168:01 by Wafaa Bilal, showcased as part of  the exhibition The New Observatory at FACT, hinges on the written word; the installation itself is a plain white bookshelf with blank books, to be slowly replaced by books which visitors donate in order to re-equip the library at the University of Baghdad. There’s an interesting segue here into the ongoing debate about digital books vs physical books, which have both had fierce proponents since e-readers became widely available. This does beg the question: why not just use a digital library at the university itself?

This time last year, I was about to begin my Erasmus Mundus MA in Media Arts Cultures. Although not all Erasmus Mundus programmes are like this, mine is a high-mobility programme: every semester is based in a different university and country. Packing for this was an exhausting process in itself, and it didn’t help that I spent an inordinate amount of time deciding which books I would take with me.

I was raised in a house of readers, and since I was young I went nowhere without a book hidden on my person. Growing up, I didn’t get grounded or have TV privileges revoked as punishment; instead, my parents would raid the house and seize all books in a (quite misguided) attempt to make me study. So it made perfect sense to me to pack as many of my favorite books as I could, despite having read them so often I knew them by heart.

In the beginning, this wasn’t a bad idea at all. I moved to Austria for my first semester, and having those old books in an entirely new room offered me both comfort and familiarity. I didn’t read any of them - my course load and adjusting to being a student again kept me busy - but it was nice to know they were there.

At the end of my first semester in December, however, I was singing a completely different tune. My next semester was in Denmark, which while not far, isn’t exactly close to Austria. Somehow, I had overlooked one crucial detail: packing those books once would mean I was stuck with them. It’s not fun carrying around ten extra kg of luggage across three countries only to see it languishing on your shelves; it gets especially tiresome when you realize you have a year more to go of packing up your life every five months.

Ideally, it should be possible to buy a book and be able to access the e-book off the same purchase. For the brief period of time where I owned an e-reader, I found myself consuming far more literature than I had in the years before that; it was easy and accessible to take along while travelling, while also giving me the option to download any number of books on the go.

That’s where I think an e-reader would have come in handy, but I’ve gone back and forth on this; it’s cliche to say, but there’s really no way to replicate the feel, weight and smell of a book in your hand. For students based in one university, especially, I think it’s crucial to have access to intangible knowledge in this physical form; but especially considering that the University of Baghdad lost their collection in a senseless act of vandalism, having access to those same books in both digital and physical form would be the perfect combination of these two different mediums.

You can donate to the Wafaa Bilal crowfunder here. All proceeds go towards purchasing replacement books for the University of Baghdad College of Fine Art Library.

Image: Wafaa Bilal, 168/01 (2016). Photo by Nadja Pelke.