The Big Read Blog (Archive)

Library Services Get Creative

Indexed by flickr user kyz

Creativity can be a tricky, slippery thing. Some people believe it can be taught and nurtured; others think it’s a congenital trait. It can appear in flashes, and often disappears just as quickly. But for Laura Damon-Moore, Christina Endres, and Erinn Batykafer, there is a consistent reliable behind the creative formula: the library. All recent graduates of the University of Wisconsin-Madison School of Library and Information Studies, the three women are behind The Library as Incubator Project, an online resource that promotes partnerships between artists and libraries, and highlights successful projects that have emerged from these collaborations. We spoke with Damon-Moore and Endres about their website, why they think libraries are uniquely suited to arts creation, and the one myth about libraries they’d like to dispel.

NEA: Let’s start off by going back to the beginning. When did your own love of libraries first began?

LAURA DAMON-MOORE: My school library was the first library that I really connected with. A couple of things stick out to me about that experience. First, finding the book in the juvenile fiction section that was called Into the Painted Bear Lair. It was kind of the first life-changing book for me---I think I found it when I was seven. I made it a point of pride to have my name be the only name on the checkout card for a solid year. [Later on,] one of the librarians there let me know about a writing competition that was going on. I was a fifth-grader, and I ended up being a finalist in that competition. It was a really nice connection there for me with the staff in that library.

CHRISTINA ENDRES: When I was younger, my most vivid memories of the library are going to get Nancy Drew books. I was super into Nancy Drew, so I read all the ones in the school library, and then went to the public library and oh my gosh, there were so many more! So I appreciated the library back then. As I got older, especially in college, I thought about the library not just as a place to go get cool books, but to kind of hang out. I think that’s when I really started to love libraries. They were a place I could go away from the dorms, and where it would be calm and quiet and I could get my work done and wander around and look at all the interesting stuff and just explore.

NEA: How did the idea for the Library as Incubator Project first develop?

DAMON-MOORE: One of the biggest influences I would say was our Introductory Library Class, LIS450. Our professor, Louise Robbins, is really passionate and knowledgeable, and really conveyed that passion and knowledge to all of us very effectively. At the same time, I was working in Memorial Library here on campus. My office published the library magazine, and I was editing one of the articles which was about this woman named Martha Glowacki. She’s a local Madison artist who uses library resources and space extensively in her work as a visual artist. I have a theater background, and that got me thinking, “Visual arts? What about performing arts, too?” I started to think about artists as a user group of libraries, and how to provide services and resources for that specific user group. A lecture in Louise’s class about library advocacy and being able to speak knowledgeably about what libraries do and how they can help communities---all those things just collided in my brain. I cornered Christina almost immediately after having this revelation and was like, “Do you want to talk about this project? I have this idea.”

NEA: What is it in particular about libraries that you think makes them conducive to creativity?

DAMON-MOORE: I think that they’re a unique place that can facilitate the entire creative process. Someone might go there to do some research for a short story, or for a play, or to get source material for a visual art piece. They can also function as a space to actually do the creation of the work. One of my friends who we interviewed on the site, Madeleine Roux, did a lot of her writing of her second novel in a library when her home computer crashed---we’ve heard a lot of those kinds of stories. Towards the end of the process, it’s also a publishing mechanism, or a way to get the finished artwork to the community, and potential customers. It can be a performance space, it can be a gallery space, it can be a place to showcase writing.

ENDRES: The very nature of a public library as a public, free space also creates opportunities for creative people that they might not get elsewhere. The public library creates a space where artists who may not otherwise be able to show their work to the public are getting to do that. And people who aren’t going to go visit [museums and galleries] are going to get to see art. Or maybe a budding artist who can’t afford to go to art school, or can’t afford to take a class, can go to a free workshop at the library.

NEA: I think most people associate a library with reading and research. How do you see the overlap between reading and research, and the creative arts: writing, performance, visual arts?

DAMON-MOORE: There are a ton of connections that I see. For me, the act of reading is directly related to artistic inspiration. I’ve recently gotten back into doing some drawing and some writing. Now, I’m recognizing those moments of inspiration that come from reading a really outstanding book or short story or poem, or seeing something in the pages of an art book. I think that you read something in a book and it propels you forward, or gets you thinking about something that you want to explore through your own creative project.

ENDRES: Laura talked about reading as inspiration, but I think a lot of artists in our area use the library for research, and have a lot of information needs. For a writer, if they’re writing nonfiction that becomes more obvious, but even in writing fiction set in a certain time period, that’s going to require research. Or an artist setting a painting in a certain time period. I think the research aspect is a big part for a lot of creative people who are looking to add detail. People do traditionally think of the library in coordination with reading and books, but we’re also seeing that that role is changing quite a bit. This new role is more of libraries as a community center and information center and a creative place.

NEA: Drawing on what you just said, Christina, do you think that the library’s transformation into more of an information gathering place, or community space, is necessary for libraries to stay relevant in the 21st century?

ENDRES: I think that public libraries try to look at what their patrons and their community need and want. That’s the best way to stay relevant. I think that for a lot of communities, this what patrons are asking for and looking for, so in a sense, yes, I think it’s definitely a part of the evolution of libraries in the digital age. People talk about, “Why do we need libraries? Nobody reads books.” First, people do still read books. But people have changed the way they read and they’ve changed the way they gather information, and the public library is still going to play a big role in that.

DAMON-MOORE: As community centers and arts organizations are losing funding, or having to do more with less, there’s a practicality aspect there, too. All of these public institutions are struggling right now financially, so there is more need and opportunity for collaboration. So that’s a big thing that we’re seeing as well.

NEA: What have been some of your favorite projects or organizations that you have featured on the site?

DAMON-MOORE: One that stands out for me is Brandon Monokian. He’s a performing artist who works a lot with the Princeton Public Library in New Jersey. He does these projects called “Page to Stage” performances, and works with undergraduate-aged people to do performances taken from literature. He’s very enthusiastic and really fun to connect with.

ENDRES: We featured a project called, “A Cabinet of Curiosity: The Library’s Dead Time.” I love that project because it’s a little bit different from a lot of things we’ve seen on the site. It’s more conceptual and academic. It’s a really interesting look at combining performance art and [visual] art with some of the philosophies and issues behind librarianship. I also love reading [survey responses] from all the artists and writers that we feature. I think each person uses the library in a different way, and has a different way of explaining how they do that. It’s so fun to read those surveys or questionnaires, because every time you read one you think of another reason why the library is important.

NEA: Do you have any particular favorite libraries in the world?

DAMON-MOORE: I studied abroad for a semester in Dublin, Ireland, and attended the University College Dublin. Everyone thinks of Trinity College library when they think of Dublin, but there was something really wonderful and kind of smoky and old, lots of dark wood, and a little bit dingy around the corners at the UCD library. So that one is definitely up there. And they had really comfortable chairs.

ENDRES: I think I’ll always have a huge fondness in my heart for our home library, the School of Library and Information Studies library here in Madison. I think it would definitely be safe to say that our project was incubated there, we’ve done a lot of work on it in that library. It just kind of feels like home. It looks out over beautiful Lake Mendota with huge windows. I think many people here would tell you that this library is a place that they will remember fondly.

DAMON-MOORE: It also has a beautiful vintage children’s literature collection, too.

NEA: If there was one misconception about libraries that you’d like to dispel, what would it be?

ENDRES: Well, there are probably many. But it always gets to me [that people think] that public libraries are irrelevant, or could be irrelevant in the very near future. With this project, and with other work I’ve done in libraries, I see how untrue that is.

DAMON-MOORE: That’s probably mine, too. Just the idea that libraries are dying really gets my goat. And the misconception that you have to be dead quiet in libraries is a big one for me. I am the youth librarian at a small public library here in Wisconsin, and I see parents all the time shushing their children. Part of me is like, “Let them run free through the stacks!” Or that idea that as a librarian, I’m going to get really mad at you if you’re talking really loudly. I think that misconceptions about librarians still exist, and as librarians and future librarians ourselves, that really can be aggravating sometimes.

NEA: Do you feel like you’ve learned anything from working on the project that will eventually influence you as you become professionals in your own work as librarians?

ENDRES: I think there are a lot of things. From a practical end, we built a website and maintained a website and have gotten a lot of skills there. And the writing and communication skills that we’ve honed from doing the project will be invaluable. I think we’ve also learned the huge power of social media, and how that can really spark connections, and spark publicity, and spark people’s interest, in a way that, before this, I never knew was possible. I feel like I have a much better handle on how to use those connections and social media in a way that is effective. If I were in charge of social media at a library, I feel like I would be able to really use that to the library’s advantage after having done this. From another standpoint, we’ve been exposed to so many creative ideas and projects, that I feel really inspired to go into whatever library setting I end up working in and develop ideas for partnerships and projects and programs.

DAMON-MOORE: I think from an advocacy perspective, having such a rich collection of examples of successful programs is really fabulous. And that’s not just for us, it’s for people reading the site: librarians in training, current librarians. There’s a wealth of information there. I think that also, on a practical level, learning to work as a team has been insanely helpful. Working with people outside our little trio, and developing those professional connections, and really getting our feet wet in terms of networking, has really been useful, as far as professional development goes.

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