Libraries exhibit explores the world of plastics

March 21, 2017

UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. — The University Libraries concludes the 2016-17 academic year with the exhibit “Plastics: Knowledge and Information Taking Shape” on display through Wednesday, Aug. 9. The exhibit will be held in the Pattee Library central entrance exhibit cases and adjacent Sidewater Commons, first floor Pattee Library on Penn State’s University Park campus. Offering an in-depth exploration of University Libraries’ materials related to plastic, the exhibit is free and open to the public and is available for viewing during spring semester Pattee Library operating hours.

The exhibit -- curated by J. Harlan Ritchey, Penn State information resources and services support specialist at the Engineering Library, and Graham Berg, Media Commons consultant -- explores the various manifestations of plastic, from plastic surgery to the plastic arts. The exhibit also features artifacts, photographs, and explanatory documentation about the Great Book Move, a book sculpture, and a display dedicated to the Maker Commons, the library’s 3D printing facilities.

“The idea behind this exhibit is based on the original meaning of ‘plastic’ as what can be molded and formed,” Ritchey explained. “That includes the knowledge and information that libraries store as well as shape, it’s an apt metaphor.”

Lab-synthesized plastics, or plastics made from refining oil and gas, are a relatively new invention, coming into prominence after World War II. Natural plastics, such as keratin, wax and tallow, have been in use for centuries, stemming back to medieval times when craftsmen used animal horn, a mixed carbon-nitrogen polymer, to make lantern windows. In 1862, Alexander Parkes created the first man-made plastic, a cellulose-based rubber-like material called Parkesine. During the 20th century, plastics innovation and production increased astronomically and as “Plastics: Knowledge and Information Taking Shape” demonstrates, plastics are now an indispensable part of our daily life.

The exhibit in Sidewater Commons, a computer lab and gallery space on the first floor of Pattee Library, showcases posters on the plastic nature of knowledge and information, detailing a wide breadth of information on plastic production and engineering, recycling and sustainability, and environmental impact. The posters also focus on plastics, not just as defined as a synthetic or natural material, but also a synonym for credit cards, or in reference to the plastic arts or neuroplasticity. Each displayed poster corresponds to a rich collection of books and multimedia materials held in the University Libraries, from current textbooks and manuals on petroleum engineering to sound recordings made from polycarbonate to nylon, latex and polyester clothing.

Two central exhibit cases in Pattee Library also feature materials related to plastics. The first case focuses on moments from the “Great Book Move,” a performative art event that took place on Feb. 2, 2016. Installed by sculptor Katrin Hornek, of Vienna, Austria, the “Great Book Move” utilized almost 2,000 books with the word plastic in their title. Hornek sorted and reassembled the books into a sculptural installation photograph titled “Title Search on Plastic*s” which was guided by her interest in looking at shaping forces and casting molds causing social, geological and abstract environments to materialize in forms.

The other exhibit case focuses on the University Libraries Makers Commons, a University-wide initiative to enrich the Penn State teaching and learning experience through 3D printing. The case include examples of 3D printed projects and art, demonstrating the myriad applications of this state-of-the-art printing and scanning technology.

For more information about the exhibit or inquiries about special accommodations or the physical access provided, contact Harlan Ritchey ( or 814-865-7238) or Graham Berg ( or 814-863-7537).

(Media Contacts)

Last Updated April 07, 2017