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A Library of Libraries
Lucienne Bestall

On the accumulation and organisation of books. A short essay written to accompany the wayfinder for Sean O'Toole's browsable exhibition, Photo book! Photo-book! Photobook! at A4 (February 11–May 21, 2022). – January 29, 2024

For all their assumed solemnity, library holdings are more often disobedient subjects. Systems of order are established, rules of arrangement applied, numbers and letters given to demarcate content, reducing printed matter to a finite selection of categories. Still, there are confusions, ambiguities, exceptions – those books chronically ‘unassigned’ or more terminally ‘other’ (indeed, librarians at the famed Warburg Institute keep meticulous indexes of un-indexed books, a category of a kind).
Such uncertainties, as Walter Benjamin observed, are familiar to all bookshelves. “The unpacking of books, perhaps because it is essentially chaotic, is a creative act,” the German critic wrote in 1931, “and as in every creative act, the materials employed lose in the process their individual nature: they become part of something different, something that encompasses and at the same time transforms them.” Quotes, too – like books – once unpacked and set drifting from their texts, offer themselves to novel forms, become other, different, transformed.
An installation photograph from ‘Photobooks’, Sean O’Toole’s Course of Enquiry at A4. Photocopies from various photobooks are taped to the walls on the left and right, with selected copies connected by read thread.
“The secret of a good librarian is that he never reads anything more of the literature in his charge than the titles and the tables of contents,” Robert Musil writes in The Man Without Qualities (1996). “Anyone who lets himself go and starts reading a book is a lost librarian!” Librarians of the academic tradition, it follows, are concerned foremost with generalities. Readers, on the other hand, are instead aligned with peculiarities and adjacencies.
Domestic libraries follow more idiosyncratic logics in accounting for their resistant objects, being unconcerned with the rigours of taxonomy. Still, decisions must be made, compromises reached: the alphabet disrupted by an oversized book, an orange spine set among the blues in the interest of keeping a series together. One might, of course, disregard any attempt at order entirely, allow one’s books to persist in happy anarchy.
“Disorder in a library is not serious in itself,” Georges Perec allows in Brief Notes on the Art and Manner of Arranging One’s Books (1999), including in his own category system a final numerical code: “2.4. Books just about impossible to arrange.”
What then of the personal library shaped by research, later given to public viewing? In unpacking his library of South African photobooks towards this exhibition, Sean O’Toole has ordered his collection chronologically. Such arranging, however, is not without its necessary inconsistencies and exclusions. The research library is seldom populated in an orderly fashion, composed as much of books held in high regard as their less-esteemed counterparts. “My project has at times felt like a deep dive into a municipal dump,” Sean says. “I’ve become a ragpicker of sorts, mining the shelves of second-hand bookshops and charity stores.”
His wanderings have accumulated not only printed matter but a library of libraries – institutional, personal, lost, precarious. These assorted libraries have presented themselves in the process material surrounding this project, which began at A4 in 2020 with Sean’s Course of Enquiry. Set beside the furnace, a pile of banned books proposes an illicit reading list; romance novels found dumped in a suburban park offer a bibliography of unmet desire.
Other libraries: those of Benjamin, Borges and Perec; a graveyard of forgotten publications hidden beneath plastic in a Tshwane warehouse; a back-catalogue of magazines reimagined as artwork that cannot be touched let alone read; Nadine Gordimer’s book collection, accidentally decommissioned by Wits University and subsequently (imperfectly) restored.
Installation photograph from the Photo Book! Photo-Book! Photobook! exhibition in A4’s Gallery. In the middle, a display shelf in an area dedicated to photobooks from the years 1967 to 1994.
There are libraries real and imagined, libraries acquired studiously, and others by accident. “People give me their papers” – Ivan Vladislavić writes in The Loss Library (2011) – “The reason is obvious: I hoard such enormous quantities of my own.”
Process photograph from ‘Photobooks’, Sean O’Toole’s Course of Enquiry at A4. A wooden table is laden with photocopies from O’Toole’s photobook collection and rolls of blue tape. On the floor, bunches of variously coloured wool sits in a basket.