“activating the library as space” is an essay written for the Library as Incubator Project by Tara Robertson.

I’ve been working at Emily Carr University of Art + Design for 2½ years. Emily Carr is a small (~1800 FTEs) art and design school. When I started working here the amount of community collaboration was very minimal. Last year was the first time we participated as a venue for the grad show. We removed a lot of the furniture and worked to accommodate the students who were exhibiting in the library space. Being a venue for the grad show was instrumental in changing our relationship with our community.

The biggest event at our university is our grad show. Grad show highlights the best work that our graduating students have done—it’s a celebration of our creative research output. 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 the first one. 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.

While serving on the Curatorial Committee I was able to develop relationships with faculty and hear their feedback about the library. This has also led to art being displayed in the library year round. The outcome of having art in the library was important on its own, but building relationships with faculty was equally valuable. In partnership with another faculty member I initiated the first public events in the library, which has led to more programming in the library space. Again, the collaborative process was as
important as the outcomes.

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. At one point there were several technicians, a couple of ladders and a loud pneumatic nail gun. 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.

Our participation in the grad show was a massive success–I’ve only heard positive things from students, their families, faculty, staff, technicians, the wider community and library staff. Initially it was a tough sell to convince the grad committee chair that the library could work as a venue, and equally difficult 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 for this year’s year 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. Already there have been more installations, thematic reading rooms, displays and collaborations with class projects. There’s still a bunch of work to do, but we’re well on our way to activating the library space.




Tara Robertson is a systems librarian at the university library at Emily Carr University of Art + Design in British Columbia, Canada. Follow Tara online at http://tararobertson.ca.

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