Ruined Bookshelf
2010 / 13

The idea of the library as a glorious compendium of human knowledge has been with us for millennia, personifying both the glory and the folly of our desire to know and master the universe. A good library presents itself as a kind of meta-history, its volumes, drawn from a span of intellectual eras, collectively forms a temporally dynamic cultural portrait. In this context the maintenance of the library is equivalent with the maintenance of culture itself, and the broken library represents the loss of all; all knowledge, all norms of conduct, all life as we know it.

Now, as digitized information supplants books on shelves the library-as-object itself is an endangered species and consequently an object of nostalgia. The sight of a shelf of books reminds us that concept of knowledge as a fragile, scarce commodity to be guarded zealously and pursued forthrightly is becoming increasingly obscured by information as commodity. Truth is drowning in a rising tide of truthiness.

The ruined library is thus now a doubled exemplar of loss; the catastrophic loss of order and normality imposed by natural and manmade disasters, and the Information Age’s less dramatic, but potentially even more epochal, alternation of the social order.

Part of my own brick and mortar library suffered the peculiar fate of being crushed under its own weight: One day the old wooden bookcase into which I had piled all of the oversized art books and catalogs I have acquired in a lifetime of bibliomania simply imploded. Pinned between a desk and a wall, however, the bookcase could not simply collapse into chaos. The top shelves pancaked down onto the lower shelves one after another, compressing and distorting themselves under their own weight, bowing out the sides of the mutilated bookcase. The result was sublime; a beautiful synthesis of life and death and knowledge and loss that came to me by accident.

The broken and scattered library is a kind of Acropolis of gorgeous ruin. In addition to the bookcase, single books are scattered about the site, extending the sculptural space and enlarging the message of decay and disaster from a single traumatic incident to that of a total system failure.

Books are becoming as much an artifact as the ruins of the old warehouses, and like all obsolete technologies they become romantic objects.

The rubber and plaster mold for this ruined bookshelf was engineered and produced by Sabrina Lessard.