by Laura Damon-Moore

This weekend, I had the opportunity to hear Sir Kenneth Robinson give the keynote lecture for the Wisconsin Science Festival. Although I had written the following essay prior to hearing his talk, I wanted to highlight a few points from his talk that I think provide context for the way we’re talking about incubators, and libraries-as-incubators.

  • Creativity needs to be encouraged, at the very moment when the structure of our education system is doing much to discourage it.
  • Creativity is not “for” a “special sort of people.” It is for and inherent in everyone.
  • Creativity is a process. It is a process that can be taught.
  • Cultivating a space for creativity is about “climate control.” Given the right circumstances, opportunity, and attitude, creativity has a shot.

A note about the photos in this essay: each of these libraries has been an incubator of various kinds for me over the years, which is why they’re featured here today.

Browsing room at Cole Library/Mount Vernon Public Library, Mount Vernon, Iowa – my first library.

Since the earliest conversations about the Library as Incubator Project, we’ve spent a lot of time talking about how the project came to be, why we felt/feel that it is an important subject, and our project goals now and in the future.

As we continue to have the great privilege to be part of national conversations on topics closely related to our project (like makerspaces, hands-on/participatory learning, community-created content, programming-as-collection-development, etc.) I thought that this might be a good opportunity to clarify/state why we chose the term “incubator” to describe the lens through which we’re viewing – and discussing – libraries.

Morse Library at Beloit College, Beloit, Wisconsin.

Inspiration Incubators

If you take a look at the earliest responses to our artists-and-libraries survey, when we pose the question “what does the phrase ‘library as incubator’ mean to you?” we got everything from “nothing” to “it makes me think of chickens.” Overwhelmingly, though, artists shared responses like:

An incubator is a warm place that encourages things to come to life.  Information is the seed from which one grows.  Information informs our work.  Interaction with other users and librarians cross-pollinates our ideas and passions.   Plus it takes time for development to occur, and presumably/hopefully a library is ongoing and reliable.

and like this:

Perhaps that the materials within the building are ingredients for activating new work.

and this, too:

I see a container where the artist dives in and gets inspiration. Pictures, scents, sounds, everything is packed in this incubator. It bubbles, it keeps percolating.

They’re talking here about inspiration, about creative development and growth, about ideas that get fed by library collections, staff, and spaces.

Business Incubators

Memorial Library at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, Madison, Wisconsin.

Interestingly, the term “incubator,” in the non-profit world, indicates something more businesslike or entrepreneurial in nature. Business incubators and arts incubators are considered to be places where small business owners and artists can grow and develop professionally, surrounded by resources and support in an “incubating” environment.

How do libraries fit into that picture? Well, just take Hennepin County Library as an example. This summer we featured their Work of Art program series, which tackles tricky topics in the arts community, from legal considerations for artists to marketing to how to price your work.

Incubating Every Step of the Way

What is so exciting to me, and why I loved the idea of naming our project the Library as Incubator Project, is that libraries do and can offer “incubating” support in every step of the creative process – from inception to the making or production to the promotion of the work.

There are a lot of people who use the library (sometimes consciously, other times unconsciously) almost like a creativity sandbox. Take for example Carol Chase Bjerke, one of our very earliest interviewees. Carol’s a wonderful book artist. One of her projects began after she happened upon a little book of photography – totally unrelated to her work at the time – on a library shelf. She did not start the project immediately after finding the book, either – ideas had to percolate, the timing had to be right – but eventually Point of Departure came to be.

There are others who come to the library partway through the creative process, to expand upon or enhance a current project with some library research. Authors of historical fiction; poets looking to explore a visual resource; dramaturgs digging into sources to provide background for set or costume design.

Libraries can offer a place for artists to actually work, too – in studio or making spaces, tables with laptop plugs, quiet study rooms and cafe areas. They provide a change of scene, a place to wander and break free of writer’s block or other frustration, or (and I think this is just the coolest) as a place to experiment “outside of your art” with workshops, skillshare opportunities, artist demonstrations, and more.

People publish and produce works through libraries. And then libraries can serve as promotional spaces for the finished works. Authors hold readings to promote their new work. Theatre artists and musicians perform. Artists show their work in a gallery space.

Libraries also provide resources that artists can use to promote their work outside of the library, which is where the entrepreneurial/business development stuff comes into play. Libraries have or can order small business how-to books, publishing market guides, marketing resources, accounting textbooks, online marketplace guides, and so much more.

Edgerton Public library in Edgerton, Wisconsin. Many thanks to the kids here for helping me think creatively about libraries, literacy, and community.

Take an Incuba-TOUR

In the many, many artists and writers we’ve talked to over the last year and a half, I can say with some confidence that no one uses the library for all of these steps in the inspiration/production/promotion of their work. Some use the library only as a way to promote their work. Others find their project inspiration there, but build their projects elsewhere.

The creative process is different for everyone, and we recognize (and celebrate the fact) that everyone has their own creativity incubators. We simply hope that we inspire you to give your library a shot at helping out somewhere along the way.

So much more on this topic, on the way. Do you have questions, ideas, or just want to talk? Email us:

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