'Bibliothecaphilia' reveals love of libraries at Mass MoCA

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NORTH ADAMS >> In the space at the end of the page, someone has written in pen: "I will sing solo gospel and music focused on healing and empowering, lifting up men, brotherhood and gay male relationships."

The book is a career guide, and the writer has written a thought in response to it, in a time of commitment and insight. By his words, he is a young man and a man of faith. He may have come out to himself within a church that made his self-knowledge painful. The book tells him that with self-awareness, responsibility and perseverance he can find work he loves. And he answers with music, friendship and a drive to reach people who need understanding.

It's a deeply personal moment between a man and a book.

Vermont artist Jonathan Gitelson has found it in a second-hand bookstore, along with thousands of notes and conversations between readers and writers. They appear in his work, "Marginalia," as part of a new exhibit at Mass MoCA curated by Alexandra Foradas, a graduate student in art history at Williams College. "Bibliothecaphilia," the love of libraries, opens on Saturday, Jan. 24.

Foradas has always loved libraries. She grew up biking to her town library. And in the last few years, she said, she has seen libraries change.

Some libraries are closing, she said, as small, rural areas shift back to book trucks, and libraries and communities are facing the question of what libraries are, what they do, and how to recognize and keep that vital force.

She asks the same questions, and the depth of response to the show has surprised her, even before the show's opening. The show is hitting a nerve, she said.

"I keep hearing from people," she said. "Libraries have a passionate following."

A library is a collection of knowledge. It is a place to keep books, archives, databases — to bring them into contact with each other and let a reader make connections between them.

"[Libraries] provide interesting and unusual networks of information," Foradas said.

She often enjoys walking up to a shelf and finding something that happens to be next to something else. Searching online is more targeted, she said. In the graduate library at Williams, where artists are shelved alphabetically, she has often found new favorites because they happen to sit on the shelf next to an artist she knew.

Los Angeles sculptor Jena Priebe takes up this theme, "thinking about the conversations books have with one another," Foradas said.

"You read a sentence and it sticks in the mind, sparks a connection, and things spiral outward," Foradas said. "Her work does that visually."

For this show, Priebe is building a new work with pages rocketing out from one chair, a visual image of the energy of a reader holding these ideas.

Most of the books she will use to build this work come from one local collection, Priebe said, from a local man on the move. He had a varied collection: 16th- to 18th-century philosophy, and 20th-century, too, from Soren Kirkegaard, who served as a military chaplain in World War II, books on science and religion and handwriting analysis, children's stories.

Interweaving and fountaining these pages, she wants to capture the unseen energy and potential of reading, she said — "the life a book contains."

They pass through beautiful places," she said, "and people get to go to beautiful places by reading them."

Libraries become places where people grow and communities build, Foradas said. A library can bring people together.

People meet in libraries, Foradas said, in gatherings or events or chance meetings as they look for similar books in the stacks. The new Sawyer library at Williams has deliberately created spaces for studying, thinking and collaboration.

And a library can become a sanctuary.

"A library is a great leveler," Foradas said, "for anyone who can walk through the door or click on a link."

In a library, people can ask questions and find answers in safety, she said. A library can be a place for activism, awareness and power, a place to be curious without being judged.

Susan Hefuna speaks to this public and private space with her mashrabiyas — inspired by wooden screens put in windows to let in fresh air without letting anyone in the street see inside — and in another way, so do Clayton Cubitt's photographs of stimulated women reading aloud.

People respond to books passionately.

In "Marginalia," Gitelson collected hundreds of books with notes in the margins, underlinings, highlightings, even notes and letters between the pages. He found them chiefly at independent second-hand bookstores in Vermont, he said, where he lives.

He will make 1,500 to 2,000 of them available in this exhibit, for people to take off the shelf and page through. He will also give bookmarks, to let people flag their favorite discoveries.

"A lot of my work has to do with personal histories, oral histories and found objects," he said. "My parents are social workers."

In collecting these books, he has found photographs from the 1830s, a love letter, a mantra, even notes considering suicide or violence. A young women writes "I love math" in an algebra book, and in another text book, a young man draws a gun. A child calls out that she afraid her mother is starving herself. A drama student writes up and down a page of "Our Town," "I will kill myself this summer, if I have to come back here next year."

Reading these conversations, Gitelson said, he learns about people, about culture, about how people interact with knowledge.

"Physical objects matter in a changing world," he said.

A library may be digital space and a physical one, a private place and a communal one, a public and private place, and a place where anyone can come.

Foradas hopes people will think about the artwork, argue about it, put bookmarks in the books — and feel moved to be who they are.

If you go ...

What: 'Bibliothecaphilia' group show

When: Opening Saturday, Jan. 24

Where: Mass MoCA, 87 Marshall St., North Adams

Information: massmoca.org


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