Living Knowledge blog

2 posts from November 2016

24 November 2016

The Elastic System: What Can You Do with a Library?

There have been several artistic residences at the British Library. Using the Library's collections to make new work, they usually focus on some definable part of the archives, like First World War newspapers or a great writer's travel diaries. But my year-long project is the first time that an artist has been allowed access to the British Library's internal operational systems themselves.

Elastic System photography_smaller

The question the project tried to answer was how to take the Library's own digital infrastructure – its catalogue databases and electronic requesting networks – and use it to make art. Or something interesting and outside of their normal functioning. What could you use all the abilities of a modern library system for, apart from just retrieving items?

In order to help me answer this question Library staff have been incredibly generous with their time and the whole experience has been endlessly fascinating. I think it is probably the most rewarding project I have ever worked on!

The initial direction in my research was prompted by one of the earliest experiences I had when I came to the library – seeing the iconic King’s Library Tower in the centre. It is the only complete part of the collection still on permanent public display.

This led me to question how and why allowing the public to just walk in and browse the bookshelves had become more and more difficult under the pressures of an enormously expanding collection, eventually leading to the development of today’s electronic systems of cataloguing and requesting. In fact, the latest storage facilities in Boston Spa are robot-operated buildings where efforts to maximise efficiency and control environment mean that humans cannot normally enter the space at all.

My response to this is a 'database portrait' of the librarian Thomas Watts that is also a work about how we try to store and allow access to massive quantities of information. In 1838 Watts invented his innovative 'elastic system' of storage and shelfmarking in order to deal with the growth of the British Library's holdings. This could be cited as one of the first modern attempts to rethink the problem of organising information. By the 1850s this had also led to his involvement in efforts to improve efficiency by removing the bookshelves from direct public access.

I decided to use the Library's cataloguing and requesting data to create a new kind of 'elastic system'. My own Elastic System consists of a mosaic image of Watts that has been generated from 4,300 photos of books currently stored in the basements at St Pancras. Each one is connected live to the Library's electronic requesting system. It functions like a catalogue, allowing people to visually browse part of the British Library's collections, something which has not been possible since Watts' time.

Elastic System_ LK Blog_smaller

By clicking on a book visitors can find out more about the item and how to request it from the British Library. When a book is requested it is removed from the 'shelf' to reveal a second image underneath, an image that represents the work that goes on in the library's underground storage basements, the hidden part of the modern requesting system.

In order to produce the basement image I spent two days working with the basement staff at St. Pancras, photographing them according to their suggestions about how to represent the work they did, their favourite aisles, items in the collection or in-jokes. In all I took 383 photographs of 31 members of staff, nearly half of the basement team. In doing this, I tried to show that with a collection as large and as diverse as the British Library's, its successful operation depends on a well-tuned human element in the system, which although it is as essential as the electronic networks, is probably less visible and less appreciated, existing literally under the ground. Ironically, Thomas Watts himself began his career at the library in a similar role of 'Placer'. It was said that he personally placed a total of 400,000 items on the shelves of which he could recall the exact location of 100,000!

This work is part of a research project called The Internet of Cultural Things, a partnership between me (Richard Wright), Dr Mark Cote (KCL) and Professor Jussi Parikka (WSA) with wide representation from the British Library, including Jamie Andrews, Head of Culture and Learning, Dr Aquiles Alencar Brayner and Dr David Waldock. The aim of this research is to make visible the cultural data generated in public institutions and to illuminate and transform the way both people and cultural institutions interact. “Elastic System” encapsulates the many layers of an information ecology that makes up the British Library: visual, data and infrastructural systems in co-operation as a living organism of data.

You can explore the Elastic System by visiting the website:

Richard Wright

Artist in Residence


03 November 2016

Support the British Library by becoming a Member

This week sees the launch of the British Library’s new Membership scheme, which offers a way for you to support the work of the Library, while also gaining access to a range of fantastic benefits.

In common with many of the UK’s great museums and galleries we offer many of our key services for free: in particular, our permanent exhibition, the John Ritblat Gallery: Treasures of the British Library; free access to our wifi-enabled public spaces and, of course, the services we offer to more than 400,000 users of our Reading Rooms every year.

Members Room_Crop_2_Credit_Tony AntoniouMembership includes exclusive access to the new Members' Room on Floor 2, where Members can enjoy food and a fully licenced bar. Photo by Tony Antoniou.

Membership is a popular way for national institutions such as the Tate and the National Gallery to build up their supporter base, and provides a vital additional source of income alongside public funding and commercial revenue. It’s an increasingly crowded market, though, so the Library had to think long and hard about a suitably attractive range of benefits that would encourage people to become British Library Members.

From the start it was clear that free access to our paid exhibitions would be a key benefit. Over the past few years, we’ve staged a range of hugely popular and critically acclaimed exhibitions, on subjects ranging from propaganda to Gothic literature, from West Africa to British comics. Last year’s Magna Carta exhibition was our most successful ever, and our exhibition on Shakespeare this summer received the best visitor feedback we’ve ever had, with the exception of Magna Carta.

The richness and density of our exhibitions – not least because so many items are manuscripts, rare books and letters – means that they benefit from repeated viewing. The unlimited access to paid exhibitions that comes with British Library Membership is therefore sure to be a big draw for many people – especially given that we’re about to open our major exhibition Maps and the 20th Century: Drawing the Line.

Bl-maps-exhib-img-smallerMembers enjoy unlimited free access to exhibitions such as Maps and the 20th Century: Drawing the Line.

We’ve also developed some exclusive spaces that Members will have access to when visiting St Pancras, including our new Members’ Room, serving food and drink on Floor 2 in the main building, and the Knowledge Centre Bar, open 18.00-22.00 every weeknight in what was previously known as the Conference Centre. Both spaces have been refurbished to make them attractive places to enjoy coffee, a glass of wine or a light meal between visiting an event or exhibition.

Membership means that you can access the Members’ Room with a guest or the Knowledge Centre Bar with three guests, making a day or evening spent at the Library an excellent way to socialise.

Our events programme is another key attraction: over the coming months we will be increasing the number of events we stage and featuring big names including Alan Moore, Derren Brown, Ali Smith and Michael Morpurgo. Members receive four free tickets to events and priority booking and discount for selected events.

DSC04857_Credit_Tony Antoniou
 The Members' Room on Floor 2. Photo by Tony Antoniou.

Other benefits include 20% discount in British Library restaurants and cafés, 20% discount in our Shops, and a free book from our best-selling British Library Crime Classic range.

It’s important to point out that Membership is separate from access to our Reading Rooms, which is available to anyone holding a British Library Reader Pass and which remains free. Obviously, though, many of the people who already use the Library most often will be keen to sign up as Members, and with the new exhibition just about to open, and the season for buying Christmas gifts just around the corner, the benefits of Membership for existing Readers and visitors are substantial.


Finally, the scheme offers a terrific gift opportunity for the literary-minded person in your life for whom it’s otherwise impossible to buy. We all have friends and relatives who are obsessive about literature, history and culture, but whose bookshelves are already groaning with tomes it’ll take several lifetimes to read. Do them a favour and treat them to a British Library Membership – it’ll get them out of the house and help them explore the collections, exhibitions and events of the world’s greatest library as never before!

Graham MacFadyen

Head of Digital Marketing Operations