The Interstitial Library, Circulating Collection

First, we must make a distinction between The Interstitial Library proper, and The Interstitial Library's Circulating Collection, which we represent. The ordinary relationship of central institution and satellite is here inverted. There is, at present, no Interstitial Library as such. It does not exist. It will never exist, in the ordinary sense, because existence is in the world, and the Interstitial Library is not in the world.

The Interstitial Library proper—of which our Circulating Collection is both extension and anticipation—was founded in the future, which makes tracing its history both more difficult and less. More difficult, in that so much of it has not yet happened. Less difficult, because some of it is happening right now, and all we have to do is look around to witness it.

Ordinarily, a venerable institution discovers the need to reach beyond its immediate community, and launches a satellite operation that refers back to the central library both in space and in time. In our case, however, the satellite operation precedes the institution and in a certain sense founds it. The Circulating Collection might be compared to a child who gives birth to its mother. A more exact comparison might be found in the somewhat tortured reasoning once put forward to explain Adam’s belly button: all things mortal have a past, so although pre-Creation history never took place, it is founded retrospectively at the moment of Creation. Though the Interstitial Library does not exist, it will exist. Furthermore, it will have existed. But the venerable institution of the Interstitial Library will acquire its long history retrospectively, only after the Circulating Collection gives it its preliminary posterity.

Let us try to give an account of this history that is yet to come.

The Interstitial Library was or will be founded at a dark time in the history of the United States by a group of radical librarians who found themselves thrust into politic action by the persistent incursions of the government against their ethos of freedom of information. Long associated with the forces of repression and conservatism, librarians emerged in the early 21st century as the custodians of civil liberties. The shushing gesture (the index finger raised to the lips) was adopted and recast as a gesture of fellowship among the radical librarians and their followers. This group of radical librarians called themselves the SHH or the Society of HH, for reasons that will become apparent.

The SHH reasoned on the basis of the Dewey Decimal System that if every book had a unique call number, and there were infinite call numbers, then there must be infinite books still to be written (in which case the world was not in such immediate danger of total destruction as one might have imagined from contemporary evidence) and furthermore an infinite library to contain them; that as the call number for those books lay between the books already on the shelves, rather than beyond them, the shelf-space for those books must also lie between them; that there was therefore a great amount of space between any two books, however snugly shelved, just as there were infinite numbers between any two numbers; that if the space existed, it ought to be possible to get into it, providing you had not eaten a big lunch.

Once the probable existence of this interstitial zone had been demonstrated, it proved a simple matter to find the way there. Initially the zone was used primarily for quick escapes during the time of persecution, as well as for overflow shelving. Many of the interstitial passages are lined with books and on one's travels through the "skinny" one often passes a librarian tirelessly shelving, or catches the gleam of an eye through the stacks. However, it was discovered that these spaces could be expanded easily, and soon they began to be colonized, as many people preferred to live in a place they could shape to their liking rather than in a place that was prefabricated and indeed had already been occupied by someone else, usually someone a bit stiff around the knees and not entirely clean. An entire second America grew inside the first one, fitting there as neatly as fine bones in a fish. These were called the the Dewey States after the Dewey Decimal System, but later became known as the Interstitial States.

This discussion becomes highly technical, but I believe it will help us to go into some detail about the specific location of the Interstitial States, as it may clarify the unusual temporal and spatial status of the Library.

To do this I would like to introduce a term: hh (h´ h´) This difficult-to-pronounce word has several meanings. 1. the death rattle 2. The infinitely slender space between life and death, but by extension between all definite things, the "skinny"; all indeterminate and in-between spaces, such as the insides of walls and ceilings and hollow doors, and especially between books on a shelf 3. the time in between ticks of a clock; a particular instance of such time, particularly when hollowed out for personal use, a skootch 4. The request, generally pronounced on the deathbed, to enter the Interstitial States of America and follow the labyrinthine between-roads to the Breathing Room to make one's final citizen's address in the presence of two librarians and a stenographer, for entry into the archives.

The fifth meaning must be gone into at greater length. Hh, when pronounced correctly, does not just name the space between life and death, and by extension all things, but creates it in the throat of the speaker, so that when in need of a quick escape, one can actually slip through the tiny aperture thus created, if nimble enough, and perhaps with a dab of shush cheese—though this operation has been proved impossible by physicists, who must nevertheless contend with the historical evidence of its successful accomplishment, most notably by the first generation of guerrilla librarians, when they were under pressure by the state. That this word creates what it names has given rise to several quasi-religious sects: one led by semioticians who proclaim that they have found the "transcendental signified," hitherto associated with God, and have consequently thought to find God in precisely this word; another claiming that the word in "In the beginning was the word" was "hh," and that its pronunciation by God created the distinction between past and future, life and death in which all of history finds room to breathe. This would suggest that our world is itself interstitial, occupying the cracks in another, more stolid, sedimented world. Our world too once appeared as a zone of free invention, a pulpous mash of possibility, limpid and infinite, as the Interstitial States seem to us today.

The pronunciation of this word also requires special note. Hh is a time diphthong: the first h is pronounced in backtalk and the second the usual way, so that the word first undoes and then does itself. It thus reverses and then restarts time, forming a little catch in what one might call the throat of time, and can be heard both by the dead and by the living. This word, generally considered nearly unpronounceable, becomes easier for the terminally ill as they approach death, and is understood as a request to enter hh and make one's final address in the Breathing Room. The word can be mistaken for the death rattle in the very old or ailing, but it is a quite different thing: the death rattle announces the passage into the land of the dead, it is the clatter of the screen door behind the departing, while hh pries open the space between living and dead—which is not even a space until the prying widens it, but a seal as of two lips pressed firmly together, or the pages of a closed book.

At first, those passages of the interstices that were devoted to books served merely as overflow shelving for ordinary libraries. But gradually these stacks became a holding place for those books that had proved particularly difficult to shelve or categorize in the terms of the AACR2. Recognizing in these books something itself uniquely interstitial, the SHH or council of interstitial librarians began to seek out and even commission deliberately interstitial books, books that presented cataloguing challenges, or appealed to an exceedingly bifurcated or multifurcated readership—e.g. a highly technical study of tooth reenameling techniques, translated from the Icelandic into English rhyming couplets. Many of these books were written and published, but others were merely posited; these unwritten books were also entered into the catalogue. This was the true beginning of The Interstitial Library, a library of potentially infinite extent, containing all the books that exist in the interstices of extant literature, whether they have been written or not. The interstitial stacks themselves were renamed the Styx, in a deliberate reference to the river that separates two worlds, the world of the living and the world of the dead. 

A curious effect of the collection-building efforts of the Interstitial Librarians was that some of their house publications were cross-over successes in the mainstream book industry, to the consternation of publishers, who subsequently funded, with little success, a series of would-be interstitial texts, hoping to tap into this market. Incidentally, one interesting result of this development was that these crossover bestsellers were acquired by large numbers of ordinary libraries, which thereby began, however minimally, to replicate the collection of the Interstitial Library.

It will not have escaped the notice of close readers that the Interstitial Library bears a partial resemblance to that infinite library posited by Jorge Luis Borges in his short fiction, The Library of Babel. Perhaps this is no accident. The unusual spatiotemporal position of the Styx means that it is actually possible to visit the Library from any point in history. One merely has to discover the route, whether through deductive reasoning, or by accidentally pronouncing the word hh, possibly in the throes of a tubercular coughing fit. We consider it entirely possible that Borges himself has visited the Library, and indeed there are reports, possibly spurious, of sightings of a man in dark glasses navigating by instinct through the darkest passages of the Styx. If it is true that Borges visited our Library, he partially misunderstood its nature, perhaps because his blindness did not permit him to discern the logic of its extraordinary shelving system. Nonetheless his account, flawed as it is, lay the groundwork for the Library in certain respects—another case of an imitation founding its original—and for this reason he retains a position as Head Librarian in the Interstitial Library, though to date he has not appeared at any of its administrative meetings.

But this was all in the future. Let us return to The Circulating Collection.

We at the Circulating Collection are uncomfortable with the transcendental and even theological implications of a library that is, perhaps technically within the world in its ambiguous interstitial zone, yet certainly beyond the reach of average readers. We believe it is important to bring an interstitial collection to these readers. More, we believe that this collection is already within reach of these readers. This library is in full and daily use, and this fact is central to its definition. It requires no administration, and its readers are all librarians. In this sense, we—the head librarians and founders—are irrelevant to its functioning. However, we believe that this library is underpublicized; that is it under some threat from the hegemony of corporate conglomerates over both publishing and marketing; that it is occasionally under threat even from other libraries; that it is overlooked, misunderstood or even deplored by exactly those readers and librarians who ought to celebrate it; and finally, that it lacks the benefit of a catalog and a cadre of librarians who can render assistance, offer suggestions for reader, promote more interesting books and more interesting reading, and build a roving, interstitial community of freelance librarians, who will constitute a kind of SHH free of the fantasy of escape—an interstitial library of and in this world.

Like the Interstitial Library proper, the founding of the Circulating Collection has a retroactive property. We launched the library in 2004; in that sense it is newborn. However, in this moment in which we define it, it acquires a long history—as long as the history of writing itself. Therefore, the fledgling catalog of the Circulating Collection is very small, but its holdings are vast. It preemptively comprises all the books it will ever catalog, and those books are already available for checkout. What we are announcing today, therefore, is not the birth of a collection, but of of an idea, and a series of practises that will refine this already magnificent collection that we, all of us, have inherited.

Not only is the Circulating Collection more worldly than its parent organization. It is more worldly than any other library.

This is partly because it is neither symbolically nor pragmatically isolated. There is no building with our insignia inscribed in its marble, nor do we own the books that comprise our collection. The library has no site, or rather it has as many sites as it has books in its collection. Since books move, the Collection also moves, and unlike ordinary circulating collections, it never returns. Its holdings are both never and always on the shelf.

Furthermore, The Interstitial Library Circulating Collection relies on no transcendent structure to order its holdings. Typical reference libraries posit a second library of pure texts, a limpid abstract structure of differentiation with no lost books or misshelvings, of which its actual collection of battered, grimy and dog-eared books is a mere approximation. The pure form of the reference library is the catalogue. The collection itself strives toward the catalog's limpid relational structure, as formalized in the AACR2R (the Anglo-American Cataloguing Rules, Revised) without ever fully realizing it. Our library also has a catalog, too, but it is not imposed from on high, but evolves from the idiosyncratic contributions of its librarian patrons.

The way we organize our books is the way books organize themselves in the everyday practises of readers, booksellers, those who collect and those who discard and those who sweep up the leavings and cart them to the dump, children and dogs who gnaw on books, those who worship books as sacred objects as well as book burners and those who use books as objets d'art and the small business operations that saw out the center of books to use to stash money and drugs, those who use books to prop up one leg of a shaky table or as a surface for writing or rolling cigarettes, those who buy hundreds of books bound in green leather irrespective of content to suit a decorating scheme, those who preserve pulp paperbacks in archival plastic bags and those who jerk off onto their pages, those who throw books at their lovers in a rage, who read them when they want to fall asleep, who give them as gifts or pointed messages, who cut them up and make collages out of them or paint on their pages or rearrange their words into new texts, who highlight key passages with yellow marker and affix tiny fluorescent tags to their pages, who use them as the source text for a military code, who carry them close to their hearts where they might stop a bullet, who leave them pointedly behind after moving their possessions to remind an ex-lover of what they once shared, who read them with concordances or Cliffnotes or in abbreviated versions, who skim or look at the pictures or read from back to front or skip to the end.





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