Intellectual Furnishings

Working Paper presented as part the Graduate Institute of Design, Ethnography, and Social Thought Bi-Weekly Seminar, November 7, 2014.


In this working paper I’ll outline a new research project that I plan to begin next year, as part of a fellowship at the Internationale Kolleg für Kulturtechnikforschung und Medienphilosophie at the Bauhaus-Universität Weimar. This work is quite rough, but I’m certain that the GIDEST forum will help me shape the project at its foundational level; it’ll help me build the frame before I upholster it. Heh heh.

Most of my research up to this point has focused on “mediated spaces” at the urban and architectural scales – e.g., urban communications infrastructures, cities as communicative spaces, libraries, archives, etc. And while some of that work – including my book on library design (where I addressed the approaches to labor embodied in service-desk and bookshelf design); my article on the Philips Exeter Library (where I focused on the pedagogical values embedded in library furniture and the “Harkness Table”); an article on the collection of, and interior design for, Alvar Aalto’s Woodberry Poetry Room; and an essay on the history of filing apparatae – has examined interior and furniture design within their architectural contexts, this is the first project that maintains its focus at the “furnishing scale.” I’d be remiss if I didn’t acknowledge my intellectual debts to Lynn Spigel and Beatriz Colomina, whose work proved epiphanous for me in grad school, and who have informed my work to this day.

I welcome your feedback on these unvarnished thoughts. May they not give you epistemic splinters. And may I cut it out with the furniture puns.

[Note about Images: I have not obtained permission to use copyrighted images, but am using them here — in this publication from which I will not profit, and which is intended to serve the larger aims of education — under the purview of Fair Use. If you are the copyright holder for any of these images and you would like for them to be removed, please contact me, and I’ll gladly comply.]

Intellectual Furnishings

Amie Siegel, Provenance

Amie Siegel’s 2013 video, Provenance, tracks the refurbishment, revaluation, and global transit of furniture – chairs, tables, setees, bookcases, and desks – designed in the 1950s by Pierre Jeanneret, cousin of Le Corbusier, for their master-planned city of Chandigarh, India. The film progresses reverse-chronologically – from wealthy homes where the restored furniture now stands regally on polished concrete floors amidst self-consciously curated art-book collections, backwards to its sale at auction, its staging for the auction block, its restoration, its transoceanic shipment, and ultimately to its origin in a dilapidated office complex in Chandigarh. Near the end of the video, in a stark contrast to the languid, pristine, mostly un-peopled rooms featured at the beginning, we see the furniture in use in Chandigarh’s government offices. The same bookshelf or table that, on Central Park South, holds an assortment of titles from Rizzoli and Harry N. Abrams, here, on the other side of the world, supports exploding bundles of tattered bureaucratic forms, tied up with string. The same furniture, in its two contexts, frames vastly different forms of intellectual labor. Its users have vastly different utilitarian and affective connections to it, and its formal and aesthetic qualities embody vastly different forms of cultural capital.

Even a less rarefied bookshelf or table – even the particle-board kind you put together yourself, using a discombobulating exploded-view diagram, and which typically serves as an invisible platform for all the objects we place on it – is still doing work that exceeds the merely functional. These structures are material supports for the delivery of and engagement with media resources, while they also frame organizational systems and embody technical protocols.

So, in the tradition of Barthes’s object-based mythologies, Bruno Latour’s dingpolitik, Lorraine Daston’s Things That Talk, and Sherry Turkle’s Evocative Objects, I recognize these furnishings as much more than utilitarian equipment; instead, they scaffold our media technologies in particular ways, inform the way human bodies relate to those media in particular ways, and embody knowledge in particular ways. They render complex intellectual and political ideas material and empirical. I aim to study how the design of organizational furnishings, both physical and conceptual – like bookshelves and classification systems, for example – gives form to epistemology, politics, and affect.

My exploration will most likely range from the scrinium and capsa that held papyrus scrolls in ancient archives and the archival boxes that contain material in contemporary collections; to the metal chains that tethered books to lecterns in medieval institutions; to the tables at which texts have been written and edited; to the slip cases Melville Dewey’s Library Bureau sold to libraries to keep track of their circulating books; to the “media walls” created to accommodate the explosion of post-war household media devices; to the billions of CD “towers” sold in the 1990s; to the (un)design of the racks that hold our computer servers. I welcome all GIDEST workshop participants’ suggestions for other potentially evocative case studies.

I aim to put into conversation the work of scholars, practitioners and designers from fields that rarely talk to one another, at least not all at the same time – fields including archival and library science, intellectual history, organizational studies, business history, management, design history and design practice, furniture manufacturing and retail, architectural history, sociology, anthropology, philosophy, and the list goes on. My methods will include archival research and other forms of historical research; discourse analysis of various forms of design representation – design sketches, architectural drawings, etc. – and marketing materials for library, office, and domestic furnishings and supplies; ethnographic fieldwork in design firms, libraries, and offices; and interviews with contemporary designers, furniture retailers, knowledge workers, and artists whose work grapples with issues related to the spatialization and aestheticization of knowledge.

Ultimately, I hope to make a small historiographic contribution to media and design studies: I’d like to propose a means of rethinking the entwined histories of both fields, and tracing enduring and shifting epistemologies through the longue durée, by examining peripheral material artifacts – the infrastructures that we so typically work on without looking at them.[1] I’ll situate our contemporary digital repositories and libraries and workplaces within their historical contexts, highlighting the continuities and breaks in the physical and intellectual support systems that have undergirded our knowledge institutions and workplaces over time. At the same time, I hope to remind us of the heavy architecture – all the physical and intellectual scaffolding – behind the seemingly placeless, immaterial “Cloud” that hangs over us today. My focus on design also calls attention to the aesthetics of information, and reminds us that the knowledge we derive from the media housed on our bookshelves and the data stored in our servers is informed by our bodily interactions with those structures. Ideally, this study would inspire knowledge institutions to partner more frequently with designers to create physical and virtual spaces that represent a closer, more purposeful integration of the architectural, the intellectual, and the affective.

The Book Shelf

But what’s smart and feeling about a bookcase? The metal wall-hung bookshelves and IKEA particle board models that are so ubiquitous today represent just the latest artifacts in a long history of book storage and display. Looking back at that evolution can illuminate how the lowly shelf bears the weight of culture, politics, and epistemology.

Pigeonholes; Capsa

Before there were codices, there were scrolls, which were commonly kept in jars, or in hat-box-like containers known as scrinia or, if smaller, capsae.[2] These containers commonly held together the multiple scrolls, stored on end, that constituted a single work of literature. Thus, each “book” had its own portable box. Ancient Romans with more extensive collections opted for the nidus, forulus, or loculamentum – all variations on pigeon-hole shelving.[3] Here, the multiple scrolls constituting a single work would occupy the same cubby, and tags identifying the scrolls’ contents were attached to their umbilici, the canes around which they were wound.[4] Some Roman libraries were designed with wall niches into which were placed wooden cabinets, armaria, that secured the scrolls behind closed doors, and later, through the Middle Ages, held manuscript codices. The storage of scrolls in portable boxes, in cubbies, or in cabinets implies different politics of access, and frames the “unit” of knowledge distinctively: one compartmentalizes, and renders portable and possessable, the individual work of literature; while a room full of armaria present the breadth of a civilization’s knowledge as a treasured, controlled-access resource.


Here we see the 8th-century Jewish scribe Ezra, as portrayed in the frontispiece to the Codex Amiatinus, before an armarium that holds nine codices. Of course at this time the codex is still a precious and expensive object, given the tremendous labor involved in its creation – which of course Ezra himself could attest to. Book storage furniture, from chests to cabinets, had to continue serving this protective role through the late Middle Ages, as the book – and knowledge in general – continued to be a commodity primarily for the elite.[5] With the rise of monastery and university libraries, books were displayed more openly for patrons’ use – and as a statement of the institution’s cultural capital – yet the materials still needed to be kept secure. Few storage strategies are as blatantly symbolic, and so stereotypically “medieval,” as that of the chained library. Books, with chains affixed to their covers, were tethered to iron rods and laid upon sloped-surface lecterns, which sometimes had shelves either above or below where patrons could store additional texts, thus freeing up workspace on the lectern. The shackling began in the 15th century and continued in some libraries through the late 18th. The Hereford Cathedral library in the UK retains its chains to this day.

Chained Library, Hereford, England; via

The inefficiencies of horizontal book-storage – with everything lying flat, and with stacking made difficult because of the unwieldy chains and the occasional ornamental book-cover, shelves had limited capacity – eventually led to the consideration of a different orientation. Those chained books were turned upright, often with their fore-edges facing out, on shelves above the library lecterns. Eventually, as books became more plentiful, the chains came off – and the lectern/armaria metamorphosed into the book “press,” or bookcase. With the book newly emancipated, so, too, was the reader freed to take books away from the stacks to a nearby stool, bench, lectern, or table. The mobility of the book afforded the user a sense of control over its use, and thus, perhaps, greater intellectual liberty.

Boullée, Bibliothèque due Roi
Labrouste, Bibliothèque Nationale

The interior walls of many libraries of the 16th, 17th, and 18th centuries were lined with wooden bookshelves, some heavily ornamented, some offering attached desks or lecterns. By the early 19th century, the increasing use of cast iron and glass as building materials opened new design opportunities, including the multi-tiered bookstack, and brought light and volume to the book storage and reading areas. Étienne-Louis Boullée, in 1785, famously envisioned an open and browseable multi-tiered bookstack for the Bibliothèque due Roi in Paris. A few decades later, Henri Labrouste’s Bibliothèque Ste. Geneviève, also in Paris, placed the reading room atop a multi-level stack, yet kept the reference collection in two-tiered wall stacks in the reading room. His later design for the Bibliothèque Nationale placed the skylit five-level, glass-floored bookstack adjacent to the reading room and visible through a glass wall, yet again kept the reference collection in three levels of wall stacks in the reading room. “Built as an extension of the reading room, the [Bibliothèque Nationale’s] main stacks were the most mysterious and also most inventive of the new installations,” argues art historian Marc Le Coeur, one of a team who curated a recent Labrouste exhibition. “The public could not enter them but can sense their importance by the gigantic size of the glass opening (nine meters high) within the converging walls of the hemicycle and by the sculpted medallions of great authors above the bookshelves all shown in profile facing the stacks.”[6] These visible-but-inaccessible stacks rendered the collection, and the knowledge it embodied, monumental and guarded – something requiring a rite of passage or a key to entry. That glass wall embodied an intellectual barrier between published knowledge and the making of new knowledge.

Many 19th and early-20th century realizations of the iron stack resulted in the collection being removed, in large part, from the reading room.[7] If it wasn’t a floor or a glass wall that stood between readers and their books, it was monumental furnishing and a monumental figure – particularly the service desk and the librarian behind it. As architectural historian Abigail Van Slyck explains,

In the closed stack public library of the late nineteenth century, the point of initial contact between reader and book was the delivery desk, a long, straight, uninterrupted counter designed to isolate the public from the library’s treasures…. Here, readers approached to hand in their request slips, retreated while the page disappeared into the book storage area, and approached again a few minutes later to receive delivery of the books requested.[8]

The desk symbolized the paternalism that characterized much Progressive Era librarianship. During the same period, however, we had library reformers and entrepreneurs like John Cotton Dana and Melvil Dewey advocating for open access to the stacks.[9]

Stacks, Cincinnati Public Library

The metal bookstack reigned supreme for much of the late-19th and 20th century. But we have seen some innovations in the hot and ever-“disruptive” book storage industry: rolling and sliding shelves and compact shelving, some of which is now automated – as is the case in the University of Chicago’s new Mansueto Library. Even as collections move off-site, and out of sight, I notice a growing public fascination with the aesthetics of storage. There are several recent videos, including some expertly produced documentaries – featuring the Bodleian, the Harvard Depository, North Carolina State’s new Hunt Library, the Mansueto Library, and the Corbis Image Vault inside Iron Mountain, a former limestone mine in Western Pennsylvania – that aestheticize remote storage and automated retrieval. I situate these projects in relation to growing interest in the materiality of information and media archaeology. We can also position these “storage stories” within a larger body of work that attempts to make material, empirical, phenomenological – and thereby comprehensible – a lot of behind-the-scenes informational experiences. It’s part of the trend toward “making visible the invisible,” calling attention to the distribution of information, which has tended to be eclipsed by interest in production and consumption.

Mansueto Library’s Robot Retrieval Storage

In regard to these relatively new remote and automated storage facilities, understanding their material operations and aesthetics allows one to appreciate the emergence of a seemingly new epistemology of storage: one in which the library resources are organized not by subject or author or any patron-minded classificatory scheme, but by size, which allows for optimizing the use of storage space; or by “machine logic,” which depends on a comprehensive database linking catalog records to shelf locations and a swarm of robots who can link those two pieces of information together in navigating the shelves.[10] Thus the aesthetics and epistemology of the catalog, an “interface” to the collection, might differ from the aesthetics and epistemology of the collection’s physical – or even virtual – storage.

MVRDV’s Book Mountain; photo by jeroen musch

Yet the aesthetics of the old-fashioned stack still seem to be in fashion, too. Perhaps this seeming-nostalgia is in response to, or functions as a rejection of, the minimalist or rhizomatic aesthetics of the digital. TAX arquitectura’s 2006 Biblioteca Jose Vasconcelos in Mexico City, for instance, and MRVDV’s Book Mountain, which opened just two years ago in a town in the Netherlands, continue to fetishize the stacks. We see similar focus on the aesthetics of storage in some special collections, including Dartmouth’s Rauner Special Collections, a project completed in 2000; and of course its formal predecessor, the Beinecke Rare Books & Manuscript Library at Yale. The epistemological implications of this aesthetic might seem obvious: these architectures put on display, and make empirical, if not always navigable, the wealth of knowledge that their collections represent. Yet in the digital age, these analogue monuments take on new meaning; they might represent a nostalgic return to the tangible, or they might be an attempt to render empirical, affective, phenomenological the taxonomies and algorithms that so palpably, if invisibly, structure our everyday lives.

Beinecke Library, via
Seattle’s Bookshelves, via Spacesaver; Seattle’s Book Spiral, via Seattle Times

And what of the lowly IKEA bookcase? This relatively inexpensive, “easily” assembled, modularizable and expandable structure accommodates the ever-evolving personal collection. Unlike the fixed stack, with its finite capacity, the IKEA shelf accommodates an evolving collection. You get more books, you buy another shelf; you purge books, you set your unwanted shelf on the stoop for the neighbors. These are fluid storage solutions for fluid collections.

I’ll offer just two more recent physical stack examples: The translucent stacks in the Seattle Public Library – a custom design by SpaceSaver, a company that, coincidentally, also makes art storage cabinets and weapons lockers, and offers “evidence storage solutions” for law enforcement – are illuminated by overhead lights, creating a luminescent glow that permeates the stacks and cultivates a hospitable ambience. The mass of knowledge held in these stacks, which are organized into the famous “book spiral,” feels lighter, more transparent, more open to experimentation and play; it seems to invite us to understand – and experience, sensorially and kinesthetically – the logic underlying its organization. Meanwhile, Bruno Rainaldi’s fashionable (and smartly named) Sapiens bookcase, a vertical tower meant to conserve floor space, simultaneously transforms a stack of books into a totemic monument and confers to that totem a sense of weightlessness. It’s the perfect transitional storage object for the digital non-native – say, the interaction designer with a great art-book collection.

Rainaldi’s Sapiens Bookcase; via Design Within Reach
Mark Dion’s “Aviary (Library for the Birds of Massachusetts),” 2005; David Garcia’s Archive Series, via

The Writing Desk

In the age of the MacBook Air we might see our bibliophilic interaction designer working while seated in a knock-off Eames chair, with his laptop propped, appropriately, atop his lap. We see on ancient vases and reliefs, and in medieval paintings and tapestries, myriad historical examples of scribes inscribing texts on their laps, with the texts supported by sturdy tablets or lap desks. The act of writing was thus kept close to the body; it wasn’t externalized and scaffolded with heavy architecture.

Miniature showing chair and five-legged table, mid-10th century

Yet copying texts from one’s lap, and balancing an ink pot and pen, was likely unwieldy, so some of these writers moved their work to tables or desks, most of which had sloped surfaces – some even adjustable – which allowed for configurations that are much more ergonomically friendly than the flat-topped desks we typically use today. One of Siegfried Giedion’s primary concerns in his Mechanization Takes Command is the history of “comfort” as embodied in furnishing – and he finds that structures for reading and writing allowed people of the ascetic Middle Ages to engage in activities that brought them comfort:

As against the insecurity of life without, there should be peace in man’s intimate surroundings. And this is what one breathes in medieval chambers, quietude and contemplation. It is remarkable how often men were portrayed writing or painting, withdrawn into the silence of their study in the act of projecting their inner thought.[11]

Dürer; Carpaccio

Two representations of St. Jerome in his study – Carpaccio’s 1502 painting and Albrecht Dürer’s 1514 engraving – portray the desk as a consistent central element in rooms embodying disparate kinds of “comfort.” Carpaccio portrays a desk that folds up into the wall when not in use; as Giedion explains, much medieval furniture was “designed to leave the room as unencumbered as possible.”[12] Meanwhile, Dürer’s free-standing desk sits as a permanent fixture, a focal point, amidst a study cluttered with decorative items. Each symbolizes a different vision of the “life of the mind” – an intellectual opening or clearing, or a tangle of associations – and differently characterizes the role of intellectual furnishings in supporting that intellectual work.

Giedion identified two late-Gothic-period developments to the table that would’ve altered how writers read and wrote on it. First, the drawer appeared, transforming the desk into a container for texts – a store of references or raw material for future writings of one’s own. And second, there emerged “differentiated types” of furniture, designed to “assist in special activities, such as reading, writing, or painting.”[13]

We also see the rise of bookstands or lecterns with multiple faces – and proposals for fantastical mechanical contraptions – that allowed for the simultaneous consultation of multiple books. This mechanization of reading implies the need for efficiency. These new reading furnishings take the book out of the hands and transform the medium into an externalized resource to be mined for its contents. They also represent scholarship as the work of intellectual aggregation: piecing together insights gleaned from a multitude of other thinkers.

“Boccaccio Writing,” Miniature by Jean Fouquet, 1458: shows pivoting conical lectern and primitive writing board; Pivoting + Adjustable Monastic Desk, mounted on crank pivoting in a socket; via Giedion
Reading-Desk Revolving Around a Spiral Column (wheel desk), 1485; Jacob Schuebler’s Combined Desk + Rotary File, 1730; via Giedion
Agostino Ramelli, 16th c. Book Wheel; via Giedion

“The Renaissance,” Gideion says, “with its lust for secular writing, took a strong interest in the writing table. The adjustable desk of the late Gothic monks, or the portable desk used even in 1499 by Polyphilo, now becomes the more ample secretary in two parts, the upper having all the drawers and doors for which there is room,” and the writing surface tilting down to reveal an assortment of interior compartments and cubbies.[14] The secretary combines reading and writing – and all of their accouterments – into one structure. And that structure is rather monolithic, restricting, for the most part, the user’s vision and attention to the intellectual work before himself.

Via Leslie Piña, Furniture In History, 3000 B.c. — 2000 A.D. (Prentice Hall, 2009)

In their study of the study of 18th-century theologian Jonathan Edwards, Wilson H. Kimnach and Kenneth P. Minkema argue that Edwards’s desk – a secretary-type desk that he had renovated and expanded, with a “great bookcase” added to the upper half – along with a lazy Susan book table Edwards used to hold publications from which he might copy passages, reveal “the ways that social and material practices helped constitute intellectual production.”[15] Below the desk’s writing surface were four drawers, and above the surface, in the desk’s interior, were a number of drawers, pigeonholes, open compartments, and an ink well (later, the Rococo period also brought to the desk secret compartments and hidden drawers for storing valuable papers and objects). “Examining Edwards’s working methods… reveals that some of his practices demonstrably interacted with the character of his desk.” The number of storage compartments, the way the desk made writing accouterments “ready-to-hand,” and the accouterments to allow for a collation of references enhanced the efficiency of his work.

All of this efficiency was needed, for the rapid flow of Edwards’s thought was ultimately to fill many notebooks with about five thousand pages of manuscript text. And then there were the twelve hundred sermons, the drafts of treatises, many letter drafts, and special project notations on random packets of scrap paper or odd pieces of reused paper. His corpus of working papers became so substantial that he had to prepare indexes and tables of various sorts.[16]

Via Leslie Piña, Furniture In History, 3000 B.c. — 2000 A.D. (Prentice Hall, 2009)

Other innovations were proposed or implemented to enhance furniture’s ability to promote efficient reading and writing. Sometimes stairs, to enable readers to reach their upper bookshelves, were built into tables and chairs. In 1730 Jacob Schuebler proposed a polygonal desk containing internal storage space for a year’s worth of account books and correspondence, which would rotate on a wheel, transforming the desk into a large rotary file (see above). By the mid-19th-century, Giedion writes, as publications increased in size and weight, with all their inserted engravings and aquatints, library tables adopted broad, level surfaces to accommodate those big books; and those tables ultimately developed into the large, flat desks, with a base of two stacked drawers on each side, familiar to us today.[17] In the 19th century, American furniture-makers began crafting chairs, too, for specific media-related functions. Desk writing, Giedion argues, “is a type of handicraft, with all its freedom and alternatives,” and isn’t “tied to any fixed posture.”[18] The writing chair is thus free to rotate and rock. Typewriting, however, “like any mechanical activity, breaks down to specific movements, continually repeated”; the ideal chair, then, would revolve but not tilt.

Chair for Writing Table, 1730; Typwriter’s Chair, 1896; via Giedion

Schuebler’s speculative desk-file presaged another canonical speculative furniture proposal of the 20th century: Vannevar Bush’s memex.

Consider a future device for individual use, which is a sort of mechanized private file and library… A memex is a device in which an individual stores all his books, records, and communications, and which is mechanized so that it may be consulted with exceeding speed and flexibility. It is an enlarged intimate supplement to his memory.

It consists of a desk, and while it can presumably be operated from a distance, it is primarily the piece of furniture at which he works. On the top are slanting translucent screens, on which material can be projected for convenient reading. There is a keyboard, and sets of buttons and levers. Otherwise it looks like an ordinary desk.[19]

The user can insert pre-scanned material on microfilm, or use plates atop the desk to scan material documents. He can call up any book via a code on the keyboard, and use a lever to advance through the scanned pages at whatever pace he chooses. He can add notes and link various items together into associative trails. We thus find many of the core epistemological principles of the Internet – including its common reduction of “reading” to scanning, and the prevailing associative logic of the hyperlink – housed in a piece of furniture dreamt up in 1945.

And a precursor to the Memex: Paul Otlet’s Mondotheque, ca. 1920s — presented here merely as a footnote, to be expanded upon in future drafts!

If we had more time, we could examine the history of the cubicle and the myriad other architectural “workplace solutions” that structured the intellectual and physical labor of “white collar” and “creative industry” jobs from the late 19th through the late-20th centuries.[20] Those histories are explored elsewhere. So here, for now, we’ll consider just one more contemporary example: the continuous desk – a structure that embodies the ideology of the “cloud” age, and whose conception and construction are very much dependent upon the same digital technologies that make the cloud possible. Internet advertising agency The Barbican Group commissioned from architect Clive Wilkinson an 1,100-foot-long plywood and poured-resin “Superdesk” that swoops throughout the firm’s office and accommodates up to 175 employees. Those swoops and swirls include archways that lead to seven semi-private meeting spaces. As the agency itself puts it, the desk offers “4,400 square feet of undulating, unbroken awesomeness to keep people and ideas flowing.” Here, rather than books rotating on a reading wheel, or files rotating inside a desk chamber for efficient access, we have a desk that promotes the rotation, the circulation, of conversation and strategy. The embodied epistemology here is one based on the blending of disciplinary expertise, the collaborative production of ideas – and the loss of individual subjectivity and privacy.

Superdesk; via Creative Boom UK

The Library Bureau’s “Epistemic Contraptions”

The Barbican Group certainly wasn’t the first to use architecture and furnishings to “discipline” its workers’ bodies and minds. Melvil Dewey, he of the Dewey Decimal System and the American Library Association and the first library school in the country, had long ago mastered the art of marketing efficiency and standardization and intellectual formalism. His Library Bureau, which he founded in 1881 (but which, after shifts in ownership, was re-incorporated in 1888), sold – and contributed to the standardization of – library supplies and furnishings, including the card index and the hanging vertical file.[21] “The great feature which has caused librarians the world over to count the card catalog as the greatest library invention,” the Bureau states in its 1890s catalog, “is the ease of keeping it up to date and in perfect order.”[22] And its utility outside the library became readily apparent: “From an author’s catalog it has spread to an almost infinite application… Business houses find it invaluable for lists of goods, customers, discounts, and…records of commerce. Science adopts it even more widely….” The Chief Clerk from Eliot Five-Cents Savings Bank, a representative from the Thompson-Houston Electric Company, and the Secretary of the Holstein-Friesian (yes, the cows) Association of America testify to the card index’s wondrous efficiency.

via Library Bureau Catalog, 1890

Aside from the card index and its many component parts – pre-fabricated and custom cases, blocks, guides, rods, label-holders and labels, cards in myriad colors and sizes – the Bureau’s catalog featured furniture; media display and storage devices; equipment for managing the circulation of collection materials, including call slip pockets for insertion in the backs of books, stamps for stamping in those books, and slip cases for materially tracking what’s checked in and out.[23] These apparatae were commonly contextualized with long explanations regarding their proper use, complete with references to American Library Association journals and other publications attesting to their compliance with the most efficient and up-to-date library practices. As we can see below, the Bureau seems to be selling a bio-technical process (what we might today call “service design”): there are several pages extolling the virtues of creating a “shelf list” – a document that outlines the proper use of library furniture. And of course the Bureau has for sale the ALA-sanctioned 8×10” sheets, and a special binder to protect those lists from wear and tear. They’ll sell you the furniture, the protocol for its use, and all the stuff you need to ensure your compliance with that protocol.

While Dewey portrayed the Library Bureau as inventor of the card index, there were plenty of precursors. Markus Krajewski, in his Paper Machines, traces the history of the principles and structures behind card indexing – from Konrad Gessner’s creation, in 16th-century Switzerland, of comprehensive lists of books and parallel subject classifications, and his proposal for a bibliographic system consisting of notes on small slips of paper sorted into boxes; to the development of the printer’s type case, which held individual metal letters; to Placcius’s proposal, in the late 17th century, for a cabinet full of metal hooks on which one could hang and sort notes written out on individual slips of paper; to the creation, in 18th century Vienna, of a card index system using standard-sized playing cards; through to the work of Dewey and other European 20th-century bibliographic pioneers.

Nevertheless, many libraries were still transitioning to the card cataloging system in the 1890s. Dewey’s Bureau sold them special typewriters that ensured legibility, uniformity, efficiency, and permanence. “No library starting a new catalog can afford to do without.” And for those late adopters, there was a starter kit, with a case, guides, rods, cards, printed labels, blank labels, label holders, and a pen and ink. Efficiency in a box! The Bureau and all of its wares represented the library as an enlightenment and uplift “machine,” with Taylorist approaches imported into education and the provision of social services. Intellectual labor was thus something best standardized, normalized, and mechanized – compartmentalized into discrete functions that were then delegated to an assortment of apparatae and furnishings – what a company like Steelcase might call, in the hyperbolic, euphemistic Silicon Valley-tainted marketing rhetoric of today, “knowledge solutions.” Given the volatility of Dewey’s history as an entrepreneur, though, he often seemed to be more in the business of “problems” than “solutions” – but his wares we can certainly call epistemic contraptions.

The Media Wall

While libraries were trying to cultivate lifelong readers, uplift the downtrodden, and assimilate America’s multitude of immigrants, the late-19th-century Western home was becoming a multi-mediated environment. Over the course of the next several decades, the books on the family bookshelf were joined by new mass-circulated periodicals, record players, telephones, radios, and eventually television sets. As Lynn Spigel explains, manufacturers – in an attempt to facilitate the integration of these new, potentially intimidating and unsightly objects into the home – often camouflaged their contraptions in cabinets styled to match popular domestic décor, which means a lot of hideous Chippendale-style TV sets.[24]

Frustrated with these mass-produced solutions, and appalled by the increasing clutter of the post-war home, some noted designers decided to tackle the aesthetics of media storage. George Nelson and Henry Wright, in Tomorrow’s House (1945), dedicated sections to such topics as lighting and heating, living and dining rooms, sleeping and sound conditions – and storage.[25] The book introduced Nelson’s Storagewall, “intended for the postwar consumer family overcome by the objects they possessed, but it especially served as a means of hiding and organizing media machines.”[26] The wall included bookshelves and magazine racks, a built-in radio, a drawer for a record player, speakers, a foldout desk with cubbies for document storage, a wet (liquor) closet, a game closet, and a space for storing vases. The unit thus integrated dedicated spaces for old and new media, for leisure-time equipment, and for ornamental objects through which one – typically the woman of the house – could communicate one’s personal taste.[27]

As Spigel explains, “the Storagewall imposes an order on things. The wall is a means of disciplining the environment and giving shape to a new kind of postwar domesticity where leisure and media become the key centers of everyday life.”[28] That order is imposed not only by hiding all the wires and cords inside the wall, but also through the unit’s overall form and aesthetic: Mondrian-esque modular panels, embodying a geometric rationality, with pops of color and pattern, allowing for personal expression.

What’s more, in its integration of media formats – from books to TV to writing implements – the wall accommodates both media consumption and production, signal reception and transmission. It serves as a sort of proto-interface to the mediated home; or, as Spigel puts it, it’s a “communications terminal” that puts “media and a range of objects into a spatial-discursive network that links the home to any number of unspecified outside destinations.”[29] This over-determined space also functioned as a domestic “central command,” a hub for negotiating between work and leisure, for coordinating among various family members’ activity schedules and gender- and age-specific roles. At the wall, the woman of the house became its “general manager,” coordinating schedules, determining who could watch the TV or listen to the radio, and when. And she could aestheticize her managerial style by strategically organizing the books and deploying vases and other knickknacks amongst the shelves, thus using the wall’s abstracted grid framework as scaffolding for conveying the “family aesthetic.”

Not all household items – and particularly not all media-objects – were meant to be stored in the wall. The Storagewall was dedicated to “active storage,” Nelson said, and was meant only for those items needed for instant retrieval. This wasn’t a place for old family photo albums or antiques; it was a place for live feeds and rapid communication and instant access. The Storagewall,” Spigel argues, “inscribes this shift from memory to storage, from Victorian sentiment to rational modernism, from the home as a place for the protection of daydreams to the home as a place for media projectors and recording machines.”[30] It embodied an “epistemology of organization, storage, and rapid retrieval,” which not only camouflaged modern media within a palatable, stylish wrapper, but also packaged the ideologies and epistemologies represented by those media – consumerism and passive consumption; efficiency; the real-time, collective consciousness of the “global village,” etc. – into something family-friendly and familiar, too.[31]

CD Tower; via

The late 1980s and early 1990s brought us CD towers – some of which bore a striking formal resemblance to Rainaldi’s Sapiens bookshelf – that clumsily stacked hundreds of brittle plastic “jewel cases” (which bore little resemblance to the “jeweled cases” wrapping the books on early modern bookshelves). These feeble towers rendered ironically monolithic a most unstable collection – one that, a mere quarter-century later, has been collapsed into a digital library that resides, alongside libraries of books and videos and pdf documents and emails, on our new hand-held multimedia “central command units”: our smartphones. Yet even these miniature devices are not without their own technological and epistemic walls: firewalls, which, instead of promoting instant access, exist primarily to restrict it.

The Server Rack

Among those walls we can’t transgress are those securing our data centers: sites where our media in all modalities are reduced to binary code and mingle on servers mounted on standard 19-inch racks – so called not because the inner or outer dimensions of the rack itself is 19 inches, but because the front panel of each piece of equipment mounted in the rack is 19 inches wide (23-inch versions, the ETSI (European Telecoms Standards Institute) standard, are more widely used in telecom). The height of each mountable module is some multiple of the standard “Rack Unit,” or 1.75 inches. These dimensions, specified by the Electronic Industries Alliance (which is in turn accredited by the American National Standards Institute) via its EIA-310 specification, ensure, essentially, that the mounting holes for all rack-mounted equipment line up with the holes on the rack itself.

The basic form of server furnishings is a holdover from a previous telecommunications era, when similar racks held equipment for railroad signals and telephone switches. Today, this seemingly anti-aesthetic furnishing, which holds so much of the world’s data, has become a standard infrastructure in data centers, server rooms, ISP facilities, as well as throughout the audio and video industries. The data centers built around these servers have evolved in design over the years to better accommodate the placement of cables and to facilitate airflow, which aids in cooling the heat-generating machines. Over the past few years, the Open Compute Project, spearheaded by a group of Facebook engineers, has been experimenting with data center design, with the goal of maximizing its efficiency. Their efforts have focused on stripping down server equipment to its most spartan form, and minimizing energy use by allowing those servers to run effectively at higher temperatures, thus necessitating less energy for cooling. Their proposed “Open Rack” would feature a wider opening for mounted equipment, and a taller tower to allow for more space between each mounted unit – all of which gives the equipment more room to “breathe” and allows for more efficient management of cables and power supplies.

Google Data Center, Council Bluffs, IA; Network Room, Coucil Bluffs, IA; Water Pipes for Chilled Water HVAC, Google Data Center, The Dalles, OR; via Google

The beneficiaries of a data center’s services – from Internet shoppers and online gamblers to NSA data scientists and users of university research databases – don’t typically experience them first-hand as aesthetic spaces. Even if Labrouste designed for us a library/data center in which we could peer through a glass wall from the reading room into the server room, we’d probably regard them as embodiments of an anti-aesthetic: massive non-descript, windowless warehouse-like spaces containing rows upon rows of dark, monolithic towers of machines.[32] Within the dark stillness, we’d see thousands upon thousands of machines blinking and casting a fluorescent glow. Google turned on the lights in some of its data centers to reveal pristine, cavernous environments scaffolded with networks of colorful pipes and wires: a visual embodiment of logistical efficiency and rationality. The only people to whom those visual cues have to speak are the service workers – a relatively small group, given the volume of space they’re charged with maintaining.

But what’s more striking about the non-human aesthetics of the data center is what we can’t see: it’s what would appeal to our other senses – what employees have to feel, hear, and inhale. Perhaps most readily apparent is the extreme chill (or, if centers eventually run at higher temperatures, the potentially oppressive heat). Oracle/IDG employees speculating on the “future of the data center” note that workers currently have to endure “harsh functional lighting, deafening noise and lower oxygen levels,” which “can make people feel lightheaded and short of breath. Suffice it to say these are not optimum conditions for aiding concentration.”[33] The “baffling interfaces” to many building systems, including power supplies and cooling systems, also “make it easy to make mistakes.”

These are furnishings meant not to facilitate human access to information or to promote comfortable media consumption or IT labor conditions, but to embody machine logic; their primary epistemology is one of logistical efficiency – not of human knowledge. We might say that the server rack is an infrastructural and epistemic cousin to the bookstack – or at least non-browsing based approaches to storing books on stacks. Making these storage units’ contents intelligible to their end-users, who typically access those contents while seated at a desk or table removed from the site of storage, requires a logistical-logic-to-human-logic translation of some sort, whether in the form of a card catalog or a web interface. These intellectual infrastructures are integral counterparts to the physical storage units. Together they furnish the aesthetics of information; together they scaffold the epistemologies and politics that our media storage and distribution systems embody. Together, they demonstrate that a stack is never just dumb metal and wood. It thinks and feels – or, at the very least, it furnishes an opportunity for us to do so.

[1] For more on infrastructure, see Susan Leigh Star & Geoffrey C. Bowker, “How to Infrastructure,” in Leigh A. Lievrouw & Sonia M. Livingstone, eds., Handbook of New Media: Social Shaping and Social Consequences of ICTs (Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage, 2006): 230–44.

[2] Jocelyn Penny Small, Wax Tablets of the Mind: Cognitive Studies of Memory and Literacy in Classical Antiquity (New York: Routledge 1997); B.B. Edwards and E.A. Park, Bibliotheca Sacra and Theological Review (New York: Wiley and Putnam, 1846). And before scrolls, there were clay tablets, which, in the ancient city of Derr, were stored on slate shelves in a “record chamber” (John Willis Clark, The Care of Books: An Essay on the Development of Libraries and Their Fittings, From the Earliest Times to the End of the Eighteenth Century (Cambridge, UK: University Press, 1901)).

[3] Clark

[4] Ernst Karl Guhl & Wilhelm David Koner, The Life of the Greeks and Romans: Described from Antique Monuments (New York: D. Appleton & Company, 1876): 529.

[5] For a thorough history of the bookshelf, see Clark, The Care of Books and Henry Petroski, The Book on the Bookshelf (New York: Vintage Books, 1999).

[6] Marc Le Coeur, “The Bibliotheque Nationale: Between Rationalism and Illusionism” In Corinne Belier, Barry Bergdoll & Marc Le Coeur, Henri Labrouste: Structure Brought to Light (New York: Museum of Modern Art, 2013): 160.

[7] See Donald E. Oehlerts, Books and Blueprints: Building America’s Public Libraries (New York: Greenwood Press, 1991) for more on the evolution of closed and open stacks.

[8] Abigail A. Van Slyck, Free to All: Carnegie Libraries & American Culture, 1890–1920 (Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 1995): 166–7.

[9] Van Slyck (1995).

[10] Markus Krajewski reminds us that the separation of catalogue entries from shelf location isn’t a new phenomenon: “the shift from tracking books on shelves to searching for their representation by bibliographical title copies” – which, as Foucault also notes, in The Order of Things, begins at the end of the 18th century – “marks a shift in library order, a fundamental shift in its inner structure and architecture, and in directors’ plans or the logistical design of book storage” (Markus Krajewski, Paper Machines: About Cards & Catalogs, 1548–1929 (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2011): 29).

[11] Siegfried Giedion, Mechanization Takes Command: A Contribution to Anonymous History (New York: Oxford University Press, 1948): 302

[12] Giedion: 291.

[13] Giedion: 277, 281.

[14] Giedion: 306.

[15] Wilson H. Kimnach & Kenneth P. Minkema, “The Material and Social Practices of Intellectual Work: Jonathan Edwards’s Study” The William and Mary Quarterly 69:4 (October 2012): 685.

[16] Kimnath & Minkema, 714.

[17] Giedion: 323.

[18] Giedion: 406.

[19] Vannevar Bush, “As We May ThinkThe Atlantic (July 1, 1945).

[20] See C. Wright Mills, White Collar: The American Middle Classes (New York: Oxford University Press, 1951); Alexandra Lange, “White Collar Corbusier: From the Casier to the cités d’affaires” Grey Room 9 (Fall 2002): 58–79; Shannon Mattern, “Bureaucracy’s PlaythingsWord Processor (October 28, 2013); Nikil Saval, Cubed: A Secret History of the Workplace (New York: Random House, 2014).

[21] Wayne A. Wiegand, Irrepressible Reformer: A Biography of Melvil Dewey (American Library Association, 1996); JoAnne Yates, Control Through Communication: The Rise of System in American Management (Baltimore: John Hopkins University Press, 1993). The Bureau produced a separate catalog for filing cabinets. See, for example, Library Bureau, Steel Card and Filing Cabinets (Cambridge, MA: Library Bureau, 1922).

[22] Library Bureau, Classified Illustrated Catalog of the Library Bureau: A Handbook of Library and Office Fittings and Supplies (Library Bureau, 1890): 13.

[23] The 1890 Library Bureau catalog divided the Bureau’s merchandise into nine classes: publications (e.g., catalogs, library periodicals), technical fittings (e.g., shelving hoists, card cases, stamps, book supports), technical supplies (e.g., blank slips, printed forms, book covers, labels), binders, files, and scraps (e.g., needles and cords for mending book bindings, pocket envelopes, pigeonholes, file cabinets), standard stationery (e.g., writing papers, envelopes, ink, rubber bands), desk fittings (e.g., scissors, erasers, rulers), furniture (e.g., bookcases, tables, desks, chairs, reading stands), labor-savers (e.g., book holders, writing machines), and miscellaneous (e.g., shorthand publications, lamps, heating and ventilation equipment).

[24] Lynn Spigel, Make Room for TV: Television and the Family Ideal in Postwar America (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1992).

[25] George Nelson & Henry Wright, Tomorrow’s House: A Complete Guide for the Home-Builder (New York: Simon and Schuster, 1945).

[26] Lynn Spigel, “Object Lessons for the Media Home: From Storagewall to Invisible Design” Public Culture 24:3 (2012): 537.

[27] See also John Vassos’s Musicorner, a part of the “America at Home” pavilion at the 1939–40 Worlds Fair, in Danielle Schwartz, “Modernism for the Masses: The Industrial Design of John Vassos” Archives of American Art Journal 46: 1–2 (2006): 18–19.

[28] Spigel (2012): 546.

[29] Spigel (2012) 548.

[30] Spigel (2012): 571.

[31] Spigel (2012): 559.

[32] For more on data center architecture, including a discussion of design that attempt to aestheticize the outer envelope, see James Bridle, “Secret (September 13, 2011).

[33]Data Centers: Where Cyberia Meets SuburbiaThe Future of the Data Center (November 11, 2013); See also Lily Hay Newman, “The Deafening Sound of the InternetSlate (May 5, 2014).

Faculty, School of Media Studies, The New School. I do stuff with media and space.

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