A Growing Organism
From American Craft Inquiry: Volume 1, Issue 1
Hanging among exhibition announcements, historic photographs, vintage posters, and other ephemera on the walls of the American Craft Council Library is a simple 11-by-17-inch paper screen printed with the words “The library is a growing organism.” Created by artist Anthony Warnick, the print was distributed during his 2013 installation The Library at the Soap Factory gallery in Minneapolis.1
It’s an emphatic, appealing phrase, whether or not you know its context. But for librarians, these words are instantly recognized as law. One of five laws, actually, theorized by Indian mathematician, librarian, and writer S.R. Ranganathan in 1931 to serve as a framework for evaluating library programs, policies, and strategies. These laws include:
1. Books are for use.
2. Every reader [their] book.
3. Every book its reader.
4. Save the time of the reader.
5. The library is a growing organism.
There are approximately 119,500 libraries in the United States2, of which the American Craft Council Library is one. It is a small, specialized collection in a sea of other libraries dedicated to particular areas of collecting, systems of knowledge organization, and service to diverse patron groups. The Council collection, established in the early 1950s, has grown over the years to contain many elements in addition to books and exhibition catalogues, including artist files, periodicals, audio recordings, films, and primary source materials. Searching for information on the career of an artist, a process, or a movement, an ACC Library user would have to consider the many places in the library where materials could be found. For instance, an inquiry about Françoise Grossen might take you to vintage issues of Craft Horizons and Interiors, through the archive for the 1972 exhibition “Sculpture in Fiber,” and into a vertical file containing the artist’s ephemera. The value of the collection lies not within a sole object, but the collection as a whole.
As the librarian for a national organization with a brick-and-mortar library, much of my time has been focused on making materials and information more accessible. Grant funding for the digitization of archives has allowed ACC to share more than 10,000 individual items online. With hundreds of thousands of objects in the collection, however, it would be impossible to virtually replicate the entire library. Furthermore, when it comes to books and catalogues, digital isn’t necessarily the preferred format. Studies as recent as 2015 have shown that faculty, as well students of the millennial generation, continue to prefer print materials when it comes to the visual arts.3 Even the online bookselling behemoth Amazon opened physical bookstores in 2015. The printed record does not yet seem destined to fade away.
So what are we to do with a voluminous library of tangible objects and a disparate user base? After years of bringing visitors into the library space with lectures, writers and artists in residence, internships, tours, and simply being open to the public, in spring 2016 we were ready to try something new. Inspired by old-school bookmobiles, pop-up shops, and “please touch” exhibitions, we began to explore new models of library outreach, and designed our first foray engaging users beyond the library walls for ACC’s 2016 “Present Tense” conference at KANEKO in Omaha, Nebraska.
Working with scholars, curators, and students, we selected more than 100 new and forthcoming titles to stock the shelves of what would become our pop-up library. We arranged for archival materials to be on display, and brought out archival books and magazines for visitors to peruse. Archival-image slideshows and video footage brought an interactive aspect to the pop-up library, as did our hands-on activity station, where we invited visitors to embroider vintage reproduction photographs. Our sponsor of and partner in this Library Lab, Schiffer Publishing was on-site not only selling books but also hosting author talks and networking with potential writers. The openness of KANEKO, along with comfortable and abundant seating, made the space feel more like a cooperative studio than a research library.
Throughout the conference, as I watched people engaging with the materials, I remembered what it is about the physical library that made me want to work in one. To be present in a library is to slow down – to look, to think, to learn, and to touch. It is a visual and tactile experience, not unlike the experience of encountering a ceramic vessel or a woven hanging. We read a book and an object in the same way: What is its story, how was it conceived, and what bits of wisdom does it contain?
Which brings us back to our dear friend, the “father of library science,” Mr. Ranganathan. His five laws have been widely interpreted for media other than books, including the digital world (e.g., social media is for use, every blog its reader, every artist his Photoshop, etc.).4 Additionally, it is broadly accepted that when Ranganathan uses the word “book,” the term is a stand-in for broader access to knowledge, regardless of medium. With these notions in mind, can these laws of library science be reinterpreted to evaluate the work being done in the field of craft? Through the lens of the conference, let’s take a look.
1. Books are for use ~ Craft is for use
Because Ranganathan’s focus was not solely on the physical book, but on the knowledge within, the implication of this law is that librarians have an obligation to acquire information and make it available for use. Considering craft in this way, I am reminded of the conference remarks of Stuart Kestenbaum. The former director of Haystack Mountain School of Crafts and an ACC trustee described craft as a combination of skill, knowledge, and intuition present in all of the work that we see. “Anybody making anything has to know something about what was before him or her,” he said. “They have to have some skill to be able to make the thing. Once you know the material and once you know the history, then there’s a certain part where you, as a maker, have intuition.” Knowledge about objects and the skill to make them, as well as the courage to act on one’s intuition, are at a greater risk in our mass-produced financially motivated society. Craft is – like books – for use, not to be hoarded or hidden away. As a community, we should be ever mindful of the ways in which our work endows others with the tools and information to succeed and move the field forward.
2. Every reader their book ~ Craft is for all
This law does not literally mean a book for every person, but rather that every person is entitled to books and library services. Librarians must know their community and its needs, and make decisions based on those needs. On any given day, the ACC Library provides information to master artists, curators, and scholars, as well as high school students, novices, and other less obvious patrons such as incarcerated makers. The craft field must also navigate how best to serve a constituency of users with diverse backgrounds and skill levels. In his keynote address, designer and educator Otto von Busch spoke of craft as a tool to “hack into reality” – that is, craft as a universally shared experience as well as a resource for promoting social sustainability. Rhode Island School of Design president Rosanne Somerson spoke of being open to the different ways people acquire knowledge. “I’m trying to create the conditions to have the most fertile environment for learning for all different kinds of learners and advancing the importance of art and design in our culture,” she said. Like libraries, the field of craft can build on its reputation as adaptive, responsive, and connected.
3. Every book its reader ~ Every craft its maker
Although it is closely related to the second law, this dictum, “Every book its reader,” is about the individual. It suggests that for each item in the library there exists a person for whom that object may be useful. Librarians must serve many types of patrons and needs, and cannot let their own biases interfere with the cultivation of their collections. Graphic artist Jessica Hische talked about this in her keynote address, telling the story of artist Marco Terenzi who makes miniaturized woodworking tools. This individual, Hische marveled, has committed himself to something so specific and without obvious use, however amazing and beautiful. And yet, she says, “if you have that drive in you to do something that is so specifically you, and so not-something that has an easy path to it, I think that people can’t not pay attention.” She’s right: This artist has 30,000 Instagram followers. Artist and educator Sonya Clark espoused the importance of helping students find their “authentic obsession.” A technique, process, style, or quality of work that may be of interest to one may not appeal to others. And that’s OK. As a community, we can appreciate and empower makers with the knowledge and tools to chart their own unique paths.
4. Save the time of the reader ~ Save the time of the maker
What does Ranganathan mean by “time”? We can interpret this as not just hours and minutes, but also in terms of the experience and convenience a user has accessing information in a library.5 Users want to access information easily, and they want to feel comfortable doing so. “The biggest creative challenge for people is time,” acknowledged Tien Chiu, author of Master Your Craft: Strategies for Designing, Making, and Selling Artisan Work, in her Library Lab talk at the conference. In our efforts to be inclusive, we must also think about our education systems and the tools we use to deliver information. As Somerson pointed out, students today are growing up understanding time in a very different way. “We’re living in a time of unprecedented change. There’s never been change that’s happening as rapidly as what’s happening right now. And students, the new generation of students, are thinking about very different things. So our challenge, I think, as educators is to figure out how to give them the tools to really understand how to learn through the rigorous notion of embodied learning, of immersive learning, and still give them the flexibility to function in this contemporary world.” We can commit to sharing our work with others in free and accessible ways, such as podcasts, videos, blogs, and social media. Our ability to access and interpret information has been changed by the web, but we can work together and across institutions to build and share credible tools and content that promote growth and collaboration within our community.
5. The library is a growing organism ~ Craft is a growing organism
When it comes to the fifth law, Ranganathan had this to say: “It is an accepted biological fact that the growing organism alone will survive. An organism which ceases to grow will petrify and perish. The fifth Law invites our attention to the fact that the library, as an institution, has all the attributes of a growing organism. A growing organism takes in new matter, casts off old matter, changes in size, and takes new shapes and forms.” This fifth law reminds us that libraries have survived economic downturns, the rise of technology, and competition in the marketplace because of their capacity to change. What does this mean for craft? While many attendees at “Present Tense” have been instrumental in the field’s growth, many questions that arose there – How can craft be a meeting point to address conflict or ethical concerns in our society? How are we disrupting myths about creative practices and art making? How are we going to increase diversity in the field? – signal how urgently we must continue to evolve. If my work has taught me anything, it’s that the craft community is composed of resourceful individuals who enrich our cultural landscape by making and connecting objects to people, information, and ideas, while being inclusive and accessible – principles that can also be found in any library mission statement. Ranganathan’s philosophy was designed to provide guidance to librarians overseeing the portage of knowledge, materials, and services, but we can apply these principles to our work within the field of craft – work, like the work of libraries, that is more important now than ever before.
1. Warnick, Anthony (2013). The Library [project website].
Retrieved from http://northern.lights.mn/projects/anthony-warnick-the-library/
2. American Library Association (2015). ALA Library Factsheet 1.
Retrieved from http://www.ala.org/tools/libfactsheets/alalibraryfactsheet01
3. Brinkman, Stacy, and Jennifer Krivickas.
“Attitudes Toward E-Books Among Visual Arts Faculty and Students.”
Art Documentation: Bulletin Of The Art Libraries Society Of North America 34, no. 1 (Spring 2015): 71-88.
4. Connaway, Lynn Silipigni, and Ixchel M. Faniel. 2014.
Reordering Ranganathan: Shifting User Behaviors, Shifting Priorities. Dublin, OH: OCLC Research.
5. Connaway, Lynn Silipigni, and Ixchel M. Faniel. 2014.
Reordering Ranganathan: Shifting User Behaviors, Shifting Priorities. Dublin, OH: OCLC Research.