The ELASTIC SYSTEM is an artwork by Richard Wright produced in collaboration with the British Library.
The Elastic System is a digital portrait of the librarian Thomas Watts. In 1840 Watts invented his innovative “elastic system” of storage in order to deal with the enormous growth of the British Library's holdings that was threatening to overwhelm them.
A mosaic image of Watts has been generated from 4,300 books as they are currently stored in the Library basements at St Pancras, an area not normally accessible to the public. Each one is connected live to the library's electronic requesting system. By clicking on a book you can find out more about the item and how to request it from the British Library.
The Elastic System can function like a catalogue, allowing people to visually browse part of the British Library's collections, something which has not been possible since Watts' time when most items were on public display. When a book is requested it is removed from the “shelf” to reveal a second image underneath, an image that represents the work that goes on in the library's underground storage basements, the hidden part of the modern requesting system.
Sketch of Thomas Watts, 1851.
He appeared never to have
forgotten a single book
that passed through his hands,
and always remembered its
exact locality in the library.
The Large Room at the British Museum Library.
Engraving in the Illustrated London News, 7 June 1851.
The Elastic System was exhibited as an installation at the British Library from Friday 9th September to Sunday 16th October, 2016 in the Humanities I Reading Room foyer.
In order to produce the basement image the artist spent two days working with the basement staff at St. Pancras, taking hundreds of photographs. With a collection as large and as diverse as the British Library's, its successful functioning depends on a well tuned human element, which although it is as essential as the electronic networks, is less visible and less appreciated. Thomas Watts himself began his career at the library as a “Placer”. It was said that he personally placed a total of 400,000 items on the shelves of which he could recall the exact location of about 100,000.
This work represents the culmination of a year as researcher and artist-in-residence at the British Library. It has been produced as part of a research project, ‘The Internet of Cultural Things’, supported by the AHRC, in partnership with Kings College London, Winchester School of Art and the British Library.
The aim of this research is to make visible the cultural data generated in public institutions and to illuminate and transform the way both people and cultural institutions interact. The Elastic System encapsulates the many layers of an information ecology that makes up the British Library: visual, digital and infrastructural systems in co-operation as a dynamic body of data.
Supported by a Digital Transformations research grant from the AHRC.
For more information about the project in general please go to:
The artist has also written two blog posts about their research behind this project:
With thanks to all the British Library staff who helped with this project.
With the participation of the following staff who work in the basements:
Mark Coté, Kings College London
Jussi Parikka, Winchester School of Art
Jamie Andrews, Head of Culture and Learning
Aquiles Alencar Brayner, Digital Curator
David Waldock, IT Team Leader
Maria Aires Carmo
Agnieszka (Agnes) Klich
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Richard Wright 2016