Big Mobile Public Library Energy
Alistair Gentry


Archives, libraries and shared resources have always been prime targets for cultural cleaners and tyrants. Have a look at Wikipedia's list of destroyed libraries for a depressing slice out of the biblioclasty cake, with Christians burning the libraries of Muslims and indigenous people, Muslims burning the libraries of Christians and Sikhs, emperors erasing their own people's histories, and both Communists and Nazis starting by burning books and ending by burning people, to paraphrase Heinrich Heines's famous warning. And Why?

Because in any era of ideological conflict and supremacy of opinion over fact– and sorry/not sorry, our current “fake news” narcissistic Insta-clusterfuck of a culture isn’t the first or worst of its kind, it’s just the biggest – libraries and archives usually preserve a multiplicity of perspectives. Even if, perhaps especially if, these perspectives are in conflict with each other, this makes them a corrective against attempts to rewrite history or manipulate the present.

A person or a regime who knows they’re doing or saying wrong always takes collective intelligence and shared knowledge as a potential rebuke, even if it’s just a passive one from a book on a shelf or a file in a subdirectory of a hard drive somewhere. Luckily there are relatively few genuine cackling lunatic supervillains on Earth at any one time – the likes of Peter Thiel and Donald Trump – but people in the banality of evil leagues and on the relegation list for karmic demotion usually know it perfectly well, and they hate nothing more than anyone or anything having the audacity to correct their moral or factual errors. The truth, or the idea that there is a truth, is highly destabilising to anyone whose foundation is lies. Context strangles propaganda at birth.

This isn’t the only reason we should treasure and understand shared resources, and nor is the inherent value of knowledge. The library is also a metaphor of how our world could be; a free repository of assets (in every sense of the word free) from which everybody withdraws according to their need, on the understanding that some people either inherently, circumstantially, or due to structural inequity have more need than others. Imagine a national (and eventually international, universal) basic asset library for artists… not necessarily of books but of shared and freely available knowledge, provided formally but ubiquitously at grassroots level and all the way up to the national institutions, who become midwives or ecologists of culture instead of gatekeepers. Systematise peer support instead of it always being ad hoc, last minute, reliant on goodwill and charity. All the stuff it’s not efficient for any individual artist to do full time, shared by (and paid for) by fair progressive taxes and above all by the people who currently profit from the creativity of artists with little or no trickle-down of money or benefit to those artists. An always-on register of duty legal experts, agents, studio technicians, accountants, sales people, mentors, accessibility consultants, community liaisons. Universal mass access to art and design software, editing software, printing machines, 3D fabrication equipment. Costumes, fabric, paint, wood, metal, clay, speakers, lights.

Of course all of these things exist as resources available to some cohorts of artists, sometimes as genuine collectivised resources but mainly for those who can afford to pay and networked or geographically located in the right way to gain access to them. The artists who can afford to pay are very often those same old privileged artists who started playing the game on its easiest setting anyway, and never needed or used a public library, or anything with the principles of one… except maybe to plunder public goods for private profit.

What I really want is an artists’ universal library of stuff that has the ethos of the Star Trek replicator; it doesn’t matter who you are, you just say what you need and it appears in a post-market, post-scarcity beam of light. If that could literally happen I’d be thrilled, obviously, but I’ll settle for the principle: people who genuinely need stuff just get what they need. Or if luxury 23rd century space communism doesn’t blow your skirt up and nostalgia is more your thing, what about the ethos of the mobile library that used to come around once every few weeks to the village I lived in as a child? Free books for everyone who needs them, provided everyone else can share them too… because if you can do something like this for people, and live your life without taking more than you need or depriving anyone else, why wouldn’t you? s

  Alistair Gentry is a writer, artist and performer. According to a passing stranger who recently shouted out of a car window, he is also a fucking weirdo. He is based, divides his time and works

Alistair appears in the Autumn/Winter 2020 edition of the Sluice magazine. The magazine is available to buy in both print and digital, here.