Let’s Make Our Libraries as Expansive and Chaotic as Amazon’s Warehouses

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July 30 2014 8:26 AM

The Accumulibrary

Forget the Dewey Decimal system. Libraries should be lawless.

140729_FT_Accumulibrary-ILLO

Illustration by Rob Donnelly

Excerpted from The Library Beyond the Book by Jeffrey T. Schnapp and Matthew Battles, out now from Harvard University Press.

The Accumulibrary is an institutional fiction as of yet untested and untried, but plausible. It melds the database and the physical world.

The Accumulibrary is both dumb and smart: “Dumb” because it’s based on the willy-nilly heaping together of resources—so-called “chaotic storage”; “smart” because it’s built around the capabilities of an omniscient database that monitors locations and items within its otherwise mobile confines and renders them at once intelligible and accessible. The notion of a place of warehousing or temporary holding for large corpora of manuscripts, documents, scrolls, or books has historical precedents in various epochs though, strictly speaking, none were understood as “libraries.” One thinks of the great waterfront storehouses of ancient Alexandria, thought by some to have been at the origin of the great fire that went on to destroy the library itself, or of the genizoth, places of hiding located in synagogues or Jewish cemeteries where materials were parked, sometimes for centuries, awaiting the proper burial required by Talmudic law. (The most celebrated is the Cairo Geniza with its more than 280,000 manuscript fragments, composed between 860 and the 19th century.) Similarly, but now with an overtly commercial ethos animating their labors and the beginnings of a database backbone, early booksellers like Luc’Antonio and Filippo Giunti (Venice), Giovanni Bartolomeo da Gabiano (Venice, Lyon), Giovanni Varisco (Venice), and Giovanni Giolito (Turin) built networks of stockage facilities, supported by inventorying and bookkeeping systems that were state-of-the-art by Renaissance standards.

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The Accumulibrary is the indirect descendant of such bookseller warehouses. But it draws its direct inspiration from contemporary big box stores and the distribution warehouses of firms like Amazon.com. It weds the frugal interiors of the big-box store with the randomly organized megawarehouse in the service of a flexible, expansive, democratized concept of the research library.

The Accumulibrary rejects taxonomy as a founding principle. It shuns all local and universal schemes of organization and is indifferent as regards the virtues of spatial economy, temporal sequence, and alphabetic order. Its exterior is boxlike and modular. Its interior is characterized by a lack of subdivisions, naked concrete slab floors, high ceilings (with readily visible overhead storage space), and horizontal sprawl (the whole is visible from any elevated perch). Its furnishings are practical. Robust, adjustable, and moveable, they shun all decorative touches and the warmth of wood, not to mention gestures toward permanence or recognition of the importance of creature comforts. Thanks to its modular low-cost construction techniques and standardized shelving systems, space is abundant and additional capacity always potentially available. In the Accumulibrary, the freedom to accumulate ever more things is in lockstep with the freedom to add on ever more space.

Unlike modern libraries, the Accumulibrary doesn’t segment or segregate media types. It fails to differentiate documents from things, books from periodicals from pamphlets, devices from objects, the new from the used from the old, the rare from the common. The sole laws that it holds sacred are the law of number and the law of stuff. The law of number because every item and every location within the Accumulibrary’s matrix of shelving lanes is tagged with barcodes devised not for human browsers but for the sensory organs and memories of machines. The law of stuff because materials are organized not by author, title, theme, subject matter, language, or discipline, but as a function of their order of arrival and the practical imperatives of location and relocation. Whenever and wherever a gap opens up in the storage system, it is randomly filled. Everything in an Accumulibrary is on the move.

Serendipitous discovery remains as much a possibility within this titanic ark of documents, devices, and things as it does within the programmable library. But it assumes a singular character. Discovery is jarring and disjunctive, like the Count of Lautréamont’s “encounter of a sewing machine with an umbrella on a dissection table.” Browsing the stacks of the Accumulibrary is thus less akin to drifting down curated corridors in pursuit of an epiphany than to surveying the motley stalls of a sprawling flea market. The cognitive strain is overwhelming. There’s much too much to take in. It’s a world made up of differences without transitions. Perhaps it’s the positive double of Borges’ “subaltern horror”: the Total Library—“the vast, contradictory Library, whose vertical wildernesses of books run the incessant risk of changing into others that affirm, deny, and confuse everything like a delirious god.”

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