Unbound Libraries

Unbound Libraries was a worksession around digital libraries and tools for organisation of knowledge that took place online from 31 May to 5 June 2020.

“Tools cannot be separated from the knowledge systems in which they have been imagined and made,” (Frozen Social Relations and Time for a Thaw: Visibility, Exclusions, and Considerations for Postcolonial Digital Archives by Martha Nell Smith, 2014)

The public library can be considered as an archetypal form of knowledge system, that aims to collect, represent and preserve general knowledge. This means to centralise knowledge, too, and for institutional libraries this implies that librarians are tasked to define, collect and categorize knowledge deemed meaningful in accordance to the institution’s set of values and missions. In a library, generally structured by a hierarchical model, there can be various degrees of porosity between its levels of authority.

The librarian’s task of organizing knowledge happens in dialogue with other parties, too, such as the Library of Congress, whose category system is used by many libraries and who is responsible for the ubiquitous MARC record format. Within these complex interrelations, knowledge curation practices have historically over-represented certain narratives, as catalogue systems are deeply ingrained in the western tradition, with its colonial and patriarchal legacies. That is why many knowledge transmission methods occurring throughout a multiplicity of social, geographical and cultural contexts have been neglected or overlooked. Libraries are mainly organised around the book, which persists as the canonical knowledge unit, while oral histories, non-book objects, wall posters, flyers, self-published books and zines are less present.

The multiplication of informal libraries and archives often linked to specific communities as well as the appearance of digital libraries - legal and illegal - question the boundaries of the public library as an institutional knowledge system and show the richness of its outsides. These alternatives are meaningful for multiple reasons: for their content, collected in socially and politically situated environments; for their structures, as they propose a wider and wilder variety of modes, criterias, categories, protocols; and their presence, which tells of necessities that cannot be met by public libraries. Community-based collections, radical archives, decentralized digital libraries have for decades been working in their own ways alongside and against their institutional counterparts as forms of radical and critical librarianship.

Digital infrastructures and tools can support these practices as they have the potential to question-by-doing the dominant practices, by widening the library’s terms of accessibility and agency. What happens if we start creating parallels between standard tools for library collections and more informal, feminist or oral tools ? What strategies can we invent to act upon omissions, essentialisms, generalisations and stereotypes in categorisation systems? Can we think a federation of libraries on the basis of other criteria than uniformity and sameness? How can we open up collections to the multiple forms of knowledge transfer related to orality, situated objects, physical embodiment, self-published objects, videos...? What can we learn from the promise of digital formats to go beyond pages, page numbers and index systems that are bound to the single book only?


Constant organises a worksession every six months. They function as temporary research labs, collective working environments where different types of expertise come into contact with each other. Worksessions are intensive otherwise-disciplined situations to which artists, software developers, theorists, activists and others contribute. During worksessions we develop ideas and prototypes that in the long-term lead to publications, projects and new proposals.


As worksessions are multi-modal, this particular worksession will be shaped in response to our current global situation into which closeness, exchange and togetherness are drastically altered. Unbound Libraries will attempt to support collective research with different configurations of exchange and temporality. Participants will not be together physically, and will be using different online tools to keep in touch. Participants will join this worksession through an invitation to 5 days of intensified research and exchange from June 1st till June 5th. The research period is meant to be phased by individual or group research and online exchanges between participants. Auto-documentation and generous exchange of ideas and knowledge is key.

We prefer to work with Free Software and distribute work under Open Content Licenses. While we favour Free and Open source philosophy, we’re also conscious of the links of Open Access ideology to colonial extractivism. We see this worksession as an occasion to experiment with ways of sharing that go beyond the open/closed binary. This model can obstruct the imagination for complexity and porosity. In addition we want to take into account the rights to opacity in access and transmission of knowledge, especially in regard to marginalized communities.

This worksession is organised in collaboration with Muntpunt (Brussels), BNA-BBOT (Brussels), BAL (Brussels), OSP (Brussels), Infrastructural Manoeuvres (Amsterdam), Hackers & Designers (Amsterdam), Mayday Rooms(London), The People Speak (London).
With a big thank you to KBR (Brussels).

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