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

What's to come?
July 30 2014 8:26 AM

The Accumulibrary

Forget the Dewey Decimal system. Libraries should be lawless.

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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.”

Chaos is congenial to the Accumulibrary: the sort of hypercontrolled chaos embodied by Amazon’s distribution warehouses. In the latter, incoming goods are ferried directly from the landing dock to unoccupied slots within a universal shelving system irrespective of their size or character. Every location and item is barcoded. Handheld scanners relay the barcoded data to a central database that monitors inventories, maintains a real-time map of the warehouse floor, and generates efficient picking lists for the purpose of fulfilling orders. The layout of the shelving lanes is flexible and can be quickly remapped as a function of changing storage or retrieval needs or anticipated shifts in supply and demand.

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The Accumulibrary adopts a similar approach, though its pickers are reader-patrons fulfilling personal research orders. Before entering the warehouse proper, they settle into a booth in the Command Center where, working with a reference accumulibrarian, they jointly devise what is referred to as a “knowledge walk” and are equipped with a hand-held scanner and a floor plan. A “knowledge walk” is a printout with an algorithmically generated itinerary accompanied by a map based on a set of search terms and queries. It consists in a curated pathway amidst the shelving for the purpose of retrieving and consulting objects and works, exploring ideas, familiarizing oneself with a given era or field, or engaging in cultural-historical treasure hunts. It can be programmed to fall anywhere on the spectrum between a maximally efficient path to a pathway informed by maximal drift. Pathways may also be devised to fulfill non-research-centered objectives: like tracing an ideal geometry, game playing, or maximizing aerobic benefits.

Some of the artifacts within the Accumulibrary are circulating. Others are not. In the case of circulating objects, the patron simply scans the barcode on his library smart card, the object and location barcodes, and pops it in his cart. Noncirculating items may be checked out locally and examined in the study islands located in every quadrant of the warehouse. A sensor system impedes their removal from the quadrant in question, but they can be photographed, scanned, and verbally annotated with the assistance of a handheld scanner. The resulting files are automatically uploaded via the local Wi-Fi network onto servers and saved in a personalized online folder. Once an object has been removed from its prior location, that location is filled with a new, freshly arrived object. Upon a borrowed item’s return, it migrates to the nearest existing gap and is re-entered in the central database.

Locations within the Accumulibrary are always known. But they are never permanent due to circulation flows, shifting usage patterns and patron demands, accessioning and deaccessioning ebbs and flows, and the arrival or transfer of entire collections. Movement is both lateral and vertical, with less utilized materials tending to gradually drift upward into the less immediately accessible overhead storage areas and more utilized materials gravitating downward toward the floor level. Barcoding and rebarcoding are constants, so the same knowledge walk is likely to entail a significantly different path from one month to the next. The intelligibility and navigability of the Accumulibrary’s space depends entirely upon information systems. When these go down, it becomes a data wilderness and junkyard, a disorderly dumping ground where patrons and librarians alike can do little more than scavenge on the basis of outdated recollections and pray for lucky finds.

For all the no-frills austerity of the warehouse itself, the Accumulibrary remains a place that is welcoming to patrons. But only in the glass-enclosed balcony that runs around the building’s periphery known as the Skydeck. The Skydeck allows visitors to settle down in a club-like environment and to study materials and collections, whether individually or in groups, while gazing out upon the spectacle of the main floor. Instead of providing a conventional reading room experience, it is programmed to accommodate varying noise and distraction levels, music and video, even food and drink. A portion of one wing serves as an audiovisual production studio, fabrication lab, and maker space, complete with a “library” of professional editing, animation, and modeling workstations. Another area houses a writer- and artist-in-residence program, a performance space, and a book art workshop. Yet another serves as a hacker space where patrons are encouraged to slice and dice the Accumulibrary’s data sets and to print out their visualizations of collections flows, circulation data, and past and present patron knowledge walks on wall-sized plotters, thereby adding ever new strata to the hacker space’s Viz Wall. In one of the Skydeck’s corners, there exists a small gallery space, known as The Shrine, that documents the most memorable, imaginative, and eccentric knowledge walks that have been performed in the history of the Accumulibrary.

Adapted from THE LIBRARY BEYOND THE BOOK by Jeffrey T. Schnapp and Matthew Battles, published by Harvard University Press. Copyright © 2014 by the President and Fellows of Harvard College. Used by permission. All rights reserved.​

The Library Beyond the Book (metaLABprojects)

Jeffrey T. Schnapp is the faculty director of metaLAB at Harvard University and faculty co-director of the Berkman Center for Internet and Society.

Matthew Battles is associate director at metaLAB at Harvard University.

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