UCSB Vice Chancellor and Campus Architect Marc Fisher calls the dramatic new addition to Davidson Library “the Crossroads of UC Santa Barbara” because “both physically and symbolically, the university library sits at the crossroads of our academic community.”
While it’s easy to see how this dazzling, intricate structure fulfills the physical aspect of the crossroads description, it takes a little longer to fully appreciate what being at the symbolic crossroads of a 21st-century university might mean, and in particular what that might mean for something that’s still called a library. Fortunately, that’s where the art comes in, or at least one major piece of art, Nancy Gifford’s giant sculpture “Lament,” which is made out of the covers of approximately 2,000 old books.
A symbolic crossroads is a place of reckoning, and not necessarily a peaceful one. Ask Oedipus or the great bluesman Robert Johnson. Contemporary libraries, and in particular those intended to serve educational institutions, have, in fact, reached just such a wrenching and fateful symbolic crossroads in relation to the traditional function of research libraries, which was to house printed matter.
In the old days, when librarians were still synonymous with the classic index-finger-to-the-lips “shush,” there were no Starbucks to compete with, and rules were still rules. Today, at a facility like the new Davidson, whole floors are devoted to group study rooms and “collaboratories,” where the researchers of the future sit together, brainstorming with laptops in front of them, lattes at their sides, and often as not, few or no books in sight.
“Lament,” the large collage that occupies a big chunk of the wall on the first floor of the building’s Mountain Side, takes the demise of print culture as its subject and plays a kind of visual blues at the crossroads where books collide with the digital information revolution. Gifford began collecting the volumes she then dismembered more than a decade ago, and it took her the better part of a year to tear them apart and put them back together just so.
As a young girl growing up in the rural Midwest, she says that books and libraries “sustained” her, but the project was born of ambivalence rather than nostalgia. Her mixed feelings about the end of the print era came pouring out, first as destruction, when she pulled the covers off, and then as reinvention, when she began the painstaking process of collaging these thousands of fragments into a giant, endlessly referential palimpsest of disembodied titles.
One of the reasons the piece works so well and is so much fun to look at and especially to read is because Gifford did not choose to go with an array of all classics. One can only imagine how tiresome a wall composed entirely of “great books” might become. Instead, she’s got a slight emphasis on the clearly dated, as in such titles as Lorna Doone or Stanley in Africa, but nearby there’s almost always a ringer from the more recent past, like The Cult of the Luxury Brand.
Darker outside book covers occupy the wide perimeter, surrounding a pale center of inside endpapers in various shades of cream. This arrangement echoes both the relation of a picture to its frame and that of a hardback book cover to its contents, collapsing the fundamental structures of two disparate media into a single composite image. Looking more closely at “Lament,” one finds fragments of poetry on scraps of paper subtly embedded among the covers and pages.
The piece, which was originally commissioned as part of a group show at the Museum of Contemporary Art Santa Barbara called Requiem for the Bibliophile, has provoked passionate responses from the beginning, and it’s best hope for success in this new location depends on how thoroughly students invest their own feelings and memories in what could potentially become an icon of the UCSB experience.
If the remarks left so far in the comments book that the library has thoughtfully provided are any indication, that emotional adoption by students is already underway. “Love!” reads one typical comment, followed by a hand-drawn heart. “Inspiring, I want to read!” says another. Elsewhere, inscriptions in Chinese bump up against block caps proclaiming, “THIS IS AWESOME.” Although we are far from the last word on how UCSB will learn to live with and love “Lament,” it remains a great choice to inaugurate the new Crossroads space, and for now at least, it has students responding “yes so much yes” and even “dis tew cool.”