November 12, 2013

The Library of Lost Books


Stephen Livingstone’s book, a concertina construction made from the French Miracles de Notre Dame. Image via BBC News.

Apparently there’s a better way to handle books you no longer need than destroying 250,000 of them, as my home county’s library system did this year. The Birmingham Public Library, which just opened its new location in September, chose instead to donate books they could no longer use to Susan Kruse, the curator of the resultant Library of Lost Books. The Library of Lost Books’ site explains:

Library books can have a short lifespan. […] Birmingham Library kindly let Susan rescue a bunch of their elderly, unwanted, and battered books. She had to travel deep into the stacks and rummage around in bins but she found treasure. Old books and music scores with beautiful paper, interesting old bindings, engravings, old photographs and letterpress printed pages.

After choosing many candidates for artistic reworking, Kruse sent them to artists; the final project features forty-eight artists and was given support by Wolverhampton University and Sheaffer.

More than a year before the project was exhibited, Kruse published several artists’ musings on her blog. All of these seem both completely unsure and completely excited; for example, Jane Hyslop in June of last year:

The book is stimulating on so many levels and I will find it difficult to narrow down what my approach will be.

And Clare Boothby:

I have no idea what to do with these yet. I have gone from anticipation, through the slight disappointment that always comes with turning a possibility into an actuality, to love for my books (I carry them up and down stairs to sit next to me while I work or sleep) and the hope that I can change them in a way that is worthy of them and the Library.

Some of the project’s resultant art can be seen here, though it seems that most is unavailable online. The artists used varied materials—postcards, thin red string, marker, stamps, maps, wire coiled into cursive.

Before the exhibition opened, Kruse explained what she hoped for her project in a press release:

To have brought these books back to life has been a joy and to see them out where they belong for people to appreciate is a prospect that can’t come around quickly enough.

There is something intangible associated with books, something magical. I hope I have captured this spirit in the Library of Lost Books exhibition.

The books belong here in Birmingham. They would have been donated by the people of the city, some of them from personal libraries, many years ago.

The Library of Lost Books installation will stay at the Library of Birmingham until November 23rd, after which Kruse plans to take them on a traveling exhibition throughout the U.K.


Emma Aylor is a former Melville House intern.