North London’s first outdoor digital bookshelf

Ribbon Factory Library Wall


For the last month here at Artefacto we’ve been working on a project very close to our own hearts and we’re really excited that launch day has arrived! The original idea for the project came from Sara reading about the Bucharest metro “library“, sponsored by Vodaphone, which enabled commuters to download the first chapters of books in the metro station in Bucharest by scanning QR codes – with the idea being that people would be more likely to “buy” the books they’d had a taster of via the installation. What bothered us at the time was that this installation was not really about getting more people to read or use libraries. Instead, it was primarily focused on marketing and selling the titles specifically chosen – which is probably par for the course with any commercial entities operating in this space, but we thought, hang on a second, why doesn’t someone (or some public library) do this with public domain texts?

Thus, our “Library Wall” idea was born. Several years and various Artefacto projects later, we were delighted to finally be commissioned to #makeithappen via the wonderful Haringey Arts, who sponsored the material costs for the project and agreed that the piece would be installed in the Manor House Warehouse community, nestling between Seven Sisters road and Green Lanes in North London.

We had several clear ideas which we knew would be the ground rules for the project:-

  • The installation should function as a prototype for how public libraries could be (and should be) utilising new digital technology and promoting public domain (PD) cultural content.
  • The installation should be community-created, involving people who live in the local area in the choice of titles to choose from, and book choice should also reflect this unique physical location.
  • Texts curated for the installation should be in the most interoperable and accessible digital format, bearing in mind all the different types of formats and devices available.

With these foundational philosophies to hand, we set about creating, researching, curating, designing, ebook-formatting, and all the other various tasks which were required to create “Library Wall”.

First up was deciding on what “books” to have in our “library”. We asked The Itinerant Poetry Librarian (TIPL), of Itinerant Poetry Library fame, to curate the initial longlist collection for us, with the idea that it would be much easier to get the local community involved in making selections if we first gave them some clear parameters of choice, rather than just expecting people to wander vaguely around the internet and find out of copyright texts on their own. Once TIPL had made her selection (using her research skills to find texts with associations to the local area and her librarian curation skills to produce a great overall selection), we sent a survey round the Manor House Warehouse community, and solicited responses on the longlist, asking people to make their favourite selections, and inviting people to suggest texts we hadn’t thought of too. This produced a final list of 20 titles, which was a manageable amount for a prototype installation.

Next we set about locating digital versions of the out of copyright texts, using as our starting points the wonderful public domain champions Internet Archive, Open Library, Wikisource and Project Gutenberg. What was most interesting about this aspect of the project was what we found when sourcing texts: despite the oft-repeated mantra of “it’s all on the internet” (which is often followed by “…so why do we need public libraries anymore anyway?”) what we discovered was the following:-

  • Many of the PD texts originated as OCR sources. Have you seen the state of OCR recently? Whether it was a Microsoft/Google/insert-whoever-here scanned item, we consistently found that the associated text file was riddled with basic errors of spelling, syntax, grammar and everything else inbetween. To say this was an eye-opener is something of an understatement, and led us to whack onto our Artefacto “future ideas” list a research project looking in more detail at this issue, as we think a. this problem is not going to go away anytime soon and b. these “it’s all on the internet” or “it’s all available digitally” and “we don’t need human editors anymore” warblings really do not in any way take these issues into account and in fact assume that digital copies are somehow magicked into being, all intact, readable and “clean”, which, from what we’ve found, is clearly not the case at all.
  • Despite wanting to create texts in the most interoperable and accessible digital format currently available, i.e. an epub 2 file, what we found, having tested a broad range of devices, e-readers and OS (including ipads, iphones, android/windows, kindle, adobe reader, aldiko, overdrive … we could go on …) was that device fragmentation and the wide landscape of the e-reader market all combined to in fact ensure that interoperability was a sisyphhean task: no one device, OS or reader reacted in the same way to the epub file! So, despite international publishing’s trade body wanting to ensure a “cross-Reading System interchange and production format”, it seems that there’s a long way to go before we get true interoperability: is this another case of the invisible hand of the market failing again?

We could write much more detail about these aspects of the project, but suffice to say, it’s been a rollercoaster ride, and we’ve had to make concessions and compromises along the way, not least using PDF sources for a specific text download link, where a particularly egregious example of error-riddled text files for a book title were the only alternative. We’ve also learned a new respect and admiration (beyond what we already had) for, in particular, the work of all those involved at Project Gutenberg – it turns out there’s nothing like a real human being transcribing a text to produce a decent copy!

Library Wall is launched on September 6th in the Manor House Warehouse community in North London. You can watch a live-stream of the launch event here and even grab your own copy of a book from Library Wall if you sit with a smart device (with a QR-code reader installed) at your side while watching!

*Notes for Editors*

Library Wall is a curated collection of digitised texts, which people are able to freely obtain, read and share through the use of smartphones or other “smart” mobile devices such as ipads and tablets by pointing their device at the installation. The project explores both digital distribution technologies and open access (public domain) texts, alongside user-curated content, with the digital bookshelf titles being selected in collaboration with the local community.

The project’s aim is to celebrate the role of public libraries in providing open access to cultural content in this brave, new e-book and digital publishing world. Although many public libraries are already implementing innovative models of providing digital content for their users, this process is often frustrated by the demands of both publishers and the copyright regime: Artefacto’s installation, in using works in the Public Domain, negates the role of these ‘gatekeepers’ and reminds the public of the role public libraries can play in enabling access to our commonwealth of culture.

This is a prototype project, launching in September 2014. Further iterations of the installation will be rolled out in the future on other adjacent sites in the locailty, with the aim of expanding the project to offer a digital bookshelf in various other communities nationwide and internationally.

Commissioned as part of Haringey Arts (HA) series of funded site-specific projects, as part of HA’s social enterprise focus on Haringey’s creative economy and regeneration plans, which specifically involve Haringey’s emerging 1,500 people creative community that has transformed former industrial warehouses into vibrant spaces to live and work together, Library Wall is an interactive outdoor library installation created by Artefacto for the benefit of Haringey’s diverse warehouse and local community. Situated on a busy North London street in Haringey, with full pedestrian and vehicle access, the outdoor installation will function as a digital bookshelf for all members of the community, as well as those just passing by.