Libraries for Everything

What interesting things could use a library? What needs some sort of dedicated repository — whether online, in a book or museum or other space, for an audience large or small? What needs to be collected and treasured and shared? Might these libraries be crowdsourced, Kickstarted, collectively created, intensely personal…perhaps something else entirely?

One thing I’ve thought about quite a bit is extending the idea of the “pattern language” to other domains — for example, patterns of everyday thought and action, or specific patterns for learning activity. This could be applied to other cool things too. To take a general example, it’s common to see pattern languages for design and technology, for example Google’s “Material Design” language.

Part of the fun here is in coming up with something just unique and specific enough that it hasn’t been done already, but not so obscure that it isn’t actually useful! I’m not sure if a “pattern language for storytelling” would fall into the category of too commonplace or overdone, but it could be a lot of fun to play with, trying to extend with innovative ideas for narrative creation, even new forms of writing.

Perhaps a library actually shouldn’t aim at being comprehensive. It can sometimes be overwhelming to try to create an encyclopedic record of any possible thing in a given category; instead, it can feel both more approachable and more personal to collect only those most important and powerful examples, models or archetypes for others in their orbit.

The very nature of creating a library is an inevitable and continuous process of curation that must reconcile infinite potential with finite constraints. That’s both the whole point, and part of the fun, because there are so many viewpoints and systems and particular modes of curation that can be applied — the very process of definition and rule-creation and the iterative act of curation according to those rules is what causes a library to take shape.

One project I have in the back of my mind concerns nonlinear narratives and the different ways these can be conceived of and constructed. I think it would be fun to describe — and / or propose — various patterns of narrative construction. I’m interested particularly in varieties of temporal form, in cataloging simple forms from which more complex things can be created — kind of an inventory of pieces, of the miraculous discrete automata that story structures have the potential to be, in the right hands.

Another interesting type of library: those of physical objects. This can seem mundane, if we think of simply a collection of objects e.g. “here’s my collection of cool rocks I found on the beach!” — to take a specific example from my own collection tendencies.

How does such a collection — that pile of rocks, or anything really — come to acquire the aura or status of “library”? What imbues it with any sort of greater structure or meaning? Why does it matter; why should anyone care?

Maybe it doesn’t matter; maybe you shouldn’t care. Most collections may simply reflect some human predilection for accumulating things, for seeking beauty and order. This often doesn’t take the form of some grand pursuit, but certain things can make this endeavor more interesting.

For instance, we can layer another dimension of meaning atop the objects themselves. Take, for example, the process of object-based storytelling — inventing narratives or fictional contexts, imagined histories and creative detours spawned from observing certain physical realities of interesting objects. It’s a process of using those objects as sources or seeds for something greater, for some kind of more potent creative act.

So, my pile of rocks may not be a library — but when I use these rocks as fuel for a creative writing project, I can consider the rock themselves as a shorthand, obfuscated card catalog or reference key to the invisible, imagined library of vignettes which they inspire. This writing project I’m alluding to is simple on its surface, but I think actually pretty powerful — it provides an interface between the physical and imaginative worlds I co-inhabit every day.

Some other interesting nontraditional library projects that come to mind:

The Long Now project and its various associated collections, from its Manual for Civilization, assembling a foundational reading list, knowledge necessary for rebuilding the modern world; to its Rosetta Project, working to build a comprehensive digital library of human languages…

Libraries of seeds and species and DNA sequences, literally cataloging the stuff of life, collecting and preserving such materials for study and safekeeping…

Software libraries — ways to collect and reuse code, increase the modularity and efficiency of programs, save people from having to reinvent the wheel…

There are of course all sorts of fascinating libraries, collecting all manner of important cultural artifacts, so many it would be impossible to list them all! In some sense, perhaps, all museums are libraries. Maybe any collection with an open, public orientation, whose contents are meant to be shared, deserves that designation. I’m no expert, but I like to think I know a great library when I see one. Even trying to assemble a list of favorites…well, that’s a project for another day.