March 16, 2018

Libraries Open Doors, Data to Digital Art Displays

“Filament Mind” at the Teton County Library in Jackson Hole, WY

This January, hundreds of people attended the grand opening of an addition to the Teton County Library in Jackson Hole, WY. The big draw was “Filament Mind,” a stunning digital art installation utilizing more than five miles of fiber-optic cables, cut into 1,000 pieces, and 44 LED illuminators.

But “Filament Mind” is more than colorful eye candy adorning the upper walls of the lobby. This dynamic artwork is data-driven. Each piece of cable represents a different Dewey Decimal subject and leads to its corresponding subject title. Whenever a visitor to any public library in Wyoming performs a computer search of the library catalog, the cable and category are illuminated by a color and light display.

At a glance, library patrons and staff can see what the hot topics are at that moment.

“Public art is really important, because we are a public space and public art conveys a sense of the times,” said Deb Adams, library director, Teton County Library. “It’s like a one-way recording of the cultural and historic aspects of a particular place and time.”

The library didn’t specify digital art when it put out a national call for proposals, but Adams said “Filament Mind,” the design submitted by Brian W. Brush and Yong Ju Lee of E/B Office in New York, best represented the criteria.

“We were looking for artwork that was going to be intellectually challenging, thought-provoking, would invite various levels of understanding, and would suggest that you discover something new every time you visit the library,” Adams said.

The library narrowed down the more than 400 responses to 20 initially, then invited three artists to be interviewed. “Filament Mind” was the unanimous recommendation of the public art committee, and the library board immediately agreed. The call was the easy part of the project.

“Because ‘Filament Mind’ is a very structural piece of artwork, it involved a lot of coordination with our architect and our general contractor,” Adams said. Compounding the difficulty of the installation was the fact that its final resting place in the new lobby wasn’t decided upon until they were more than halfway through the construction process. Making the artwork secure in an earthquake-prone area was another big consideration.

Once the engineering details were worked out, it took Brush three weeks to cut the five miles of fiber-optic cable, attach it to the walls and set up the illuminators. “We’d close at 8 and at 8:05 he’d be up on the cherry-picker working,” Adams said.

There was a $55,000 budget for the art, which was all privately funded through the library Foundation. That included a request for a special “fireworks” mode, which indicates when a donation has been made to the Foundation. “There are flashing disco lights and the artwork lights up in random colors all at one time,” Adams said. “It clearly shows that we have a wonderful public/private partnership.”

Adams parked herself in the lobby on opening day to gauge visitor response. It was everything she had hoped for, and more. One grade school kid was initially in awe of the display, but soon turned his thoughts to “what if.”

“The display completely inspired him to think creatively,” Adams said. “And that was exactly the point. We wanted to get people to think beyond their own little world.”

Going Digital Nationwide

“Filament Mind” may be the latest, but it’s certainly not the first, such installation. Other libraries showcase interactive, data-driven digital art that brings what’s typically behind the scenes into the light.

In 2003, the Seattle Public Library commissioned artist George Legrady of Santa Barbara, CA, to develop a proposal for a series of artwork at the Seattle Central Library. His proposal, “Making Visible the Invisible: What the Community is Reading,” used library data on books being checked out and returned to create a visual display reflecting the current main topics of interest of library patrons It would also track those topics of interest over time.

“It is a fascinating glimpse into the incredible variety of interests that our users pursue, and the richness of the Library’s collection,” said Eve Sternberg, library levy administrator, Seattle Public Library.

Data is displayed on six plasma screens on a glass wall located behind the librarians’ main reference desk in the Mixing Chamber, a public computer area. Each screen shows a visual representation of a specific type of item being circulated: for example, DVDs, books, CDs, and other media. The background color, which changes each hour, is a visual indicator of time.

The series went live in September 2005 and met with instant approval from patrons. Rama Hoetzlein, a graduate student in Legrady’s program at UC Santa Barbara, who helped install the piece in Seattle’s Central Library, stated during the opening: “People tend to gaze at it for minutes at a time. They seem to be mesmerized. Some people are really excited that it’s real data.”

Jeff Christensen, events coordinator assistant for the library, said that after nearly eight years, he still often hears from tour groups that “Making Visible the Invisible” is their favorite artwork in the Central Library.

Seattle’s “Making Visible the Invisible: What the Community is Reading” project came in at around $100,000. It was funded by a 1-percent set-aside of capital project funding under the 1998 Libraries for All Program—a mix of public Long Term General Obligation bonds and other City funding, as well as The Seattle Public Library Foundation—and private support from the Committee of 33, a local non-profit group.

It took two years from issuing a call for artists in May 2003 to its opening in September 2005. The project itself was completed in six phases, beginning with the testing of the library data flow and ending with the implementation of the Web component. The hardware and software components were installed in the custom glass wall which houses the six embedded plasma screens.

Instead of a typical 30-year contract for pieces of art, Seattle opted to go with a 10-year contract for technology-based projects, since technology changes so rapidly. At the end of 10 years, the project will be reevaluated, but according to Ruri Yampolsky, public art program director for the City of Seattle’s Office of Arts and Cultural Affairs, there are no plans to disconnect the “popular piece” in 2015.

Last September, McKeldin Library at the University of Maryland, debuted an ever-evolving permanent display of digital art created by students of Brandon Morse, an associate art professor at the university.

“We were motivated, in part, by some feedback we got from students that they would like to see more art in the library,” said Eric Bartheld, director of communication, University of Maryland Libraries. “We had initial discussions with the art department on campus and, for a whole host of reasons, turned our attention to digital art instead of more traditional framed art.”

Security was one of the considerations. Another was that the designated home for the art was Terrapin Learning Commons in McKeldin Library. “It’s a technology-rich space,” Bartheld said. “It seemed to be a very fitting venue to display this digital art.” And, in a win-win scenario, Morse needed a venue to display the digital art created by his students.

“Not only are the individual installations dynamic and changing all the time, but because Professor Morse has worked it into his curriculum, each semester there are new artworks ready to be added to the rotation,” Bartheld said.

One installation, a series of images of washing machines, is driven by data from the student athletic center. For example, when a treadmill is being used, the washing machine associated with it starts spinning. The speed at which the washing machine spins correlates to the pace generated by the person on the treadmill.

Bartheld’s favorite installation has random letters that appear to drop from the ceiling. Some of them fade away, while others arrange themselves to display the first lines of great works of literature such as The Great Gatsby.

“Libraries are here to support learning and teaching, and this is one example of how we can support that in a very visible way that’s fruitful for both the art students and the library,” Bartheld said.

This first group of installations was not linked directly to library data because they wanted to get it up as quickly as possible. It was accomplished between the close of the summer session and the beginning of the fall session. However, future installations will incorporate library data on search terms and circulation numbers.

Students appreciate it. “It’s fun to watch students sitting on a couch and looking up at it or passing through and observing it,” Bartheld said. “They are surprised by art in that location. And such dynamic art. It’s never the same twice.”

The process of displaying digital art in McKeldin Library was quick, relatively simple, and inexpensive. Since the digital art came gratis from the art class, the only expenditures were for a server, installation of five ceiling-mounted projectors, and painting the wall a neutral color. Maintenance is minimal.

The ballpark figure for the project was $15,000, funded primarily from a student library technology fee.



  1. library is the store house of knowledge.

  2. Dynamic art is an awesome concept. Especially how they’re tackling it in this case. Digital art isn’t going away any time soon and is only getting bigger and more interesting as technology progresses. I’d be very interested to see this myself. I can definitely understand why the students, who are technologically inclined already, like seeing this sort of artwork. It’ll inspire a few I’m sure! It’s amazing how everyday occurrences can turn into beautiful things. Great read, thanks for posting!

  3. Do you have any idea what it would be like for a student to see their creation in a public place. Then inspires other students and continues to motivate the student with a piece being display. They are doing so much more for those students than they realize. Plus the art is amazing.