The Virtual Shelf: Discovering and Accessioning Digital Publications The Virtual Shelf: Discovering and Accessioning Digital Publications

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While A.R.T.'s Library Program ships thousands of printed books to libraries, schools and prisons each year, circulating digital publications is more complicated. Fortunately we collaborate with Library Stack, a public catalog, lending platform, and interlibrary loan consortium that enables digital materials to circulate in library collections. Library Stack has produced and acquired some A.R.T. Press publications in ebook format, and hosts a collection of digital materials accessible to institutions that participate in A.R.T.'s Library Program. We asked Library Stack to tell us how the project helps the "unruly" media of born-digital publications find its way into library collections.

Artists and small publishers increasingly use their own websites, or commercial platforms like Patreon, Youtube, Vimeo or Soundcloud, to circulate their media files, journal writings, ebooks, zines, podcasts, video lectures or software projects. These files are unruly in the sense that, despite being easily transmissible and often openly available, the legacy databases of most library catalogs lack the descriptive terminologies or technical systems to collect, catalog and serve them. So a field of digital artistic production has emerged that is effectively inaccessible to the institutional libraries that support the teaching and collecting of art. And these files are often stored in the archives of commercial websites, subject to changing Terms of Service agreements, proprietary code and algorithmic profit models, so their longevity is anything but assured.

Circulation to private readers does not translate to availability in institutional libraries. While Apple and Amazon have simplified public ebook sales, their digital rights management (DRM) structures and stringent licensing terms have functionally prohibited library circulation for independently produced titles. Most libraries typically buy access to ePubs from large intermediary distributors, who don’t include niche artistic presses, let alone individual artists; and many of the small publishers in question would politely decline the sales terms offered by these massive platforms in any case. Even when a library is able to purchase ePubs directly from a small press, they are often hindered by difficulties in archival storage, cataloging and metadata, and lack of a universal serving mechanism. In some libraries, "lendable" ePubs can only be loaded onto dedicated tablets and left out on tables in the reading room — hardly ideal in an age of pandemics, networked research, or online learning.

To confront these gaps, Library Stack collects and stewards a growing pool of digital publications made by artists, designers and architects, preserving the media in cloud storage and indexing their contents for library catalogs. In library science terms, the things Library Stack collects might be thought of as the digital versions of realia: physical objects that resist classification but must be cataloged and stored anyways, like honorary jars of dirt, textiles, or other material leftovers from daily life. These digital realia — artists’ writings, idiosyncratic podcasts, independent journals, among many others — have unknowable quotients of value to future readerships beyond their intrinsic artifactual value, and need to be publicly distributed, cataloged, referenced and stored outside the proprietary stacks of their originating platforms.

For a growing cluster of affiliated institutions, Library Stack also offers a suite of research tools, a bibliographic catalog and file repository, and a lending system for commercial eBooks, many of which — like David Reinfurt’s A *Pre-* Program for Graphic Design; A.S. Hamrah’s The Earth Dies Streaming; Anaïs Duplan’s Blackspace; or any of the titles from e-flux or Strelka — either don’t exist in print form, or simply have no other route into digital library circulation. This evolving lending library combines the legacy concept of bookshelf-as-architecture with the present-day architecture of digitality, connecting authors, artists, designers and readers through the polyphonic protocols of library science. The system will grow to help support a public digital metacommons that scaffolds new social formations.


Library Stack accessions born-digital objects from across the fields of art, design, architecture and theory, focusing on items that confound typical distinctions between disciplines and formats. It includes a public bibliographic catalog, a cloud-based file repository, a lending library for ebooks and software and a network of institutional partners. Library Stack has participated in exhibitions, authored essays, published new files and is developing a film based on the short story "Eden Machine."

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