In the Cards

The New Main Library retains something of the old

You talk about the writing on the wall.
All he could do is grab at emotions. What a pleasure it would have been for her to teach him about the excitement of the incomplete, about fervour, and how to savour the nuances of a feeling, how to bring the movements of the heart to maturity.

You talk, too, about the ways in which the present becomes the past. How everyday objects, invisible and immediate, become artifacts, evidence of a way of doing things that has disappeared.

There were other torments, but the conventions of decency forbid their description. However, enough has been written to prove that Mrs. Brown Rigg belonged to that small but sinister group of mortals to whom cruelty is an end in itself.

And you find your meaning where you can, which is not always where you expect it will be.

Everyone knows that a contented cat purrs, but how many people know that a cat also purrs when it is in extreme pain?

When San Francisco's New Main Library opens, its card catalog system will be on-line. The familiar dark forest of wooden cabinets — narrow, brass-handled drawers holding rows of index cards worn yellow with age, bearing notations in spidery script from days long dead — will be gone, replaced by luminescently screened computer terminals arrayed at the entrance to each floor like monitors on the deck of a ship in space. It's an information-age innovation, making each book in the collection a keystroke away, time-saving, direct, so much simpler than flipping through frayed 3-by-5-inch slips of paper many hands have touched before. But in every gain there's a loss, and in the New Main, that loss has become a part of the building. Literally.

At the New Main, a public art grant has paid for two artists to plaster 50,000 of the old catalog cards onto one wall of the building, visible from many parts of the library's central atrium. The cards bear the imprint of manual typewriters, that soft impression of a metal key striking paper. And each card has also been written on by hand — over, under, through, and around the typewritten catalog information — inscribed with a message that relates in some way to the book the card represents. Hundreds of people over the period of a year and a half wrote on the cards, in many languages, with different degrees of intensity and passion. The installation on the library wall of the old cards and their handwritten messages is a way, artists Ann Chamberlain and Ann Hamilton say, of paying tribute to the past in the plainest way possible: by preserving it for the future.

“It's one of those kind of historic junctures. The move from the old public library to the New Main coincides with this transfer of all the information which was held in the card catalog into this other system, this on-line system,” says Chamberlain, a San Francisco artist who has taught at the San Francisco Art Institute, the California College of Arts and Crafts, and San Francisco State.

“All these things we've always sort of relied on as second nature,” she says. “I think for both of us that was kind of interesting. Those cards have become artifacts, a memory of a whole way of doing something that is past or is passing.”

In the New Main building, the cards are arranged in rows like tiles over 5,000 feet of the wall separating the public space from the place where staff works. The wall was chosen for the installation, architect Kathy Simon says, because it is the place where library users request books from librarians. “It is the wall where, in fact, the staff and the public come together,” Simon says. “There's a wonderful metaphor between this wall and what it stands for and the real purpose of these card catalogs.”

It isn't just the cards themselves that were interesting to Chamberlain and Hamilton, however. It was also the way they had been used — the possibility they offered of happenstance, of unintended discovery, of stumbling across something truly exciting in your pursuit of what you thought you were looking for. Out of their drawers and up in public on the walls, the cards aren't arranged in any kind of order anymore, but, says Hamilton, they still offer themselves up to be browsed.

“Certainly it sort of honors a value of the more serendipitous search, which is the thing everyone's very afraid of losing when you go on-line,” she says, on the phone from Columbus, Ohio, where she now lives. “The happy accident of butting up against something.”

Like this, perhaps, an excerpt from a book by U.S. Rep. William Dannemeyer, Republican from California, handwritten on a card listing a book by Richard Plant called The Pink Triangle: The Nazi War Against Homosexuals:

The House of Representatives, of which I am a member, passed a bill on May 18 1988 that would make the Justice Department to collect state and local statistics about crimes based on race, religion ethnicity or homosexuality or heterosexuality…The bill shifts the focus on crime from the significant…motive rather than behavior becomes the most important factor in classifying crimes. Thus the nature of the crime is de-emphasized. Let me illustrate. You are sitting in a restaurant and a man sitting at the next table mistakenly believes you are someone who has been talking about him behind his back….he grabs a vase and breaks it over your head, fracturing your skull and putting you in the hospital.

Or this, perhaps, nearby, from Flannery O'Connor: When Mrs. Hopewell thought the name Helga, she thought of the broad blank hull of a battleship. She would not use it. She continued to call her Joy to which the girl responded but purely in a mechanical way.

“The range of cards reflects the range of things that are in the library collection,” says Hamilton, who describes herself as an artist who makes ephemeral installations. “Some are wonderful, and some are not so great.”

All, though, are on the wall to stay.
“To me it was like it was almost like the Library of Congress embedded in the walls,” says Chamberlain. “It was the feeling of the Rosetta stone. It was something so embedded it takes on a kind of permanence, and in this day and age where everything seems to change with a key command that is very important.”

“It is about things being lost in some ways, and it's not necessarily looking back in the nostalgic sense but asking how do you bring forward some of the things that are lost?” Hamilton says. “This wall will have a very different resonance 50 years from now.

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