The Case of the VPL Void

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Contained within a reasonably small vestibule on the 6th floor of the Vancouver Public Library Central Branch was a picture archive. It was an index of images known as the Picture File, a collection of visual anecdotes obsessively and systematically categorized into 30 filing cabinets over the course of eighty years. The Picture File was a seemingly arbitrary and incomplete archive with a variation of moiré patterns amalgamated into a compilation of creases and folds. Every picture contained its own evidence. Ink smudges and fingerprint markings traced back to the many visitors that touched the paper over time. Every picture was unique, with differing shapes, weights, textures and printing processes.

The images themselves were contained inside an unidentified number of folders with various coloured tape closing their sides. Each category was handwritten on the worn folder’s top right hand corner. Inside them were pictures, each with a different sized label. Some images carried no label at all, or an unspecified marking that included, also handwritten, details of the photograph’s adopted category—Abacus,Advertisements, Africa, Agricultural Machinery, Air Conditioning, Airports, Airplanes, Alabama, Alabasters, Appendages, Architecture, Arson, Babies, Beds–USA, Beds A/Z by type, Birds, Birds in Art, Brazil, Bread, British Columbia, Buttons, Cabanas, Canada, Carnegie Centre, Caskets, Castles, Cathedrals, Cats, Child Labour, Children, Christmas Trees, Church, Cliff Dwellers, Clocks, Costa Rica, Costume, Czechoslovakia… There were also subcategories within the organization: By type, By Subject, By Place. Every picture had a self-identifying stamp, “PF” for Picture File.

According to a report by the VPL, the pictures were from anonymous books and magazines, removed and collected by librarians at the VPL over the years. The process began in the 1930s, when photography indexes were hard to come by. The collecting continued through the 1980s, decelerating to a complete halt around 1996. On further inspection however, there was an image dated from 1999 found in a folder. It is officially unconfirmed whether images came from members of the public, as suggested only by anonymous tip-offs. Whether the collection had been tampered with over time is also uncertain.

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The elimination of the archive seemed more like a conspiracy; surely these cultural artifacts had been placed in a temperature-controlled space for safekeeping, or in preparations for a protected scanning of the archive. It was analog after all, vulnerable to the same process of decomposition as other natural elements. Paper can only last so long. The VPL’s proprietary standards could not falter after all the decades of publicly-funded care and maintenance. These instincts were optimistic. When I inquired about the removal of the collection, a manager explained the archive in a tone reminiscent of a condo developer. The Picture File department was diagnosed as a pestilence, disrupting the flow of the 6th floor. Not up to code. “It is gone, end of story,” said the manager. “And the way that it is going to be destroyed—it won’t be pretty.”

Not that the VPL did not try to pass off the collection. Various institutions were asked if they were interested in acquiring it. The Vancouver Art Gallery was approached four years ago. Both the Emily Carr University of Art + Design and the University of British Columbia were also asked if they wanted it, but a date was not given by the manager about when it was offered. Though it was not disclosed who exactly at these institutions was approached and whether these institutions were notified of the impending removal process. It was peculiar to hear a manager speaking of the collection as irrelevant. A subjective mode of cultural preservation neglected by a bureaucratic structure that senselessly destroyed it; a structure that seems to have prioritized efficiency and instantaneous gratification at the expense of an archive. The collection sustained an intimate history that was Vancouver’s alone. The Picture File represents careful decision-making and the value of historical labour, a poetic marking that reveals what images were available and which pictures were worth holding onto.

Fragments of the collection do remain intact, dispersed throughout the city, into members of the public’s personal collections, and some institutions, namely John Casablancas Institute. Sections of the collection went into the personal ownership of the library’s staff members. It was in the VPL just after they recycled the remainder of the collection that I encountered a security guard peeking into one of the drawers of the empty cabinets, checking to see if anything was left. She timidly chuckled with what came across as embarrassment when she realized I was watching her. “The images in the collection were really beautiful,” she said with a calm and admiring tone.

In a modest notice posted in The Picture File department, it stated that the collection was estimated at 400,000 pictures in the 1970s and that the archive would be officially made public for 2 hours for people to take their “favourite pictures.” VPL employee’s posted on their Facebook profiles that it would continue until the following Monday, June 30th, although this was not the official position of VPL management. Over half of the collection was still available on Thursday, June 26th. However, on the morning of Friday, June 27th, the images were wrapped into bundles and dumped into the library’s compactor before the library opened for business. These streams of communication. This inconsistency in public outreach seems to convey a municipal surreptitiousness, which seems unnecessary coming from a civil selfhood that is inherent to a library. A friend of mine was assured that the collection was still available on Microfiche. Yet, a number of weeks later, when I asked to see it, I was told that it was never put into any digital or electronic medium.

The ideological structure of the VPL is in flux. A civic institution is always in a process of adapting and renewing its organization and policies. However, at closer inspection, the VPL is beginning to look more like an electronic laboratory. Circulation desks with knowledgeable librarians able to assist with your inquiries have been replaced with the mobile librarian and information staff, fixed with an iPad for the public’s ‘convenience.’ Attitudes, internally and externally, about the changes are ambivalent. In contrast to the VPL’s decision to retire an entire archive, the Glasgow School of Art’s chairwoman, Muriel Gray, reveals the relief from knowing that their archives survived the devastating fire that damaged the school’s historic library.

The desire to disperse the collection must have inspired an ongoing debate within the confines of the ‘real estate’ that it filled. This displacement of cultural capital could be explained by a pragmatic sense of jurisprudence—the department could be considered expired, and therefore dismissed. It could also be explained by the risk of copyright infringement, or in the management of space—perhaps in preparation to be occupied by computer booths? We are all implicated in the ways that information is shared. If you find yourself reading this, you have access to electronic formats. Another clue to the retirement of the collection comes from an estimation of the ‘real estate’ and usage of the space. “Not many people were using the Picture File,” an information staff member explained. “We do the stats every year.” Unfortunately, there were not electronic counters installed into the filing drawers to know how many people looked through the file folders. The statistic of under-usage would come from how often the images were signed out. This is a drastically inaccurate way to look at the usage of the collection, while also ignoring the historical significance of the collection.

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It would seem sensible that the VPL had the potential to utilize the historical trajectory of the Picture File. This devaluation of public imagination, of public access, is difficult to categorize. As stated in the official notice for the Picture File retirement, “The department was created as a resource for local artists, art students and interested citizens.” There are many ways to promote cultural narrative and community within libraries. David Senior, library bibliographer at The Museum of Modern Art, describes library classification systems in his essay “∞ Hospitality”: “To think about libraries is to think about thought and how to best provide hospitality through the design of the space, furnishings, ease of information retrieval and the advocacy of access” [1]. Looking at access, in the sense of initiating accessibility, a system or direction could be implemented by a curator or artist-in-residence through calls for project proposals, competitions, a linkage to the Writer-in-Residence Program or Central Library Public Art Program already in place at the main branch of the VPL. There seems to be a disconnect from the intellectual idea of ‘access,’ to form a reorganization of information for the public that incorporates citizens, public intellectuals, artists, and children interested in history. This would nurture a type of access ready for interpretation aimed at the same demographic that the VPL intended to support when the collection was first created. The question is how could the value of this archive, of public memory, take on new cultural forms?[2] What is certain is that if the archive was scanned, accessibility would have continued to be possible. And the clippings would have remained tangible. There could have been workshops and programs created while still adhering to the Copyright Act. How might a library curator have developed new ways to foster access and interest in usage?

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Frozen with horror over the sight of the empty filing cabinets in the Picture File department, one of Edward Hopper’s last paintings Sun in an Empty Room (1963) comes to mind. In that painting, warm hues sit in a cool void of an architecturally structured room. On the 6th floor of the VPL we absorb flickering fluorescents instead of a natural light spreading through a window. Meanwhile carpet tiles, rather than the thin clean brush strokes, give the impression of a reflective surface. The painting feels like an anticipation for the empty filing cabinets and small paper scraps that will be removed. The space will soon be an isolated endnote to an autobiography of diffidence. A landscape of emptiness, intrinsically longing for something unspecified, a conceptual ideal: nostalgic, uncanny, eviction. The potency feels of another time or world, perhaps the feeling of looking at your empty apartment for the last time, just before you leave it forever. Was this painting clipped out of a book and included in the Picture File?

Although the Picture File “was once a cornerstone of the arts service” (VPL) it is now a graveyard ready for redevelopment. It is widely known that libraries decommission material; it also known that the archive itself was not heavily used. Few people knew about the deaccession of the city’s historically unique and rare kind of directory known as the Picture File. Exasperated to find solutions for the concept of possible utilizations of archives, now that the original purpose has been deemed outdated, the opportunity to discover new projects within it has ceased. The dismantling and erasure of public memory warrants an explanation that has not been offered. The whole story of a retired collection remains unresolved—leaving only a void.

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Note

On the official notice for the retirement of the Picture File it states: “If you have been using the Picture File and would like to learn about finding pictures on the Internet, please ask our information staff” (VPL).

Endnotes

[1] Senior, David. “∞ Hospitality.” dextersinister. Just-In-Time Workshop & Occasional Bookstore, 8 Oct 2008. page 2. 2008: 2. Web. 14 August 2014.

[2] “The VPL cannot do anything with the images, because they do not know who holds the copyright and therefore cannot get permission to use them. In terms of utilizing the Picture File for an art project/residency program, the Canadian Copyright Act protects a copyright owner’s “right to produce or reproduce the [Picture File images] or any substantial part thereof”, so their use in a new work of art by another person would have to be “insubstantial” to avoid infringing copyright.  However, given that the Copyright Act does not define what is “substantial” and what is not, certainty over whether copyright has been infringed if a new work of art is created can be problematic. That being said, if the VPL were to use the images for a purpose that falls under one of the Copyright Act exceptions to infringement, then there would be no issue. In a low-risk situation, there would be no infringement of the copyright in the images if the VPL could successfully argue that their use of the images fell under the fair dealing exception found in section 29 of the Act, or one of the other exclusions under the Act.” Heather Watt, lawyer at Chandler Fogden Law Corporation.

[3] Vancouver Public Library. History of the VPL Picture File. 2014.