Reading Notes: The Dynamic Library

Here are my reading notes for an interesting book I just finished reading, all about libraries and the organization of knowledge:

The Dynamic Library: Organizing Knowledge at the Sitterwerk — Precendents and Possibilities

Quick overview from the book’s blurb:

THE DYNAMIC LIBRARY presents essays in translation from an interdisciplinary symposium on the classification and organization of knowledge held at Sitterwerk, St.Gallen, in 2011. Home to over 25,000 volumes on art, architecture, design, and photography, the Sitterwerk’s Kunstbibliothek (Art Library) began with the bequest of book collector and connoisseur Daniel Rohner (1948- 2007). The question of how to systematically organize this idiosyncratic collection into a publicly accessible library was a fundamental concern, and a solution was found in a dynamic system of organization powered by RFID technology, which relies on digital tracking. The essays gathered in THE DYNAMIC LIBRARY contextualize the Sitterwerk’s associative classification system amid artistic and historical systems of order, while pointing to future methods for incorporating subjectivity and serendipity into the organization of knowledge.

Below, find my notes, with varying degrees of detail and coherence (owing to: I read this book piecemeal over a few months). Lots of cool stuff here!

Section 1: Classification Systems

Introduction + The Backstory of the Art Library (p. 6)

  • Retaining an open, dynamic organizational system
  • Retaining collector’s vision
  • Allowing for serendipitous discoveries
  • New tech: RFID tags, custom database, device to record locations
  • Inventory updated daily = dynamic, flexible order, adaptive to users
  • Physical tables to display and save thematic groupings
  • Daniel Rohner: uncompromising vision, immense reservoir of associative knowledge, immersed himself in other worlds and universes
    • Part of an institution’s importance comes from its library
    • Results of table-based search can be stored digitally, as well as printed into a physical booklet (bibliozines!)
  • Knowledge systems depend on individual points of view
  • Classification systems are “knowledge directing”
  • Order is not always very fruitful
  • How can you find out what you don’t yet know? Can encyclopedias / libraries encourage users to ask more complex questions? 

Organizing Knowledge (p. 35)

  • [No notes / TK]

Appendix: A Selection of Organizing Principles Used in Early Encyclopedias (p. 41)

  • Each include a) target user + context, and b) cost-benefit analysis…
  • From general to specific (taxonomic order / tree)
  • According to “nobility”
  • As curriculum or syllabus
  • According to the six days of creation
  • According to the catechism
  • Alphabetical order
  • Slices of life (maintains context / interrelationships…)

Library Organization Systems (p. 48)

  • Form manageable open-access to catalogs / call numbers
  • Emergence of storage spaces designed specifically for books, organized by a combination of formal + subject criteria…
  • Open stacks vs. open shelves
  • Universal classification systems (simplicity; synergy)
  • “Our supposedly clear orders of knowledge…are untenable in practice.” (51)
  • Alternative possibilities for serendipity via tech, search, etc.

New Orders of Knowledge Around 1900 (p. 53)

  • From bound catalogs → card catalogs
  • Importance of uniformity / standardization
  • 1910-11 Bührer published 177 pg. manifesto!
  • “Monograph principle”, calling for maximal modularity…keep information combinable
  • Bookbinders as enemies of information mobility?
  • Precursor to Vannevar Bush’s famous 1945 essay “As We May Think”

Section 2: Art

Intro (p. 57)

  • “Archives…are not only places of storage, they are also places of classification production, where systems of organization are devised.” (61)
  •  Staub archive: linguistic focus, but beyond text, lots of images!
  • Leibniz as influential role model in terms of “creative combinations”…e.g. hypothesis of “Theater of Nature and Art” (62-3), prioritizing *intuition*…inspired Kunstkammer and Wunderkammer concepts…
  • Personal archives…cyclical; intentional growth
  • Reading, writing, thinking → discovering, recording, looking
  • Example: Aby Warburg…atlas + library…diffusion
  • Artists + archives…e.g. Hans Witschi…rules / principles…
  • Archive vs. museum…predetermined vs. co-created; added vaue…
  • “Syntax of the past”…variety of systems? (65)

Aby Warburg’s Library and Picture Atlas (p. 67)

  • A “Denkraum” (“space for thought”), private institution, open to the public
  • “Mnemosyne” = his picture atlas, including image “families”
  • “Asynchronous orientation tools” (!!)
  • Words + images “produce a kind of interstitial polarity…”
  • “Human memory works through montage…”
  • Book as “energy storage device” (p. 69)
  • Infinitely generative “semantic fields” and configurations, correspondences…
  • Felix Eberty + 1848 idea of “earth-sky” light ray archive…

Handbook History (Hans Witschi) (p. 72)

  • “Passive diary” based on collecting NYT articles…
  • Eventually leading to…focus on hands – thousands! lots of categories…
  • New online version:;

Notes on the Cataloging of Vienna’s Imperial Library (p. 87)

  • Massive 1780 recataloging effort…
  • LOL @ scholarly debate re: subject-based cataloging!

Section 3: New Orders of Knowledge

New Orders of Knowledge (p. 93)

  • “Traditional book structures and classification systems shape the way we think. We’re rarely aware of it, but to a great extent linearity and hierarchy determine how we see the world.”
  • “Even if alphabetized order seems like the most natural thing in the world, it really is just one tool among many.”
  • “The vast majority of our classification systems are strongly influenced by the physical world…But now, for the first time, the new infrastructure of digital technology almost poses a paradigm shift on us…we believe this will lead to fundamental changes in our ideas, how we organize things, and our sense of knowledge itself.”
  • “In a digital system, content can be displayed simultaneously in a variety of contexts. As a result, such content assumes multiple identities…each user finds their own subjective guides through the system…”
  • [Example] – “The visual language of images has a way of tolerating and preserving contradictions that are otherwise smashed to pieces by spoken or written language”
  • Four tools (or “rules”) exploring content relationships; screen vs. paper:
    • Trails – Firefox extension to “render visible the traces of their reading processes”…transfer image and text into printable booklets [NB – kind of like Print Arena!]
    • Maps – platform that allows users to collaboratively present information on a map
    • SchplitZing – “four fields in which volumes of content can be scrolled through”…contextual…
    • Lines – programming environment and writing interface based on the act of annotation…column-based…
    • These all = works not as finished tools, but basis for discussion!
  • Sitterwerk workshop in 2011…brainstorming various scenarios for the library and material archive…
    • How to bridge the gap between the two?
    • Idea of “The Daniel-Type of Librarian”…dissonance; space for new stories; shifts in perspective
  • Fruitfulness of ongoing exchange between opposing systems…conceptual dialogue

RFID: Applications and Implications: A Foundation for the Internet of Things (p. 103)

  • Huge impact on tracking, logistics…labor, behavior, convenience…and now libraries!
  • RFID applications at Sitterwerk:
    • All books and library materials are identified using RFID – taking inventory not just every few months, but all the time
  • Useful not only for inventory and search, but to compile and document *groups* of books and materials…proliferation of bibliographies!
    • And available more widely; via the Internet
  • RFID “merely a background technology” but with huge impact

Design Research and “Mode 2” Knowledge Production (p. 108)

  • Design research…examines whether and how design practices might act as independent modes of knowledge production…
  • Questions like: can the “genius of knowledge” be stimulated by creative techniques?
  • The requirement for knowledge in design and design research are inextricably linked to analysis of their materials, media, aesthetic and technological conditions, and socioeconomic contexts of use.
  • Knowledge always takes material forms… (see: Later + Actor-Network Theory…) > “immutable mobiles” = material carriers of knowledge that ultimately improve its distribution
  • Complex epistemic structure – no longer just form and function but creative practices, objects, tools, institutions, and designers themselves… > “knowledge constructing machinery”
  • No longer individual creative genius but “heterogeneous engineering”
  • Notion of a “design turn” – cultural research shifting from purely theoretical, analytical, historical approach > focus on *practice*
  • Design as playing a key role in interdisciplinary approaches shared by humanities, natural sciences, and engineering…
  • Research as a branch of design, not the other way around…
  • “Mode 2” knowledge production (vs. Mode 1 which = traditional academic knowledge production)…is carried out in the broader “context of application”, in trans- or interdisciplinary ways…
    • [NB – see: the “antidisciplinarathon” model by Katherine Ye and others!]
    • From the mid-’90s book “The New Production of Knowledge”
  • Knowledge as a “socially negotiated and distributed good”
  • Paradox: knowledge dealing more closely with social issues…but also increasing commercialization