by Ryan Claringbole

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What if you not only could write the books that are checked out in a library by members of your community, but also participate in the construction of that book? The People’s Library, a collaborative project started by Mark Strandquist with Courtney Bowles and Riley Duncan, is allowing the city of Richmond, Virginia to do exactly that and tell the city’s story through its citizens. When asked where the inspiration for this project came from, Mark said that he talked with people while on Positive Force DC and We Are Family, prior projects he worked on.

peoples-library-2It stems in part from work I did as a teenager and into my early twenties with low-income senior citizens in Washington, DC. I was spending a lot of time with them, doing oral histories, helping around their homes, delivering groceries. It was leveling to hear their stories. To realize what economic, cultural, political struggles they’ve gone through, only to, on the whole, end up mostly alone.

Mark went on to also touch on how working with the Art Museum of the Americas recently helped influence him. The project was to bring in histories from all of the wards in the city and put them next to the Washington Monument. Mark is looking at the library not in terms of a physical building holding books or information, but rather as a place that represents the community. Taking all of these experiences, Mark and his collaborators partnered with the Richmond Public Library to do an oral history project called The People’s Library.

Here is the process of the first stage of the program:

  • 5,000 discarded books are donated to the program
  • Mark, Courtney and Riley, working with RPL’s Teen group, tear up the discarded books and shred the paper
  • Setting up a table by the front door of the Main Library, they create pulp by first shredding the paper in a blender and then pour the shreds into a paper-size frame and dunking it in water
  • After quickly raising the cage holding the frame and draining the water, the frame is taken off and the new page is moved on to the next station
  • Here the paper is padded down with a sponge several times and then moved onto a couch sheet, flipped, and padded down on the other side
  • After a final pat down with between two couch sheets and a press bar, the new page is hung up on a line in the library to dry

The group holds workshops in the library and other locations. Each workshop is about 4 hours long where people can come participate in the process at any time. Some stay for the whole thing, others come in to make 1 piece of paper and leave. The choice is completely theirs.

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Once all discarded books are repurposed to make 1,000 new books, the plan is to have the community check out one the 1,000 blank books that will be made. In each book there will be prompts printed on pages, such as “include the one memory you would never want forgotten” “draw a timeline of your life, leave room so you can add to it” and more to help gently push people on what to write.  Studio Two Three, who also is printing the cover sheets to all the books, is printing these prompts in all of the books. In doing so, the community will be recording its own personal history in books that are made by the community to be checked out by the community.

Throughout this entire process Mark interacts with people that come and ask questions, one of the perks of being set up near the front door. When asked about how people are taking to the project, Mark said:

The interactions, conversations, public interventions that occur while we’re producing the books (papermaking, silk screening, book binding) are equally important. I’m equally interested in someone coming by, having a conversation with us about what we’re doing and why as I am about someone coming and making paper and helping out for 4 hours.

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And it doesn’t stop there. Throughout this process the people doing The People’s Library is doing an ethnography of everyone who works at the library, recording why everyone works in the library, what they view as the purpose of the library, etc. This will be recorded into a book so others can read it. It will be a physical representation of the people that work in the library, in the library, created by members of the community that the library staff serve.

The books constructed will be housed on bookshelves that wrap around a table with chairs available for people to sit and write. They are working with a local cabinet maker who is building a card catalog for the collection into the shelf. The table and bookshelves will be located very close to the main entrance, so when the public enters the library it will be one of the first things they see. The first Saturday in May the public had an opportunity for the first time to check out one of these books and start writing their stories.

This  project goes beyond just the physical books being created. Mark plans on having the books digitized once they are filled in so the content can be accessible online. Groups have been contacted to host creating writing workshops throughout the city, with some of the blank books brought as the writing material. They also have plans on bringing the People’s books to those that are unable to come to the library, such as inmates and senior citizens who cannot get transportation to the library. Like Mark said, “We’re trying to bring together people and histories that rarely interact with each other in public space.”

People are recognizing what a great idea the People’s Library is. Not only the Richmond community (Mark has received nothing but positive feedback, except the occasional complaint regarding the blender being loud in the library) but from outside the area as well. They are planning on doing the project in DC later this year at the Martin Luther King Jr. Memorial Library, and are presenting the project at the Open Engagement Conference in Portland, Oregon. To Mark, all they have really done is helped construct the framework for others to follow.

One of the main goals is to present alternative models for the production of history and public/socially engaged art. Once you produce a model it can be used and re-interpreted in another local context. In our context referencing monumentatlity and collective production is integral. That might not be the case elsewhere. I like that it could look and feel completely different. Two things that really excite me about the project are that someone could participate in the project by interacting with books others have written, or by authoring their own book without ever meeting us without us needing to be there. We help to build the structure that other’s complete with their histories and participation.

This is a project that fully embraces the community it is in, or rather it allows the community to fully embrace the project and the library. As Mark put it,

We (the other partners in the project, Courtney Bowles and Riley Duncan) were interested in creating a counter monument, one that includes anyone’s history, regardless of race class identity to question singular and hierarchical readings and productions of history. One that is sustainably and collectively constructed. There’s something really interesting to me about what happens when you bring these histories into public space. We’re hoping it challenges and reimagines the form and function of a library.

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Photos courtesy of http://www.nomovement.com/People-s-Library

Learn more about the People’s Library.

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