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The Public Library as an Incubator for the Arts

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Poudre River Public Library District's Community Mural

Arguably, those who believe a public library is simply a repository of print books haven't been to a public library lately. Here at MindShift, we've been covering the ways in which the library is evolving to change the demands of digital technologies and of its patrons: libraries are becoming learning labs, innovation centers, and makerspaces.

Of course, the public library has always been a community center as much as a place to go to check out books to read, so the new extensions of the library's service may not be so far afield from the institution's mission to provide access to information. Even so, much of the emphasis has been on literacy -- reading and writing, digital and analog -- and not on other forms of creativity.

But three graduate students at the University of Wisconsin-Madison School of Library and Information Studies have launched a project that points to another important way in which libraries play a key role in their communities. The Library as Incubator Project highlights some of the ways in which libraries and local artists can work together.

I spoke with Erinn Batykefer, Laura Damon-Moore, and Christina Endres about the project.

Q. What was the inspiration for the Library as Incubator Project?


Laura Damon-Moore: The inspiration for the project came from several places. One was an article in the Friends of the UW-Madison Libraries’ magazine, written by Madison artist and curator Martha Glowacki. Martha uses library research and spaces frequently in the development of her

creative work. We wanted to learn more about how other artists use libraries in their work, and how the “library experience” might be enhanced for artists. Another important piece of the inspiration for the project came up at the end of our first semester of library school. Professor (now Emerita) Louise Robbins spoke about the need for advocacy to infuse everything that we do as library students and future librarians. Lastly, the three of us have an interest in the arts anhelp engage the communities we all will be serving some day. These pieces came together over the course of about a semester to form the basis for the project as it exists today.

Q. How does the project work?

Laura Damon-Moore: A good place to start answering this question is to talk about the website, which serves as our “hub” for the Library as Incubator Project. The three of us all work to find and manage the content for the website. With the website, the goals are:

  • To highlight artists and writers who currently use libraries as “incubators” for their creative work. This ranges from using a book or other library item as a source of inspiration (like book artist Carol Chase Bjerke, or poet Rita Mae Reese) to artists who use library spaces to show/perform their work (like the Dark Carols Cycle, which premiered at the LA Public Library, or Brandon Monokian, a theater artist who works with teens on the Page to Stage project).
  • To highlight libraries and librarians who are promoting the arts - and the use of their libraries for artistic endeavors - in innovative ways. So, offering artists a space to create or install artwork, like the BOOKLESS project here at Madison Public Library’s (now empty) central branch. Or the series of workshops at the Washington, DC Public Library called The Creative Class, which uses library materials as inspiration for craft projects.
  • To provide resources for librarians and artists. These range from art education resources, like a link to the Kennedy Center’s ArtsEdge network or our program kit library, to tips on how to use resources like Freegal, a music checkout program, or the British Library’s Newspaper Archive.

We are also quite active on the social media scene, with Twitter (@IArtLibraries) and Facebook. Social media allows us to interact and connect with people all over the world, and is how we’ve been finding a lot of the people/libraries we highlight.

Q. What would your response be to those who'd say that this project falls outside the mission of the library?

Laura Damon-Moore: Few would argue the fact that one mission of “the library” is to provide its community with information. I would argue against the idea that information can only be found in books, or journal articles. Arts programming in libraries is just a different way of presenting information. For example, if a library has an art gallery or even some free wall space, a local watercolor artist may want to display their work. The library can not only provide the space for a professional or non-professional artist to show their work, but can also create a book display on watercolor techniques and perhaps famous examples of watercolor artwork. Furthermore, a lot of arts programming allows community members to not only consume but create as well. So, with our watercolor example, perhaps the artist is invited to host a workshop or class on watercolor painting. Community members become active, not passive, participants in the information cycle.

Christina Endres: The goals of many public libraries include statements about community enrichment and providing support for lifelong learning. I would say that providing support for the arts and a place for the public to create and enjoy art directly serves those missions. By promoting and supporting the arts, a library can help create a more creative and expressive community, and allow those without access to art education or art museums to participate and learn in this creative community.

Erinn Batykefer: I would say, “Get thee to a library!,” because it’s pretty clear you don’t understand the mission! The reductive view a lot of people-- and lawmakers-- have about libraries is that they are about books. Libraries’ mission isn’t about books. It never has been. Libraries collect and loan books in response to their mission, which is much broader. Read the Library Bill of Rights, and you’ll see that libraries are concerned with free access to information of all types for all people-- no matter who they are or what they are interested in learning. In fact, Article VI specifically states that “VI. Libraries that make exhibit spaces and meeting rooms available to the

public they serve should make such facilities available on an equitable basis, regardless of the beliefs or affiliations of individuals or groups requesting their use.” In this article, it’s not only implicit that libraries are likely to have both exhibit and meeting spaces, it’s also understood that the broad goal of free access to information for all-- which is the basis of library service as a public good-- translates to lifelong learning and community building. No one would question the validity of children’s art programming at a library as an important component of early literacy education. Yet somehow, once you’re an adult, libraries are just about books.

That attitude is so limiting!

And I think it’s the crux of the argument you hear a lot these days, which is “Everything’s online; libraries are dead.” That’s only true if you think libraries are only about books and other physical materials. But they’re not. They’re about digital materials, and free access to the Internet--especially important in places where not everyone is so fortunate to have a connection in their home-- and they’re about self-directed, life-long learning. That includes the arts! And at a time when arts budgets--from local schools all the way up to the NEA-- are being gutted for the same myopic reasons that library budgets are slashed, arts education is suffering; We’re shortchanging an entire generation of Americans who may never spend an hour painting or writing or acting, or doing any creative endeavor as part of a formal education.

We believe the library can and does have the capacity to fill that educational gap. Even in places where the arts are supported, the library is a place where you can learn what you want to learn, not what you have to learn. There is a wonderful video circulating the internet right now: Chrystie Hill's TedxRanier talk about the future of libraries. It’s a worthwhile view, in my opinion, because in it, she addresses a lot of the concerns that come up with these kinds of library mission / future of libraries questions. She asks “When everything is online, why go to the library at all?” And her answer is one that points to community building more than anything: “The library of the future... is not about storing books. Well what is it? We get to decide. We get to do what we want. And everything is allowed.”

Q. What's next for the project?

Laura Damon-Moore: Probably the biggest thing we are working on is setting up some type of funding system, so that we can sustain the project once the three of us have graduated. We are hoping to expand the project and right now we are working many, many hours/week on a volunteer basis. We are submitting grant proposals, talking about a donation system for the website, and are in the discussion stages of moving toward non-profit status. We want to keep the website ad-free, but also be able to continue our work - and so we’re working hard to make this possible.

We are also working from an organizational standpoint to make sure that the project will be sustainable after we graduate and (likely) move away from the same city. Luckily we have a lot of people happy to talk with us about getting ourselves organized, setting up a manageable workflow, etc. We seriously hope that we’ll have some internships available in the coming year!

The co-founders of the project don’t just want to be talking about what other libraries are doing, but actively engaging in and assisting with programs and events ourselves. We have several exciting projects on the horizon, including an art exhibition of works based on materials from the University Archives here at UW; what we’re calling “incubaTOURs” of campus libraries specifically geared toward student and community artists; and, of course, our involvement with BOOKLESS, an awesome library fundraiser for the Madison Public Library. We only hope to add to our personal involvement in these and other creative projects, particularly as we set off on our own adventures as library professionals!


A major goal of ours is to continue to develop program kits for libraries to use. We would love to expand some of our kits to be in line with what arts educators in schools and after-school programs are doing - particularly as many arts programs are under attack budget-wise. We hope to work with some arts educators to help libraries fill in where there are gaps in the arts education system, especially in under-resourced communities.

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