Pecha Kucha
Freshman Foundation
School of Art and Design
New York State College of Ceramics at Alfred University
7 November 2012

When Michelle asked me if I wanted to participate in this Pecha Kucha, I thought I'm not an artist, I'm JUST a librarian. I catalog things, I like to stick them in categories. But then I saw that Triple Canopy was going to have a program on "Reading as an art practice." Well, gosh, if everybody can say to me that if I'm a librarian, I must like to read, then librarianship can be an art practice.

For years, a lot of artists have been doing projects that relate to books and libraries. There's the Reanimation Library in Gowanus, Brooklyn. Librarian Andrew Beccone collects books from book sales, used book stores, dumpsters, or wherever. (His mother was a librarian.) He selects them for the visual content, not for the subject ... necessarily. And the real point beyond that is his invitation to artists to come and make new art from the images in the books. He has also done a number of temporary branch libraries in the U.S. and elsewhere.

Nina Katchadourian makes spine title poems, putting books in stacks or along shelves where the titles play against each other. It's just one of the projects she does that involves words, language, accents, and translation.

David Bunn has been doing projects with catalog cards for many years: lining the interiors of elevators, making beautiful abstract prints that may be foxing or stray marks left on cards and turned by Bunn into enigmatic blobs. He got the cards from the Los Angeles Public Library when they went to an online catalog. Some of his works are also a kind of poetry but based on the as-found sequence of cards in the discarded catalog.

While I find these very interesting, that's looking at the work of others. I told you I don't consider myself an artist. One of the tasks I do as a cataloger is trying to establish the words we'll use to describe a person, a corporate body, a place, or a topic.

When I was indexing recently, I confronted a name that was pretty common -- Ed or Edward Dunn, a tilemaker with his wife in England. I already had some others named Ed or Edward Dunn so I wrote them an email to see if I could get a birthdate to differentiate this Ed Dunn from the other Ed Dunns. His wife, Carlo, born Carol, responded that it was about the weirdest request they'd ever had. That made my day.

Differentiating people is pretty straightforward though sometimes you can't find a birthdate or people don't respond. Or they change their name either through life circumstance or whim. I had to explain myself recently to someone before she'd reveal her birthdate. There's a new Virtual International Authority File that puts together the name authority records from the U.S. and more than a dozen national libraries, and also includes the Union List of Artist Names from the Getty.

Topics can be more troublesome. First of all, the language we use to describe art and other topics changes over time. Most of the movements of the 19th and much of the 20th century have settled down enough that we can use terminology that is likely to be what you'll find in the literature or use in class or other conversations. We've got realism, impressionism, dada, surrealism, abstract art, abstract expressionism, conceptual art ... though you'll note we don't always say them quite the same way. You may have noticed that "Art, Abstract" has the terms in inverted order. That's a legacy from card catalogs where we tried to be sure that all of the art cards would be close to each other so we moved art to the beginning of the subject term if we could. This is also why when you search in the catalog, you'll find that the national styles are entered in inverted order. Art, French or Painting, American. Ethnic groups, however, are mostly in direct order. Navaho pottery or African American art. And there's little obscurities like "Art" meaning visual arts only and "Arts" meaning at least two areas of the arts, like painting and performance or literature and music.

In the Library of Congress Subject Headings, we have "Interactive art" as a preferred term with "Participatory art" as an alternate way of saying that. The preferred term would be used in a library catalog. But this was established in the late 1990s and it sounds a bit antiquated now or perhaps related to computer-based works. Still, when I listen to art folks or read art criticism, both "interactive" and "participatory" might be part of the description of what's happening. But I'd say folks are now more likely to say "social practice" than either of those terms though they might use the terms is defining social practice. What are us catalogers to do? Our library systems don't always get you easily from the alternative form to the preferred form. A colleague and I have been struggling with proposing "Social practice" as a new subject heading but we need to figure out how we can provide a scope note that will show how it can be differentiated from "Participatory art."

A few years ago, I was struggling with "New media" and that did finally get established but now folks probably use "digital media" or "expanded media." By the time we catalogers catch up, the terminology will probably have changed again.

Clearly, this can be gratifying as well as frustrating. There are a variety of web programs out there that you can use to catalog your own books. One of them is LibraryThing and that's the one I've used for my own library and I've started another account for the books in the house where I live. The house was built by my great grandfather and includes books from its early years in the late 19th century. One of the things that LibraryThing measures is how close you are to other libraries. The house library's closest collection at one point was Herman Melville's but that was with less than 100 books entered. And Emily Dickinson and Edith Wharton are also in the weighted comparison as close to the house collection. LibraryThing also lets you know what books you have in common with only one other person. At one point, the Duke of Berry, that grand 15th century Burgundian collector, and I were the only two people to have some manuscript. Of course he happened to have the original and I just had a cheap and partial facsimile. Still, one of the great things about LibraryThing is that you can make up your own subject headings and since the library is relatively small, you can change it if you want to.

... go to Sherman's miscellany page ...