Skip to main content

The Future After the Library: UbuWeb and Monoskop's Radical Gestures

The institution of the public library has crystallized, developed and advanced around historical junctures unleashed by epochal economic, technological and political changes. A series of crises since the advent of print have contributed to the configuration of the institutional entanglement of the public library as we know it today:1 defined by a publicly available collection, housed in a public building, indexed and made accessible with a help of a public catalog, serviced by trained librarians and supported through public financing. Libraries today embody the idea of universal access to all knowledge, acting as custodians of a culture of reading, archivists of material and ephemeral cultural production, go-betweens of information and knowledge. However, libraries have also embraced a broader spirit of public service and infrastructure: providing information, education, skills, assistance and, ultimately, shelter to their communities – particularly their most vulnerable members.

This institutional entanglement, consisting in a comprehensive organization of knowledge, universally accessible cultural goods and social infrastructure, historically emerged with the rise of (information) science, social regulation characteristic of modernity and cultural industries. Established in its social aspect as the institutional exemption from the growing commodification and economic barriers in the social spheres of culture, education and knowledge, it is a result of struggles for institutionalized forms of equality that still reflect the best in solidarity and universality that modernity had to offer. Yet, this achievement is marked by contradictions that beset modernity at its core. Libraries and archives can be viewed as an organon through which modernity has reacted to the crises unleashed by the growing production and fixation of text, knowledge and information through a history of transformations that we will discuss below. They have been an epistemic crucible for the totalizing formalizations that have propelled both the advances and pathologies of modernity.

Positioned at a slight monastic distance and indolence toward the forms of pastoral, sovereign or economic domination that defined the surrounding world that sustained them, libraries could never close the rift or between the universalist aspirations of knowledge and their institutional compromise. Hence, they could never avoid being the battlefield where their own, and modernity's, ambivalent epistemic and social character was constantly re-examined and ripped asunder. It is this ambivalent character that has been a potent motor for critical theory, artistic and political subversion – from Marx's critique of political economy, psychoanalysis and historical avant-gardes, to revolutionary politics. Here we will examine the formation of the library as an epistemic and social institution of modernity and the forms of critical engagement that continue to challenge the totalizing order of knowledge and appropriation of culture in the present.

Here Comes the Flood2

Prior to the advent of print, the collections held in monastic scriptoria, royal courts and private libraries typically contained a limited number of canonical manuscripts, scrolls and incunabula. In Medieval and early Renaissance Europe the canonized knowledge considered necessary for the administration of heavenly and worldly affairs was premised on reading and exegesis of biblical and classical texts. It is estimated that by the 15th century in Western Europe there were no more than 5 million manuscripts held mainly in the scriptoria of some 21,000 monasteries and a small number of universities. While the number of volumes had grown sharply from less than 0.8 million in the 12th century, the number of monasteries had remained constant throughout that period. The number of manuscripts read averaged around 1,000 per million inhabitants, with the total population of Europe peaking around 60 million.3 All in all, the book collections were small, access was limited and reading culture played a marginal role.

The proliferation of written matter after the invention of mechanical movable type printing would greatly increase the number of books, but also the patterns of literacy and knowledge production. Already in the first fifty years after Gutenberg's invention, 12 million volumes were printed, and from this point onwards the output of printing presses grew exponentially to 700 million volumes in the 18th century. In the aftermath of the explosion in book production the cost of producing and buying books fell drastically, reducing the economic barriers to literacy, but also creating a material vector for a veritable shift of the epistemic paradigm. The emerging reading public was gaining access to the new works of a nascent Enlightenment movement, ushering in the modern age of science. In parallel with those larger epochal transformations, the explosion of print also created a rising tide of new books that suddenly inundated the libraries. The libraries now had to contend both with the orders-of-magnitude greater volume of printed matter and the growing complexity of systematically storing, ordering, classifying and tracking all of the volumes in their collection. A once almost static collection of canonical knowledge became an ever expanding dynamic flux. This flood of new books, the first of three to follow, presented principled, infrastructural and organizational challenges to the library that radically transformed and coalesced its functions.

The epistemic shift created by this explosion of library holdings led to a revision of the assumption that the library is organized around a single holy scripture and a small number of classical sources. Coextensive with the emergence and multiplication of new sciences, the books that were entering the library now covered an ever diversified scope of topics and disciplines. And the sheer number of new acquisitions demanded the physical expansion of libraries, which in turn required a radical rethinking of the way the books were stored, displayed and indexed. In fact, the flood caused by the printing press was nothing short of a revolution in the organization, formalization and processing of information and knowledge. This becomes evident in the changes that unfolded between the 16th and the early 20th in the cataloging of library collections.

The initial listings of books were kept in bound volumes, books in their own right. But as the number of items arriving into the library grew, the constant need to insert new entries made the bound book format increasingly impractical for library catalogs. To make things more complicated still, the diversification of the printed matter demanded a richer bibliographic description that would allow better comprehension of what was contained in the volumes. Alongside the name of the author and the book's title, the description now needed to include the format of the volume, the classification of the subject matter and the book's location in the library. As the pace of new arrivals accelerated, the effort to create a library catalog became unending, causing a true crisis in the emerging librarian profession. This would result in a number of physical and epistemic innovations in the organization and formalization of information and knowledge. The requirement to constantly rearrange the order of entries in the listing lead to the eventual unbinding of the bound catalog into separate slips of paper and finally to the development of the index card catalog. The unbound index cards and their floating rearrangement, not unlike that of the movable type, would in turn result in the design of filing cabinets. From Conrad Gessner’s "Bibliotheca Universalis", a three-volume book-format catalog of around 3,000 authors and 10,000 texts, arranged alphabetically and topically, published in the period 1545-1548; Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz's proposals for a universal library during his tenure at the Wolfenbüttel library in the late 17th century; to Gottfried van Swieten's catalog of the Viennese court library, the index card catalog and the filing cabinets would develop almost to their present form.4

The unceasing inflow of new books into the library prompted the need to spatially organize and classify the arrangement of the collection. The simple addition of new books to the shelves by size; canonical relevance or alphabetical order, made little sense in a situation where the corpus of printed matter was quickly expanding and no individual librarian could retain an intimate overview of the library's entire collection. The inflow of books required that the brimming shelf-space be planned ahead, while the increasing number of expanding disciplines required that the collection be subdivided into distinct sections by fields. First the shelves became classified and then the books individually received a unique identifier. With the completion of the Josephinian catalog in the Viennese court library, every book became compartmentalized according to a systematic plan of sciences and assigned a unique sequence of a Roman numeral, a Roman letter and an Arabic numeral by which it could be tracked down regardless of its physical location.5 The physical location of the shelves in the library no longer needed to be reflected in the ordering of the catalog, and the catalog became a symbolic representation of the freely re-arrangeable library. In the technological lingo of today, the library required storage, index, search and address in order to remain navigable. It is this formalization of a universal system of classification of objects in the library with the relative location of objects and re-arrangeable index that would then in 1876 receive its present standardized form in Melvil Dewey's Decimal System.

The development of the library as an institution of public access and popular literacy did not proceed apace with the development of its epistemic aspects. It was only a series of social upheavals and transformations in the course of the 18th and 19th century that would bring about another flood of books and political demands, pushing the library to become embedded in an egalitarian and democratic political culture. The first big step in that direction came with the decision of the French revolutionary National Assembly from 2 November 1789 to seize all book collections from the Church and aristocracy. Million of volumes were transferred to the[]{#__DdeLink__1_1353027407 .anchor} Bibliothèque Nationale and local libraries across France. In parallel, particularly in England, capitalism was on the rise. It massively displaced the impoverished rural population into growing urban centers, propelled the development of industrial production and, by the mid-19th century, introduced the steam-powered rotary press into the book business. As books became more easily, and mass produced, the commercial subscription libraries catering to the better-off parts of society blossomed. This brought the class aspect of the nascent demand for public access to books to the fore. After the failed attempts to introduce universal suffrage and end the system of political representation based on property entitlements in 1830s and 1840s, the English Chartist movement started to open reading rooms and cooperative lending libraries that would quickly become a popular hotbed of social exchanges between the lower classes. In the aftermath of the revolutionary upheavals of 1848, the fearful ruling classes heeded the demand for tax-financed public libraries, hoping that the access to literature and edification would ultimately hegemonize the working class for the benefits of capitalism's culture of self-interest and competition.6

The Avant-gardes in the Library

As we have just demonstrated, the public library in its epistemic and social aspects coalesced in the context of the broader social transformations of modernity: early capitalism and processes of nation-building in Europe and the USA. These transformations were propelled by the advancement of political and economic rationalization, public and business administration, statistical and archival procedures. Archives underwent a corresponding and largely concomitant development with the libraries, responding with a similar apparatus of classification and ordering to the exponential expansion of administrative records documenting the social world and to the historicist impulse to capture the material traces of past events. Overlaying the spatial organization of documentation; rules of its classification and symbolic representation of the archive in reference tools, they tried to provide a formalization adequate to the passion for capturing historical or present events. Characteristic of the ascendant positivism of the 19th century, the archivists’ and librarians’ epistemologies harbored a totalizing tendency that would become subject to subversion and displacement in the first decades of the 20th century.

The assumption that the classificatory form can fully capture the archival content would become destabilized over and over by the early avant-gardist permutations of formal languages of classification: dadaist montage of the contingent compositional elements, surrealist insistence on the unconscious surpluses produced by automatized formalized language, constructivist foregrounding of dynamic and spatialized elements in the acts of perception and cognition of an artwork.7 The material composition of the classified and ordered objects already contained formalizations deposited into those objects by the social context of their provenance or projected onto them by the social situation of encounter with them. Form could become content and content could become form. The appropriations, remediations and displacements exacted by the neo-avant-gardes in the second half of the 20th century produced subversions, resignifications and simulacra that only further blurred the lines between histories and their construction, dominant classifications and their immanent instabilities.

Where does the library fit into this trajectory? Operating around an uncertain and politically embattled universal principle of public access to knowledge and organization of information, libraries continued being sites of epistemic and social antagonisms, adaptations and resilience in response to the challenges created by the waves of radical expansion of textuality and conflicting social interests between the popular reading culture and the commodification of cultural consumption. This precarious position is presently being made evident by the third big flood – after those unleashed by movable type printing and the social context of industrial book production – that is unfolding with the transition of the book into the digital realm. Both the historical mode of the institutional regulation of access and the historical form of epistemic classification are swept up in this transformation. While the internet has made possible a radically expanded access to digitized culture and knowledge, the vested interests of cultural industries reliant on copyright for their control over cultural production have deepened the separation between cultural producers and their readers, listeners and viewers. While the hypertextual capacity for cross-reference has blurred the boundaries of the book, digital rights management technologies have transformed e-books into closed silos. Both the decommodification of access and the overcoming of the reified construct of the self-enclosed work in the form of a book come at the cost of illegality.

Even the avant-gardes in all their inappropriable and idiosyncratic recalcitrance fall no less under the legally delimited space of copyrightable works. As they shift format, new claims of ownership and appropriation are built. Copyright is a normative classification that is totalizing, regardless of the effects of leaky networks speaking to the contrary. Few efforts have insisted on the subverting of juridical classification by copyright more lastingly than the UbuWeb archive. Espousing the avant-gardes' ethos of appropriation, for almost 20 years it has collected and made accessible the archives of the unknown; outsider, rare and canonized avant-gardes and contemporary art that would otherwise remained reserved for the vaults and restricted access channels of esoteric markets, selective museological presentations and institutional archives. Knowing that asking to publish would amount to aligning itself with the totalizing logic of copyright, UbuWeb has shunned the permission culture. At the level of poetical operation, as a gesture of displacing the cultural archive from a regime of limited, into a regime of unlimited access, it has created provocations and challenges directed at the classifying and ordering arrangements of property over cultural production. One can only assume that as such it has become a mechanism for small acts of treason for the artists, who, short of turning their back fully on the institutional arrangements of the art world they inhabit, use UbuWeb to release their own works into unlimited circulation on the net. Sometimes there might be no way or need to produce a work outside the restrictions imposed by those institutions, just as sometimes it is for academics impossible to avoid the contradictory world of academic publishing, yet that is still no reason to keep one's allegiance to their arrangements.

At the same time UbuWeb has played the game of avant-gardist subversion: "If it doesn't exist on the internet, it doesn't exist". Provocation is most effective when it is ignorant of the complexities of the contexts that it is directed at. Its effect starts where fissures in the defense of the opposition start to show. By treating UbuWeb as massive evidence for the internet as a process of reappropriation, a process of "giving to all", its volunteering spiritus movens, Kenneth Goldsmith, has been constantly rubbing copyright apologists up the wrong way. Rather than producing qualifications, evasions and ambivalences, straightforward affirmation of copying, plagiarism and reproduction as a dominant yet suppressed mode of operation of digital culture re-enacts the avant-gardes' gesture of taking no hostages from the officially sanctioned systems of classification. By letting the incumbents of control over cultural production react to the norm of copying, you let them struggle to dispute the norm rather than you having to try to defend the norm.

UbuWeb was an early-comer, starting in 1996 and still functioning today on seemingly similar technology, it's a child of the early days of World Wide Web and the promissory period of the experimental internet. It's resolutely Web 1.0, with a single maintainer, idiosyncratically simple in its layout and programmatically committed to the eventual obsolescence and sudden abandonment. No platform, no generic design, no widgets, no kludges and no community features. Only Beckett avec links. Endgame.

A Book is an Index is an Index is an Index...

Since the first book flood, the librarian dream of epistemological formalization has revolved around the aspiration to cross-reference all the objects in the collection. Within the physical library the topical designation has been relegated to the confines of index card catalog that remained isolated from the structure of citations and indexes in the books themselves. With the digital transition of the book, the time-shifted hypertextuality of citations and indexes became realizable as the immediate cross-referentiality of the segments of individual text to segments of other texts and other digital artifacts across now permeable boundaries of the book.

Developed as a wiki for collaborative studies of art, media and the humanities, Monoskop.org took up the task of mapping and describing avant-gardes and media art in Europe. In its approach both indexical and encyclopedic, it is an extension of the collaborative editing made possible by wiki technology. Wikis rose to prominence in the early 2000s allowing everyone to edit and extend websites running on that technology by mastering a very simple markup language. Wikis have been the harbinger of a democratization of web publishing that would eventually produce the largest collaborative website on the internet – the Wikipedia, as well as a number of other collaborative platforms. Monoskop.org embraces the encyclopedic spirit of Wikipedia, focusing on its own specific topical and topological interests. However, from its earliest days Monoskop.org has also developed as a form of index that maps out places, people, artworks, movements, events and venues that compose the dense network of European avant-gardes and media art.

If we take the index as a formalization of cross-referential relations between names of people, titles of works and concepts that exist in the books and across the books, what emerges is a model of a relational database reflecting the rich mesh of cultural networks. Each book can serve as an index linking its text to people, other books, segments in them. To provide a paradigmatic demonstration of that idea, Monoskop.org has assembled an index of all persons in Friedrich Kittler's "Discourse Networks", with each index entry linking both to its location in the digital version of the book displayed on the Aaaaarg.org archive and to relevant resources for those persons on the Monoskop.org and the internet. Hence, each object in the library, an index in its own right, potentially allows one to initiate the relational re-classification and re-organization of all other works in the library through linkable information.

Fundamental to the works of the post-socialist retro-avant-gardes of the last couple of decades has been the re-writing of a history of art in reverse. In the works of IRWIN, Laibach or Mladen Stilinović, or comparable work of Komar and Melamid, totalizing modernity is detourned by re-appropriating the forms of visual representation and classification that the institutions of modernity used to construct a linear historical narrative of evolutions and breaks in the 19th and 20th century. Genealogical tables, events, artifacts and discourses of the past were re-enacted, over-affirmed and displaced to open up the historical past relegated to the archives to an understanding that transformed the present into something radically uncertain. The efforts of Monoskop.org in digitizing of the artifacts of the 20th century avant-gardes and playing with the epistemic tools of early book culture is a parallel gesture, with a technological twist. If big data and the control over information flows of today increasingly naturalizes and re-affirms the 19th century positivist assumptions of the steerablity of society, then the endlessly recombinant relations and affiliations between cultural objects threaten to overflow that recurrent epistemic framework of modernity's barbarism in its cybernetic form.

The institution of the public library finds itself today under a double attack. One unleashed by the dismantling of the institutionalized forms of social redistribution and solidarity. The other by the commodifying forces of expanding copyright protections and digital rights management, control over the data flows and command over the classification and order of information. In a world of collapsing planetary boundaries and unequal development, those who control the epistemic order control the future.8 The Googles and the NSAs run on capturing totality – the world's knowledge and communication made decipherable, organizable and controllable. The instabilities of the epistemic order that the library continues to instigate at its margins contributes to keeping the future open beyond the script of 'commodify and control'. In their acts of re-appropriation UbuWeb and Monoskop.org are but a reminder of the resilience of libraries’ instability that signals toward a future that can be made radically open.


  1. For the concept and the full scope of the contemporary library as institutional entanglement see Shannon Mattern, “Library as Infrastructure,” Places Journal, accessed April 9, 2015, https://placesjournal.org/article/library-as-infrastructure/.

  2. The metaphor of the information flood, here incanted in the words of Peter Gabriel’s song with apocalyptic overtones, as well as a good part of the historical background of the development of index card catalog in the following paragraphs are based on Markus Krajewski, Paper Machines: About Cards & Catalogs, 1548-1929 (MIT Press, 2011). The organizing idea of Krajewski's historical account, that the index card catalog can be understood as a Turing machine avant la lettre, served as a starting point for the understanding of the library as an epistemic institution developed here.

  3. For an economic history of the book in the Western Europe see Eltjo Buringh and Jan Luiten Van Zanden, “Charting the ‘Rise of the West’: Manuscripts and Printed Books in Europe, A Long-Term Perspective from the Sixth through Eighteenth Centuries,” The Journal of Economic History 69, No. 02 (June 2009): 409–45, doi:10.1017/S0022050709000837, particularly Tables 1-5.

  4. Krajewski, Paper Machines, op. cit., chapter 2.

  5. Ibid., 30.

  6. For the social history of public library see Matthew Battles, Library: An Unquiet History (Random House, 2014) chapter 5: “Books for all”.

  7. Sven Spieker, The Big Archive: Art from Bureaucracy (MIT Press, 2008) provides a detailed account of strategies that the historical avant-gardes and the post-war art have developed toward the classificatory and ordering regime of the archive.

  8. In his article “Controlling the Future - Edward Snowden and the New Era on Earth,” Eurozine, (accessed April 13, 2015, http://www.eurozine.com/articles/2014-12-19-altvater-en.html), Elmar Altvater makes a comparable argument that the efforts of the “Five Eyes” to monitor the global communication flows, revealed by Edward Snowden, and the control of the future social development defined by the urgency of mitigating the effects of the planetary ecological crisis cannot be thought apart.