first spoke to the patient in the last week of that August. That evening the
sun was tender in drawing its shadows across the lines of his face. The eyes
gazed softly into a close middle distance, as if composing a line upon a
translucent page hung in the middle of the air, the hands tapping out a stanza
or two of music on legs covered by the brown folds of a towelling dressing
gown. He had the air of someone who had seen something of great amazement but
yet lacked the means to put it into language. As I got to know the patient
over the next few weeks I learned that this was not for the want of effort.

In his youth he had dabbled with the world-speak language Volapük, one
designed to do away with the incompatibility of tongues, to establish a
standard in which scientific intercourse might be conducted with maximum
efficiency and with minimal friction in movement between minds, laboratories
and publications. Latin biological names, the magnificent table of elements,
metric units of measurement, the nomenclature of celestial objects from clouds
to planets, anatomical parts and medical conditions all had their own systems
of naming beyond any specific tongue. This was an attempt to bring reason into
speech and record, but there were other means to do so when reality resisted
these early measures.

The dabbling, he reflected, had become a little more than that. He had
subscribed to journals in the language, he wrote letters to colleagues and
received them in return. A few words of world-speak remained readily on his
tongue, words that he spat out regularly into the yellow-wallpapered lounge of
the sanatorium with a disgust that was lugubriously palpable.

According to my records, and in piecing together the notes of previous
doctors, there was something else however, something more profound that the
language only hinted at. Just as the postal system did not require the
adoption of any language in particular but had its formats that integrated
them into addressee, address line, postal town and country, something that
organised the span of the earth, so there was a sense of the patient as having
sustained an encounter with a fundamental form of organisation that mapped out
his soul. More thrilling than the question of language indeed was that of the
system of organisation upon which linguistic symbols are inscribed. I present
for the reader’s contemplation some statements typical of those he seemed to
mull over.

“The index card system spoke to my soul. Suffice it to say that in its use I
enjoyed the highest form of spiritual pleasure, and organisational efficiency,
a profound flowering of intellect in which every thought moved between its
enunciation, evidence, reference and articulation in a mellifluous flow of
ideation and the gratification of curiosity.” This sense of the soul as a
roving enquiry moving across eras, across forms of knowledge and through the
serried landscapes of the vast planet and cosmos was returned to over and
over, a sense that an inexplicable force was within him yet always escaping
his touch.

“At every reference stood another reference, each more interesting than the
last. Each the apex of a pyramid of further reading, pregnant with the threat
of digression, each a thin high wire which, if not observed might lead the
author into the fall of error, a finding already found against and written
up.” He mentions too, a number of times, the way the furniture seemed to
assist his thoughts - the ease of reference implied by the way in which the
desk aligned with the text resting upon the pages of the off-print, journal,
newspaper, blueprint or book above which further drawers of cards stood ready
in their cabinet. All were integrated into the system. And yet, amidst these
frenetic recollections there was a note of mourning in his contemplative
moods, “The superposition of all planes of enquiry and of thought in one
system repels those for whom such harmonious speed is suspicious.” This
thought was delivered with a stare that was not exactly one of accusation, but
that lingered with the impression that there was a further statement to follow
it, and another, queued up ready to follow.

As I gained the trust of the patient, there was a sense in which he estimated
me as something of a junior collaborator, a clerk to his natural role as
manager. A lucky, if slightly doubtful, young man whom he might mentor into
efficiency and a state of full access to information. For his world, there was
not the corruption and tiredness of the old methods. Ideas moved faster in his
mind than they might now across the world. To possess a register of thoughts
covering a period of some years is to have an asset, the value of which is
almost incalculable. That it can answer any question respecting any thought
about which one has had an enquiry is but the smallest of its merits. More
important is the fact that it continually calls attention to matters requiring
such attention.

Much of his discourse was about the optimum means of arrangement of the
system, there was an art to laying out the cards. As the patient further
explained, to meet the objection that loose cards may easily be mislaid, cards
may be tabbed with numbers from one to ten. When arranged in the drawer, these
tabs proceed from left to right across the drawer and the absence of a single
card can thus easily be detected. The cards are further arranged between
coloured guide cards. As an alternative to tabbed cards, signal flags may be
used. Here, metal clips may be attached to the top end of the card and that
stand out like guides. For use of the system in relation to dates of the
month, the card is printed with the numbers 1 to 31 at the top. The metal clip
is placed as a signal to indicate the card is to receive attention on the
specified day. Within a large organisation a further card can be drawn up to
assign responsibility for processing that date’s cards. There were numerous
means of working the cards, special techniques for integrating them into any
type of research or organisation, means by which indexes operating on indexes
could open mines of information and expand the knowledge and capabilities of

As he pressed me further, I began to experiment with such methods myself by
withdrawing data from the sanatorium’s records and transferring it to cards in
the night. The advantages of the system are overwhelming. Cards, cut to the
right mathematical degree of accuracy, arrayed readily in drawers, set in
cabinets of standard sizes that may be added to at ease, may be apportioned
out amongst any number of enquirers, all of whom may work on them
independently and simultaneously. The bound book, by contrast, may only be
used by one person at a time and that must stay upon a shelf itself referred
to by an index card system. I began to set up a structure of rows of mirrors
on chains and pulleys and a set of levered and hinged mechanical arms to allow
me to open the drawers and to privately consult my files from any location
within the sanatorium. The clarity of the image is however so far too much
effaced by the diffusion of light across the system.

It must further be borne in mind that a system thus capable of indefinite
expansion obviates the necessity for hampering a researcher with furniture or
appliances of a larger size than are immediately required. The continuous and
orderly sequence of the cards may be extended further into the domain of
furniture and to the conduct of business and daily life. Reasoning, reference
and the order of ideas emerging as they embrace and articulate a chaotic world
and then communicate amongst themselves turning the world in turn into
something resembling the process of thought in an endless process of
consulting, rephrasing, adding and sorting.

For the patient, ideas flowed like a force of life, oblivious to any unnatural
limitation. Thought became, with the proper use of the system, part of the
stream of life itself. Thought moved through the cards not simply at the
superficial level of the movement of fingers and the mechanical sliding and
bunching of cards, but at the most profound depths of the movement between
reality and our ideas of it. The organisational grace to be found in
arrangement, classification and indexing still stirred the remnants of his
nervous system until the last day.

Last Revision: 2*08*2016

Retrieved from

Adema & Hall
The political nature of the book: on artists' books and radical open access

The political nature of the book: on artists' books and radical open access
Adema, J. and Hall, G.

Author post-print (accepted) deposited in CURVE September 2013

Original citation & hyperlink:
Adema, J. and Hall, G. (2013). The political nature of the book: on artists' books and radical
open access. New Formations, volume 78 (1): 138-156

This is an Open Access article distributed under the terms of the Creative Commons
Attribution License (, which permits
unrestricted use, distribution, and reproduction in any medium, provided the original
work is properly cited.
This document is the author’s post-print version of the journal article, incorporating any
revisions agreed during the peer-review process. Some differences between the published
version and this version may remain and you are advised to consult the published version
if you wish to cite from it.

CURVE is the Institutional Repository for Coventry University

In this article we argue that the medium of the book can be a material and
conceptual means, both of criticising capitalism’s commodification of knowledge (for
example, in the form of the commercial incorporation of open access by feral and
predatory publishers), and of opening up a space for thinking about politics. The
book, then, is a political medium. As the history of the artist’s book shows, it can be
used to question, intervene in and disturb existing practices and institutions, and even
offer radical, counter-institutional alternatives. If the book’s potential to question and
disturb existing practices and institutions includes those associated with liberal
democracy and the neoliberal knowledge economy (as is apparent from some of the
more radical interventions occurring today under the name of open access), it also
includes politics and with it the very idea of democracy. In other words, the book is a
medium that can (and should) be ‘rethought to serve new ends’; a medium through
which politics itself can be rethought in an ongoing manner.

Keywords: Artists’ books, Academic Publishing, Radical Open Access, Politics,
Democracy, Materiality

Janneke Adema is a PhD student at Coventry University, writing a dissertation on the
future of the scholarly monograph. She is the author of the OAPEN report Overview
of Open Access Models for eBooks in the Humanities and Social Sciences (2010) and
has published in The International Journal of Cultural Studies, New Media & Society,
New Review of Academic Librarianship; Krisis: Journal for Contemporary
Philosophy; Scholarly and Research Communication; and LOGOS; and co-edited a
living book on Symbiosis (Open Humanities Press, 2011). Her research can be
followed on

Gary Hall is Professor of Media and Performing Arts and Director of the Centre for
Disruptive Media at Coventry University, UK. He is author of Culture in Bits
(Continuum, 2002) and Digitize This Book! (Minnesota UP, 2008). His work has
appeared in numerous journals, including Angelaki, Cultural Studies, The Oxford
Literary Review, Parallax and Radical Philosophy. He is also founding co-editor of
the open access journal Culture Machine (, and co-


founder of Open Humanities Press ( More
details are available on his website


Janneke Adema and Gary Hall


The medium of the book plays a double role in art and academia, functioning not only
as a material object but also as a concept-laden metaphor. Since it is a medium
through which an alternative future for art, academia and even society can be enacted
and imagined, materially and conceptually, we can even go so far as to say that, in its
ontological instability with regard to what it is and what it conveys, the book serves a
political function. In short, the book can be ‘rethought to serve new ends’. 1 At the
same time, the medium of the book remains subject to a number of constraints: in
terms of its material form, structure, characteristics and dimensions; and also in terms
of the political economies, institutions and practices in which it is historically
embedded. Consequently, if it is to continue to be able to serve ‘new ends’ as a
medium through which politics itself can be rethought – although this is still a big if –
then the material and cultural constitution of the book needs to be continually

Johanna Drucker, The Century of Artists’ Books, 2nd ed., Granary Books, New York, 2004,


reviewed, reevaluated and reconceived. In order to explore critically this ‘political
nature of the book’, as we propose to think of it, along with many of the fundamental
ideas on which the book as both a concept and a material object is based, this essay
endeavours to demonstrate how developments undergone by the artist’s book in the
1960s and 1970s can help us to understand some of the changes the scholarly
monograph is experiencing now, at a time when its mode of production, distribution,
organisation and consumption is shifting from analogue to digital and from codex to
net. In what follows we will thus argue that a reading of the history of the artist’s
book can be generative for reimagining the future of the scholarly monograph, both
with respect to the latter’s potential form and materiality in the digital age, and with
respect to its relation to the economic system in which book production, distribution,
organisation and consumption takes place. Issues of access and experimentation are
crucial to any such future, we will suggest, if the critical potentiality of the book is to
remain open to new political, economic and intellectual contingencies.


With the rise to prominence of digital publishing today, the material conditions of
book production, distribution, organisation and consumption are undergoing a rapid
and potentially profound transformation. The academic world is one arena in which
digital publishing is having a particularly strong impact. Here, the transition from
print to digital, along with the rise of self-publishing (Blurb, Scribd) and the use of
social media and social networks (Facebook, Twitter, to communicate
and share scholarly research, has lead to the development of a whole host of
alternative publication and circulation systems for academic thought and knowledge.


Nowhere have such changes to the material conditions of the academic book been
rendered more powerfully apparent than in the emergence and continuing rise to
prominence of the open access movement. With its exploration of different ways of
publishing, circulating and consuming academic work (specifically, more open,
Gratis, Libre ways of doing so), and of different systems for governing, reviewing,
accrediting and legitimising that work, open access is frequently held as offering a
radical challenge to the more established academic publishing industry. Witness the
recent positioning in the mainstream media of the boycott of those publishers of
scholarly journals – Elsevier in particular – who charge extremely high subscription
prices and who refuse to allow authors to make their work freely available online on
an open access basis, in terms of an ‘Academic Spring’. Yet more potentially radical
still is the occupation of the new material conditions of academic book production,
distribution, organization and consumption by those open access advocates who are
currently experimenting with the form and concept of the book, with a view to both
circumventing and placing in question the very print-based system of scholarly
communication – complete with its ideas of quality, stability and authority – on
which so much of the academic institution rests.

In the light of the above, our argument in this essay is that some of these more
potentially radical, experimental developments in open access book publishing can be
related on the level of political and cultural significance to transformations undergone
in a previous era by the artist’s book. As a consequence, the history of the latter can
help us to explore in more depth and detail than would otherwise be possible the
relation in open access between experimenting with the medium of the book on a


material and conceptual level on the one hand, and enacting political alternatives in a
broader sense on the other. Within the specific context of 1960s and 1970s
counterculture, the artist’s book was arguably able to fill a certain political void,
providing a means of democratising and subverting existing institutions by
distributing an increasingly cheap and accessible medium (the book), and in the
process using this medium in order to reimagine what art is and how it can be
accessed and viewed. While artists grasped and worked through that relation between
the political, conceptual and material aspects of the book several decades ago, thanks
to the emergence of open access online journals, archives, blogs, wikis and free textsharing networks one of the main places in which this relation is being explored today
is indeed in the realm of academic publishing. 2

In order to begin thinking through some of the developments in publishing that are
currently being delved into under the banner of open access, then, let us pause for a
moment to reflect on some of the general characteristics of those earlier experiments
with the medium of the book that were performed by artists. Listed below are six key
areas in which artists’ books can be said to offer guidance for academic publishing in
the digital age, not just on a pragmatic level but on a conceptual and political level

1) The Circumvention of Established Institutions


The relation in academic publishing between the political, conceptual and material aspects
of the book has of course been investigated at certain points in the past, albeit to varying
degrees and extents. For one example, see the ‘Working Papers’ and other forms of stencilled
gray literature that were produced and distributed by the Birmingham Centre for
Contemporary Cultural Studies in the 1960s and 1970s, as discussed by Ted Striphas and
Mark Hayward in their contribution to this issue.


According to the art theorist Lucy Lippard, the main reason the book has proved to be
so attractive as an artistic medium has to do with the fact that artists’ books are
‘considered by many the easiest way out of the art world and into the hearth of a
broader audience.’ 3 Books certainly became an increasingly popular medium of
artistic expression in Europe and the United States in the 1960s and 1970s. This was
largely due to their perceived potential to subvert the (commercial, profit-driven)
gallery system and to politicise artistic practice - to briefly introduce some of the
different yet as we can see clearly related arguments that follow - with the book
becoming a ‘democratic multiple’ that breached the walls held to be separating socalled high and low culture. Many artist-led and artist-controlled initiatives, such as
US-based Franklin Furnace, Printed Matter and Something Else Press, were
established during this period to provide a forum for artists excluded from the
traditional institutions of the gallery and the museum. Artists’ books played an
extremely important part in the rise of these independent art structures and publishing
ventures. 4 Indeed, for many artists such books embodied the ideal of being able to
control all aspects of their work.

Yet this movement toward liberating themselves from the gallery system by
publishing and exhibiting in artists’ books was by no means an easy transition for
many artists to make. It required them to come to terms with the idea that publishing
their own work did not amount to mere vanity self-publishing, in particular. Moore
and Hendricks describe this state of affairs in terms of the power and potential of ‘the


Lucy R. Lippard, ‘The Artist’s Book Goes Public’, in Joan Lyons (ed), Artists’ Books: a
Critical Anthology and Sourcebook, Rochester, New York: Visual Studies Workshop Press,
1993, p45.
Joan Lyons, ‘Introduction’, in Lyons (ed), Artists’ Books, p7.


page as an alternative space’. 5 From this perspective, producing, publishing and
distributing one’s own artist’s book was a sign of autonomy and independence; it was
nothing less than a way of being able to affect society directly. 6 The political potential
associated with the book by artists should therefore not be underestimated..
Accordingly, many artists created their own publishing imprints or worked together
with newly founded artist’s book publishers and printers (just as some academics are
today challenging the increasingly profit-driven publishing industry by establishing
not-for-profit, scholar-led, open access journals and presses). The main goal of these
independent (and often non-commercial) publisher-printer-artist collectives was to
make experimental, innovative work (rather than generate a profit), and to promote
ephemeral art works, which were often ignored by mainstream, mostly marketorientated institutions. 7 Artists’ books thus fitted in well with the mythology Johanna
Drucker describes as surrounding ‘activist artists’, and especially with the idea of the
book as a tool of independent activist thought. 8

2) The Relationship with Conceptual and Processual Art
In the context of this history of the artist’s book, one particularly significant
conceptual challenge to the gallery system came with the use of the book as a
platform for exhibiting original work (itself an extension of André Malraux’s idea of
the museum without walls). Curator Seth Siegelaub was among the first to publish his
artists – as opposed to exhibiting them – thus becoming, according to Germano


Hendricks and Moore, ‘The Page as Alternative Space: 1950 to 1969’, in Lyons (ed),
Artists’ Books, p87.
Pavel Büchler, ‘Books as Books’, in Jane Rolo and Ian Hunt (eds), Book Works: a Partial
History and Sourcebook, London: Book Works, 1996.
Clive Phillpot, ‘Some Contemporary Artists and Their Books’, in Cornelia Lauf and Clive
Phillpot (eds), Artist/Author: Contemporary Artists’ Books, New York, Distributed Art
Publishers, 1998, pp128-9.
Drucker, The Century of Artists’ Books, pp7-8.


Celant, ‘the first to allow complete operative and informative liberty to artists’. 9 The
Xerox Book and March 1-31, 1969, featuring work by Sol LeWitt, Robert Barry,
Douglas Huebler, Joseph Kosuth, Lawrence Weiner and other international artists, are
both examples of artists’ books where the book (or the catalogue) itself is the
exhibition. As Moore and Hendricks point out, this offered all kinds of benefits when
compared with traditional exhibitions: ‘This book is the exhibition, easily
transportable without the need for expensive physical space, insurance, endless
technical problems or other impediments. In this form it is relatively permanent and,
fifteen years later, is still being seen by the public.’ 10 Artists’ books thus served here
as an alternative space in themselves and at the same time functioned within a
network of alternative spaces, such as the above-mentioned Franklin Furnace
and Printed Matter.. Next to publishing and supporting artists’ books, such venues
offered a space for staging often highly politicised, critical, experimental and
performance art. 11 It is important to emphasise this aspect of artist book publishing, as
it shows that the book was used as a specific medium to exhibit works that could not
otherwise readily find a place within mainstream exhibition venues (a situation which,
as we will show, has been one of the main driving forces behind open access book
publishing). This focus on the book as a place for continual experimentation – be it on
the level of content or form – can thus be seen as underpinning what we are referring
to here as the ‘political nature of the book’ (playing on the title of Adrian Johns’
classic work of book history). 12


Germano Celant, Book as Artwork 1960-1972, New York, 6 Decades Books, 2011, p40.
Hendricks and Moore, ‘The Page as Alternative Space. 1950 to 1969’, p94.
Brian Wallis, ‘The Artist’s Book and Postmodernism’, in Cornelia Lauf and Clive Phillpot,
(eds), Artist/Author, 1998.
Adrian Johns, The Nature of the Book: Print and Knowledge in the Making, Chicago,
University of Chicago Press, 1998.


3) The Use of Accessible Technologies
As is the case with the current changes to the scholarly monograph, the rise of artists’
books can be perceived to have been underpinned (though by no means determined)
by developments in technology, with the revolution in mimeograph and offset
printing helping to take artists’ books out of the realm of expensive and rare
commodities by providing direct access to quick and inexpensive printing
methods. 13 Due to its unique characteristics – low production costs, portability,
accessibility and endurance – the artist’s book was regarded as having the potential to
communicate with a wider audience beyond the traditional art world. In particular, it
was seen as having the power to break down the barriers between so-called high and
low culture, using the techniques of mass media to enable artists to argue for their










possibilities.14 The artist’s book thus conveyed a high degree of artistic autonomy,
while also offering a far greater role to the reader or viewer, who was now able to
interact with the art object directly (eluding the intermediaries of the gallery and
museum system). Indeed, Lippard even went so far as to envision a future where
artists’ books would be readily available as part of mass consumer culture, at
‘supermarkets, drugstores and airports’. 15

4) The Politics of the Democratic Multiple


Hendricks and Moore, ‘The Page as Alternative Space’, pp94-95.
Joan Lyons, ‘Introduction’, in Lyons (ed), Artists’ Books, p7.
Lippard, ‘The Artist’s Book Goes Public’, p48; Lippard, ‘Conspicuous Consumption: New
Artists’ Books’, in Lyons (ed), Artists’ Books, p100. Is there a contradiction here between a
politics of artists’ books that is directed against commercial profit-driven galleries and
institutions, but which nevertheless uses the tools of mass consumer culture to reach a wider
audience (see also the critique Lippard offers in the next section)? And can a similar point be
made with respect to the politics of some open access initiatives and their use of social media
and (commercial, profit-driven) platforms such as Google Books and Amazon?


The idea of the book as a real democratic multiple came into being only after 1945, a
state of events that has been facilitated by a number of technological innovations,
including those detailed above. Yet the concept of the democratic multiple itself
developed in what was already a climate of political activism and social
consciousness. In this respect, the democratic multiple was part of both the overall
trend toward the dematerialization of art and the newly emergent emphasis on cultural
and artistic processes rather than ready-made objects. 16

Artists’ desire for

independence from established institutions and for the wider availability of their
works thus resonated with the democratising and anti-institutional potential of the
book as a medium. What is more, the book offered artists a space in which they were
able to experiment with the materiality of the medium itself and with the practices
that comprised it, and thus ultimately with the question of what constituted art and an
art object. This reflexivity of the book with regard to its own nature is one of the key
characteristics that make a book an artist’s book, and enable it to have political
potential in that it can be ‘rethought to serve new ends’. Much the same can be said
with respect to the relation between the book and scholarly communication: witness
the way reflection on the material nature of the book in the digital age has led to
questions being raised regarding how we structure scholarly communication and
practice scholarship more generally.

5) Conceptual Experimentation: Problematising the Concept and Form of the Book
Another key to understanding artists’ books and their history lies with the way the
radical change in printing technologies after World War II led to the reassessment of
the book form itself, and in particular, of the specific nature of the book’s materiality,


Drucker, The Century of Artists’ Books, p72.


of the very idea of the book, and of the notions and practices underlying the book’s
various uses.

When it came to reevaluating the materiality of the book, many experiments with
artists’ books tried to escape the linearity brought about by the codex form’s
(sequential) constraints, something which had long conditioned both writing and
reading practices. Undoubtedly, one of the most important theorists as far as
rethinking the materiality of the book in the period after 1945 is concerned is Ulises
Carrión. He defines the book as a specific set of conditions that should be (or need to
be) responded to. 17 Instead of seeing it as just a text, Carrión positions the book as an
object, a container and a sequence of spaces. For him, the codex is a form that needs
to be responded to in what he prefers to call ‘bookworks’. These are ‘books in which
the book form, as a coherent sequence of pages, determines conditions of reading that
are intrinsic to the work.’ 18 From this perspective, artists’ books interrogate the
structure and the meaning of the book’s form. 19

Yet the book is also a metaphor, a symbol and an icon to be responded to. 20 Indeed, it
is difficult to establish a precise definition or set of characteristics for artists’ books as
their very nature keeps changing. As Sowden and Bodman put it, ‘What a book is can
be challenged’. 21 Drucker, meanwhile, is at pains to point out that the book is open
for innovation, although the latter has its limits: ‘The convention of the book is both
its constrained meanings (as literacy, the law, text and so forth) and the space of new

James Langdon (ed), Book, Birmingham, Eastside Projects, 2010.
Ulises Carrión, ‘Bookworks Revisited’, in James Langdon (ed), Book, Birmingham,
Eastside Projects, 2010.
Drucker, The Century of Artists’ Books, pp3-4.
Ibid., p360.
Tom Sowden and Sarah Bodman, A Manifesto for the Book, Impact Press, 2010, p9.


work (the blank page, the void, the empty place).’ Books here ‘mutate, expand,
transform’. Accordingly, Drucker regards the transformed book as an intervention,
something that reflects the inherent critique that book experiments embody with
respect to their own constitution.22 One way of examining reflexively the structures
that make up the book is precisely by disturbing those structures. In certain respects
the page can be thought of as being finite (e.g. physically, materially), but it can also
be understood to be infinite, not least as a result of being potentially different on each
respective viewing/reading. This allows the book to be perceived as a self-reflexive
medium that is extremely well-suited to formal experiments. At the same time, it
allows it to be positioned as a potentially political medium, in the sense that it can be
used to intervene in and disturb existing practices and institutions.

6) The Problematisation of Reading and Authorship
As part of their constitution, artists’ books can be said to have brought into question
certain notions and practices relating to the book that had previously been taken too
much for granted – and perhaps still are. For instance, Brian Wallis shows how, ‘in
place of the omnipotent author’, postmodern artists’ books ‘acknowledge a
collectivity of voices and active participation of the reader’. 23 Carrión, for one, was
very concerned with the thought that readers might consume books passively, while
being unaware of their specificity as a medium. 24 The relationship between the book
and reading, and the way in which the physical aspect of the book can change how we
read, was certainly an important topic for artists throughout this period. Many
experiments with artists’ books focused on the interaction between author, reader and

Drucker, The Century of Artists’ Books.
Lucy Lippard and John Chandler, ‘The Dematerialization of Art’, Art International, 12, 2
Langdon, Book.


book, offering an alternative, and not necessarily linear, reading experience. 25 Such
readerly interventions often represented a critical engagement with ideas of the author
as original creative genius derived from the cultural tradition of European
Romanticism. Joan Lyons describes this potential of the artist’s book very clearly:
‘The best of the bookworks are multinotational. Within them, words, images, colors,
marks, and silences become plastic organisms that play across the pages in variable
linear sequence. Their importance lies in the formulation of a new perceptual
literature whose content alters the concept of authorship and challenges the reader to a
new discourse with the printed page.’ 26 Carrión thus writes about how in the books of
the new art, as he calls them, words no longer transmit an author’s intention. Instead,
authors can use other people’s words as an element of the book as a whole – so much
so that he positions plagiarism as lying at the very basis of creativity. As far as artists’
books are concerned, it is not the artist’s intention that is at stake, according to
Carrión, but rather the process of testing the meaning of language. It is the reader who
creates the meaning and understanding of a book for Carrión, through his or her
specific meaning-extraction. Every book requires a different reading and opens up
possibilities to the reader. 27


We can thus see that the very ‘nature’ of the book is particularly well suited to
experimentation and to reading against the grain. As a medium, the book has the

This has been one of the focal points of the books published and commissioned by UK
artist book publisher Book Works, for instance. Jane Rolo and Ian Hunt, ‘Introduction’, in
Book Works: A Partial History and Sourcebook, op. cit.
Joan Lyons, ‘Introduction’, p7.
Ulises Carrión, ‘The New Art of Making Books’, in James Langdon (ed), Book,
Birmingham, Eastside Projects, 2010.


potential to raise questions for some of the established practices and institutions
surrounding the production, distribution and consumption of printed matter. This
potential notwithstanding, it gradually became apparent (for some this realisation
occurred during the 1960s and 1970s, for others it only came about later) that the
ability of artists’ books to bring about institutional change in the art world, and to
question both the concept of the book and that of art as the singular aesthetic artefact
bolstered by institutional structures, was not particularly long-lasting. With respect to
the democratization of the artist’s book, for example, Lippard notes that, by losing its
distance, there was also a chance of the book losing its critical function. Here, says
Lippard, the ‘danger is that, with an expanding audience and an increased popularity
with collectors, the artist’s book will fall back into its edition de luxe or coffee table
origin … transformed into glossy, pricey products.’ For Lippard there is a discrepancy
between the characteristics of the medium which had the potential to break down
walls, and the actual content and form of most artists’ books which was highly
experimental and avant-garde, and thus inaccessible to readers/consumers outside of
the art world. 28


Interestingly, Carrión was one of the sharpest critics of the idea that artists’ books
should be somehow able to subvert the gallery system. In his ‘Bookworks Revisited’,
he showed how the hope surrounding this supposedly revolutionary potential of the
book as a medium was based on a gross misunderstanding of the mechanisms
underlying the art world. In particular, Carrión attacked the idea that the artist’s book


Lippard, ‘The Artist’s Book Goes Public’ pp47-48.


could do without any intermediaries. Instead of circumventing the gallery system, he
saw book artists as merely adopting an alternative set of intermediaries, namely book
publishers and critics. 29

Ten years later Stewart Cauley updated Carrión’s criticisms, arguing that as an art
form and medium, the artist’s book had not been able to avoid market mechanisms
and the celebrity cult of the art system. In fact, by the end of the 1980s the field of
artists’ publications had lost most of its experimental impetus and had become
something of an institution itself, imitating the gallery and museum system it was
initially designed to subvert. 30 Those interested in artists’ books initially found it
difficult to set up an alternative system, as they had to manage without organized
distribution, review mechanisms or funding schemes. When they were eventually able
to do so in the 1970s, the resulting structures in many ways mirrored the very
institutions they were supposed to be criticizing and providing an alternative to.31
Cauley points the finger of blame at the book community itself, especially at the fact
that artists at the time focused more on the concept and structure of the book than on
using the book form to make any kind of critical political statement. The idea that
artists’ books were disconnected from mainstream institutional systems has also been
debunked as a myth. As Drucker makes clear, many artists’ books were developed in
cooperation with museums or galleries, where they were perceived not as subversive
artefacts but rather as low-cost tools for gathering additional publicity for those
institutions and their activities. 32

Carrión, ‘Bookworks Revisited’; Johanna Drucker, ‘Artists’ Books and the Cultural Status
of the Book’, Journal of Communication, 44 (1994).
Stewart Cauley, ‘Bookworks for the ’90s’, Afterimage, 25, 6, May/June (1998).
Stefan Klima, Artists Books: A Critical Survey of the Literature, Granary Books, New
York, 1998, pp54-60.
Drucker, The Century of Artists’ Books, p78.


Following Abigail Solomon-Godeau, this process of commercialisation and
incorporation – or, as she calls it, ‘the near-total assimilation’ of art practice
(Solomon-Godeau focuses specifically on postmodern photography) and critique into
the discourses it professed to challenge – can be positioned as part of a general
tendency in conceptual and postmodern ‘critical art practices’. It is a development that
can be connected to the changing art markets of the time and viewed in terms of a
broader social and cultural shift to Reaganomics. For Solomon-Godeau, however, the
problem lay not only in changes to the art market, but in critical art practices and art
critique too, which in many ways were not robust enough to keep on reinventing
themselves. Nonetheless, even if they have become incorporated into the art market
and the commodity system, Solomon-Godeau argues that it is still possible for art
practices and institutional critiques to develop some (new) forms of sustainable
challenge from within these systems. As far as she is concerned, ‘a position of
resistance can never be established once and for all, but must be perpetually
refashioned and renewed to address adequately those shifting conditions and
circumstances that are its ground.’ 33


At first sight many of the changes that have occurred recently in the world of
academic book publishing seem to resemble those charted above with respect to the
artist’s book. As was the case with the publishing of artists’ books, digital publishing
has provided interested parties with an opportunity to counter the existing

Abigail Solomon-Godeau, ‘Living with Contradictions: Critical Practices in the Age of
Supply-Side Aesthetics’, Social Text, 21 (1989).


(publishing) system and its institutions, to experiment with using contemporary and
emergent media to publish (in this case academic) books in new ways and forms, and
in the process to challenge established ideas of the printed codex book, together with
the material practices of production, distribution and consumption that surround it.
This has resulted in a new wave of scholar-led publishing initiatives in academia, both
formal (with scholars either becoming publishers themselves, or setting up crossinstitutional publishing infrastructures with libraries, IT departments and research
groups) and informal (using self-publishing and social media platforms such as blogs
and wikis). 34 The phenomenon of open access book publishing can be located within
this broader context – a context which, it is worth noting, also includes the closing of
many book shops due to fierce rivalry from the large supermarkets at one end of the
market, and online e-book traders such as Amazon at the other; the fact that the major
high-street book chains are increasingly loath to take academic titles - not just
journals but books too; and the handing over (either in part or in whole) to for-profit
corporations of many publishing organisations designed to serve charitable aims and
the public good: scholarly associations, learned societies, university presses, nonprofit and not-for-profit publishers.

From the early 1990s onwards, open access was pioneered and developed most
extensively in the science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) fields,
where much of the attention was focused on the online self-archiving by scholars of
pre-publication (i.e. pre-print) versions of their research papers in central, subject or
institutionally-based repositories. This is known as the Green Road to open access, as


See, for example, Janneke Adema and Birgit Schmidt, ‘From Service Providers to Content
Producers: New Opportunities For Libraries in Collaborative Open Access Book Publishing’,
New Review of Academic Librarianship, 16 (2010).


distinct from the Gold Road, which refers to the publishing of articles in online, open
access journals. Of particular interest in this respect is the philosophy that lies behind
the rise of the open access movement, as it can be seen to share a number of
characteristics with the thinking behind artists’ books discussed earlier. The former
was primarily an initiative established by academic researchers, librarians, managers
and administrators, who had concluded that the traditional publishing system – thanks
in no small part to the rapid (and, as we shall see, ongoing) process of aggressive forprofit commercialisation it was experiencing – was no longer willing or able to meet
all of their communication needs. Accordingly, those behind this initiative wanted to
take advantage of the opportunities they saw as being presented by the new digital
publishing and distribution mechanisms to make research more widely and easily
available in a far faster, cheaper and more efficient manner than was offered by
conventional print-on-paper academic publishing. They had various motivations for
doing so. These include wanting to extend the circulation of research to all those who
were interested in it, rather than restricting access to merely those who could afford to
pay for it in the form of journal subscriptions, etc; 35 and a desire to promote the
emergence of a global information commons, and, through this, help to produce a
renewed democratic public sphere of the kind Jürgen Habermas propounds. From the
latter point of view (as distinct from the more radical democratic philosophy we
proceed to develop in what follows), open access was seen as working toward the
creation of a healthy liberal democracy, through its alleged breaking down of the
barriers between the academic community and the rest of society, and its perceived
consequent ability to supply the public with the information they need to make
knowledgeable decisions and actively contribute to political debate. Without doubt,

John Willinsky, The Access Principle: The Case for Open Access to Research and
Scholarship, Cambridge, Mass., The MIT Press, 2009, p5.


though, another motivating factor behind the development of open access was a desire
on the part of some of those involved to enhance the transparency, accountability,
discoverability, usability, efficiency and (cost) effectivity not just of scholarship and
research but of higher education itself. From the latter perspective (and as can again
be distinguished from the radical open access philosophy advocated below), making
research available on an open access basis was regarded by many as a means of
promoting and stimulating the neoliberal knowledge economy both nationally and
internationally. Open access is supposed to achieve these goals by making it easier for
business and industry to capitalise on academic knowledge - companies can build new
businesses based on its use and exploitation, for example - thus increasing the impact
of higher education on society and helping the UK, Europe and the West (and North)
to be more competitive globally. 36

To date, the open access movement has progressed much further toward its goal of
making all journal articles available open access than it has toward making all
academic books available in this fashion. There are a number of reasons why this is
the case. First, since the open access movement was developed and promoted most
extensively in the STEMs, it has tended to concentrate on the most valued mode of
publication in those fields: the peer-reviewed journal article. Interestingly, the recent


Gary Hall, Digitize This Book! The Politics of New Media, or Why We Need Open Access
Now, Minneapolis, University of Minnesota Press, 2008; Janneke Adema, Open Access
Business Models for Books in the Humanities and Social Sciences: An Overview of Initiatives
and Experiments, OAPEN Project Report, Amsterdam, 2010. David Willetts, the UK Science
Minister, is currently promoting ‘author-pays’ open access for just these reasons. See David
Willetts, ‘Public Access to Publicly-Funded Research’, BIS: Department for Business,
Innovation and Skills, May 2, 2012:


arguments around the ‘Academic Spring’ and ‘feral’ publishers such as Informa plc
are no exception to this general rule. 37

Second, restrictions to making research available open access associated with
publishers’ copyright and licensing agreements can in most cases be legally
circumvented when it comes to journal articles. If all other options fail, authors can
self-archive a pre-refereed pre-print of their article in a central, subject or
institutionally-based repository such as PubMed Central. However, it is not so easy to
elude such restrictions when it comes to the publication of academic books. In the
latter case, since the author is often paid royalties in exchange for their text, copyright
tends to be transferred by the author to the publisher. The text remains the intellectual
property of the author, but the exclusive right to put copies of that text up for sale, or
give them away for free, then rests with the publisher. 38

Another reason the open access movement has focused on journal articles is because
of the expense involved in publishing books in this fashion, since one of the main
models of funding open access in the STEMs, author-side fees, 39 is not easily
transferable either to book publishing or to the Humanities and Social Sciences
(HSS). In contrast to the STMs, the HSS feature a large number of disciplines in
which it is books (monographs in particular) published with esteemed international

David Harvie, Geoff Lightfoot, Simon Lilley and Kenneth Weir, ‘What Are We To Do
With Feral Publishers?’, submitted for publication in Organization, and accessible through
the Leicester Research Archive:
See the Budapest Open Access Initiative, ‘Self-Archiving FAQ, written for the Budapest
Open Access Initiative (BOAI)’, 2002-4:
Although ‘author-pays’ is often positioned as the main model of funding open access
publication in the STEMs, a lot of research has disputed this fact. See, for example, Stuart
Shieber, ‘What Percentage of Open-Access Journals Charge Publication Fees’, The
Occasional Pamphlet on Scholarly Publishing, May 9, 2009:


presses, rather than articles in high-ranking journals, that are considered as the most
significant and valued means of scholarly communication. Authors in many fields in
the HSS are simply not accustomed to paying to have their work published. What is
more, many authors associate doing so with vanity publishing. 40 They are also less
likely to acquire the grants from either funding bodies or their institutions that are
needed to cover the cost of publishing ‘author-pays’. That the HSS in many Western
countries receive only a fraction of the amount of government funding the STEMs do
only compounds the problem, 41 as does the fact that higher rejection rates in the HSS,
as compared to the STEMs, mean that any grants would have to be significantly
larger, as the time spent on reviewing articles, and hence the amount of human labour
used, makes it a much more intensive process. 42 And that is just to publish journal
articles. Publishing books on an author-pays basis would be more expensive still.

Yet even though the open access movement initially focused more on journal articles
than on monographs, things have begun to change in this respect in recent years.
Undoubtedly, one of the major factors behind this change has been the fact that the


Maria Bonn, ‘Free Exchange of Ideas: Experimenting with the Open Access Monograph’,
College and Research Libraries News, 71, 8, September (2010) pp436-439:
Patrick Alexander, director of the Pennsylvania State University Press, provides the
following example: ‘Open Access STEM publishing is often funded with tax-payer dollars,
with publication costs built into researchers’ grant request… the proposed NIH budget for
2013 is $31 billion. NSF’s request for 2013 is around $7.3 billion. Compare those amounts to
the NEH ($154 million) and NEA ($154 million) and you can get a feel for why researchers
in the the arts and humanities face challenges in funding their publication costs.’ (Adeline
Koh, ‘Is Open Access a Moral or a Business Issue? A Conversation with The Pennsylvania
State University Press, The Chronicle of Higher Education, July 10, 2012:
See Mary Waltham’s 2009 report for the National Humanities Alliance, ‘The Future of
Scholarly Journals Publishing among Social Sciences and Humanities Associations’:; and Peter Suber,
‘Promoting Open Access in the Humanities’, 2004: ‘On average, humanities journals have
higher rejection rates (70-90%) than STEM journals (20-40%)’, Suber writes.


publication of books on an open access basis has been perceived as one possible
answer to the ‘monograph crisis’. This phrase refers to the way in which the already
feeble sustainability of the print monograph is being endangered even further by the
ever-declining sales of academic books. 43 It is a situation that has in turn been brought
about by ‘the so-called “serials crisis”, a term used to designate the vertiginous rise of
the subscription to STEM journals since the mid-80s which… strangled libraries and
led to fewer and fewer purchases of books/monographs.’ 44 This drop in library
demand for monographs has led many presses to produce smaller print runs; focus on
more commercial, marketable titles; or even move away from monographs to
concentrate on text books, readers, and reference works instead. In short, conventional
academic publishers are now having to make decisions about what to publish more on
the basis of the market and a given text’s potential value as a commodity, and less on
the basis of its quality as a piece of scholarship. This last factor is making it difficult
for early career academics to publish the kind of research-led monographs that are
often needed to acquire that all important first full-time position. This in turn means
the HSS is, in effect, allowing publishers to make decisions on its future and on who
gets to have a long-term career on an economic basis, according to the needs of the
market – or what they believe those needs to be. But it is also making it hard for


Greco and Wharton estimate that the average number of library purchases of monographs
has dropped from 1500 in the 1970s to 200-300 at present. Thompson estimates that print
runs and sales have declined from 2000-3000 (print runs and sales) in the 1970s to print runs
of between 600-1000 and sales of between 400-500 nowadays. Albert N. Greco and Robert
Michael Wharton, ‘Should University Presses Adopt an Open Access [electronic publishing]
Business Model for all of their Scholarly Books?’, ELPUB. Open Scholarship: Authority,
Community, and Sustainability in the Age of Web 2.0 – Proceedings of the 12th
International Conference on Electronic Publishing held in Toronto, Canada 25-27 June
2008; John B. Thompson, Books in the Digital Age: The Transformation of Academic and
Higher Education Publishing in Britain and the United States, Cambridge, Polity Press, 2005.
Jean Kempf, ‘Social Sciences and Humanities Publishing and the Digital “Revolution”’
unpublished manuscript, 2010:; Thompson, Books in the Digital Age, pp. 9394.


authors in the HSS generally to publish monographs that are perceived as being
difficult, advanced, specialized, obscure, radical, experimental or avant-garde - a
situation reminiscent of the earlier state of events which led to the rise of artists’
books, with the latter emerging in the context of a perceived lack of exhibition space
for experimental and critical (conceptual) work within mainstream commercial

Partly in response to this ‘monograph crisis’, a steadily increasing number of
initiatives have now been set up to enable authors in the HSS in particular to bring out
books open access – not just introductions, reference works and text books, but
research monographs and edited collections too. These initiatives include scholar-led
presses such as Open Humanities Press,, and Open Book Publishers;
commercial presses such as Bloomsbury Academic; university presses, including
ANU E Press and Firenze University Press; and presses established by or working
with libraries, such as Athabasca University’s AU Press. 45

Yet important though the widespread aspiration amongst academics, librarians and
presses to find a solution to the monograph crisis has been, the reasons behind the
development of open access book publishing in the HSS are actually a lot more
diverse than is often suggested. For instance, to the previously detailed motivating
factors that inspired the rise of the open access movement can be added the desire,
shared by many scholars, to increase accessibility to (specialized) HSS research, with
a view to heightening its reputation, influence, impact and esteem. This is seen as


A list of publishers experimenting with business models for OA books is available at: See also Adema, Open Access
Business Models.


being especially significant at a time when the UK government, to take just one
example, is emphasizing the importance of the STEMs while withdrawing support
and funding for the HSS. Many scholars in the HSS are thus now willing to stand up
against, and even offer a counter-institutional alternative to, the large, established,
profit-led, commercial firms that have come to dominate academic publishing – and,
in so doing, liberate the long-form argument from market constraints through the
ability to publish books that often lack a clear commercial market.


That said, all of these reasons and motivating factors behind the recent changes in
publishing models are still very much focused on making more scholarly research
more accessible. Yet for at least some of those involved in the creation and
dissemination of open access books, doing so also constitutes an important stage in
the development of what might be considered more ‘experimental’ forms of research
and publication; forms for which commercial and heavily print-based systems of
production and distribution have barely provided space. Such academic experiments
are thus perhaps capable of adopting a role akin to, if not the exact equivalent of, that
we identified artists’ books as having played in the countercultural context of the
1960s and 1970s: in terms of questioning the concept and material form of the book;
promoting alternative ways of reading and communicating via books; and
interrogating modern, romantic notions of authorship. We are thinking in particular of
projects that employ open peer-review procedures (such as Kathleen Fitzpatrick’s
Planned Obsolescence, which uses the CommentPress Wordpress plugin to enable
comments to appear alongside the main body of the text), wikis (e.g. Open


Humanities Press’ two series of Liquid and Living Books) and blogs (such as those
created using the Anthologize app developed at George Mason University). 46 These
enable varying degrees of what Peter Suber calls ‘author-side openness’ when it
comes to reviewing, editing, changing, updating and re-using content, including
creating derivative works. Such practices pose a conceptual challenge to some of the
more limited interpretations of open access (what has at times been dubbed ‘weak
open access’), 47 and can on occasion even constitute a radical test of the integrity and
identity of a given work, not least by enabling different versions to exist
simultaneously. In an academic context this raises questions of both a practical and
theoretical nature that have the potential to open up a space for reimagining what
counts as scholarship and research, and of how it can be responded to and accessed:
not just which version of a work is to be cited and preserved, and who is to have
ultimate responsibility for the text and its content; but also what an author, a text, and
a work actually is, and where any authority and stability that might be associated with
such concepts can now be said to reside.

It is interesting then that, although they can be positioned as constituting two of the
major driving forces behind the recent upsurge in the current interest in open access
book publishing, as ‘projects’, the at times more obviously or overtly ‘political’ (be it
liberal-democratic, neoliberal or otherwise) project of using digital media and the
Internet to create wider access to book-based research on the one hand, and
experimenting—as part of the more conceptual, experimental aspects of open access
book publishing—with the form of the book (a combination of which we identified as

See Peter Suber, SPARC OA newsletter, issue 155, March 2, 2011:


being essential components of the experimental and political potential of artists’
books) and the way our dominant system of scholarly communication currently
operates on the other, often seem to be rather disconnected. Again, a useful
comparison can be made to the situation described by Lippard, where more
(conceptually or materially) experimental artists’ books were seen as being less
accessible to a broader public and, in some cases, as going against the strategy of
democratic multiples, promoting exclusivity instead.

It is certainly the case that, in order to further the promotion of open access and
achieve higher rates of adoption and compliance among the academic community, a
number of strategic alliances have been forged between the various proponents of the
open access movement. Some of these alliances (those associated with Green open
access, for instance) have taken making the majority if not indeed all of the research
accessible online without a paywall (Gratis open access) 48 as their priority, perhaps
with the intention of moving on to the exploration of other possibilities, including
those concerned with experimenting with the form of the book, once critical mass has
been attained – but perhaps not. Hence Stevan Harnad’s insistence that ‘it’s time to
stop letting the best get in the way of the better: Let’s forget about Libre and Gold OA
until we have managed to mandate Green Gratis OA universally.’ 49 Although they
cannot be simply contrasted and opposed to the former (often featuring many of the
same participants), other strategic alliances have focused more on gaining the trust of
the academic community. Accordingly, they have prioritized allaying many of the


For an overview of the development of these terms, see:
Stevan Harnad, Open Access: Gratis and Libre, Open Access Archivangelism,
Thursday, May 3, 2012.


anxieties with regard to open access publications – including concerns regarding their
quality, stability, authority, sustainability and status with regard to publishers’
copyright licenses and agreements – that have been generated as a result of the
transition toward the digital mode of reproduction and distribution. More often than
not, such alliances have endeavoured to do so by replicating in an online context
many of the scholarly practices associated with the world of print-on-paper
publishing. Witness the way in which the majority of open access book publishers
continue to employ more or less the same quality control procedures, preservation
structures and textual forms as their print counterparts: pre-publication peer review
conducted by scholars who have already established their reputations in the paper
world; preservation carried out by academic libraries; monographs consisting of
numbered pages and chapters arranged in a linear, sequential order and narrative, and
so on. As Sigi Jöttkandt puts it with regard to the strategy of Open Humanities Press
in this respect:

We’re intending OHP as a tangible demonstration to our still generally
sceptical colleagues in the humanities that there is no reason why OA
publishing cannot have the same professional standards as print. We aim to
show that OA is not only academically credible but is in fact being actively
advanced by leading figures in our fields, as evidenced by our editorial
advisory board. Our hope is that OHP will contribute to OA rapidly becoming
standard practice for scholarly publishing in the humanities. 50


Sigi Jöttkandt, 'No-fee OA Journals in the Humanities, Three Case Studies: A Presentation
by Open Humanities Press', presented at the Berlin 5 Open Access Conference: From Practice
to Impact: Consequences of Knowledge Dissemination, Padua, September 19, 2007:


Relatively few open access publishers, however, have displayed much interest in
combining such an emphasis on achieving universal, free, online access to research
and/or the gaining of trust, with a rigorous critical exploration of the form of the book
itself. 51 And this despite the fact that the ability to re-use material is actually an
essential feature of what has become known as the Budapest-Bethesda-Berlin (BBB)
definition of open access, which is one of the major agreements underlying the
movement. 52 It therefore seems significant that, of the books presently available open
access, only a minority have a license where price and permission barriers to research
are removed, with the result that the research is available under both Gratis and Libre
(re-use) conditions. 53


Admittedly, there are many in the open access community who regard the more
radical experiments conducted with and on books as highly detrimental to the
strategies of large-scale accessibility and trust respectively. From this perspective,
efforts designed to make open access material available for others to (re)use, copy,

Open Humanities Press ( and Media Commons Press
( remain the most notable exceptions on
the formal side of the publishing scale, the majority of experiments with the form of the book
taking place in the informal sphere (e.g. blogbooks self-published by Anthologize, and
crowd-sourced, ‘sprint’ generated books such as Dan Cohen and Tom Scheinfeldt’s Hacking
the Academy:
See Peter Suber on the BBB definition here:, where he also states that two
of the three BBB component definitions (the Bethesda and Berlin statements) require
removing barriers to derivative works.
An examination of the licenses used on two of the largest open access book publishing
platforms or directories to date, the OAPEN (Open Access Publishing in Academic
Networks) platform and the DOAB (Directory of Open Access Books), reveals that on the
OAPEN platform (accessed May 6th 2012) 2 of the 966 books are licensed with a CC-BY
license, and 153 with a CC-BY-NC license (which still restricts commercial re-use). On the
DOAB (accessed May 6th 2012) 5 of the 778 books are licensed with a CC-BY license, 215
with CC-BY-NC.


reproduce and distribute in any medium, as well as make and distribute derivative
works, coupled with experiments with the form of the book, are seen as being very
much secondary objectives (and even by some as unnecessarily complicating and
diluting open access’s primary goal of making all of the research accessible online
without a paywall). 54 And, indeed, although in many of the more formal open access
definitions (including the important Bethesda and Berlin definitions of open access,
which require removing barriers to derivative works), the right to re-use and reappropriate a scholarly work is acknowledged and recommended, in both theory and
practice a difference between ‘author-side openness’ and ‘reader-side openness’ tends
to be upheld—leaving not much space for the ‘readerly interventions’ that were so
important in opening up the kind of possibilities for ‘reading against the grain’ that
the artist’s book promoted, something we feel (open access) scholarly works should
also strive to encourage and support. 55 This is especially the case with regard to the
publication of books, where a more conservative vision frequently holds sway. For
instance, it is intriguing that in an era in which online texts are generally connected to
a network of other information, data and mobile media environments, the open access
book should for the most part still find itself presented as having definite limits and a
clear, distinct materiality.

But if the ability to re-use material is an essential feature of open access – as, let us
repeat, it is according to the Budapest-Bethesda-Berlin and many of other influential
definitions of the term – then is working toward making all of the research accessible


See, for example, Stevan Harnad, Open Access: Gratis and Libre, Open Access
Archivangelism, Thursday, May 3, 2012.
For more on author-side and reader-side openness respectively, see Peter Suber, SPARC
OA newsletter:


online on a Gratis basis and/or gaining the trust of the academic community the best
way for the open access movement (including open access book publishing) to
proceed, always and everywhere? If we do indeed wait until we have gained a critical
mass of open access content before taking advantage of the chance the shift from
analogue to digital creates, might it not by then be too late? Does this shift not offer
us the opportunity, through its loosening of much of the stability, authority, and
‘fixity’ of texts, to rethink scholarly publishing, and in the process raise the kind of
fundamental questions for our ideas of authorship, authority, legitimacy, originality,
permanence, copyright, and with them the text and the book, that we really should
have been raising all along? If we miss this opportunity, might we not find ourselves
in a similar situation to that many book artists and publishers have been in since the
1970s, namely, that of merely reiterating and reinforcing established structures and

Granted, following a Libre open access strategy may on occasion risk coming into
conflict with those more commonly accepted and approved open access strategies (i.e.
those concerned with achieving accessibility and the gaining of trust on a large-scale).
Nevertheless, should open access advocates on occasion not be more open to adopting
and promoting forms of open access that are designed to make material available for
others to (re)use, copy, reproduce, distribute, transmit, translate, modify, remix and
build upon? In particular, should they not be more open to doing so right here, right
now, before things begin to settle down and solidify again and we arrive at a situation
where we have succeeded merely in pushing the movement even further toward rather
weak, watered-down and commercial versions of open access?



We began by looking at how, in an art world context, the idea and form of the book
have been used to engage critically many of the established cultural institutions, along
with some of the underlying philosophies that inform them. Of particular interest in
this respect is the way in which, with the rise of offset printing and cheaper
production methods and printing techniques in the 1960s, there was a corresponding
increase in access to the means of production and distribution of books. This in turn
led to the emergence of new possibilities and roles that the book could be put to in an
art context, which included democratizing art and critiquing the status quo of the
gallery system. But these changes to the materiality and distribution of the codex
book in particular – as an artistic product as well as a medium – were integrally linked
with questions concerning the nature of both art and the book as such. Book artists
and theorists thus became more and more engaged in the conceptual and practical
exploration of the materiality of the book. In the end, however, the promise of
technological innovation which underpinned the changes with respect to the
production and distribution of artists’ books in the 1960s and 1970s was not enough
to generate any kind of sustainable (albeit repeatedly reviewed, refashioned and
renewed) challenge within the art world over the longer term.

The artist’s book of the 1960s and 1970s therefore clearly had the potential to bring
about a degree of transformation, yet it was unable to elude the cultural practices,
institutions and the market mechanisms that enveloped it for long (including those
developments in financialisation and the art market Solomon-Godeau connects to the
shift to Reaganomics). Consequently, instead of criticising or subverting the


established systems of publication and distribution, the artist’s book ended up being
largely integrated into them. 56 Throughout the course of this article we have argued
that its conceptual and material promise notwithstanding, there is a danger of
something similar happening to open access publishing today. Take the way open
access has increasingly come to be adopted by commercial publishers. If one of the
motivating factors behind at least some aspects of the open access movement – not
just the aforementioned open access book publishers in the HSS, but the likes of
PLoS, too – has been to stand up against, and even offer an alternative to, the large,
profit-led firms that have come to dominate the field of academic publishing, recent
years have seen many such commercial publishers experimenting with open access
themselves, even if such experiments have so far been confined largely to journals.57
Most commonly, this situation has resulted in the trialling of ‘author-side’ fees for the
open access publishing of journals, a strategy seen as protecting the interests of the
established publishers, and one which has recently found support in the Finch Report
from a group of representatives of the research, library and publishing communities
convened by David Willetts, the UK Science Minister. 58 But the idea that open access

That said, there is currently something of a revival of print, craft and artist's book
publishing taking place in which the paperbound book is being re-imagined in offline
environments. In this post-digital print culture, paper publishing is being used as a new form
of avant-garde social networking that, thanks to its analog nature, is not so easily controlled
by the digital data-gathering commercial hegemonies of Google, Amazon, Facebook et al. For
more, see Alessandro Ludovico, Post-Digital Print - the Mutation of Publishing Since 1984,
Onomatopee, 2012; and Florian Cramer, `Post-Digital Writing', Electronic Book Review,
December, 2012:
For more details, see Wilhelm Peekhaus, ‘The Enclosure and Alienation of Academic
Publishing: Lessons for the Professoriate’, tripleC, 10(2), 2012:
‘Accessibility, Sustainability, Excellence: How to Expand Access to Research Publications,
Report of the Working Group on Expanding Access to Published Research Findings’, June
18, 2012: For one overview of some of the problems that can be identified from
an HSS perspective in the policy direction adopted by Finch and Willetts, see Lucinda
Matthews-Jones, ‘Open Access and the Future of Academic Journals’, Journal of Victorian
Culture Online, November 21, 2012:


may represent a commercially viable publishing model has attracted a large amount of
so-called predatory publishers, too, 59 who (like Finch and Willetts) have propagated a
number of misleading and often quite mistaken accounts of open access. 60 The
question is thus raised as to whether the desire to offer a counter-institutional
alternative to the large, established, commercial firms is likely to become somewhat
marginalised and neutralised as a result of open access publishing being seen more
and more by such commercial publishers as just another means of generating a profit.
Will the economic as well as material practices transferred from the printing press
continue to inform and shape our communication systems? As Nick Knouf argues, to
raise this question, ‘is not to damn open access publishing by any means; rather, it is
to say that open access publishing, without a concurrent interrogation of the economic
underpinnings of the scholarly communication system, will only reform the situation
rather than provide a radical alternative.’ 61

With this idea of providing a radical challenge to the current scholarly communication
system in mind, and drawing once again on the brief history of artists’ books as
presented above, might it not be helpful to think of open access less as a project and
model to be implemented, and more as a process of continuous struggle and critical
resistance? Here an analogy can be drawn with the idea of democracy as a process. In
‘Historical Dilemmas of Democracy and Their Contemporary Relevance for
Citizenship’, the political philosopher Etiènne Balibar develops an interesting analysis
of democracy based on a concept of the ‘democratisation of democracy’ he derives

For a list of predatory OA publishers see:
This list has increased from 23 predatory publishers in 2011, to 225 in 2012.
See the reference to the research of Peter Murray Rust in Sigi Jöttkandt, ‘No-fee OA
Journals in the Humanities’.
Nicholas Knouf, ‘The JJPS Extension: Presenting Academic Performance Information’,
Journal of Journal Performance Studies, 1 (2010).


from a reading of Hannah Arendt and Jacques Rancière. For Balibar, the problem
with much of the discourse surrounding democracy is that it perceives the latter as a
model that can be implemented in different contexts (in China or the Middle East, for
instance). He sees discourses of this kind as running two risks in particular. First of
all, in conceptualizing democracy as a model there is a danger of it becoming a
homogenizing force, masking differences and inequalities. Second, when positioned
as a model or a project, democracy also runs the risk of becoming a dominating force
– yet another political regime that takes control and power. According to Balibar, a
more interesting and radical notion of democracy involves focusing on the process of
the democratisation of democracy itself, thus turning democracy into a form of
continuous struggle (or struggles) – or, perhaps better, continuous critical selfreflection. Democracy here is not an established reality, then, nor is it a mere ideal; it
is rather a permanent struggle for democratisation. 62

Can open access be understood in similar terms: less as a homogeneous project
striving to become a dominating model or force, and more as an ongoing critical
struggle, or series of struggles? And can we perhaps locate what some perceive as the
failure of artists’ books to contribute significantly to such a critical struggle after the
1970s to the fact that ultimately they became (incorporated in) dominant institutional
settings themselves – a state of affairs brought about in part by their inability to
address issues of access, experimentation and self-reflexivity in an ongoing critical


Etienne Balibar, ‘Historical Dilemmas of Democracy and Their Contemporary Relevance
for Citizenship’, Rethinking Marxism, 20 (2008).


Certainly, one of the advantages of conceptualizing open access as a process of
struggle rather than as a model to be implemented would be that doing so would
create more space for radically different, conflicting, even incommensurable positions
within the larger movement, including those that are concerned with experimenting
critically with the form of the book and the way our system of scholarly
communication currently operates. As we have shown, such radical differences are
often played down in the interests of strategy. To be sure, open access can experience
what Richard Poynder refers to as a ‘bad tempered wrangles’ over relatively ‘minor
issues’ such as ‘metadata, copyright, and distributed versus central archives’. 63 Still,
much of the emphasis has been on the importance of trying to maintain a more or less
unified front (within certain limits, of course) in the face of criticisms from
publishers, governments, lobbyists and so forth, lest its opponents be provided with
further ammunition with which to attack the open access movement, and dilute or
misinterpret its message, or otherwise distract advocates from what they are all
supposed to agree are the main tasks at hand (e.g. achieving universal, free, online
access to research and/or the gaining of trust). Yet it is important not to see the
presence of such differences and conflicts within the open access movement in purely
negative terms – the way they are often perceived by those working in the liberal
tradition, with its ‘rationalist belief in the availability of a universal consensus based
on reason’. 64 (This emphasis on the ‘universal’ is also apparent in fantasies of having
not just universal open access, but one single, fully integrated and indexed global
archive.) In fact if, as we have seen, one of the impulses behind open access is to
make knowledge and research – and with it society – more open and democratic, it


Richard Poynder, ‘Time to Walk the Walk’, Open and Shut?, 17 March, 2005:
Chantal Mouffe, On the Political, London, Routledge, 2005, p11.


can be argued that the existence of such dissensus will help achieve this ambition.
After all, and as we know from another political philosopher, Chantal Mouffe, far
from placing democracy at risk, a certain degree of conflict and antagonism actually
constitutes the very possibility of democracy. 65 It seems to us that such a critical, selfreflexive, processual, non-goal oriented way of thinking about academic publishing
shares much with the mode of working of the artist - which is why we have argued
that open access today can draw productively on the kind of conceptual openness and
political energy that characterised experimentation with the medium of the book in
the art world of the 1960s and 1970s.


Mouffe, On the Political, p30.



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