Expired: Looking at Library Books in a New Light
Photographer Kerry Mansfield shares her thoughts on her “Expired” photo series.
In elementary school, I spent many lost afternoons hiding in a library nook reading. Settled deeply into a green vinyl beanbag chair, I was surrounded by the scent of musty paper. After learning how to write my name in grade school, the first rite of passage was to inscribe it on a library check-out card promising the book’s safe journey and return. I remember reading the list of names that had come before me and savoring the feeling that I was a part of this book’s history– a shared, communal experience exposed by curly-Q handwritten names and room assignments. I imagined the repeat customers devouring the book well past its due date–act of defiance that’s become invisible with the introduction of the bar code.
As an artist, I’ve always been fascinated by how cultural objects are used and thrown away with ease. While studying architecture in school, I learned the Japanese term “wabi-sabi”– the art of finding beauty in imperfection and acceptance of the natural cycle of growth, decay and death. Unlike the American cultural focus on spectacle, wabi-sabi is underplayed and modest, the kind of undeclared beauty that waits patiently to be discovered. For me, it’s found in the time-worn jackets of expired library books that have traveled through many hands and across county lines until they have reached their final resting place: warehouses where safe harbor can be found in Costco-sized rows of “discards” and “withdrawns” that rise within inches of the ceiling. After discovering an ancient check-out card in the back of a book at Goodwill several years ago, I felt the impending loss of those invaluable records. I made it my mission to find as many of them as I could to document and celebrate them. These gigantic warehouses are the places I began to haunt in search of that fleeting history inscribed on paper.
As the project grew and more and more reclaimed former library books piled up in my studio, I thought about my class on the history of photography. The volumes, documented in “Expired,” serve as specimens, akin to the post-mortem photography of the Victorian Era, during which time family members only received the honor of documentation upon their demise. Photographs were rare and costly to make, so a single picture had to represent the entire life of the dearly departed.
In “Expired,” each picture serves as an homage to the book’s history, etched onto the pages by way of marginalia, a yellowed coffee splatter, or sticky peanut-butter-and-jelly fingerprints. It’s easy to feel a sense of abuse and loss, but these books say much more. They show the evidence of everyone that has touched them, because they were well-read, and well-loved. They were not left on shelves, untouched. Now they have a new life, as portraits or records of the shared experience unique to the library book.
We must take time to celebrate the swiftly disappearing communal experience offered by library books as they are being replaced by downloads, finger swipes, and plastic newness. If you listen carefully, you can hear the aching poetry–the burden of the years that calls from their tattered pages.