PAGING THE LIBRAR(IES), IN FRAGMENTS
Letters from Alvin Li & Chang Yuchen
Over the following six months, we will be writing to you, our readers, by writing to (and with) each other. By reflecting on the relationships we've had with and in different kinds of libraries, this first, drawn-out correspondence contemplates the question of what a library could be. It is also our hope that, through rubbing our languages against each other, we two – a writer-curator working in and out of institutions to explore both collectivity and independence, and an itinerant artist-educator dedicated to the peripheral languages – will build an infrastructure, a shared repository of our lexicons, memories and beliefs: a library of friendship.  Consider this letter our library’s very first acquisition.
CYC: At the beginning of 2011, I worked every day from a window seat on the third floor of the library at Central Academy of Fine Arts. I hardly had any classes; we were all focusing on finishing our thesis. Mine was a video. Every day I’d export the latest version, watch it through, make note of revisions needed, and export it again after making the edits – a routine that went on for months. During breaks I would get up to read books – catalogues that filled the entire floor. To my left was a full suite of Song Dynasty Paintings, which consisted of eight volumes, each containing several folios, and occupied an entire shelf. Every folio was large and heavy, and every page depicted an ideal world of flowers and birds. Here I rested, while absorbing a delightful variety of beauties and styles, at once microscopic and cosmic. Upon graduation, the school cut up our library cards. Before handing mine in I went back one last time and made a little pencil portrait of Y, who sat across the table from me.
In spring 2011, I visited Y’s home for the first time. His place was full of books, CDs, and DVDs – two entire shelves of them, floor to ceiling. I remember Y pulling out a catalogue of Rinko Kawauchi’s photography and showing it to me, page by page, one of which was so fluorescent it gave the impression of looking into a book-sized light box. I seem to remember it was a picture of myriad mayflies resting on a surface of water against sunlight. Later, I went through every one of Kawauchi’s books I could find but was never able to find that image again. That same day I also picked out Milan Kundera’s L' art du roman (Chinese translation) from one of the shelves, and finished the entire book that afternoon, curled into a ball in a chair. Last year I bought another copy in English after suddenly remembering it, and I found myself surprised by how much it could provide guidance to my current work. In the time I spent with Y, and in my later remembrance of him, I’ve always felt like a student of his. Perhaps, there has always been a map to my present and future buried somewhere in his library.
AL: In Autumn 2019, I spent nearly a week writing a short story at the Los Angeles Central Library in downtown Los Angeles. The story had been commissioned by my friend Nancy Lupo, to be performed as ephemera on the opening day of her public sculpture installation in Pershing Square. Since it was my first time writing a short story as such, I really struggled with it, and by the time I arrived in LA, only a week before the reading, all I had was a bunch of diaristic fragments. I felt strangely calm, but also desperate. Upon Nancy’s recommendation I started going to the Los Angeles Central Library to work, thinking the disciplined confinement of the library, qualities I’d relied on quite abusively back in college, would put paid to my writer’s block.
What I didn’t expect was that the library itself and its various inhabitants would so thoroughly engulf me that they’d end up stealing the story, somewhat becoming its protagonists. During my time there I started noticing that beyond its nominal function of holding a collection (consisting mostly of printed material, but also including music, film, etc.) the library also became a shelter for the sizeable homeless population of downtown Los Angeles. Every morning, as soon as the library opens at 8 a.m., they are the first to arrive. After a shower – using the paper towels and sinks in the bathroom – they each get on with their business, hanging around in the library until it closes at 10 p.m., only to return the next morning and perform the same routine again.
In my booth, I was self-indulgently writing a story about my then failing relationship, a crisis in no small way sparked by my intense encounter with T, who is also a writer. On the final day, I had a sudden urge to type his name into the library’s search engine. It turned out four of T’s six titles – his living literature-body – had been there all along, watching and waiting for me to find him. Who would’ve guessed my days at the library would mark such a protean rendezvous, amid reading, writing, sleep, and love, all at once?
CYC: I spent 2012 studying in Chicago. My college library was well equipped, but all the seats were designed as single-user booths, which felt constrictive. When I try to bookmark my student years in the city, what comes to mind are the many second-hand bookstores in Chicago. I often lingered in those spaces – they, too, are libraries, scattered across the city. Surrounded by strange texts and worlds, I sought familiar names and stories: Kafka, Pound, Beckett. Those I’d only heard of, those I’d read in translation, and those I’d been profoundly influenced by, I re-encountered half the world away in a new language.
From 2013 to 2020, I worked at Printed Matter in New York. Although it’s technically a bookstore, it is also a living archive containing the world’s largest collection of artists’ books. I loved the daily routine of a sales clerk: putting new titles on display, organising old ones, facing the natural resistances of their being too big, too small, too weird, or too fragile. I felt a sense of pride whenever I helped customers locate books they were looking for, or recommended titles they hadn’t heard of before but immediately seduced by thereafter. Printed Matter organised two book fairs every year in New York and Los Angeles, and participated in other fairs around the world. I had the good fortune to represent Printed Matter in booths in Taipei, Hong Kong, and Shanghai. A book fair is like a temporary library, with books transported in luggage and crates from all over the world, via air or water, to the venue, then radiating outwards in waves of intense resonance.
In 2021, when I needed to go back to China, the only available flight to Shanghai at the time was leaving from Seattle. To get on it, you had to test negative twice for Covid-19, with seven days between tests. A friend suggested that I should visit the Seattle Central Library, which houses works by Ann Hamilton. On an overcast and rainy day I walked there, and asked the librarian: ‘Where is the Ann Hamilton?’ He pointed to the floor, and then I noticed the words - in various languages, of various topics - protruding in relief from every strip of the hardwood flooring. In this public installation by Hamilton, the artist extracted and imprinted the first sentences of 1543 titles from the library collection, covering the surface of its entire ground floor. Walking carefully with my head down, I heard, at each step, a whisper from an unknown locale of the world. Libraries are like that: crowded with human pasts, speaking a heart-wrenchingly beautiful polyphony.
AL: From 2012 to 2013 I worked as a junior librarian at the Charles E. Shain Library of Connecticut College, where my duties were split between shelving and manning the circulation desk. I didn't really fit in at the school (despite my love for some of my professors) and the library became my refuge. Working there was one of the very few things that kept me going. Through shelving, I gradually built a visual map of the collection and a sense of the relative popularity of various studies – the side-effect of which was the revelation of my fate as a dweller in ‘minor’ disciplines. I took some pleasure in putting things in order (though I must admit I also sometimes deliberately hid books for my own use), but my favourite part was really working at the circulation desk, which allowed me to observe what everyone was reading. I got very good at rapidly assessing people's positions and tastes based on the books they checked out – judging them, literally, by their covers – and I made some of my closest friends in college through conversations started there. I still vividly remember how packed the library would get the week before finals, with sleepless students bringing in comforters and pillows to crank out their papers. During those weeks, the library would begin to smell noticeably of its denizens. If I were to design a cologne, the smell of that packed library would be the heart note, no doubt.
CYC: In 2022 I took my first-ever trip to Europe. During a two-week stay in Paris, I went to many libraries, one of which was the Bibliothèque nationale de France. The BnF is housed in a group of buildings majestic to the point of being aggravating; getting from the entrance to a reading desk takes about fifteen minutes of walking. Many of the rooms were under renovation, and placed around the construction sites were panels with text introducing the history of the library. I used my phone to translate one of these: ‘By the Ordonnance de Montpellier of 28 December 1537, Francis I compels every printer in the realm to submit a copy of each book to the Royal Library, in order to identify those works worthy of “remembrance” and to monitor the dissemination of dissident ideologies. Considered the founding act of the legal deposit system, this decree, though not enforced immediately, testifies to the king’s ambition to collect in a single place all the memory of France.’
While perusing the BnF, I found I couldn’t stop missing the familiar library near my current residence, the Queens Public Library at Elmhurst. In 2020 I moved to Queens - the most linguistically diverse locale in the world and in history. Besides this profusion of languages, its immigrants have also brought a variety of religions, fashions, and foods, all of which infuse my everyday life with new learnings and a sense of bliss. The Queens Public Library at Elmhurst is a place of such bliss: there is an array of printed matter, ranging from novels to recipes and tax manuals, published in a spectrum of languages (Chinese, Tibetan, English, Spanish, to name a few), all of which casually or religiously utilised by the neighbourhood’s diverse residents. The library has a few big desks, and I sometimes go there to work. The last time I was there, a man in front of me browsed through a stack of newspapers while charging his phone, then got up, and left behind an origami paper boat.
AL: The library where we will claim residence for the next six months is in many ways different from any of the ones I’ve experienced – I believe this is the case for you as well. It is at the moment only a bookshelf measuring 3.31 m in width and 2.79 m in height. Asymmetry Art Foundation, having only found its current physical space one year ago, is in no rush to expand its library collection to any considerable size. Nor is it currently open to the public. This means the physical library space only becomes accessible when events are held there. Instead of seeing these conditions as a hindrance, I am attracted to them – the measured pace of the corpus’s extension, the Foundation’s opening schedule – for having forced us to think about this library’s other, more modest possibilities. Over the past few years, as I have delved deeper into institutional work, I’ve grown increasingly wary of developmentalist approaches to thinking and building, and have instead looked to alternative models oriented more toward adaptation, contact, and mobility. I see our residency as a parasite – and the library as a para-site – of the Foundation. The library exists more in potentia than in actuality; it will shape-shift as we read, write, publish, and meet. Perhaps it should only be considered ‘closed’, then, when we are asleep?
YC: The library where we will claim residence for the next six months is an ocean away from where I reside. But I - and I believe this is true for you as well - have grown used to living in multiple geographical, linguistic, and spiritual spaces at the same time. My residency is hosted, therefore, not so much by a physical library in London as by the distance between us; by speculation, imagination, and trust. This is a seductive and deeply dialectical situation for me, since I’ve been committed to the materiality of book form for almost ten years now – making, teaching, selling, buying, and smuggling artists' books in New York and beyond. Between proximity and fantasy, between architectural space and discursive arena, between ‘vibrant matter’ and ‘dematerialisation of the art object’, I look forward to seeing how these seemingly opposite poles will stretch and sculpt our iterations of the library, and how we will wear our librarian ‘drag.’ 
AL: Compared to you, I guess I’m not that avid a library-goer. There was a small library across the street from my old apartment in Shanghai, on Shaoxing Road, and it took me a year and a half after moving there to even set foot in the building. One of the main reasons for my lack of enthusiasm was the inevitable poverty of the collection. My interests over the past years have spanned philosophy, affect theory, ecological studies, and anything queer (from theory to literature – Guillaume Dustan, Petrus Liu, Dennis Cooper, Howard Chiang, Hervé Guibert…), most of which have not yet (will they ever?) been translated into Chinese and are therefore never acquired by the city’s Chinese-language-dominant public libraries. Now and in hindsight, looking back over the decade I’ve spent out of college, the Internet is my library. Despite my obsession with physical copies, problems of access and budget have made me an expert ‘hacker’, adept in sourcing what I want to read whenever and wherever.
I believe I’m not crazy in assuming that most people reading this are also experts in ‘questionable’ methods, familiar with the ins and outs of scanning, downloading and sharing PDFs for our own pleasure on the one hand, implicitly committed to a position in support of open access and opposed to the privatisation and monetisation of knowledge on the other. Against this backdrop, the fundamental purpose of a library – at least the one I believe we need – is not to house a collection of rare texts (we already have most of them at finger’s reach), but to offer a room in which to devour the ideas contained within them together, before taking something we have each realised, old and new, out into the world. A library that simultaneously destroys and creates, that sustains at once the warmth of the ‘We’ and the coolness of the ‘I’…
Why don’t we meet there, instead of your place or mine? 
Alvin & Yuchen
I’ve been working with the same editor friend, Max Krugman, for nearly ten years. He was my first roommate out of college, and through a decade of collaboration has firmly and irrevocably become part of my language. Here is a note to acknowledge his presence in my dialogue with Yuchen. — Alvin
I first became acquainted with Alvin when my friend, editor and publisher Qianfan Gu asked him to translate my artist’s book, Ten Nights of Dreams (2018), into English. He turned down the invitation. A few years later, when Qianfan again invited him to translate, this time for my essay After After Babel (2021), he agreed. Translation is like feeling around in each other’s atrium and cerebrum; it elides the boundaries between subjectivities. This very letter is thus also a work of our mutual translation. — Yuchen