from bookshelf to big data

Installation view of BiblioTECH: from bookshelf to big data. Image courtesy The Portico Library.

What does the future hold for libraries? This question over the last few years has become more pressing in this technologically driven era in which vast amounts of data are now available at the click of our fingertips. Portico Library’s latest exhibition BiblioTECH: from bookshelf to big data explores how libraries are adapting to this change through new ways of storing and accessing information, whilst also debating the expanding problems of authentic information in a world of fake news in which everyone can be an expert on any given subject. The exhibition sees three artists Dan Hays, Jane Lawson and Claire Tindale respond to these issues, each providing a very different comment on the debate.

Tindale uses the Portico Library’s history and their classification systems to create the work ‘Information Trees: Taxonomies’ (2018). The piece takes index cards from the library itself combining them with digitally laser cut trees which sit upon them, to demonstrate the technological advancement of printed material and our obsession with classification systems which makes retrieval of data easier. The trees feature in her three separate pieces within the exhibition and represent the merging of physical and digital with connotations of hidden networks. This is further explained within one of her pieces, ‘The Wood Wide Web’ (2018), which links the similarities of the mycelia network of trees with the internet; in which communication is delivered and retrieved via networked systems hidden from the naked eye.

Lawson’s work also touches on the vast amount of data that is now available, however her work responds to the issue of authentication that comes with it. Her time-based diagram and concertina book not only depict how information is presented and edited – starting from the beginning of time to the present – but looks at post-truths and narratives which have always existed but have been less apparent as they were previously only authenticated by experts. She opens up the debate that as the digital age has expanded sources of knowledge too have expanded with it, exposing not only ‘fake news’ but also the opportunity for contradictions of the truth. Her work therefore poses the radical question; as a digital generation are we less interested in validation of the truth and acting as seekers of the absolute, is it the ambiguity and discussions that are more interesting?

Hays’ work is completely different to the other artists’ as it is concerned with the digital as a visual aesthetic rather than exploring wider moral questions surrounding it. His pixelated imagery such as ‘Spring Snow’ (2004) uses glitches in the resolution of digital images to create paintings; taking something that is low value and elevating it through the historic status of painting as a medium. It is this approach of transforming the digital into the physical that overarches the exhibition as it explores the longevity of digital data storage due to constant technological development as old modes become outdated. It also highlights our need for the physical and eternal value of painting due to the value of ownership and craftsmanship, signalling perhaps the future role of books is something akin to this in a role of collectorship.

It is this last comment that is an underlying tone within the exhibition as interestingly all artists have used a traditional methods to create pieces for the show, choosing the digital aspect as a context not medium. Whilst libraries are becoming more digitally aware by transforming their collections into virtual bookshelves, what BiblioTECH: from bookshelf to big data communicates is that the value of these establishments still resides in their longevity and prestige, with the digital possibilities allowing them to open their doors to a wider audience, generating debate and discussions as seen in the current exhibition. It is perhaps then as houses of debate and thinking that the true value of libraries lies, rather than as static houses for holding data, and it is in this that BiblioTECH: from bookshelf to big data truly succeeds.


Claire Walker is a writer based in Wigan.

BiblioTECH: from bookshelf to big data, Portico Library, Manchester.

6 July – 18 August 2018.

Published 20.08.2018 by James Schofield in Reviews

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