The Liquid Library

# The liquid library

* [Alessandro Ludovico](

26 August 2013

Traditional libraries are increasingly putting their holdings online, if not
in competition with Google Books then in partnership, in order to keep pace
with the mass digitization of content. Yet it isn't only the big institutional
actors that are driving this process forward: small-scale, independent
initiatives based on open source principles offer interesting approaches to
re-defining the role and meaning of the library, writes Alessandro Ludovico.

A deep conflict is brewing silently in libraries around the globe. Traditional
librarians - skilled, efficient and acknowledged - are being threatened by
bosses, themselves trying to cope with substantial funding cuts, with the word
"digital", touted as a panacea for saving space and money. At the same time,
in other (less traditional) places, there is a massive digitization of books
underway aimed at establishing virtual libraries much bigger than any
conventional one. These phenomena are questioning the library as point of
reference and as public repository of knowledge. Not only is its bulky
physicality being questioned, but the core idea that, after the advent of
truly ubiquitous networks, we still need a central place to store, preserve,
index, lend and share knowledge.

![Books vs. tablet](

Tablet-PC on hardcover book. Photo: Anton Kudelin. Source: Shutterstock

It is important not to forget that traditional libraries (public and private)
still guarantee the preservation of and access to a huge number of digitally-
unavailable texts, and that a book's material condition sometimes tells part
of the story, not to mention the experience of reading it in a library. Still,
it is evident that we are facing the biggest digitization ever attempted, in a
process comparable to what Napster meant for music in the early 2000s. But
this time there are many more "institutional" efforts running simultaneously,
so that we are constantly hearing announcements that new historical material
has been made accessible online by libraries and institutions of all sizes.

The biggest digitizers are Google Books (private) and Internet Archive (non-
profit). The former is officially aiming to create a privately owned,
"universal library", which in April 2013 claimed to contain 30 millions
digitized books.1 The latter is an effort to make a comparably huge public
library by using Creative Commons licenses and getting rid of Digital Rights
Management chains, and currently claims to hold almost 5 millions digitized

These monumental efforts are struggling with one specific element: the time it
takes to create digital content by converting it from another medium. This
process, of course, creates accidents. Krissy Wilson's blog/artwork _The Art
of Google Books_2 explores daily the non-digital elements (accidental or not)
emerging in scanned pages, which can be purely material - such as scribbled
notes, parts of the scanning person's hand, dried flowers - or typographical
or linguistic, or deleted or missing parts, all of them precisely annotated.
This small selection of illustrations of how physicality causes technology to
fail may be self-reflective, but it shows a particular aspect of a larger
development. In fact, industrial scanning is only one side of the coin. The
other is the private and personal digitization and sharing of books.

On the basis of brilliant open source tools like the DIY Bookscanner,3 there
are various technical and conceptual efforts to building specialist digital
libraries. _Monoskop_4 is exemplary: its creator Dusan Barok has transformed
his impressive personal collection of media (about contemporary art, culture
and politics, with a special focus on eastern Europe) into a common resource,
freely downloadable and regularly updated. It is a remarkably inspired
selection that can be shared regardless of possible copyright restrictions.
_Monoskop_ is an extreme and excellent example of a personal digital library
made public. But any small or big collection can be easily shared. Calibre5 is
an open source software that enables one to efficiently manage a personal
library and to create temporary or stable autonomous zones in which entire
libraries can be shared among a few friends or entire communities.

Marcell Mars,6 a hacktivist and programmer, has worked intensively around this
subject. Together with Tomislav Medak and Vuk Cosic, he organized the HAIP
2012 festival in Ljubljana, where software developers worked collectively on a
complex interface for searching and downloading from major independent online
e-book collections, turning them into a sort of temporary commons. Mars'
observation that, "when everyone is a librarian, the library is everywhere,"
explains the infinite and recursive de-centralization of personal digital
collections and the role of the digital in granting much wider access to
published content.

This access, however, emphasizes the intrinsic fragility of the digital - its
complete dependence on electricity and networks, on the integrity of storage
media and on updated hard and software. Among the few artists to have
conceptually explored this fragility as it affects books is David Guez, whose
work _Humanpédia_7 can be defined as an extravagant type of "time-based art".
The work is clearly inspired by Ray Bradbury's _Fahrenheit 451_ , in which a
small secret community conspires against a total ban on books by memorizing
entire tomes, preserving and orally transmitting their contents. Guez applies
this strategy to Wikipedia, calling for people to memorize a Wikipedia
article, thereby implying that our brains can store information more reliably
than computers.

So what, in the end, will be the role of old-fashioned libraries?
Paradoxically enough, they could become the best place to learn how to
digitize books or how to print out and bind digitized books that have gone out
of print. But they must still be protected as a common good, where cultural
objects can be retrieved and enjoyed anytime in the future. A timely work in
this respect is La Société Anonyme's _The SKOR Codex_.8 The group (including
Dusan Barok, Danny van der Kleij, Aymeric Mansoux and Marloes de Valk) has
printed a book whose content (text, pictures and sounds) is binary encoded,
with enclosed visual instructions about how to decode it. A copy will be
indefinitely preserved at the Bibliothèque nationale de France by signed
agreement. This work is a time capsule, enclosing information meant to be
understood in the future. At any rate, we can rest assured that it will be
there (with its digital content), ready to be taken from the shelf, for many
years to come.










Published 26 August 2013
Original in English
First published by Springerin 3/2013 (German version); Eurozine (English

Contributed by Springerin © Alessandro Ludovico / Springerin / Eurozine


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