I’ll see you in the trees.

December 9, 2011

I was recently (as of 2007…that’s when I first composed this post, if you can believe it) looking through several architectural histories, amazed by the ingenuity and the hubris of the skyscraper. If you’re curious as well, this simple pictorial time-line should give you the basics for appreciating how quickly this symbol of modern city life developed. No matter how spectacular our collective accomplishment, and no matter how powerful our collective ideation of the skyscraper form is, they will never hold as firm a place in my heart as will the global community of trees.

Redwood trees are also living irrigation systems. “Redwoods can gather as much as half of a forest’s annual supply of water. Just one tree can effectively drop 4 inches of rainfall in one night.” 1

As far as I can gather, these trees are world-renowned, reigning record holders:

The Tallest: Hyperion


Hyperion, World’s Tallest Tree

Every year seems to bring news of a new tallest tree, but as of today California redwood Hyperion is the accepted champion. Standing 9 feet taller than the previous title holder, Stratosphere Giant (who lives in an adjoining park), Hyperion is a fantastic 378.1 feet tall. None of the pictures I found convey a suitable sense of scale, though some of the photos taken by those who climbed up to Hyperion’s canopy are worth searching for.

In 2003, what was believed to be the tallest tree in the world, El Grande of the Tasmanian rainforest, was inadvertently cooked alive “after a fire started to provide woodchips raged out of control.” 2El Grande was estimated to be only 260 feet tall, however, which just goes to show how rapidly such knowledge changes, or rather, how different a body of knowledge becomes when alternate questions are asked…

The Stoutest: El Árbol del Tule
El Árbol del Tule

El Árbol del Tule is a Montezuma Cypress that lives in Oaxaca, Mexico. I love this picture for how it captures the dominant physical presence of the tree, but here is one that shows its characteristic 37 foot diameter girth, as well as one of its signature knots.


El Árbol del Tule’s girth

The Most Massive: General Sherman


The General

And California makes the list again, this time with a sequoia. General Sherman is widely acknowledged as the largest living organism of any kind on Earth, so far as we know, though I have my suspicions that some creepy unknown deep sea critter would easily earn this crown. (Then again, isn’t the Earth itself alive?) The General is over 2.7 million pounds, and occupies roughly 52,500 cubic feet of forest. And I mean MASSIVE.

The Oldest: Methuselah


At an estimated 4800 years old, Methuselah, a California bristlecone pine has witnessed the greater part of all recorded human history.

If I could, I would dedicate my life to visiting elder trees out of humility, apologizing for centuries of mistreatment by human hands.  Perhaps I should abandon human-oriented archival programs and go work for the Waldspaziergang (The Swiss Federal Institute for Forest, Snow and Landscape Research)… 

Of course, that might be too limiting.  As I’ve always been a touch pessimistic about our profound insensitivity to other life on this planet, I’m wondering if The Svalbard Global Seed Vault might be more my style.  What do you think?

2011, December: I am considering refreshing the ol’ Robotic Librarian Archivist, so I will be posting some of my old drafts, shaking off the dust, and starting fresh.  I’ll keep you posted. 



August 7, 2007


Now that the standard search interfaces of the Internet are so common, there is a lot more awareness of raw information. Sure, there’s always been some lip service intimating that knowledge is power, but people by and large still respond much more quickly to money and guns. Yet there is an obscene amount of cash money in information, and now that many of the practices of librarianship, minus any complicated overarching values, are recognizable cash cows, the terms of information dissemination are becoming quite different.

We librarians should have realized what was happening much earlier, and acted upon it. Take the NAICS for example. Previously just the Standard Industrial Classification (SIC) code for compartmentalizing business practice, by March 31, 1993 the U.S. Office of Management and Budget decided to work in tandem with Canada and Mexico to update the structure of industry classification.

Moving from a 4 digit identification number to a 5 or 6 digit number, the new parameters are now the North American Industry Classification System, or NAICS. Numerous industries were redefined in order to allow for more flexibility and specificity when compiling statistical data of related industries; for example, the SIC Transportation, Communications, and Utilities sector is now divided up into several NAICS divisions, such as Utilities and Transportation, Transportation and Warehousing and Utilities.

Amazingly, in SIC speak there was only one sector for Service Industries. For one, that hints at the major sea change society has undergone in its transition from a manufacturing, industrial and agricultural firmament. Perhaps you hadn’t set your clock to signal the date, but on Wednesday May 23rd, 2007 the human population officially became more urban than rural. Assuming that the Maya Calendar’s end date in 2012 does not mean that society as we know it will end, then according to UN estimates there will be 5 billion city dwellers by 2030.

Of course, both China and Warren Buffett have been warning us about overpopulation for years, and even more alarming to some, Buffett has been short selling against the American dollar, George Soros style, for a few years now. Nobody’s been warning us about over-city dwelling, though… Hopefully birth rates don’t force a Sprogopolis, Baby-Powered City of the Future upon us, where “The only good baby is a working baby”

Sprogopolis, Baby-Powered City of the Future

So the NAICS code, while recognizing 79 new manufacturing industries, and reorganizing the Retail and Wholesale trade sectors, simultaneously adopted an entirely new sector which should have raised an unholy din, or at least convened a Committee of Concern, in the library world. The Information Sector, or area 51 (sorry, I couldn’t resist). Sector 51 is described on the NAICS website as “perhaps the most important change” in recognition, wherein it encompasses 34 industries of which 20 are wholly new. This change was descriptive and after-the-fact, and it should have acted as a final wake up call, spurring innovation and collaboration on a large scale in library-land. Instead, at least from the crow’s nest of library school, we are still six catalogs in search of an identity.

Five categories of recognition are outlined, differentiating 51 from other traditional industrial designation. They are (to paraphrase):

  1. Unlike traditional goods, an ”information or cultural product” does not necessarily have tangible qualities
  2. Unlike traditional services, the delivery of these products does not require direct contact between the supplier and the consumer.
  3. The value of these products to the consumer lies in their informational, educational, cultural, or entertainment content, not in the format in which they are distributed. Most of these products are protected from unlawful reproduction by copyright laws.
  4. The intangible property aspect necessitates that only those possessing the rights to these works are authorized to reproduce, alter, improve, and distribute them.
  5. Distributors of information and cultural products can easily add value to the products they distribute.

I’m new to library science, but it makes me wonder about the chicken and the egg. One of our most popular catch phrases (which, I must admit, makes me vaguely nauseous at the sound of it, but that’s another post entirely) is to add value, or just value-added, as in value-added services where we go “above and beyond” the normal service interaction. I challenge you to read a single library science text from the past ten years where that phrase isn’t used ad infinitum. But there it is, in point 5…is the phrase that generic, or is it another way that we are playing catch-up with business?

The more I learn about library administrative organization, and about the lack of collective communication in the past, the more embarrassed I become. Especially when thinking about things like the review features on Amazon.com, which is something that should’ve already existed in library-land long before those cheeky upstarts. We comprise some of the most engaged, learned, passionate book lovers on the planet, and readers’ advisory is our very bread and butter on the public level, but there was no national communicative network before the age of the Internet? No library sponsored über-magazine or BBS or pamphlet or bi-annual that gave voice to our patrons through their patronage of the library?

When I bring this up with my professors, they often cite two factors, cost and resources. The concern about cost I feel I can pretty much deflate from the outset. Is it not costlier to have to fight for public monies, to have to devote higher-paid administrative time to lobbying and glad-handing rather than fostering public goodwill by offering a deeper level of involvement? Did not most libraries already take part in OCLC, or use MARC records or some other collectively managed and federated search & organization mechanism that could easily have been adapted for use by our patrons? Something that could be outfitted with images and reviews as well as cataloging records? Why are we still discussing the need to keep content separate from design? We know that reprogramming one CSS or php or Perl document is far easier than updating thousands of HTML, XHTML and XML pages. We should know about regular expressions as well, right? Why should any of that cost us anything?

Resources are a different matter entirely, and especially with current CIPA laws which potentially disenfranchise poorer library districts that try to maintain unfiltered web access, and impending filtration legislation overall, access can sometimes be compromised. That, and we are only now learning how to market ourselves, and are suffering for waiting too long to do so. It’s hard to convince the public to allocate their monies to us, harder still if we have not maintained a good relationship. Forget about ROI — do not neglect a return on emotional investment, okay? (A tip of the pen to Bill Crowley) Not that we should adopt business models, for there is no way that libraries can reasonably compete with billion dollar business interests, and I reject the idea of talking about the users of a public library as customers. Why does everything have to be reduced to Capitalism? Do we live in Sprogopolis already?

I for one am very excited about efforts to foster the collective wisdom of librarians, and any collaboration between libraries, museums, archives and other public guardians of knowledge is where it’s at. I am also interested in efforts to intelligently collocate “information packets” as demonstrated by Z39.50. What Z39.50 describes (and it’s not the only one, but is the first true contender) is a code for the representation of languages for information interchange, meaning a method for gathering information in disparate bundles that may not have the same method of organization.



Think about your normal web search, and how a basic search without boolean values for, say, Siouxsie and the Banshees will turn up 1,480,000 web pages in Google, 838, 312 in Gigablast and 8,354 blog posts in Technorati. By using an internationally recognized protocol that accounts for placement of semantic and syntactic strings in documents, the accuracy of particular search can be both broadened in scope and narrowed in accuracy simultaneously. When you search for a record using a proprietary interface as you might find at your public library, each page is generated on the fly, using your search designations and delimiters to collocate an appropriate response. The thing is, they already have fields specified for title, author, publisher, serial etc., and are able to produce a very accurate pool of hits, where large-scale federated web search engines do not. It isn’t that Google is inefficient, their search mechanism is possibly the most sophisticated in the world right now, using chains of associative memory to generate the most likely arena of hits in nanoseconds. What they lack is a system that recognizes fields for title, author, authority etc. across a disparate semantic and syntactic base. It doesn’t exist yet.

Shirin Neshat photo

photo by Shirin Neshat

This is what Z39.50 is attempting to do, using baby steps today but with an eye toward systems of tomorrow, using parameters programmed into MARC 21 records, Dublin Core, SGML, XML, etc. The new lay of the land will arise in metadata schema and collective searching techniques, rather than a system of classification. It isn’t that I think the new AACR2 rules will be irrelevant once updated, nor that the Functional Requirements for Bibliographic Records (FRBR) protocols or imminent Resource Description and Access (RDA) standards will also be useless. I don’t think we should abandon main entries and added entries, either.

Rather, I am wondering whether or not the most effective method for collocating information will come from the design of collaborative search functions, rather than through a rigid semantic and syntactic language. A quick glance at RefWorks, and all of the output styles just for bibliographic records, shows hundreds of record making systems. It seems naive, to me, to try to impose a lone standard system of cataloging as well.


when Heads lost a tooth

July 20, 2007

Life is intrinsically, well, boring and dangerous at the same time. At any given moment the floor may open up. Of course, it almost never does; that’s what makes it so boring.

→ Edward Gorey


Image from BBC Rugby League article “Player finds tooth stuck in head”






Wynnum Manly’s Ben Czislowski had been feeling off-colour since a sickening head clash with Tweed Heads forward Matt Austin in April…

MATT BROWN: So you went to the doctor after feeling a bit off-colour, three or four months later. How did that appointment go?

BEN CZISLOWSKI: The doctor had a look at it and he just automatically assumed that I’d need plastic surgery on to fix it, but he just said I’ll put a local in there and I’ll just get all the puss and stuff all around the eye. And so he did that, and he just said, Oh, there’s something hard in there, I think it’s calcification. And he got his tweezers out, and straight away he just said, you wouldn’t believe this. And he had a couple of swear words in there. And I said what, and he said mate there’s a tooth in there.

And so it was just … we were laughing straight away, because it was silly on my behalf that I’d let it go that long, but it was just strange, you know?

Quoted from a transcript of The whole tooth and nothing but the tooth broadcast on Australia’s PM Tuesday, 17 July , 2007 18:48:00


Czislowski…said he was prepared to mail the tooth back to its rightful owner but was holding onto it until then as proof of his bizarre injury.

Above & below, quoted from BBC Sport Rugby League article Player finds tooth stuck in head

Fear not, rugby players are seasoned professionals

  • In 2004, Widnes hooker Shane Millard also had an opponent’s tooth removed from his head.
  • Two years earlier, Wigan’s Jamie Ainscough’s arm became so badly infected there were fears it would be amputated before the source – an imbedded tooth – was discovered.


Then came the full fury of my monomania, and I struggled in vain against its strange and irresistible influence. In the multiplied objects of the external world I had no thoughts but for the teeth.

Edgar Allen Poe, Berenice

Authors at the Anvil

July 19, 2007

As printing continues its lateral swing into a parallel digital existence, a number of high profile writers are worriedly tracing the demise of traditional book reviews. I’m talking about either the reduction of book review sections in newspapers and magazines or the section’s wholesale removal. Haven’t heard about it? You can check out Motoko Rich’s article Are Book Reviewers Out of Print? from the New York Times, David Kipen’s Last exit to book land for Salon, or Josh Getlin’s Battle of the Book Reviews for the Los Angeles Times. These are the most talked and blogged about pieces but hardly the only ones lamenting the continued prominence of online book discussion and commentary.

There are a fair number of influencing factors, though personally I wonder how much corporate media homogenization is to blame, for both promoting a watered-down focus on potential best sellers coupled with the loss of newspaper jobs for community level writers with a feel for what’s of local interest. By and large, book review blogs have no investment in the traditional publishing mainstream (Harry Potter aside), which only aggravates ingrained publishing models. Those in online communities who are discovering a home for their particular interests are people who are peeling off heavy layers of clothing after a long, cold winter of lowest-common denominator hit-making; their enthusiasm is blossoming anew in direct sunlight, and in England at least people are actually reading more.

Perhaps the shift to book review blogging reflects a freedom to express one’s opinion, immediately and publicly, a potent and liberating phenomenon available to more people than ever before. All things in balance, as it were. The passive nature of consumption encouraged by contemporary corporate and marketing interests could not last. I think the fear over a loss of concentrated outlets for book reviews is misplaced. To me it is akin to the shift from sumptuous full page comic illustrative art in turn-of-the-century newspapers to the maniacally diminutive spaces allotted comic artists from the sixties onward. (Just read the introductory essays by Bill Watterson, of Calvin and Hobbes fame, to his collected works, especially the ones from his Tenth Anniversary Book, for a detailed insider’s view)

Comic art subsequently bought a new home, and morphed into an enormous canon of illustrated novels, graphic novels, zines, poster art and comic book collections. In fact, the web has made the daily publication of comics as accessible as it ever was in the golden age of newspapers, with no need to alter format or inspiration to accommodate for limited space.

Recently I have come across several wonderful resources, blogs and links for web authors & book reviewers which demonstrate some of the beauty of just one small flowering digital community. Certainly there are the high-profile sites such as Syntax of Things, Bookslut, Book Lust, SmallPress Blog, et al, but I want to encourage you to look at some of the smaller contenders.

One of the best things about blogs is the ever-present blogroll, often found on either side of the main body of content. Often I can spend hours just trolling the links, finding spectacular diamonds buried deep, outside of my normal but limited online feeds & habits. I can remember, back in the days of FTP and BBSs, the difficulty of searching for content without prior knowledge. Much more insular, and in its own way much more fringe and exciting, since effectively knowledge meant membership in a subterranean society, but limited for those very same reasons. Damn, I loved being part of it back in the day. Yet what we have today is so much more lastingly rewarding, since with more participation and content naturally emerges an explosion of diversity and representation, meaning more likelihood of discovering something of direct interest no matter how focused or specialized the interest is. What I’m trying to say the long way round is: embrace & respect the blogroll.

Alright, here are some review sites —

LotusReads is my favorite recent find, a serendipitous click from an unrelated search. She is a Canadian book-fiend who is, since May 2005, writing passionate and personal reviews of contemporary literature and who has an extensive & very useful blogroll. Among the personal review blogs she has a nice section on literary havens that links to useful networks for writers of every stripe.

Lost in Translation is the blog of a South African reader living in England, who, since February 2006, has been writing about older and contemporary African literature. The post from Monday, November 20 2006 is a mini education for me; out of 14 African authors I only recognize 2, and that’s after being a voracious book-selling reader, with a penchant for reading publisher catalogs, for about 10 years.

Books For Breakfast Books For Dinner might be your poison if you want to read ” A blog about books. And cocktails. Because nothing is more literary than alcoholism.” Kristin Dodge read 150 books last year, and this year aims to “tackle Time’s Top 100, ALA’s Top 100, the top 10 books that are banned in 2006/2007, and 5 books about different religions.” Avoid her blog only if you don’t want to be an enabler. (Incidentally her blog is also rated G, as mine was a few weeks ago, even with a reference to marijuana milkshakes. Go figure.)

And then there’s Giornale Nuovo… mr. h’s exploration of arcane and decadently illustrated nooks in the bibliophiles’ world is dizzying, with a blogroll that is teetering on the razor’s edge of gnostic revelation.

Desarrollo de Yi Ching by Xul Solar; tempera on paper, 1953 (borrowed from Giornale Nuovo, April 30 2007)

So hopefully this is a good starting point for exploration, and I guarantee that each site could whittle away hours of time that you thought you couldn’t spare.

A counterpart to all of these artful miniatures in blog form is the desire to create and participate. So I will end by letting you in on a little secret of mine, Matt Huggin’s 55 Essential Articles Every Serious Blogger Should Read. With articles grouped under categories such as Building Meaningful Content, Increasing Traffic & Retaining Readers, and Building a Community there is certainly something for everyone, from the anxious neophyte to the seasoned know-it-all. (His links focus a little too often on the economic benefits of blogging for my tastes, but I provide the link anyhow, out of recognition that pairing with advertisers and businesses is a concern of many bloggers out there) I don’t know about you, but I definitely have come across too many blogs that haven’t read John Chow’s 10 Blogging Mistakes to Avoid, who, with a little dedication and consideration, could Bring [Their] A-game to Write for Blogs.

Please, mourners of the book review, it isn’t quite time to build an ossuary of manuscripts. An historical genealogy of media have demonstrated a wily tenacity and capacity for transformation of form without losing even a gram of soul in translation. So my advice is either back off, or throw your hat in the ring.


Please don’t try to reach me at home tomorrow night, I’ll be reading Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows.

Automated Material Handling and RFID (1000 4th Avenue, Seattle, part II)

July 18, 2007

With RFID and Robots by libraryman

On the first floor of the central Seattle Public Library building there is an open-air video chamber with a hanging umbrella-shaped audio isolator; you listen to the commentary while standing directly under it without distracting your fellow patrons — you may have seen similar devices in museums. This multimedia display describes the high-tech book intake process that Seattle Public uses, which is an Automated Material Handling (AMH) system, in all likelihood the most sophisticated one of its kind in this country. Here, you can watch the continually cycling 4 minute, 26 second video yourself, since my words cannot substitute for seeing it in operation.

The system was designed by Tech Logic, whose goal is “leading the way in efficient library material handling” through concentrated use of RFID technology. Here is a proposal for implementing the Tech Logic system drafted by Broward County Library, Florida. Clearly there is power behind the idea of mechanized material handling, and confidence in the Tech Logic systems, considering the number of library systems that have contracted with them, including Oak Park Library right here in Illinois.

Oak Park Library (Chicago) by TeresaHsu

There are numerous interesting links to RFID PowerPoints presented by Charles Coldwell, who presented findings about the purchase, testing, implementation and concerns for Seattle Public’s implementation pilot AMH and RFID program. The Seattle Public Library system signed on to use RFID across a number of its branches in 2002, began the tagging of selected items in 2003 and finally went live for the public in 2004. From my brief interviews of three different employees the robotic system is working wonders, speeding up the process and increasing circulation and visibility. In part interest in the new Koolhaas library accounts for some of the success statistics, but the efficacy of AMH is justifiably praised. And patrons enjoy the self-service check-out counters which can guard personal privacy and reduce wait time.

I do wonder how some of the initial concerns raised by Coldwell have progressed since 2004, particularly loss of staff hours, inconsistencies in the tags’ remote reading equipment, software glitches at the point of check-out, and possible loss of patron privacy due to unknowable third-party RFID monitoring systems. Because I visited the library on a Sunday, none of the full time AMH staff was on site, and an individual tour wasn’t a possibility unless I could come back the next day, which unfortunately I didn’t have the time to do.

I am also wondering as to why Seattle Public canceled their initial RFID contract for another one with, I believe, Tagsys. The Tagsys web-page definitely focuses on real-world concerns effectively, at least providing for a nexus of professional discussion outside of any corporate marketing. Automation feels so nostalgic to me, a throwback to the middle 19th century, little different in substance but of a wildly different character today. Is mechanical efficiency an appropriate avenue for promoting library values and serving our public? Or rather, is it about time for libraries to catch up to the business sector?

I am very curious about how AMH and RFID function on a day to day basis for library professionals. I feel as though the promise of automation will supersede general reservations, once funding and first-personal testimonials continue to circulate. In the meantime, I think I may try to conduct a remote interview with someone in charge of the AMH system at Seattle Public, I hope in the coming weeks, and I will keep you informed of anything I discover along the way. Drop me a line if you have any suggestions.

1000 4th Avenue, Seattle

July 16, 2007

Seattle Public Library by Mark Paciga

As promised, I am writing from the Charles Simonyi Mixing Chamber, floor 5 of the central Seattle Public Library (SPL), Rem Koolhaas branch. I have investigated a small portion of SPL’s treasures and peculiarities which I will try to describe in brief, and it is already clear that it would be easy to burn a few days in deep study here. There’s a little chocolate and espresso busker on floor three, conveniently located near the welcome desk, that I am sure could make the hours just melt away. I do not have the luxury of time today, though, since I need to return to my friend’s house shortly to begin on a homework assignment that is due just hours after I disembark from my aeroplane in Chicago, some days from now.

First off, the workstation itself: the chairs are all solid orange, retro Eamesesque & molded plastic. This keyboard is surprisingly sprightly, and there’s something really inviting about that. Of course the web browser is Internet Explorer, since, if you don’t already know, this building was funded in part by a Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation largess (though the public’s enormous bond measure accounted for most of the funding). IE is so buggy, and Robotic Librarian is not displaying properly– I need to figure out why, and if this has been the case for any of my readers I apologize — I use Mozilla Firefox to compose and troubleshoot my work. All of the workstations are in an open air hall, with wonderful diamond-shaped views of Seattle’s bright & hazy atmosphere. Every screen is outfitted with those dimming monitor-hiding privacy thingamabobs, and the Internet access is unfiltered unless filters are requested by a parent or guardian. Seattle Public apparently has a custom designed gateway for children which I think is a nice touch; it might even be something fun for kids who get excited about having their own private browser which adults don’t use.

The whole SPL complex is strewn with artworks, some borrowed from other continents, some traditional paint work & sculptural, and some commissioned for the site. My favorite commissioned work is probably the wood planks on the 1st floor, which are covered by Ann Hamilton’s raised & polished sentences culled from SPL’s book collection, showcasing first sentences in eleven languages running backwards and right to left like an enormous printer’s block. There are also strangely intrusive modernist video/electronic works. Tony Ousler’s projected face eggs in a wall space to your right as you descend an escalator from floor 5 to 3 is the most unsettling, apparently babbling (quite loudly) about its current condition, though when I rode past the bald-headed Asian-faced one it accused me of being Empty.

Seattle Public Library by Gabi in Austin

There’s also the compelling OCD-inspired digital artwork on floor 5, dominating the empty space above the IT/reference desk. George Landry’s work is Making Visible the Invisible, continually ticking off numeric data like an opinionated stock market predictor. Six LCD screens tabulate real-time circulation info gathered from SPL branches and display them in four themed visualizations:

Seattle Public Library by Librarian in Black, Flick Sept 17 2006 creative commons

  1. Vital Statistics book, DVD, CD and video check-out stats
  2. Floating Titles anonymous correlative map of book & DVD (in red) and Cd & video (in green) titles, which allows one to read Dewey Decimal locations spatially on a horizontal plane
  3. Dewey Dot Matrix Rain where columns of Dewey classifications for circulated books can be read left to right while non-Dewey classified materials fall vertically in a yellow, blue and gentle green rain (a comment on Seattle’s weather, or an attempt to replicate The Matrix‘s famous opening title sequence? Both?)
  4. Keyword Map Attack showing another Dewey derived digitalscape as a genealogy of keyword designations for checked out books.

I think it is a fascinating artwork, light-years removed from early Lumière actualities when people ran from their theater seats for fear that an approaching cinematic train would emerge from the flickering screen. Legrady’s digital artwork is remarkably suited to our finely networked infosphere and altered ability to read pure data, yet it makes me somewhat uncomfortable. Considering the far reach of different emerging correlation technologies, the vast body of data which summarizes our interests that is being collected by Google and its ilk, and the SPL’s eager adoption of RFID technology, it seems that Making Visible the Invisible could compromise patron’s privacy rights. Not necessarily by what is fleetingly displayed, which is little more invasive than something like the scroll bar on top of Technorati’s main page, but I just don’t know if data is gathered by Legrady’s installation and how it is used.

The library is eleven floors, though only nine are accessible to the general public. The interior of the building has a distinctly European modern art museum feel to it, for me slightly reminiscent of both the Stedelijk Museum near Centraal Station and the Van Gogh museum in Amsterdam’s Vondelpark — the Stedelijk for its austere geometry, and the Van Gogh Museum probably because of all the metal flourishes and oddly proportioned interiors of the Exhibition Wing designed by Kisho Kurokawa and opened in 1999:

Van Gogh Museum by Kent Wang, Flickr creative commons Aug 6 2005

However it is the interior detailing which dominates Koolhaas’ architectural achievment, not just the hulking asymmetry of its exterior. There are richly colored yellow escalators festooned randomly about the different floors, which by-and-large bypass the alternative shorter floors of SPLs design. Riding them reminded me in length of some of the disorienting & claustrophobic subway escalators in downtown DC, but with the candy-colored luminescence the ride inspires joy rather than existential angst.

Seattle Public Library by deVos

Everything about the organization and planning is noteworthy, and I know that there are detractors but to me the accessibility of its materials is wonderful. (The most noteworthy being the book spiral on the upper floors, allowing for continuous, uninterrupted browsing.) There are so many SPL librarians out and about to help people navigate the space, as well as informational pamphlets, tutorials, and tours. Labels are omnipresent, ambient lighting is emphasized, and ease of use is clearly a guiding operational philosophy. Seattle Public is incredibly playful; learning should always feel like visiting a children’s playground.

SPL is all about orientation of space. No two floors are exact twins, it seems, and the mood of each space is efficiently demarcated. The 4th floor is certainly the most unusual; my post from two days ago opens with a picture of this floor, all bowed, curved and red. Every room on the floor is for meetings, and their interiors are painted a “calming blue” from bottom to top. I was hoping to check out one of the meeting rooms but had to content myself with walking a mesh screened overlook walkway, observing the people sipping coffee and browsing new fiction on floor 3 — no attendent is assigned to the 4th floor on Sundays, and the public tour at noon was canceled due to a shortage of interest.

Instead I decided to focus on two of my goals for the trip to SPL. I wanted to use the Mixing Chamber certainly, but I also wanted to evaluate the extent of their reference business materials. On the way I distracted myself with the 6th floor collection of magazines and periodicals, but let me mention some of the business treasures first.

Initially I was surprised at how small the business collection seemed to be. The shelving was about four feet tall in this section, and though it seemed modest for the size of the library, at least it was divided up into clear, easy to browse divisions:

  • Small Business Collection
  • Fundraising Resource Center
  • Investment and Company Information
  • Business Newspapers
  • Financial Letters

The financial letters section is the most curious to me, and I still don’t quite understand the term. Are financial letters recommendations and reports from opinionated or respected sources? The titles were equally vague (to me at least) implying the need for insider knowledge about the source before one would chose a particular one: Cabot Market Letter, Chartist, Harry Schultz Letter, John Dessauer’s Investor World, or Prudent Spectator, for example. They’re so fascinating for someone who is eager to learn but unschooled in business literature.

Thinking I was finished evaluating the business resources, I turned around and noticed a tiny sign above a photocopier, talking about the Barry A. Ackerly Business Collection and it’s significance. Around a shaded bend I continued, and this is where the true marvels of SPL’s business holdings make their debut.

I am beginning to appreciate how difficult it is to find certain information about business unless it is studiously current and accurate. So much of the value in data provision and knowledge management is currency coupled with solid analysis. Old business data is often discarded or neglected in order to make room for a percentage of new available data on contemporary industries. In this way the Ackerly collection is a fascinating resource for anyone wanting a deeper, more nuanced understanding of any particular industry.

Many of the Ackerly holdings reach back to the late 18oo’s and early 1900’s, with complete records of stocks, bonds, holding companies, currencies and values that would be impossible to find without access to these primary resources. (ie National Stock Survey from April 10 1929 onward) Many of the works detail older business philosophies, leadership manuals, reports from head offices, and a wall of business serials that stretch forward from the late 1800s.

One of my favorites was the Moody collection, which represents a vast combination of interests and methods of collating data. Moody’s Investment Letters alone seemed to go through about 4 iterations from 1925 to 1960: Moody’s Investment Letters, Moody’s Investor Services, Moody’s Bond Survey, and Moody’s Stock Survey. Perhaps they represented different works, but the dates would not overlap in the sequence and the physical look of the volumes were consistent over time, implying a unified serial. Perhaps my favorite Moody’s series was the early 20th century Moody’s Manual of Railroads & Corporation Securities. Each fat volume spanned a year, and I suspect only a professional basketball player could pick a single volume up one-handed. The accounts of the industry were related both in numerical lists as well as charmingly personal assessments, but perhaps the true find in each volume was the extensive collection of fold-out railroad maps, arrayed regionally. A reference librarian kindly scanned in this sample from the Missouri Pacific Railway for me:

Map of the Missouri Pacific Railway, St. Louis, Iron Mt., & Southern RY, and Leased, Operated & Independent Lines

I wish I could’ve had every last map scanned…

As I said before, I did get distracted on the 6th floor by the magazine collection. Its scope is simply spectacular, and this floor more than any other is where I could imagine losing several years of my life catching up on the past century and a half worth of idiosyncratic & mercurial writings. From lamp annuals to industrial surveys, records of jurisprudence, lifestyle quarterlies, horticultural companions, design compilations, archaeological abstracts and who knows what else, this is by far one of the most compelling collections of magazines, periodicals and journals I have ever gone through.

For one, there is The Leisure Hour from the late 1800s, with continuing articles on “Statesmen of Europe,” unusual travel surveys of England and rather uncomplimentary ones of the States, a great illustrated article about microscopic life called “More Marvels in Mud,” the oddly placed sub-Victorian poem, and great little collections of Varieties:

Electric Road Car. — In the final week of October 1890, a long car or omnibus propelled by electricity made a first public journey in London upon the Kilburn and Maida Vale road. The steady, noiseless progress of this novel conveyance was a surprise to those who witnessed the passage of the well-laden vehicle as it glided along the level way. If the venture is successful, the change from horse-drawn vehicles will be welcomed. Road steam-carriages are, on some accounts, objectionable in cities, but the electric car seems well adapted for passenger traffic. In a recent number of the “Daily Graphic” an account of the earliest road steam-coach was reprinted (with an illustration) from the “Saturday Magazine” of October 6, 1832. The writer described his journey in this conveyance–invented by Captain Ogle, R.N., and Mr. Summers–from Oxford to Birmingham.

I love it so much. If you ever come across one of these gorgeously printed and illustrated magazines you should spend a little time with it, they’re very charming.

They seem to have an enormous number of early machining trade journals, which is, I must admit, for my collage-making and for my interest in design, one of my numerous fetishes. A genuine treasure, from the oversized portion of their stacks, is a lengthy run of the Oil, Paint & Drug Reporter from the early part of the 1900s. The ads alone are worth the ticket, and the reports on trade & investment news range from the numbingly banal to the curiously cracked, with a typical report in 1903 sounding like this:


There continues a good demand for domestic grades, and the outlook is favorable to a large business up to the beginning of warm weather, as consuming industries are very busy. There is a steady tone to the market, and we hear of no change in prices.

What exactly is a “consuming industry”? Is that a Britishism for chemical or industrial industry? Isn’t every industry technically a consuming one, after a fashion? The periodical reports of “Drug Trade Bowling Scores” were also peculiar. At first I thought it meant something else, something mysterious and out of fashion, but no, they literally were the collected scores of competing drug trade teams. Is bowling the golf of the drug trade? Who knew? In 1903 Johnson & Johnson was hot, repeatedly beating the pants off of teams such as the NY Glucose Company players, though interestingly of all the scores I saw no individual player topped 200. Has every living sport gone through the same upward curve in gross skills? I just think about a 50s football team playing a modern one, and it would be ugly…

Well, the Mixing Chamber only permits an hour of use, and this post was not finished by then. I didn’t realize how much there would be to tell from my short visit. I haven’t even gotten into the 2nd floor vacuum-tube, RFID-supported, SPL robotic material sorting conveyor system, but I think that deserves a post all by itself.

Tour of Seattle Public Library 4/06 by mstephens7

In the meantime, I hope I conveyed a bit of the Willy Wonka quality of the Seattle Public Library, and I may have a follow up post when I have more opportunity to look over all the materials I gathered while there. While it’s not necessarily a replicable library model for even the most well-to-do public library systems, there is much to inspire and provoke in their organizational philosophy. I feel like SPL stands as a public affirmation of the value of libraries, at a time when the profession is being uncomfortably stood before a mirror in the public square; we are rapidly learning how to properly value and promote ourselves while redefining our service and ethical values for a more openly vocal & diverse patron base as well.

Seattle’s Path is a Strange and Difficult One

July 13, 2007

I will be flying to Seattle in a few hours, wish me luck on this Friday the 13th. I’ve been there numerous times now but surprisingly I’ve only been just inside the foyer of the Seattle Public Library. This time I plan on making a more thorough foray into the mysterious cabal that is Seattle Public. Here’s a sneak peek–

Seattle Public Library by Rem Koolhaas taken by DeVos, creative commons on Flickr

Wait, are you serious? That looks like the inside of Lenny Kravitz’s place, minus the speakers and wet bar.


(Not that picture, exactly; unfortunately I couldn’t find an online copy of the one I was thinking of, a picture I have from an old Architectural Digest of the entrance to his place which looks like something from Kubrick’s 2001. That, or like a birth canal.) I guess that’s what happens when you ask Rem Koolhaas to design the interior of your library. One of my favorite books he has helped author is reminiscent of a David Byrne production, with vinyl yellow covers and a squishy title-mousepad add-on that just guarantees it will be a must-read.


I do admire some of the philosophy in his books, especially about the need for considering the impact of unchecked urban sprawl, while other aspects of his mental-scape entirely elude me. Such as his proposal to build an evil Empire style Death Star in Dubai a few years ago, check this thing out:


What was he thinking? That people in India have never seen Star Wars? Or does Koolhaas want to be the next Emperor Palpatine?? Either way, his proposal had as much likelihood of being used as did half of Salvador Dali’s proposed dream sequence for the Hitchcock film Spellbound, which would’ve required Ingrid Bergman to be encased in a statue shell, and then emerge from it, like emerging from an egg, covered by ants. Eewww. Of course, what they did wind up using was really strange anyhow, and is the only worthwhile part of an otherwise excruciating movie. (Honestly, who needed to see an entire film like the completely out-of-place psychological claptrap at the end of Psycho?) If you’re interested, you should check out the dream:

So I will write when I can from Seattle, and give you as much insider detail about the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation funded Seattle Public Library while using one of the 500 computers in their little “mixing room,” which is on the same floor as this mixing chamber depicted here:

The Mixing Chamber by vsz, creative commons from Flickr

Oh this is going to be fun work.