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Dynamic Order and the Kunstbibliothek

What role do digital innovations play in the conventional haptic world? This question arises with considerable urgency for memory institutions, libraries, archives, and museums, which collect objects and documents on an everyday basis. In the digital age, the role of public libraries has been addressed again and again. The division of digital and analogue contents has also blurred, since users obtain access to contents mainly via a search on a screen. What El Lissitzky already called for in 1923 with the term “electro-library,”1 the replacement of printed sheets of paper with electronic media, has partially become a reality. The contents of libraries and collections are changing, becoming dematerialized, and necessitate a reorientation of what is offered and what services are provided—a challenge that institutions are rising to with great success and with new, purely digital offerings.

Die Werkbank
The Werkbank

Since it was established in 2006, the Sitterwerk Foundation has resolutely and consistently developed innovations that make it possible to experience the contents of the collections of the Werkstoffarchiv and Kunstbibliothek in a novel way, not only physically and haptically, but also in digital space.23 On the one hand, the continuous inventory with the help of RFID technology facilitates a constantly changing arrangement of the books and hence a dynamic order. On the other, research projects can be personalized, saved, and edited on the interactive work interface of the Werkbank. At the same time, the technology always renders us another service here: it is not technology as an end in itself; it also provides assistance where conventional tools or methods do not suffice.

1El Lissitzky, «Topographie der Typographie», in: El Lissitzky Maler Architekt Typograf Fotograf, Dresden: VEB Verlag der Kunst, 1976 (1923), 360.

2Harald Reiterer, Roman Rädle, Simon Butscher and Jens Müller, «Blended Library – neue Zugangswege zu den Inhalten wissenschaftlicher und öffentlicher Bibliotheken», in: Bibliothek Forschung und Praxis 40(1), 2016, 7–20.

3Juja Chakarova and Allan Mulondo, «RFID-basierte Bibliothekstechnologie – ein Schritt weiter», in: 20(2), 2017, 120–123.

Continuous Inventory and the Principle of Serendipity

The dynamic order of the Kunstbibliothek and the idea of arranging a library in a completely different way in general, namely based on personal research, resulted from Daniel Rohner’s personal approach to collecting books. When setting up his library, the book collector and cofounder of the foundation Daniel Rohner was in the habit of repeatedly distributing his books throughout the space, and grouping and stacking them in unexpected, but fascinating combinations. He always refused to arrange the books based on conventions for organizing libraries.

Daniel Rohner
Daniel Rohner

In a pilot project, the books in the Kunstbibliothek were subsequently furnished with RFID tags4 5 6 rather than call numbers labels. Antennas activate these radio frequency tags in a targeted manner by means of radio waves, to which the tags then respond with a signal. The tags are identified with these signals, and, with them, the books as well. To read the RFID tags, a reading antenna is slowly moved along the entire length of the bookshelves on a track every night by an automated mechanical system. This communicates the current location of each individual book and feeds it into the digital library catalogue.

Mobile Leseantenne
Mobile Reader
RFID Etikette

This approach to identifying the location of books using an RFID reading device facilitates inventory of the library at such frequent intervals that it is possible to speak of a continuous inventory. And it also makes the dynamic order of the books possible: in contrast to conventional libraries arranged based on call numbers labels, the books in the Kunstbibliothek have no fixed location; in principle, everyone may place the books randomly anywhere on the shelves. Thanks to the continuous inventory, every book can nevertheless be found at any time, since the location of the books is regularly updated in the catalogue.
The technology, mechanical system, and software for the dynamic order was conceived and implemented on site by the team of the Sitterwerk in cooperation with Christian Kern (InfoMedis AG), Boris Brun, and Toby Büchel between 2006 and 2010.

Christian Kern
Christian Kern

Thanks to the dynamic order, the order structure can constantly change as a result of use and management and be adapted to users: a person who is working on a topic in the library can bring together books on the topic and then position this compilation on the shelves. Current projects can also be illustrated based on the arrangement of books—for instance, books and samples for works realized in the Kunstgiesserei or the Fotolabor. Individual personalities can also be invited to express their interests by means of individual compilations.

David Reinfurt während seinem Aufenthalt im Gästezimmer, Sommer 2015
David Reinfurt

New possibilities for searching for and finding books thus arise for users of the library. The current compilations and groups of books on the shelves facilitate so-called serendipitous discoveries: while searching for particular books, one finds other books that one was not looking for, but nevertheless lie within the scope of interest. The example of the library of Aby Warburg naturally comes to mind here: After nearly a hundred years, Warburg’s library continues to provide many people with a case study for an alternative possibility of a library, which instead of a classic alphabetical, chronological, or topical arrangement, undertakes a personal, content-related ordering of knowledge—based on specialized knowledge and intersecting topics—and in which the proximity of books to one another on the shelves is given a prominent role.7 8 The Kunstbibliothek goes a step further here, since the arrangement can actually be personalized anew each day.
Thanks to the RFID tags glued to the inside of books, it is possible to do away with traditional library call number labels on the spines of the books. Using the most modern technology, the individual book retains its bibliophile qualities and its individual value as a designed medium for transmitting knowledge and imparting information in an ancient tradition. As a result of this and with the free order structure, the private character of the Art Library is also retained.

4Christian Kern mentions products by 3M, Bibliotheca, and Feig Electronic. See: Christian Kern, RFID für Bibliotheken, Berlin: Springer, 2011, 80.

5Christian Kern, Anwendung von RFID-Systemen, Berlin: Springer, 2006.

6Stiftung Sitterwerk (Hg.), Archive der Zukunft, St.Gallen: Stiftung Sitterwerk, 2013.

7Eva Schmidt and Ines Rüttinger (Hg.), Lieber Aby Warburg, was tun mit Bildern?, Heidelberg: Kehrer, 2012

8Ernst H. Gombrich, Aby Warburg. Eine intellektuelle Biographie, Hamburg: Europäische Verlagsanstalt, 1992.

Sitterwerk Catalogue

The Sitterwerk Foundation already presented an innovative spatial representation of the collection holdings with the online catalogue in 2010. A search in the catalogue not only produced a list of results. The website also showed the location of the books on the shelves and the materials in the drawers. This direct visualization of how the contents are distributed in the space was also able to depict the principle of dynamic order perfectly in digital space. For this purpose, when being recorded, the books were not only equipped with an RFID tag; their covers and spines were also scanned. In the results, the online catalogue thus also always shows the cover and spine of the book sought and hence considerably simplifies finding it on the shelves. The catalogue also included a function with which it was possible to save a list of the books and materials laid out on a table equipped with RFID reading antennas.

The online catalogue was redesigned in 2018. On the one hand, the complementary compilations of the Werkbank that had meanwhile become necessary for the dynamic order were fed into the catalogue and made searchable. On the other, the online catalogue has since then enabled improved searches for results in the two collections, of materials and books. What has remained the same is the emphasis on depicting the holdings in the space as well as on the possibility to also orient oneself visually in the catalogue based on photos of book covers and material samples. Searches are not only supposed to be possible via the search field, but also to function very intuitively.

For both catalogue websites, the team of the Sitterwerk worked in close cooperation with the graphic designer István Scheibler, who fundamentally shaped the concept and decisions.

Suche nach Büchern zum Thema «Wachs» im Sitterwerk Katalog
Search of books to the topic «wax» in the Sitterwerk catalogue
Suche nach Materialmustern zum Thema «Wachs» im Sitterwerk Katalog
Search of materials to the topic «wax» in the Sitterwerk catalogue

Werkbank and Bibliozines

The Werkbank was a further step in the development of the dynamic system of order. With the Werkbank, the physical archives of the Kunstbibliothek and the Werkstoffarchiv are made accessible in a new way by means of digital tools. The focus is thus on making relationships between books and materials visible. At first glance, the Werkbank is a normal table, but one equipped with a lot of technology and over ten RFID antennas, which continuously record books and material samples furnished with RFID tags lying on the table’s surface.

Die Werkbank
The Werkbank

With the Werkbank, the analogue arrangement is thus shown directly in a digital workspace. There, the research can be enriched with personal notes, photos, and contents from books or sources from the Internet. As a sort of product of this knowledge-linking working method, the results can be transferred to a digital layout template and printed in the form of a booklet, a “Bibliozine.” The results of research thus once again take on an analogue form. They can be added to the library or used for one’s private archive as a printed Bibliozine equipped with an RFID tag.

Das Werkbank Interface auf
Werkbank Interface on

The Werkbank sees itself in a broad sense as an interactive workspace and is a further step in dealing with the Werkstoffarchiv, the holdings of the Kunstbibliothek, and the principle of dynamic order in an innovative way. The aim of the project is to bring the digital and haptic world together at the interface of users and medium. By working with the Werkbank, each individual user of the collections is involved in the further development of the dynamic order in the Sitterwerk. The sensitive table in the environment of the Kunstbibliothek and Werkstoffarchiv, and, not least, the creation of notes as digital or printed Bibliozines, are working tools suitable for students and researchers from diverse areas of design, art, architecture, or material sciences.


For the concept and realization, the Sitterwerk collaborated, starting in 2013, with Christian Kern (InfoMedis AG), Anthon Astrom and Lukas Zimmer (Astrom/Zimmer) and Fabian Wegmüller. In the project, InfoMedis AG is responsible for the RFID technology, and Astrom/Zimmer and Fabian Wegmüller for the image recognition as well as the programming and the layout of the Werkbank and Bibliozines. The project was presented to the public in the Sitterwerk’s Kunstbibliothek for the first time on November 23, 2014. It was supported by the Canton, the City of St.Gallen, and the Steinegg Foundation, Herisau.

Development of the Dynamic Order

As a result of the proximity to the Kunstgiesserei and the increasing interest in work and design processes, extending the dynamic order to the neighboring workshops on the site suggested itself. The Sitterwerk Foundation has therefore dedicated itself more intensively to questions connected with process documentation and archiving. As part of this, in several projects for further developing the Werkbank and the dynamic system of order, approaches to capturing the artistic design process and making it accessible in an innovative way are being examined in exchange and collaboration with artists, experts, students, and scholars. On a superordinate level, this also involves questions regarding the labeling, categorization, and processing of knowledge. What is thus being considered is the expansion of a system that breaks open conventional order structures, interrogates documentation processes, and links access to information to thought and work processes. Digital archiving and collecting strategies will also be reflected on in another framework. The Sitterwerk Journal helps collect and comment on the contents continuously.

Funding for the further development of the Werkbank and the dynamic order came in a first phase (“Further Development of the Werkbank,” 2019–2021) from the Lotteriefond of the Canton of St.Gallen, the UBS Culture Foundation, the Ernst Gönner Stiftung, the Swiss Federal Office of Culture, the Steinegg Stiftung, and the Lienhard Stiftung, and in a second phase (“Production Stories,” 2022–2023), from the Lotteriefond of the Canton St. Gallen.

Vergleichende Recherche in den Archiven von Werkstoffarchiv, Kunstbibliothek und Kunstgiesserei