activating the library as space – an update

Over a year ago I wrote about some of the programming we could do to start to connect with our community and activate the library space. We’re starting small, but there’s some progress. We’ve co-hosted two poetry readings and became a venue for the important event on campus, the grad show.

The library is located at street level, which makes it easier to find than most of the other spaces on campus. Also, there are huge windows facing onto the street, so if there is something happening in the library, it’s visible to the public. During grad show we moved the furniture and installed an 8′ high sculpture made out of reclaimed wood. This was such an unexpected thing to see in the middle of the library that many people came in from the street to find out what was going on.

Koja by Anna-Karin Johansson

On Edge Reading Series

We co-hosted two poetry readings that are part of the Canada Council funded On Edge Reading Series, that is also connected to a creative writing course. In the fall the delightfully odd Garry Morse read, and in the spring the poet performer Erà ­n Moure read.

These were relatively easy events to organize, as the instructor had obtained funding so the poets could be paid at proper Canada Council rates, selected the poets, and worked with me to select poets that could project in the library space without a mic and who would enjoy reading in a less controlled environment. As this was connected to a course, we had a guaranteed audience of about 30. For both events people from the general poetry and arts community also attended. Someone who came out for the first time said that he decided to come to the library reading as it seemed more public than a reading in a classroom.

Listen to Garry read (~3 minutes long)

View a photo slideshow of the evening

Grad Show

This year was the first time the library participated in grad show as a venue. It was a massive success–I’ve only heard positive things from students, their families, faculty, staff, technicians, the wider community and library staff. It’s hard to explain to people at research universities what a big deal grad show is. I didn’t understand it until I experienced my first grad show. Most universities produce peer reviewed articles and research; our outputs are creative: sculpture, performance, animation, film, ceramics, writing, wearable electronics, communication design, fonts, and interactive design.

Initially it was a tough sell to convince students to show their work in the library space. Right now students prefer to show in a white cube environment, with the Concourse Gallery being students’ top pick. The students who did chose to show in the library were gutsy and courageous. Reviews in The Vancouver Sun and The Georgia Straight singled out pieces that were in the library for being excellent work. I think they stood out more in the library because there was more room to show and because it was an unexpected non-traditional gallery space.

On Opening Night, Joanna Peters performed her piece in the mezzanine. We opened up the second floor fire door so that people could easily flow between the upstairs galleries and the library. Over 1000 people came through in 4 hours, and Joanna’s piece always had a big audience.

Being part of the grad show also meant that I got to serve on the curation committee. This is way outside my comfort zone and terrified me more than a bit. The other faculty, who are all professional artists, as well as educators, were really generous with me and mentored me through the process of curating a group show of over 300 students. Locating all the work (and making sure that the students were happy with the location), documenting each piece so that maps could be made, working with the technicians to make sure that the large difficult pieces were hung safely and mediating stressed out students who were in tears, was a massive amount of work.

The most important part of being part of the grad show for me was shifting the library to be a user-centric space. Grad show is the most important event for our users and our physical space is a reflection of that. It demonstrated our commitment to supporting and celebrating our students.

While running around solving logistical problems I also got to hear honest feedback from faculty about what the library was doing well and what we needed to improve or fix. One faculty member said that he’d given up on the library several years ago, but our active participation in grad show and my desire to hear his complaints about the library changed his attitude towards the library and our services. His feedback likely couldn’t have been captured in a survey, and a survey couldn’t have started to repair the broken relationship.

We’ve already brainstormed ways to make the library better next year for grad show. We’ve thought about hosting one of the bars at the circulation desk and being a central information hub where people can find out where specific works are located. Everyone has suggested that we have art in the library year round, and we’re figuring out the best way to make that happen.

The poetry events and grad show were fun, but more importantly they were ways that we could connect with our community and start conversations about what the library could become in the future.

activating the library as a space

Image by cwalker71

I’m still buzzing from a conversation I had with Glen Lowry where we brainstormed how the library could be “activated as a space for artistic and research inquiry”.

Right now I work at a small university library at an art and design school. Currently there is no programming happening, which doesn’t seem to be that uncommon for a university library. We have an exhibition space that we let students and classes to show use to show their work. There’s also a small display case upstairs.

The library is used heavily as a place to study, sit and ponder, do group work, and occasionally nap.A   Some weekday afternoons there are students sitting in the stacks because there isn’t enough space. On the weekend the library is used primarily as a safe and comfortable space to work. There is a regular patron, who is professor somewhere else, who is writing his fourth book in our library, and a few other authors have told me that they wrote large chunks of their novels in the study carrels.

I think the library has a huge potential to be utilized as a space for events or programming. We could host readings, like the University of British Columbia’s Robson Square branch has done for the past 7 years. We could bring out some of our artist book collection, that is usually in locked filing cabinets, for people to browse. We could also invite book artists or book arts groups to collaborate with us. We could invite students studying curation to set up exhibitions on our walls. We could set up chairs outside on the street and screen local experimental film, mainstream animation, or carrels of slides on our windows at night time. We could set up a living library. There’s a whole lot of things we could do.

We could invite and encourage students and faculty to make site specific installations, or do site specific performances. One of my coworkers talked about the library as a type of laboratory. I like this word as it implies exploration, investigation, looking for new ways to do things, and learning from failures. I love the idea of experimenting to find new ways of arranging and providing access to our physical and electronic collections.

I love how the Vancouver Public Library has a public art program.A   I especially loved the recent aerial dance performance that utilized the inside concourse and outside walls as a stage.

I’m keen to experiment and activate the library space. Does your university library do any programming? How could your library’s space be utilized in new ways?