In the back room of Pioneer Books, the bookshop outpost of the Pioneer Works art space in Red Hook, Brooklyn, floor-to-ceiling metal shelves are currently lined with books from the Reanimation Library. They have titles like Basic Radio, A Sloth in the Family, Tub Farming, and 1966 Report on the Measurement of Roundness, typically with a publication date somewhere in the 1940s-1980s range, and interior pages heavy with images. Andrew Beccone has run the library since 2002, initially out of artist-run space Proteus Gowanus, then institution-hopping from MoMA to the Queens Museum to Pioneer Books, in a series of residencies. Equipped with a scanner, a fully digitized catalog, and a Library of Congress classification system, Reanimation Library’s collection—culled from thrift stores, flea markets, municipal dumps, library sales, and used bookstores across the country—aims to provide a resource for the production of new creative work and to call attention to the “generative potential of libraries.”
Meg Miller: At this point, you’ve been running Reanimation Library for 16 years. How did it start, and how did it expand?
Andrew Beccone: I can trace its origins back to a book that I found called The Behavior of Man. It’s a psychology book from 1956 that I found in a thrift store in St. Paul, Minnesota, in 2001, and I was captivated by the quality of the images. I was working at the Minnesota State Legislative Reference Library at the time, and I was using their books and photocopiers to do these photocopy manipulations when I should have been doing work. I had gotten pretty familiar with the DNA of their collection, and when I found this book I had this little epiphany: If I’m sourcing all of this material from library books, maybe I should start collecting books myself and start my own library.
I started going to library book sales and spending a lot of time looking through books at thrift stores. I was looking for interesting images, images that I’m attracted to, images that I felt that I might either want to reference or harvest or somehow use in the creation of a visual. In the first year I collected probably 50 books or so, and I kept them in my apartment. Opening up the library as a public resource came later, and it was partly inspired by a visit to the Museum of Jurassic Technology in Los Angeles, and partly inspired by the DIY scene in Minneapolis, where I’m from. In Minneapolis, if you want to start a band, you start a band, or you need a space, you open a space. The Museum of Jurassic Technology was like a cultural version of this—an individual just runs the museum; this is not the Smithsonian. So it all clicked together. I just thought, “I can just make a library.”
MM: And you are an actual librarian, right? You have a library science degree?
AB: Right. I ended up going to library school in 2002 with this project in mind. I had to write a statement of purpose for my application, and that was really the catalyst for expanding Reanimation Library. There were a bunch of ideas floating around my head, and having to sit down and write something really brought all of those thoughts together. I was collecting precisely the type of material that most libraries were getting rid of; most development departments are not really looking at the visual material.
My mom was a librarian, so I grew up around library books. I realized that books like The Behavior of Man are the opposite of rare books. They are books that were made keeping in mind that they were probably going to be replaced a few years down the road. These particular fields of knowledge are ongoing, they’re moving forward, people are still figuring things out, and over time they are talking about them in different ways. So consequently, the books get updated and a lot of this stuff just gets dumped. It gets weeded from libraries and it gets dumped from people’s personal libraries. So that actually makes it a relatively cheap collection.
MM: So you went to library school thinking “I’m going to make a library.” Not “I’m going to work as a librarian.”
AB: I thought I would probably end up working in a library because at that point, and still to this day, I have not figured out a way to make money doing this. I want it to be a free public resource, so monetizing it has not been a priority. But I did go to library school with this idea for a project in mind. I moved out to New York, went to Pratt for library school, and at the start of every class that I had I would email the professor about the project and just say “this is what I’m working on, is there any way I can work on it in your class, make it part of the assignments, etc?” No response. Librarians in general—though not all—have been, if not openly hostile, pretty dismissive of the project. Usually by saying it’s not really a library.
MM: In what sense? What’s the argument against it?
AB: I’ve never heard a good one. I use the Library of Congress classification system, which is a very standard classification system that many libraries use. It’s open to the public, people are encouraged to use it. It’s a library, but I also acknowledge that it’s an art practice. About a year into working on this, I realized that I’d stopped making images myself, and instead I was making this, but it was the same impulse driving it. I thought, “Oh, this is the artwork now,” and that was an exciting moment to realize that this can be a work of art, but there’s also a functionality attached. If it’s been dismissed by the library world, it’s really been embraced by the art world. I do think that its hybrid nature is probably the part that is attractive to the art world and sort of repels the library world.
MM: I’ve seen you describe it as a platypus, which I really like.
AB: Platypuses are weird: they lay eggs, they produce milk, the have a duck bill and webbed feet. It really fucks with the taxonomy of animals. The Reanimation Library rejects easy classification, too. The basis of library science is classification—pulling things apart and then distilling things out of the mess and saying it’s this, not that. And I’m saying, well it’s actually this and this. It’s a hybrid; it’s both things fully.
MM: I also like how you describe the library as “generative.” As people come in and use it, how does that influence how the project evolves?
AB: Well, most libraries think about who their public is, and over time the parameters of their collection change based on that. These days the functionality has started to shift in response to certain needs, too: there are all these libraries where you can rent tools or borrow computers and clothes. So libraries have always been able to expand their reach in certain ways.
In terms of this project, there was a point where I was building out a database to show examples of work that was produced here with cross references to the books that were used. It quickly became apparent that it was going to be too difficult to track. But I like that I have total control over the library’s composition, what gets acquired, how I talk about it, etc., and zero control over what comes out.
MM: To what extent do you act as like a traditional librarian when you’re in this space?
AB: If people want help finding stuff, I am absolutely ready to help them find things. A lot of times people come to librarians and they say “I’m looking for this,” and it could be very specific or it could be kind of vague and broad, but often times it’s not really what they’re looking for. Through a series of back and forth questions, you start to narrow it down. I think that’s the interesting difference between a librarian and a search engine search. I’m not saying one is better than the other, it’s just a fundamentally different experience.
MM: It’s interesting that your role as an artist is now more of a facilitator. You’re helping people to connect to material, and then connect that material to other material. That’s something I talk to a lot of people about in these interviews, the importance of maintenance and being the one who upholds and facilitates.
AB: Over the last 16 years there’s been more and more administrative aspects to it, because it’s a quasi-institutional project. There are times when I’m basically just writing emails, and that is not necessarily my favorite part, but it’s also completely necessary to keep the project running. In fact, right now the future of the project is really up in the air because I’m moving out of Pioneer Books in a month. I opened the first library as a public space in 2006, and it’s been open to the public since then. The thought of putting it in storage is a bummer; I don’t think it belongs in storage.
I’ve been moving from one residency to another, and I’ve sort of been at the mercy of these other institutions, so I’m trying to figure out how to go about setting up a space that’s sustainable. One idea that I have is to band together with similar small organizations to see if we can find some common ground and do some resource sharing to put together a space ourselves.