How Does A Library Move and What is A Book?

book end

We’ve been busy transitioning from the research phase of our project into the making phase. Although the thought of making is always with you from the beginning of a project, it’s important to hold open a kind of dream / reverie space in which to allow for the unexpected. This can be a highly structured space, but it structured in a formless kind of way….In many ways this is about finding what the piece needs to be as you make it. This makes work that is very responsive to a context and at the same time creates a moment  of overwhelming confusion for the maker – because there is no straightforward application of a known procedure – instead there is a kind ofsurrendering of understanding. Through this surrendering the elements of the piece become clear and a kind of logic emerges. The moment of surrender is never that comfortable as it can feel like being lost in an overwhelming forest of possibilities, however if you can find your way to the other side of the forest, it’s often surprising what you find there…

In the middle of this transitional process I gave a talk in Torbay, Devon about another piece of work and I decided to try and write about Some Patterns of Current in a coda to the talk as a way of trying to find my way out of the forest.

Here is an excerpt from what I wrote:

Coda – How does a library move?

When you first walk into a library, you are drawn to its quiet, or at least I am. A very particular kind of quiet which feels full rather than thin or empty – a state of reverie, perhaps.  The quietness more of a hush, than silence as if the sound that is there has been gently turned down or muffled. In Wim Wenders’ film, Wings of Desire, the Berlin angels who can hear the thoughts of passersby, hang out in a library and listen in to the myriad of thoughts passing through the heads of people as they quietly read and think. A deeply layered residue of constantly changing quiet.

There is the quiet and there is the stillness. In some ways a library space is defined by what a gathering of people is not doing. Because no one is talking loudly, or into their phones, or waving their arms, or running, or leaping, or pushing, or pulling or clapping their hands. Very few people are even shuffling much. As you sit and listen to the library and hear the delicate turn of a page or shift of weight; perhaps an out-breath which signals the end of one thought and the beginning of another, or an in-breath of excitement as an idea takes shape, you realize that the library is a kind of portal and its movement is deep and profound and occurs in the movement of peoples’ thoughts and the passage of books in and out of the space circling in unseen patterns around the librarians and library users.

Hampton library is housed in a building that was built around 1760 and was originally a private house. Yesterday I found out that in the basement of the library their used to be an artesian well filled with water from the Thames. The River is a nearby presence circling around the library. Hampton is the first point in the Thames where the river is non-tidal and there are two waterworks in Hampton processing drinking water for London.

The house was built for the tenor singer John Beard – a favourite singer of Handel and then it was later lived in by the MP William Ewart who was a campaigner for free public libraries and contributed to the library acts in 1850 and 55 and 66. It’s astonishing to imagine Ewart writing about the need for public libraries as a space for ordinary folk to have access to books and knowledge and learning, right here in this building which is now a library as if he made a wish and it came true, or as if he could time travel and see what the future should be and work backwards. The flow of time in both directions like the tides in a river.

In the 1840’s, opposition to the idea was focused around the possibility that a library might become a space of social agitation. Agitation – what a lovely word full of unexpected movement and with two meanings: a state of nervous excitement and the action of disturbing or stirring a liquid. Those not-yet library users as a river of people, coming together and stirring themselves up!

The library has 16,000 books and at the moment after the summer break, the books are being returned to the library faster than they are taken out, so there is a pressure or build-up of books like a river swollen by rain.

If you look around the library you might now begin to see an abundance of choreography – of books forming patterns of colour and size and arrangement, and of repetition of physical shapes frozen into structures like bookcases and shelves. You might begin to notice the small transitions of movement that people make as they circle the bookshelves or move from chair to exit or from entrance to desk, a window being opened or a door being closed, a hand reaching up to the mantelpiece to fetch a leaflet down. Volumes constantly pass through hands, and newspapers are turned and folded.

These are the smaller patterns and then there are the larger ones: The libraries oldest user Mrs Mckay who comes every Tuesday, the volunteers who come once a month on a Friday to take out bags of books to the library’s housebound readers, the different days of the library staff’s rota and the pause midweek as the library shuts on a Thursday. The dust settling as the lights are turned out.

The library easily revealed its men to us, but we had to dig deeper to discover its women. After a while we found Winifred Graham, through a chance remark that I made to a local historian. This is a project full of coincidences: I once lived in Hampton for 7 years and had never been back until I arrived to take on the commission. I mentioned to a local historian that I lived in Graham road and he said,

Ah. yes. Winifred Graham.

Two streets – Winifred and Graham hiding the name of a local authoress popular at the time and now forgotten. She wrote many romantic novels and also an autobiography as well as three books of automatic writing – called Letters from Heaven, in which she channels the words of her dead father who once helped set up the fire brigade in Hampton.

Winifred brings me back full circle. I lived in her surname age 11 – 18 and didn’t know that many years later I would return to shake off the dust, turn the key on her secret and open up her book.

Where does a book begin and a talk end?

* * * *

Two things became clear after writing this: that if you look for long enough you begin to see movement in unexpected and overlooked places (or as part of ‘systems’ which are not fixed to a geographical location) and also that in order to understand something it helps to keep shifting between different scales – from the micro to the macro. So on the one hand we’ve been thinking about the books and library users as tiny parts of the (body of the) library and looking at how they move, and on the other hand we might begin to think of the library as itself a single book with many pages…