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The University of Southampton
Archaeologies of Media and Technology Research group

The Elastic System

Published: 21 September 2016
The Elastic System

WSA is involved in a project which just launched a new art piece at the British Library in London. The Elastic System by Richard Wright addresses themes of cultural institutions and the public culture of data. The installation creates an inventive visual browsing system for books in British Library-storage.

The launch was part of the Internet of Cultural Things-project (funded by the AHRC), where professor Jussi Parikka (WSA) is the co-investigator. The other project partners are Kings College London and the British Library. Artist Richard Wright is also a WSA graduate having studied Fine Art in the 1980s.

He describes the project as a database portrait:

“Elastic System is a database portrait of the librarian Thomas Watts. In 1838 Watts invented his innovative “elastic system” of storage in order to deal with the enormous growth of the British Library’s collections.

The mosaic image of Watts has been generated from 4,300 books as they are currently stored in the library basements at St Pancras, an area not normally accessible to the public. Each one is connected live to the library’s electronic requesting system.

The Elastic System functions like a catalogue, allowing people to visually browse part of the British Library’s collections, something which has not been possible since Watts’ time. When a book is requested it is removed from the “shelf” to reveal a second image underneath, an image that represents the work that goes on in the library’s underground storage basements, the hidden part of the modern requesting system.”

The installation is on at the British Library until September 23, and there will also be an online version later.


Professor Parikka has written a short blog post about the Elastic System-project:

More information about the Internet of Cultural Things-project on the website:


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