Elastic System at Hartley Library

Elastic System is an interactive artwork that was produced by Richard Wright whilst he was Artist in Residence at the British Library. The piece was launched at the British Library in September and is now in the foyer of Hartley Library  where it will remain until the end of February 2017. Brought to Southampton by the Special Collections exhibition team, Elastic System already has connections to this University: it is part of a wider AHRC-funded research project, ‘The Internet of Cultural Things’, in partnership with Kings’ College London and Winchester School of Art, University of Southampton.


The on-screen photo-mosaic is based on the only known portrait of the librarian Thomas Watts, shown above. In 1938 Watts invented his innovative ‘elastic system’ of storage in order to deal with the enormous growth of the British Library’s collections. Generated from 4,300 photographs of books currently stored in the British Library basements at St Pancras, the mosaic allows the visual browsing of parts of the British Library’s collections that are normally hidden. It is connected live to the British Library’s electronic requesting system and by clicking on a book, you can find out more about the item and how to request it from the British Library.

When a book is requested it is removed from the ‘shelf’ to reveal a second image underneath. This image represents the work that goes on in the Library’s underground storage basements. Elastic System encapsulates the many layers of information ecology that makes up a library: visual, data and infrastructural systems in co-operation as a living organism of data.

Come and try it out — and find out more about the wider project at


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