Thursday, May 1, 2008

Ann Chamberlain, 1951-2008

The artist, Ann Chamberlain, much cherished by San Franciscans for the Abraham Lincoln Brigade Monument she created for the Embarcadero’s Ferry Plaza and the Cancer Center Sculpture Garden she designed for Mount Zion Hospital, is held in especially high esteem by the patrons and staff of the San Francisco Public Library. At the time that the new Main Library was built, a controversy was brewing about the role of the card catalog. The catalog was a repository for decades of the hard work and curatorial efforts of generations of librarians, but it was fast being eclipsed by online catalog access. Some argued that we should keep the catalog; others called it a fossil. Chamberlain, in her wisdom and sensitivity, saw in the catalog a potential work of art, and so designed the library mural “Untitled” that is composed of hundreds of catalog cards bearing not only the original notations of librarians and staff, but the markings of more than 200 patrons who contributed their comments. In the continuity it represents is found the heart and soul of the Public Library and its librarians and staff. It is with the most ardent respect and regard that the San Francisco Public Library honors the memory of Ann Chamberlain.

Toba Singer
Librarian, Art, Music and Recreation Center
Two details from "Untitled" by Ann Hamilton and Ann Chamberlain

Artists Ann Hamilton and Ann Chamberlain described their project for “Untitled” in a brochure written for prospective annotators. They came upon the idea to use library catalog cards as a recognition of the changes that where happening in libraries everywhere – the transition from a physical card catalog to an online virtual catalog. They recognized that this meant that library users had to “change from a tactile experience of organized information to an experience that is primarily visual and electronic.” The artists acknowledged the serendipitous nature of using the physical card file and wanted to render that kind of relationship to information in a physical form: “Extending both vertically and horizontally through the building the palimpsest of cards presents the marks of individual library users and remembers the kinds of accidental juxtapositions and associations that they physical and conceptual order of the old catalog once so readily invited.”

Hamilton and Chamberlain provided their annotators with guidance on how to mark the cards. They detailed writing instruments that used waterproof ink and that were "light fast" – that would not fade through exposure to light over time. At the same time participants were encouraged to using a pen or pencil that “feels right.” They encouraged annotators to quote text from inside the catalog card’s book, or to find, quote, and cite a book on a related topic. “For us, the process of excerpting text and creating juxtapositions between the hand written annotation and the pre-existing typed catalog information replicates a broadly associative research pattern which is akin to the leapfrogging that occurs when one leaps through the many subjects that exist in a single card drawer.”

The artists worked with an awareness that the 50,000 catalog cards would be affixed to walls on the third, fourth and fifth floors of the library, walls that served as a boundary between the open library collections from the closed stack reference collections. The actual catalog cards used in their artwork came from the Library’s branch card catalogs. The old Main Library’s card catalog remains intact in storage.

For more information see:

Ann Chamberlain’s obituary at the April 22, 2008 San Francisco Chronicle

Art Works at the San Francisco Public Library

The Art, Music and Recreation Center Newspaper Clipping File. Ask to see the “Hamilton, Ann & Chamberlin, Ann – Untitled” subfolder within the “San Francisco Public Library – Main Library (1996- )” folder.

Search for article citations about Ann Chamberlain in the Art Full Text online index.

There is also a short segment about Ann Chamberlain’s art on a DVD of Visual Arts segments from the KQED-TV program Spark.

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