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Assembling the Whole: An Interview with Librarian|Artist Oliver Baez Bendorf

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Oliver Baez Bendorf is a poet, cartoonist, librarian, teaching artist and activist. He holds an MFA in Poetry and MLIS from the University of Wisconsin-Madison, author of the book of poems The Spectral Wilderness (Kent State University Press 2015) and an essay on activism in the forthcoming Poet-Librarians in the Library of Babel (Library Juice Press Spring 2017).

We commissioned Oliver to create a poster series inspired by our Collections as Data summit in September 2016 that represent key themes of what it means to serve and use library collections computationally.

We caught up with Oliver to ask about his process and why he decided on this physical approach to represent a digital event.

You call yourself a Queer poet, cartoonist, teacher, librarian. Why librarian?

I started working part-time on campus at a library at UW Madison when I was finishing my MFA in poetry. I was working with the humanities librarian (I had a great mentor in Susan Barribeau) and I worked closely in Special Collections, and it blew my mind that librarians got to spend time with these amazing items and could help make them accessible to other people. It deepened my understanding of the role of poetry in an information landscape: how it circulates, how it reaches new readers. So I decided to pursue an MLIS (also at UW Madison) and continue to follow my interests.

When I was in library school I did a semester-long practicum at The Bubbler, which was Madison Public Library’s then brand new kind-of makerspace…a lot more than a makerspace…super arts focused (instead of more fabrication focused) and that opened things up for me. People need access to creativity as much as they need access to information, and libraries are really well-positioned to facilitate that. What’s most exciting for me is where those overlap– learning as a creative experience at or through a library and vice versa. The library program at Wisconsin was a good fit.I did an art project for almost every assignment I could, and they let me do that (thank you!), so my experience learning about the field was also a process of integrating hands-on creativity into learning. The intersection of the super-material hands-on and the digital is really exciting to me.

This project that I did after the Pulse Orlando shooting was to collect handmade posters and make them available online for people to download, print and hang up. People made them on their own or in groups-signs of protest, love, resistance- many different angles and sentiments- all hand-made. People sent me photos of the flyers hanging up on their campus, in their office, etc. I love things that you can tell a human made, but I also love the way that digital collections let those be in more places, almost like a chain letter or something like that, the intimacy of passing it on and letting it circulate farther than it might have otherwise.

Which is the same concept as the posters you made for our Collections as Data event.

Yes, totally. I love it when people print something out again. I know it’s bad for the trees, I know a lot of emails say “Do you really need to print this out?” But yes, I love it when something becomes paper again.

We were pleasantly shocked when we saw your poster drafts and they were so physically worked with the collaging. It was a surprising representation of a digital conference.

Thanks. There was a lot to synthesize from the conference and collage as a thinking process was a really effective method for me. I moved things around so much before even gluing anything down and shuffling things around was super helpful in a kinesthetic way. I love collage for that. I have a big Nike shoe box where I keep scraps of paper. Eve Sedgwick has written about this kind of texxture, where she uses two Xs in it to signify materials that carry a history with them. My MLIS advisor Jonathan Senchyne changed the way I think about how paper relates to information.  So collage seemed fitting to me, how all of these scraps hold other meanings and histories that they bring to this new context.


Can you walk us through the process for making “The Whole”?

I was really struck by that question [originally posed by Ricky Punzalan] “what does it mean to assemble the whole?” and knew that I wanted to do something with that. I was also thinking a lot about patterns: how to convey something that’s machine readable…data points. But when you zoom in, might be something a human is really drawn to, actually luscious and vivid, each data point expanded into a whole story. So I think of these different scraps of paper and watercolors as data points that are all connected but have the capacity to be these luscious stories on their own, and that assembling them together is part of the work and mission of people at the symposium. The lives inside these collections and how to approach them,both as individual stories that people can play with and learn about and also what they mean when taken together and how to give access to those stories and angles.


So I just started playing with these scraps and moving them around. The lines are the least interesting aesthetic part of this [poster], but that’s what connects them. The points without the lines here would just be scattered on the page but there is a way to connect all of them, different ways to connect all of them that haven’t even been drawn yet. I think of the web of it as intentionally unfinished, as a way to represent an invitation for more work to be done connecting points.

The pieces look so placed, it makes me want to pick them up and move them around, lift them off the poster and place them in a different cluster. It picks up on that theme of inviting engagement with our collections, that computation allows you to act on them.

So since we’re on this theme of patterns, let’s go to the “Calling All Storytellers” poster.

When I started it, I was thinking about invitations to artists and writers to interact with and act on data and collections at the library. But by the time I finished it, it had expanded from that —  anyone who downloads the data and interacts with it is telling a story about it or trying to find a story to tell with it. It could be an artist or writer but it could also be a researcher or anyone who has some interest or some story that they want to tell with the data.


With this one too, I was thinking about things that might look alike but are not exactly alike and how each one of those data points again is a way in. Those questions that I got interested in – “Is the pattern the story or is the story where the pattern breaks?”–  I think of it almost like a prompt to someone who might want to interact with data. I was excited to think about what kinds of questions can be asked about data, about a collection, about an archive, and is the story where the pattern breaks, thinking about what isn’t there. Then I got this phrase please report to your nearest library stuck in my head and I kinda kept hearing it in my head as over a PA system. I want people to feel paged to their nearest library — maybe particularly artists and writers, but also anyone with curiosity. Paged to their library with questions like this as an invitation and also a kind of civic participation.

One of my takeaways coming out of Collections as Data was this idea of access. Not necessarily people having to go to the library but also there’s an excitement that feels like a convening at the library. Even if you can access the data from home, there’s still something about going to the library, reporting to the library, showing up to the library and maybe that doesn’t necessarily have to mean at the physical library, although I’m good with it if it does. But at least the spirit of it, of showing up.

The last one, let’s call it “The Fish” is a crowd favorite. What was your process here?


I was thinking about collections with a natural-history bent. A lot of the threads that Thomas [Padilla] and Marisa [Parham] brought up in their talks – what is in collections and why? – and the invitation to interact, toward the lives there are traces of in collections and towards people’s lives now that collections can be in service of.  The fish asking this question “What are you going to do with those?” was on my mind after the symposium; collections not just for collections’ sake but how to remember and foreground the human or animal element or more generally speaking the life element. To remember also when thinking about data the luscious or historical or beautiful human complex animal lives behind and inside of collections and influenced by collections…and how the work of collections as data can be in service of that. That ties into Ricky’s [Punzalan] talk about reunification of items. How can what is in these collections be put to service those who need it most? There are lives, bodies, sentient beings that are in the collections and could be influenced by work done with them.

The buffalo kept getting cut off and the buffalo had to be there, so I kept shuffling things around with this one,  trying to get everything visible.

I like their physicality and how approachable they are.

Thanks. Yeah, the feather is actually sewn on. I had to hold the top of the scanner down to keep the light out, cause otherwise a little bit of light was sneaking in on the edge right there. One of my MLIS professors (hi Dorothea Salo!) called me a “materiality wonk” and I embrace it. I really like an approach and aesthetic unmistakably made by hand and I love especially bringing that to digital library contexts because there are so many conversations in the digital library world right now about how to manage computational advances with keeping humans at the center. I like the unexpected, super-handmade aesthetic that deals with digital library topics. That’s something I was doing a lot of with illustration and visual work when I was at DLF, so it was fun to dive more into that in this conceptual way with collages.

One of my big influences in this intersection is my teacher from [the University of ]Wisconsin, Lynda Barry, who is fond of saying the human hand is the original digital device. We also talk about the fingers as “digits” and I do think, in so many ways, that handmade and hands-on work is very “digital” in this way. I loved being able to play in that space with these posters.

What are five sources of inspiration for you right now? 

Small Science Collective Zine Library: from a group of scientists, artists, teachers, and students who believe in zines in science education. This is their collection of fact-based zines in science-y categories (creatures, insects, ecology, evolution, space and physics, etc.) available for free download

Aspen groves: looks like many separate trees; actually one massive organism! With a giant root system underground.

United in Anger: A History of ACT UP: inspiring documentary with archival footage and oral histories of the AIDS Coalition to Unleash Power activist movement.

“All of Us or None” Archive Project: ever-expanding online collection of social justice posters maintained by the Oakland Museum of Contemporary Art – currently over 24,500 items strong. 

Emily Dickinson Archive Lexicon: over 9,000 words used in Dickinson’s collected poems- with definitions from her 1944 Webster dictionary (check out “accessible” and “library” and “pattern”)

Oliver’s posters are now available for download on the Collections as Data event page.

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