This post originally appeared on February 29, 2012.

This feature is written by Jessica Pigza about the New York Public Library’s “Design by the Book” film series. To learn about Jessica’s Handmade Crafternoon program at the NYPL, check out her first feature on the Library as Incubator Project. – Laura

Four years ago, I was a reference librarian working at the New York Public Library’s humanities and social sciences research library, doing my usual reference desks and remote reader queries. I had also begun encouraging makers to consider the library’s collections as their own. I hadn’t yet launched Handmade Crafternoons (that series would come a year later), but I was blogging on the topic of craft culture and I had also started offering subject-specific bibliographic instruction on topics like book and paper arts, sewing, knitting, and DIY generally.  My blog and classes led letterpress printer Rebecca Kutys to ask if the library would be interested in participating in a local artists’ collaboration she was working to create.  This connection led to Design by the Book, an experimental outreach project that has greatly influenced my ideas about attracting new users and encouraging new uses of historic research collections.

Design by the Book was a four part film that featured local artists and designers who came to the New York Public Library, explored our collections, and then created new work inspired or informed by what they saw. I worked as the artists’ reference librarian. After studying their portfolios and getting to know a bit about their interests through reference interviews and email exchanges, I tried to match our collections with their needs and requests. There was a bit of serendipity in the process, though, because I also tried to intuit what would speak to them that they might not already know about. In this way, selecting materials was a more creative and open-ended process than it would have been for a traditional academic humanities researcher.

Design by the Book 4 screensThe series as whole was born through the efforts of Amy Azzarito and James Murdock, who were part of a small team dedicated to devising new ways for users to interact with the library online. We were incredibly fortunate to be joined by Grace Bonney of Design*Sponge in producing the series as well.  Their combined skills in directing, writing, and editing allowed this outreach project to succeed.

In working to create and promote this project, I got a glimpse of how working designers interact with libraries’ unique historical research collections, and I recognized how much potential material we had waiting in our stacks.  I learned the power librarians have to share our collections both through direct assistance as well as via content we create that features our institutions’ collections. New audiences might approach our collections in ways we don’t necessarily anticipate, but as long as we welcome and support them the outcome can’t help but be positive and creative.

After sharing the first three episodes online (via the library’s website, Design*Sponge, and YouTube), we decided to host an in-person event at the library to premier the final episode. Over four hundred people attended.  The artists brought their finished works or designs in progress to be exhibited alongside the books and materials that inspired them. Attendees got to see the series, browse materials and talk with librarians, and make a fresh connection with their library.

The experience of helping to create this project has influenced my work as a librarian more than I at first recognized. My commitment to the library as a creative hub, my passion for attracting new uses and new users for legacy collections, my desire to work collaboratively, and my interest in melding digital outreach with in-person connections are all rooted in Design by the Book. Each of us, as a librarian, has the opportunity to identify and create new roles in our changing profession. Do your interests, expertise, and skills have the potential to help library users and libraries to flourish in the future? Then find a way to apply them to the work you do at your library and everyone will benefit.

Jessica Pigza is a librarian, an avid seamstress and knitter, and an enthusiast of books and other objects you can learn to make by hand. She oversees reader services and outreach as assistant curator of the Rare Book Division at New York Public Library. You’ll find her online at and @handmadelibrary on Twitter.

Pin It