Reinventing that most ancient of resources: The library

May 9, 2012

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The Brooklyn Art Library rolled into Chicago this past weekend. For the second year in a row curators parked their mobile collection/exhibit of this year’s sketchbooks at the Hyde Park Art Center. The concept is simple – sign up for borrowing rights and then check out any number of sketchbooks, which are custom catalogued by theme, artist and location. 

I opted for a couple of locally produced sketchbooks and my favorite by far was the work of a young artist who encouraged a 10-minute morning meditation on the number 10. Her variations on the theme were simple but evocative, and offered a very practical way to incorporate drawing into the busiest of schedules.
Unlike a public library you can’t take the artists' books home. But on the upside, you don’t have to secure a publishing contract to add your own work to the mix. For a fairly small fee anyone can order a custom sketchbook, fill it up, and even opt to have it added to the digital library.
 

The response seems positive – the day I checked out the project, lines for the finished products were pretty substantial. Kids were clustered around a table sketching, adults were reading and sharing – the vibe was right.

This is just one of many fresh and inventive takes I’ve seen recently on the library, that most ancient of resources. And it comes at a peculiar moment, when our own – and other – public library systems are facing major challenges – or as Jessica Crispin of Bookslut would have it, are "permanently f&*&ed." 

In Chicago we have brand new leadership at the top, and – let's not mince words – new reduced hours and levels of service at the branches as well. But mess with the status quo at your peril. When Mayor Emanuel tried more significant cuts, widespread protests derailed his plans and he found a way to "scrounge up" some bucks, even if other budget measures arguably hit residents' pocketbooks in a more significant way.  

Other cities are weathering equally difficult financial storms, but their public collections remain tranquil. San Francisco has an arrangement whereby a percentage of city taxes goes to libraries. In Los Angeles branch hours will actually increase on certain days - despite Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa's proposals for major cuts and job eliminations to other parts of the budget.

When it comes to libraries the facts are in: libraries are incredibly adaptable and resourceful, often ahead of the curve, at least when it comes to the way people consume – or desire to consume – information. Which in part explains why we're seeing a morphing of the idea of the library out of the traditional stacks and into all manner of places, trafficking in all sorts of goods. And that's a great thing because we need libraries right now, if only as a resource for those seeking employment and access to digital technology (and those onlys ain't peanuts). 

What drives me nuts (and I think is at least partly what makes these institutions simultaneously beloved and vulnerable) is how the same stereotypes of libraries and librarians persist - just Google "the future of libraries" or some such phrase and see how many "shhs" and "shushing spinsters" and "smells" you get. Sure some of these articles rack up these outdated images just to knock them down with their "I'm so on this trend" logic, but please! When's the last time you actually hit up a library, madame tech reporter?? 

OK I'm trend hunting myself here, but I'm hoping that my list adheres, largely or loosely, to the community spirit that is essential to the past and future of the library. What follows is an ad-hoc list of inventive or new libraries in Chicago. As always, there's more where these came from. So go ahead – add your own library finds to the comments section below.

 

Hull House Art Lending Library

This recent addition to the library scene is at once old and new school, modeled on the art lending library originally set up by Jane Addams and Ellen Gates Starr - reformer, educator and close personal friend of Addams. In the current iteration you can check out a piece of original art (the collection is curated by Threewalls, a local art gallery), have it hung in your abode, and enjoy it for three months - all for free. The collection focuses on contemporary local artists (emerging and established) and includes photography, painting, sculpture and more, including a screenprint from Eddie Fake and a photograph by Laura Mackin All of the work was commissioned specifically for the library, so you'll also be checking out an artistic interpretation of a circulating library.

 

Poetry Foundation Library

We live in an infinitely customizable and niche-able world.  Think of a site like Pinterest, which transforms the world wide web into something like "my little internet." Likewise the library at the brand new and beautiful Poetry Foundation facility seeks to do one thing and do it well: spread the word of poetry. Poetry libraries are fairly rare, but this collection is bounteous - ranging from a large selection of children's books to rare first editions. This library is non-circulating, but the reading room is so airy and inviting you probably won't want to leave. There are separate rooms for listening to audio or watching videos. Warning: the foundation adheres to pretty traditional library rules – no loud voices or surfing for porn or sleeping. But in a city where spoken word and the weaving of tales is a 24/7 art form? This is a huge resource.

PUBLIC Hotel's Library and Coffee Bar

Okay let's not quibble: This is more like the essence of a library - all yellowing volumes, overstuffed stacks, quiet coughs and turning pages - distilled into a lounge. Better yet, it's the library where all the traditionally verboten behaviors are encouraged. Modeled after 19th-century Viennese coffee house (to the extent our 21st-century touch can approximate such a culturally specific time and place), you can order a coffee, nestle up near a fire, read a new book or magazine –  I bet even naps are tolerated. And most of all you might wind up chatting with your fellow travelers. Most of us may be unable to operate without our personal digital devices nearby, but it turns out we like our information with a side of people.