Tasks of the Contingent Librarian

Tasks of the Contingent Librarian

Simon Browne

The library is closed, the shelves are empty, the librarian has gone. All that is left is a set of index cards contained in a box. At the top of each card is a verb introducing the tasks performed within the space and duration of a particular, situated social infrastructure called the “bootleg library”. The reverse includes references and images that illustrate each task.

This text was written with, by and for readers during library sessions. We wrote on cards by hand, we typed words in a collaborative writing environment. We wrote them together; humans and machines; texts were blended into a mix of keystrokes in changesets too complex, and dependencies too layered to determine singular authorship. These texts were never objects, always processes1.

Participation from readers became a vital element in the practice of librarianship. The library grew, and we sustained it through conversation and correspondence. We wrote together in threads and strings; and so we created and maintained a space for publication. In the journey from private to public collection, texts were intermingled and rematerialised, gaining provenance and diversification through use. The readers are in the pages of the books, in the metadata of the library and on these cards, where traces of their presence remain.

This text will never be complete. It describes a particular, situated library, one that does not exist anymore, but resembles those that came before it and those that will succeed it. This set of cards is also a library, a collection organised into a structure that directs readers towards the interior, towards the texts it contains. This set is a book, a hyper-index, forever pointing outwards to other books, libraries, readers and writers. Text, library, book and index all come together in this particular material form to comprise a manual, a thing to be manipulated in the hands of readers.

Cards invite shuffling, re-organising, flipping over, distributing, annotating, laying out. An A6 card like the one you’re holding now fits comfortably into the palm of one’s hand, and can be easily turned as it is gripped between the index finger and thumb.

Cards have two sides. Arranged on a table, only one side is visible, and proximity determines connections. Held in the hands and flipped like a book, new relationships between the verso and recto pages emerge. The reader becomes the writer anew, determining what to keep or discard, what to edit or leave as is; the author of the sequence, connections and hierarchy between tasks.

  1. Barthes, R., ‘From Work to Text’, in Barthes, R. and Heath, S. (1987) Image, music, text. London: Fontana Press.