Serendipity, Looseness, and the Creative Turn in Libraries

Perhaps the books have outlived their original intended purpose, but that doesn’t mean that there aren’t other ways to use them.

You could pull almost any image in the library out of its context and it would probably be nearly impossible to identify its source or its meaning. In other words, the bizarre quality of the images might not necessarily be a function of the texts that they live in.

I wouldn’t want to prescribe a particular approach. I think that books are really interesting objects in part because they are relatively stable. Unlike electronic information, books are relatively difficult to change and revise.

-Zach Friedman and Anrew Beccone, Bomblog: Reanimation Library

In the face of the eroding perceived value of books, this lays out an interesting proposition, which relies on the strange combination of durability and the ability to be lost. Much of library practice relies on the idea that we need to keep information from getting lost, but as the reanimation library demonstrates, this is sometimes necessary for continued creation. Despite the increasing availability of full-text searching in ebooks, access to the ideas in books are heavily dependent on how they are represented in various titles, or, for the more cautious researcher, by the author and her affiliations. The upside of this being, you are more likely to read something that isn’t exactly what you were looking for. Conversely, the same looseness exposes the author and their work to unintended audiences. The Reanimation Library thrives on a more extreme version of this mechanism:  As a result of this serediptious proccess, the creative, unintended uses come to the fore.

Groups like the Library as Incubator Project and discussions by PublicPraxis move one step beyond this by shifting the definition of information, opening up new possibilities for libraries. About a breakdancing competition in a library:

We talk about how libraries have the ability to change the world for their users by providing access to information. Information is conveyed in many forms, not just the printed word or digital content but also via workshops and classes and exhibitions. A breakdancing competition won’t work in every library, nor need it. -Laura Damon-Moore, Elizabeth Hough, and Sharon Grover, Collaboration, Innovation, Incubation 

Scrapertown from California is a place. on Vimeo.

By organizing a group around the bikes they own, they promote creativity (they style their bikes, they make their own music), education (both formal K-12 and P2P), responsibility, self-respect (you must ride in style), community–and together they’ve created a world for themselves that meets important needs. All of these needs can be understood as information, as can all of the resources that fulfill those needs. So this is not some lofty far-out library moon colony, this is library terra firma. The way that Scraper bikes engage the members opens up knowledge, values, and opportunities that individually, these Oakland kids may not find widely accessible. -Meg Backus, Alternative Libraries

Both of these examples expand the definition of information, and by doing so expand the role of the library in the world. This is a much more aggressive tactic than what Reanimation Library employs, but the end results reach for the same goal: the breaking down of traditional understandings of what counts as “useful” information. They do this successfully be demonstrating that truly useful information is that which is put into action in a community. All of these projects demonstrate by freeing information from the constrictions we as librarians put on it, it has the chance to become something more–knowledge. For a more formal argument, consider this paper by Jennifer Nutefall and Phyllis Ryder. Serendipity, not a practiced lack of information control,but a openess to the rough edges of it, is actually a method that students and scholars use. Serendipity has always played a key role in learning about the world.

One thought on “Serendipity, Looseness, and the Creative Turn in Libraries

  1. I really like this idea of redefining information. It’s so easy to think about print and digital text and simply stop there. Opening up the definition of information seems to be a much more holistic approach and creates an opportunity to engage people in a conversation about context (as opposed to the idea of information being either “good” or “bad”).

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