Inside the Library of Human Imagination

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In 2008, a few of the astonishing objects from Jay Walker‘s Library of Human Imagination provided the backdrop to the TED main stage — and Jay Walker conducted a fun, three-part show-and-tell. Now, for the first time, he has allowed video cameras inside. We’re pleased to give you this sneak peek:

Last week, TED Blog had the opportunity to talk to Jay Walker about the library. Read the Q&A now >>

Tell me how the Library of Human Imagination began.

The origins of the Library of Human Imagination were a disparate set of subjects. Like many collectors, I started out collecting in one area and inevitably migrated to others as a picture began to emerge about what it is that interests me.

I was interested in the history of science and technology. I was also interested in beautiful art books — large or oversized books that enabled you to get a real sense of the artistry. (The reality of a large canvas is so much more powerful than a small one.) I was also interested in the history of writing, the history of medicine — and especially the history of the book, which led me to an interest in the history of the Bible, which is the longest continually published book in Western civilization.

So, when I started, I did not have an overarching thematic center; I had a series of interests. But after a period of years, it became clear that there was a common theme to what interested me about all those things: They were all about dimensions of human imagination. Only after perhaps 10 years did I see that there was a real thematic center to what I was doing, and then I began to work at it.

Just walking through the Library gives you the feeling that it all comes together around this one idea. Tell me about the design of the space.

The architecture of the space is an Escher-like wonder — a series of staircases that run up and down, creating this illusory sense that space has been turned inside-out and upside-down.

There’s another equally important thought behind the design, which dates back to the Dutch at the beginning of the Enlightenment. The Dutch, who were the great sailors, brought back artifacts from all around the world, and they collected them in what they called “cabinets of curiosities.” The Library was specifically designed to create that sense of wonder. The glass bridge, when you begin, is a metaphor for a leap of imagination: the classic story of imagination as an “Aha! moment — a leap across space to get from here to there with nothing between.

From the tumbling block pattern on the floor to the lighting to the design of the ceiling vault, everything about the room was designed to reflect the sort of room that would hold the history of human imagination.

Talk about your criteria for selecting an item to include. Is it instinct? Do you see an object and just know you’ve got to have it?

No, there’s nothing like that. That sounds good, though. (Laughs)

Here’s how it really works: I have an insatiable curiosity. Just about everything interests me. When I find things, I look at how they might fit into the picture of the history of human imagination … and whether or not that particular imaginative leap is represented in the library. If it’s already represented, I ask, “Does this object, artifact or document improve the understanding of that leap?”

Think of the Library as a giant puzzle. The purpose of the puzzle is to assemble a picture of the history of human imagination. Somebody might show me something and say, “Here is one of the very first manuscripts that dealt with the pollination of plants.” I might look at that and say, “I have something similar.” Somebody else might show me something that expresses Mendel’s genetics in a visual way, and I’d say “Wow, there’s nothing in the library which expresses that.”

There are often subject areas where I have overlap. But there are just as many times when I’m looking for things that represent a particular leap of imagination in a new and approachable direction. For example, Isaac Newton’s Principia is no doubt a giant leap of imagination. It’d be hard to argue that his independent invention of calculus wasn’t one of the great leaps of imagination. But if you look at a copy of the Principia, it’s just deadly boring. You’re just not going to look in the Principia and say, “Wow, I see this leap.”

Whereas if somebody were to have done a comic book of the Principia in a phenomenal way — a way that made it accessible, a way that would help you appreciate what Newton had accomplished — that would be the kind of book I’d put in the library. It’d make that whole leap more imaginatively understandable. The Library is a lot about accessibility. Think of a childlike wonder: You shouldn’t have to be an expert in a subject to appreciate the leap of imagination.

So, you consider this a type of history museum?

It’s very much a history museum. You don’t need to think of that when you’re in it, but as the curator, that’s how I think of it. It’s the history of human imagination as told through the documents, objects and artifacts that allow you to see it.

That includes the history of evil and the history of beauty and the history of love. It’s not uncommon for the library to juxtapose those things. You might juxtapose a copy of an incredibly evil document which has been designed to look like a religious document. Or a religious document which in reality was an economic document.

The Library allows you to see how human imagination takes things from one sphere and moves them into another.

On my visit to the Library, one thing I was struck by is that all of these objects are right out in the open — anyone can touch them.

That’s critically important.

There’s a big distinction between private and public collections in our world. Both have a critical role to play in the preservation of our history and the forward progress of humanity. The great public collections, like the Library of Congress or the Smithsonian, by definition are curatorial exercises in archiving and preservation, and as such have to preserve with a multi-hundred-year view of things.

Private collections, on the other hand, have an archival role, but typically allow for much more intimate contact for non-scholars. As a non-scholar, your chance of being able to pick up and hold an illuminated manuscript are extremely low … but so much is lost when you can’t hold these things in your hand. Private collectors have an extraordinary capacity to allow for much more intimate contact between historical objects and people who want to appreciate them.

We’ve been fed, to some extent, this cult of fragility — that you can’t touch these books or objects because you’ll hurt them — but that’s just not true. I’ve had almost zero damage of any kind. Most books and manuscripts have been abused and neglected for most of their history, ironically. It’s only in recent times that we’ve thought of these objects as valuable.

When you bring school kids into the Library of Human Imagination and you allow them to turn a page that’s 800 years old, you awaken a sense of wonder and awe that no amount of looking at a screen, or at an object frozen behind glass, could ever accomplish.

We’ve covered what happens when people first enter the Library. But what’s the takeaway? What happens when they walk out?

A couple of things happen when people leave the Library. The first is they don’t know how they’re going to describe it to anyone else. (Laughs) So there’s a sense of what I’ll call “fun frustration” when people leave.

The other thing I think people get, which is a tremendous benefit, is that a mind once stretched into a new direction never goes back to its original shape. The Library just does that — whether you’re seeing a book woven in silk from 1886 or seeing up-close the spectacular work of a man who traveled through all of Napoleon’s battles and painted them in miniature. You just don’t forget it when you see something that you’ve never seen before. And that’s true for the individual objects, but also the relationships between objects. People appreciate that these objects are part of a continuum of human imagination.

When people leave the Library, they say, “I see things differently.” That, and they say they want to bring their kids.

Watch Jay Walker’s talk from TED2008:

Profile of Jay Walker on TED.com >>