Public Reading in the Personal Libraries Library

5.2 / Readership

Public Reading in the Personal Libraries Library

By Vanessa Kauffman Zimmerly December 4, 2013

Georges Perec’s 1978 experimental essay, “Brief Notes on the Art and Manner of Arranging One’s Books,” lists twelve categories that may serve as organizational directives for classifying books: alphabetical order; continent or country; color; date of acquisition; date of publication; format; genre; major period of literary history; language; priority for future reading; binding; or series.1 Approaching absurdity, Perec’s proposition emphasizes a classification system for singular books that is dependent on multiple objects, topologies, histories, and lexicons within and surrounding those same books. What might happen, though, if the tenuous borders of a nation were to dissolve? If a tome’s cover were to be bleached by the sun? Or if the organizer’s priorities were simply to change? As Perec himself notes, his imaginative schematics are inconclusive; they favor a library that breathes and is illuminated by the temporal relativity of texts that are jogged alongside their reader’s memories.

In light of these profoundly social aspects of books, the artist and printmaker Abra Ancliffe’s Personal Libraries Library (PLL) suggests another unorthodox locus for registering what seems to be un-locatable. The Personal Libraries Library in Portland, Oregon, is home to 266 books that have been accessioned and arranged according to their previous readers.2 The purpose of each of the books in Ancliffe’s library is to signify that it was once ordered and read by a specific person. Ancliffe describes the PLL as “a subscription, lending library [that] recreates and reconsiders the personal libraries of artists, philosophers, scientists, writers, and other thinkers and makers.”3 Currently home to five micro-libraries, the PLL has been actively amassing the collections of Maria Mitchell, Robert Smithson, Jorge Luis Borges, Italo Calvino, and Anne Spencer since 2009, and Georges Perec will join this roster in 2014.

The PLL began when Ancliffe encountered a hiccup while researching the nineteenth-century astronomer Maria Mitchell. Though she hoped to find records of the book titles that were in the Nantucket Atheneum while Mitchell was a librarian there, Ancliffe came up empty-handed. But Jascin Finger, the special collections curator of the Maria Mitchell Association, provided Ancliffe with the catalog of Mitchell’s personal library.4 Because she was impressed by the vast scope of titles that ranged from the hard sciences to the Romanticism of American Transcendentalists, Ancliffe wanted to recreate Mitchell’s library, and with this desire, the larger project of the Personal Libraries Library came to her “naturally and almost fully formed.”

All beloved books bear the marks of their readers, and those in the PLL are no different

For each personal library in Ancliffe’s collection, the acquisition process ideally begins with the procurement of an extant, fully documented catalog, like the one she received for Mitchell’s collection; however, in such a document’s absence, Ancliffe mines the selected figure’s archival records, published bibliographies, essays, and lectures for notations of titles. She seeks out accurate editions of cataloged books that coincide with each figure’s era of readership and purchases them with funds from new or renewing PLL members. Additionally, Ancliffe allocates membership funds of patrons she knows personally to particular titles that she suspects may especially suit their interests, and she stamps an acknowledgement of this patron inside the book’s cover. Engaging the patronage of 162 local and international readers by diligently accessioning books, hosting reading-room hours, and routinely mailing hand-printed ephemera to members, Ancliffe has built the PLL into a delightful intellectual labyrinth for anyone who has ever wondered what it would be like to walk into the bibliographic record of a historical figure.

Despite Ancliffe’s attentiveness to materiality, it would be a mistake to relegate the PLL as an expression of nostalgia or object fetish. Because many of the books within the PLL’s collection were bound during a bygone era, they now exist in varying degrees of structural fragility. This, however, does not prohibit Ancliffe from maintaining the integrity of the PLL’s identity, which she explains as “a circulating library, allowing access to books that may not be accessible otherwise [and where] every book can be checked out, no matter how precious.” All beloved books bear the marks of their readers, and those in the PLL are no different: dog-eared pages, scribbled marginalia, and cracked spines ontologically transform books from mere devices to totems that carry as much the histories of their current readers as that of their previous owners or authors—this is the phenomenon that the PLL celebrates and shares.

Abra Ancliffe, Personal Libraries Library. Books on the shelf of the Robert Smithson Library, 2013. Courtesy of the Artist. Photo: Micah Fischer.

The library draws readers’ attention to the subtle provocations of its volumes through printed ephemera by the Personal Libraries Library Press; this is another extension of the PLL’s personality that Ancliffe single-handedly operates via a myriad of publishing techniques, including her 1966 Asbern “ADR.1” letterpress. As Ancliffe acknowledges, the division of a book’s ideology and content from its physical architecture is not always easy or necessary to make, and each edition of printed materials published by the PLL Press evidences this anew. In these ephemera, Ancliffe displays a particular affinity for the book’s paratext, relentlessly exploring the relationship between the body of the text and its surrounding textual material, such as the book cover, title, front and back matter, or other remnants of editorial decisions; she sees such appendages as specters of “the means of production, or the production of meaning.” Idiosyncratically employing the particular functions of footnotes, endnotes, appendices, indexes, book covers, endpapers, and library furnishings, Ancliffe through the PLL Press depicts the paratext as where one tome’s periphery becomes another’s genesis. Bridging these notations, Ancliffe expresses the subjectivity of the books in the PLL, its impress, and her own lyricism as its librarian.

In his illuminating survey of collected essays titled The Library at Night (Yale University Press, 2008), Alberto Manguel considers the ability of a library’s taxonomic system to hold order while simultaneously nourishing the multitudinous worldviews of its patrons. Asking if a library can reflect a plurality of identities, he speculates:

It may well be that, because of its kaleidoscopic quality, any library, however personal, offers to whoever explores it a reflection of what he or she seeks, a tantalizing wisp of intuition of who we are as readers, a glimpse into the secret aspects of the self.5

While each collection within the PLL could be considered an ambitiously determined, well-crafted portrait of a historic reader, it is equally important to recognize the ways in which the collections themselves render a nexus of current readers. It would be an understandable challenge for readers to explore only one of the PLL’s collections. Considering the individuals who are currently being collected, it’s not surprising that spheres of influence resound in the PLL—and they’re all enigmatically mapped in Ancliffe’s presswork, notations in acquisition documents, text and image updates to the Personal Libraries Library blog, and the stamped cards that live within the book pockets. Depending on a PLL member’s devotion to following the library’s path of a particular owner, author, or subject, chances are she or he will be circuitously routed and worlds that previously seemed far afield will feel more like home.

Stone, Timber, Night Sky, Breath, Light, Knot, Record, Letter, Forge, Stream, Orbit, Pulse, Unknown, Gap, Study, Matter, Decay, Reflection, Order, and Leaf: these are the orders that constitute the Subject portion of the PLL’s first physical catalog, which will be exhibited at the 2014 Portland Biennial. The forthcoming Object-Subject Catalogue was designed by Ancliffe as a non-traditional card catalog that records each book in the library according to both its meaning and matter. Organized by subjects that are “more pliant, abstract, and metaphorical than in standard subject catalogues (Library of Congress, etc.),” the catalog was initially imagined by Ancliffe as a subjective organization that would afford the library increased points of access, a system for cross-references, and previously unrecognized interpretations of the texts for readers. Delegating one side of each catalog card to record such selected subjects for each book’s content, Ancliffe will place on the other side a description of bibliographic and publishing information, as well as an inventory of the book’s specific material make-up, such as the time of initial construction and any alterations accumulated through the book’s use. Ancliffe intends for the drawers of the catalog to be opened from either side—accessing the cards from subject or object—though if the catalog’s organization resembles the previous productions of the library, its user will likely be enchanted somewhere in its middle.

The PLL’s books are momentary containers of stored potential energy

“The PLL would not be what it is without members—perhaps, to take from Smithson, it would be language in rigor mortis,” Ancliffe said about the delightful contingencies within the various sites of the PLL and the PLL Press. The idea that came to Ancliffe four years ago is now thoughtfully manifest in several iterations, each eluding any signs of obsolescence. On shelves within the reading room in Portland, the PLL’s books are momentary containers of stored potential energy, each book anticipating a future reader who will animate the contents both within and beyond its covers. In an era where the so-called death of the author and the death of print are ever looming, Ancliffe’s Personal Libraries Library is a luminous conflation of readable spaces, both tangible and metaphysical, that investigates the roles specific persons, texts, and objects have had and will continue to have in mobilizing collective thought. The PLL foregrounds the personal act of reading as a production constellated by generations of writers, readers, and collectors—each invaluably tethered to the writing of the social body.


  1. Georges Perec, “Brief Notes on the Art and Manner of Arranging One’s Books,” in Species of Spaces and Other Pieces (London: Penguin Books, 1997), 152–53.
  2. The exact number of the Personal Libraries Library’s acquisitions varies widely as books arrive daily. This figure was provided on October 25, 2013.
  3. Abra Ancliffe, “Personal Libraries Library,”, accessed December 2, 2013.
  4. This and all subsequent quotes of Abra Ancliffe are from email correspondence with the author, October 25, 2013.
  5. Alberto Manguel, “The Library as Identity” in The Library at Night (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2008), 304–05.

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