Hyperrhiz 08: Essays
This is not that kind of library. This is another kind of library.
Washington State University Vancouver
This essay is a response, from a librarian's perspective, to John Barber's "The Brautigan Library: Questions and challenges of archiving user-generated electronic literature." Barber proposes creating a digital archive in the spirit of the library described in Brautigan's The Abortion: an historical romance. My response focused on three questions. What was the essential nature of Brautigan's library? Is this a sound model for a contemporary digital archive? Is Barber's proposed archive both in keeping with Brautigan's model and a practical solution for today's archival needs? I discovered that Brautigan's library is essentially about respecting the needs of unpublished authors and removing any voices or authorities that can act as barriers to the authors or contradict the authors' desires for their work. Several connections were discovered between the structures of Brautigan's imaginary library and the current context for creating digital archives. Considering the specific details of Barber's proposed digital archive, I found that the proposed introduction of an index to describe the library's content and the role of a curator to manage the index appear, at first glance, to contravene Brautigan's focus on the author. On a deeper look, the nature of curation as described in Barber's plan and certain fundamental differences between archives of physical objects and archives of digital objects resolve the apparent conflict and reveal that Barber's proposal is in line with Brautigan's vision of his imaginary library.
Richard Brautigan invented a new kind of library in his 1965 novel The Abortion: An Historical Romance. He conceived of a library designed solely around the needs of unpublished authors and their books. His library was a radical departure from traditional notions of what a library is and how libraries should serve their users. As such it can serve as a touchstone for librarians and library users in a time full of disruptive change and uncertain futures. When we ask the question: "what makes Brautigan's library different, important, and memorable?" we may be able to uncover answers about how libraries and archives can change our practices today.
Similar to Vannevar Bush's memex machine and Jorge Luis Borges' Library of Babel (Bush, 1945) (Borges, 1999), Brautigan's imaginary library has persisted in the memory of librarians, archivists, and information professionals as a model of our profession that helps us understand what we do from alternate perspectives and vantage points. Considering the ever-increasing rate of disruptive technological change and our decreasing certainty in what tools will be appropriate in the library of tomorrow, such perspectives are extremely useful in helping orient our professional practices.
John Barber in The Brautigan Library: Questions and challenges of archiving user-generated electronic literature proposes using Brautigan's imaginary library as a model and conceptual framework for a new archive. Like Brautigan's library, this new archive will welcome and store unpublished literature. This piece is a companion to that work, reflecting on its themes and responding to it from a librarian's perspective.
This essay will explore the library as envisioned in The Abortion and attempt to uncover the core principles of the Brautigan library, determine what purpose it served, and why "there just simply had to be a library like this." (Brautigan) The discussion will also focus on John Barber's proposed digital archive and consider both whether Brautigan's imaginary library is an appropriate model for a contemporary digital archive and whether Barber's proposal succeeds in capturing its essential nature.
This is not that kind of library.
The fictional library described in Richard Brautigan's The Abortion: An Historical Romance is quite unlike other libraries. Its appeal is undeniable, as evidenced by the efforts to create actual working versions of the library, but what kind of library is it and what makes it relevant nearly fifty years after it was imagined?
Brautigan describes his library in a series of negative statements. "This is not that kind of library. This is another kind of library." (Brautigan) As we learn what this kind of library this is not; we can begin to understand what separates it from more familiar public lending libraries. The books in this library are unpublished. Most libraries rely on publishers' catalogs to build their collections, this library builds its collection directly from authors. We also learn that "We don't use the Dewey decimal classification or any index system to keep track of our books." (Brautigan) In a traditional library, the order that the books are placed in on the shelf is a map that can be "read" by users to guide themselves to the book they are seeking. In Brautigan's library "it doesn't make any difference where a book is placed because nobody ever checks them out and nobody ever comes here to read them." (Brautigan) This library doesn't evaluate content. It doesn't classify or order books based on what they are about. It doesn't provide access to its collection. This is another kind of library.
With these short negations, Brautigan dispenses with most of the areas of library work as traditionally understood. Because the books are not classified or indexed, this library has no cataloging librarians. Because the books are not made available to readers, this library has no reference librarians. The services this library provides are limited to receiving new books brought to the library by their authors, recording the books into a ledger, and preserving the overflow of books in hermetically sealed storage caves. That is it, there are no other services offered by this library.
Without any of the services readers are accustomed to rely on in a library, we can safely state that Brautigan's library is not designed around the needs of readers, a currently fashionable model for designing library services. Readers, in fact, are not welcome in this library. No one is welcome in the library unless they have come to add a book they have written to its holdings. When Brautigan's protagonist is fired from his job at the library, he is told "never come back, not unless you've got a book under your arm!" Public libraries are often revered for their sacred mission to provide access to books to the public. This is not that kind of library. This library has a sacred mission to accept books from their authors.
This is another kind of library. The need for this kind of library exists because there are more authors with more stories to tell than are authors with books in print. Once we have stripped away the traditional library services Brautigan's library does not provide, we can see what it does provide and uncover its reasons for existing. At its core, there are two things this library does. First, it provides a home for unpublished works. No editors, critics, or boilerplate rejection letters can keep books out of this library. This library welcomes all books and removes the barriers that could keep an author from finding a place for her book. Brautigan was aware that there were more stories that needed to be told than there were books being published; his library is a place for books that had no place under the other system.
Second, in this library, the author decides where the books go on the shelves. This is significant because where a book is placed in the library is determined by what the book is thought to be about. In traditional libraries, it is not the author who decides where a book goes. Brautigan's library empowers the author, removes barriers between authors and a home for their books, and gives authors control over the meaning of their creative work. These are the reasons "there just simply had to be a library like this." This library exists to serve the needs of authors and provide a place for their otherwise homeless books.
Two key additions: readers and curation
It is this archival purpose, this sacred mission to provide a home for books without regard to quality, subject, or readership that John Barber utilizes in his proposal to keep the Brautigan Library alive and expand it to include user-generated electronic literature. He notes that "Brautigan's imaginary library is, in essence, an archive: a means by which historical knowledge and forms of remembrance can be collected, stored, and recovered." (Barber) Brautigan's library, as described in The Abortion, provided nothing outside of collecting and storing books. Recovering was only introduced as part of this library's mission when Todd Lockwood opened his Brautigan Library to readers allowing them to browse the shelves and discover the books. When readers were welcomed into the library the books acquired an audience in addition to a home.
Barber's proposed digital expansion of the Brautigan library increases the prominence of recovery as a part of the library's mission by increasing access to the books through opening the archive to remote visitors. He also proposes adding an index to connect readers with objects in the library and a curator to manage this index. This is significant addition as Brautigan specifically rejected the concept of an index in his vision of the library.
When we add a population of readers that are served by the library, the role of curator becomes central, necessary even. Barber astutely notes "archives are no longer considered neutral, transparent sites of recording or remembering, but rather as subjects and medias in themselves." (Barber) He sketches a model for digital curation that makes the archive itself as much of a creative work as the objects it contains. This is an intriguing idea for an archive, but it remains a significant departure from the library found in The Abortion. It raises the question of whether the addition of readers and an index to the Brautigan library are turning the new Brautigan library into "that kind of library" "another kind of library".
Is there an Authority in this Library?
In order to answer that question, it will be helpful to examine why Brautigan might have excluded readers and indices from his library. When he excluded the twin authorities of editorial review and classification from his library, Brautigan removed all possible challenges to the authors' views about their books. In his library, the authors are the ones in control. The authors decide when to bring a book to the library. It is the authors who are allowed to decide where their books go on the shelves. There is no possibility of any challenge to the authors' decisions. Without editors, without classification systems, and without readers; the only voice that could decide where a book goes, and thus what it is about, belongs to the author. Phrased another way, in Brautigan's imaginary library, author-intent theory was very much alive.
It is not my intention to find fault with Barber or Lockwood for deviating from the Brautigan canon. Considered in the light of the practical considerations of operating an actual library, as opposed to describing one in a novel, the choices are reasonable. The changes, however, are significant and should be noted. They are significant, not only in how they differ from the imaginary library, but also in how they highlight some of the most disruptive changes in publishing, information technology, and library science that have marked the transition from the previous century to the present.
Disruptive changes in information technology and publishing may have removed the root causes for Brautigan's imaginary library. Brautigan's library ministered to the needs of unpublished authors and provided a needed place for their unpublished books. Today, in the age of Livejournal, WordPress, and Wikipedia, we don't have to stretch our definitions of publication very far to see that unpublished authors have become an endangered species. Perhaps they have only themselves to blame for remaining unpublished, or perhaps they are unpublished by choice. In either case, the means of publication are available to a much larger percentage of the population than they were in 1965. Authors with stories to tell no longer lack an outlet for their work. The Internet and the services that run on it provide unpublished authors with what they were once missing: places for their ideas and stories.
Still, when Brautigan's library gains an audience of readers and the authority of a curator, it does lose some of its unique appeal to the needs of the unpublished. At first glance, it may appear that Barber and Lockwood's recreations of Brautigan's library offer a simple exchange: at the cost of losing the solution to a problem that is no longer relevant, the addition of readers and an index to Brautigan's library bring with them the chance to update the library into something that is both useful and beautiful and is also quite real and relevant in our current cultural and technological contexts.
This is not that kind of index. This is another kind of index.
If the disruptive changes brought by the Internet and digital information technology were limited to revolutions in our publishing models, our issue would be ready to be resolved. We could weigh the advantages gained by the addition of readers and curation to the library and determine whether these outweigh the essential change in nature of the Brautigan library from a service designed to gently preserve the interests of unpublished authors into a new kind of service that unites readers and curators in creative discovery.
However, if we look more closely at the differences between the kind of digital index Barber is proposing and the rigid, authoritative taxonomies — such as the Dewey Decimal Classification System — that Brautigan eschewed, we'll see that Barber's model of curation and indexing does not infringe on what Brautigan saw as the author's prerogative in the same ways that traditional library indexing was guilty of.
David Weinberger's 2007 book Everything is Miscellaneous isolates the key difference between physical organization and digital organization in the difference between bits and atoms. Things constructed from bits follow a different set of rules than do things constructed from atoms. Dewey's system and library indexes in general are designed around the physical nature of books and their atoms. Weinberger notes that when organizing physical objects: "physical objects can be in only one spot at any one time" "some items are nearer than others", and "physical space is shared". (Weinberger, 2007) What this adds up to is: when a library of physical books is indexed, there can be only one way of ordering them on the shelves.
When disputes arise over where a book should be placed (and thus what a book is about) the curator or cataloger's opinions trump those of the authors. This is because a library classification system is tied to physical space in order to map meaning. For example: a book about the pedagogies used to train players in video games must either be shelved with the education books or with the books about video games. Secondary relationships may be maintained in the index or catalog, but one subject area must be given primacy. In the end, the book must be about either one subject or the other. I imagine that it is this limitation and imposition of outside authority that caused Brautigan to exclude Dewey and indexing from his library. In his library, there are no authorities to demand that books be forced into pre-defined categories and the author alone is allowed to decide where a book is placed.
Curation without hierarchy
So, if Brautigan was intentional in his exclusion of an index from his library, can John Barber's proposed archive, with its index and its curator's authority really be a project modeled in the same spirit? Or, does the addition of an index make Barber's archive a different sort of project altogether? On closer inspection, it appears that the purpose and manner of Barber's proposed index succeeds in avoiding the authority and control problems that seemed to make library indexes unpalatable to Brautigan.
The addition of a digital curator is a significant change from the library's author-centric roots. Barber grants that curators exert an influence by noting "archives are often planned/guided by curators and are often successful/unsuccessful because of the curatorial attention." (Barber) However, this influence is not the heavy-handed authoritarian control of Dewey Decimal Classification System. The limitations inherent in physically ordering books on a shelf require all of the books to conform to a single taxonomic structure. I speculate that this is why Brautigan's library was not indexed, to avoid this mandatory conformity to a single authority or perspective. Barber's digital index is much more contingent, flexible, and tenuous then those kinds of indices. His plan allows the archive to be ordered or arranged in multiple ways and provides multiple access points to the holdings. Most significantly, Barber's curator does not force a collection of divergent works into a single unified information system.
Through the overlay of digital technologies, archives seem more collaborations between viewers and objects, with the archival objects at once present, relevant and capable of transferring meaning, translating or editing a relationship and engagement with the viewer, and linking information through a system of delineation and promise. But, because one can never see and experience all the stories represented by archival artifacts, the act of viewing an archive is always incomplete. Once can see and experience the index, the overarching structure, but never all the residual, the traces. (Barber)
In Barber's proposed archive the curator's mission is, in part, to provide indices and information structures that highlight multiple possible connections between items in the collection. These varying or even contradictory versions of the index help the reader question the authority of memory. The reader is thus encouraged to see the meaning of the archive as being eternally constructed but never experienced whole-cloth. This mission is far enough removed from the rigid hierarchy required by Dewey Decimal Classification and other physically oriented indexes that it seems reasonable to add it to a Brautigan-inspired library or archive without violating the spirit of the original imaginary library.
Bits or atoms
The transition from the kind of authoritarian index that Brautigan eschewed to the more ephemeral and multi-faceted indexing espoused by Barber has been greatly advanced by digital technology. We've already seen David Weinberger's rules for explaining differences between things made of bits and things made of atoms. Clay Shirky, in his 2005 piece Ontology is Overrated, explains the effect those differences have on the way we build information structures in a digital context. He begins by explaining how a computer file system and a library's classification look extremely similar. Each has a top level that is divided into subcategories that have further sub-divisions underneath them. At some point, those running both kinds of system recognized the desirability of drawing secondary connections between items in separate forks in the hierarchy. This would be a "see also:" kind of reference or a secondary classification in a library book, perhaps noting that the book on pedagogy from our earlier example is also a book about video games.
Beyond this point, digital indexes begin to have a distinct advantage. File systems are logical structures. When we move a computer file from one folder to another on our computers, most likely we are not physically moving information from one hard-drive sector to another. The bits stay where they are and note that they now belong in another place in the logical structure. This is why we can defragment a hard-drive, or join the separated parts of large files into a contiguous whole, without disrupting our file structures. The physical location of data and bits on the hard drive do not determine the logical organization of folders on our computer desktops. We can change one without affecting the other. Libraries, as we have seen, do not share this trait, they are physical structures. When we change the physical location of a book on the shelf, we also must change the logical organization of the index or an error results. For a reader looking for a book, there is little practical difference between a book the library does not own and a book not where the catalog says it should be; neither one can be read. Enough errors like this and the entire system becomes useless.
Once we became accustomed to creating links between objects to symbolized relationships between ideas, we soon realized that there is no limit to the number of links that a digital item can accept. Shirky notes that something new was revealed here: with enough links the underlying hierarchy of the file structure becomes unnecessary. He notes that: "if you've got enough links, you don't need the hierarchy anymore. There is no shelf. There is no There is no file system. The links alone are enough." (Shirky, 2005)
The rigid hierarchy that Brautigan excluded from his library becomes irrelevant in a digital context. In a library of physical objects, there are valid and compelling reasons to privilege one taxonomy of ideas over all others. The books can go on the shelf in only one order, so it makes sense to conform to one standardized system. Without it, readers would not be able to find books unaided. In a digital archive all of the connections are virtual — including the file structure — and the number of connections we can make is unlimited. We've lost the physical constraint that privileges a single set of connections over all others. Thus, there are few reasons to limit ourselves to a single authoritative ordering and no reason at all not to join Brautigan in allowing the author to (virtually) place his book "on whatever shelf catches his fancy." (Brautigan)
In conclusion, now that the qualities that make Brautigan's vision of the library different, important, and memorable have been examined, we've seen its essence located in its focus on the needs and considerations of the unpublished author. By shedding the standard aspects of libraries that provide services to readers and by bypassing the various gatekeepers, editors, and barriers that come between authors and a home for their books; Brautigan shows us that his imaginary library was clearly about and for unpublished authors and their books. Through eliminating any challenges to the authors' opinion or whimsy, including editors, critics, readers, and catalogers, Brautigan reinforces this focus on the unpublished author. Any future library or archive that claims Brautigan's library as a model will need to share in these central goals.
Looking at Brautigan's library from the perspective of today's information technology context, we can answer the question of whether or not Brautigan's library, as imagined in 1965, provides a relevant or useful model for archival or library science development. Clearly and somewhat surprisingly, the answer is yes. Brautigan, whether or not he was aware of being prescient, anticipated a library without publishers and a collection of literature without a fixed information structure. Brautigan imagined authors without publishers and a library without a hierarchy. Today, nearly half a century since The Abortion was published, networked communications and digital information technologies have placed us in a situation where we have authors without publishers and organization schemes without hierarchies. If we need to catch our bearings, we could do worse than to return to Brautigan's vision for the library.
Finally, addressing the question of whether John Barber's proposed expansion of The Brautigan Library into a digital archive of user-generated electronic literature succeeds in capturing the essential nature of Brautigan's library, I can answer yes for two separate reasons. First, even though Barber's proposed addition of a curator and an index to the archive appears, on the surface at least, to contradict Brautigan's position against indexes in his library; the role of the curator, as explained by Barber is culturally compatible with Brautigan's concern for the author. Barber locates the role of the curator between the viewer and the object, but as a guide who reveals multiple possible connections, never as an authority who dictates a single central framework. Second, Barber's proposed digital archive, by nature of being digital, transcends the necessary hierarchy and authority imposed by physical classification systems. I speculate that Brautigan rejected an index in his library because he rejected a single authority, not because he rejected creating links between objects and ideas. The curator of Barber's digital archive creates multiple, incomplete, and non-authoritative links between objects and ideas. This respects the authors' rights to choose where to place their books as well as the readers' rights to make connections between objects and ideas as seems fit to them. Brautigan would, I suspect, approve of this arrangement.
Borges, Jorge Luis. 1999. Collected Fictions. 1st ed. Penguin.
Brautigan, Richard. 1995. Revenge of the Lawn, The Abortion, So the Wind Won't Blow It All Away. Houghton Mifflin Harcourt. Kindle edition.
Bush, Vannevar. 1945. As We May Think. Atlantic Monthly (10727825) 176, no. 1 (July): 101-108.
Weinberger, David. 2007. Everything Is Miscellaneous: The Power of the New Digital Disorder. First Edition. Holt Paperbacks.
Direct link: https://doi.org/10.20415/hyp/008.e04