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5 mai 2012

Community managed microlibraries

Cet article est d’abord paru dans la revue Argus, vol. 40, no. 3 (mai 2012).

After the Atomized library and The Uni, I continue my series of interviews about innovative projects that revisit the model of the local library. This time I asked a few questions to Colin McMullan, also known as Emcee C.M., Master of None, about one of his many projects, Corner Libraries. Colin McMullan is currently based in New York City. His work, many of which is jointly done with his Kindness and Imagination Development Society: «combines large-scale public, social and collaborative event-based projects with a more internal process of self-reflection through fiction, storytelling, and filmmaking.»

What motivated you in creating the first Corner Library?

I wanted to build a library because I think it is an important public institution that deserves our continued support as a society that strives for democracy. I wanted to make the miniature library for the sidewalk to see if a venue for very local exchange would be useful to a group of neighbors as a way of helping each other and sharing resources, information, and advice.

I have always loved libraries. I grew up a homeschooler with parents who worked in libraries so we always spent a ton of time there, and the ethic of openly sharing access to knowledge seems so basic and true I can’t see why there should be any other paradigm, honestly. But there is another paradigm, and it seems to be the dominant one of the age, and so I feel we need to make more libraries and keep honouring and treasuring the institution of libraries as a foundational pillar of democracy (limited as our democracy is these days). I would hope that by making these micro libraries we can pay tribute to the work of public librarians and public libraries and help remind people of what an incredible resource they are and that you really don’t have to go to a STORE or to AMAZON to get access to literature and information. So the principles are free and open exchange of information for grassroots empowerment, community building among neighbors, mutual support and mutual benefit.

How does it work?

The books are donated by library users. Some were also donated by me, and some by Gabriela (the other librarian). When I first put the library out there I put some books, CDs, maps, and other stuff in there as a kind of starter collection, hoping it would grow as people got involved more, which has occurred. The librarian is really just a contact person for the library. Our names, phone numbers, addresses, and emails are on the door of the library, so anyone walking by can contact us if they want to know more, including getting the combination to the lock, for 24/7 library access. People borrow books on the honor system. Every object in the collection has a slip of paper in a pocket in the back where you are supposed to write down your name and the date you borrow it, and leave it in a box inside the library. So far we haven’t had a problem with books not being returned, and we don’t really plan to worry about it too much. If it becomes a big problem maybe we’ll have to reassess the situation at that point.

Right now there is just one library in place – in Williamsburg, close to where I live. There was a second one placed in East Harlem, but the librarian volunteer for that one, Christine Licata, just had to leave her job, so we will be finding a new home for that library.

How many corner libraries have you installed?

Right now there is just one library in place – in Williamsburg, close to where I live. There was a second one placed in East Harlem, but the librarian volunteer for that one, Christine Licata, just had to leave her job, so we will be finding a new home for that library.

Another was planned for a site in Crown Heights, but we ran into a problem with the site we had selected so that is currently on hold too, probably until the spring. And there’s another I’m working on to place in the neighborhood of flatiron/chelsea, which will be a collaboration with people from the Center for Book Arts. And there’s one I’m organizing with Norman Stevens, founder of the Molesworth Institute which you may know, and head librarian Emeritus of the University of Connecticut library. That one is planned for the Storrs, CT area, and we’ve begun promoting it to the community up there and speaking with people about a site.

How did the community respond? Did people understand and participate in the project?

People have gotten into it a bit. I think we would have more users if we could take more time to sit at the library with the door open and let people discover it and ask questions. We have our contact info up there, but my impression has been that a lot of people who might be interested won’t necessarily take the trouble to send an email or make a phone call to find out more. So that has been kind of a hindrance and it continues to be a goal of mine to spend more time at the library reading and keeping it open to meet people and keep spreading the word about the resources there. Whenever I’ve done that I’ve met people (a lot of parent/kid combos, especially), who were into the library and usually borrowed or donated some stuff. I remember a couple of friends who sat down on the sidewalk and read books to each other for about a half hour, that was really cute. People who live right around there, on the surrounding blocks, have responded pretty well to it. Also parents/kids who might pass by daily on their way to/from school. I think it has a kind of appeal for children, because of it’s size (24” x 24” X 48”) that we could try to develop the collection to serve that population more. We have had self-published book donations from poets, childrens’ book authors, illustrators, and more.

Did you get any feedback from city officials or from the public libraries themselves?

Not really. The only thing that happened is when we locked it on a block where there was a park, the parks department asked us to move it. Otherwise there have been no complaints.

Do you think this kind of project has to stay grassroots and independent? Would you see it as a program managed by public libraries?

I think there is definitely potential for public libraries to get involved in the project and use it as a way to extend and advertise their services, although I don’t see that as the only function of it. I think in a way it’s preferable for it to be volunteer run, because volunteerism is a wonderful thing that should be encouraged, but if it were to become more institutionalized it might certainly be more functional in many practical ways.

Where do you place this project in the ongoing discussion about the future of public libraries?

The internet is an incredible information tool, and Kindles seem very convenient, but they don’t satisfy a need we have for local, real-space interchange among people.

These libraries are meant to encourage very local exchange and to help neighbors meet, know, and help each other in physical space with issues and interests that matter to us daily, right here and now.

Also, the efforts of independent publishers, self-publishers, ‘zine writers, indie bloggers, etc., are limited, and will be increasingly so, as the internet becomes more and more a space of corporate monopoly, dominated by budgets large enough to get top ranking on a google search and the like. So these libraries also hope to be a space for their words to find readers. Some people have asked whether this project is trying to pick up the slack for underfunded public libraries, or to replace them somehow.

I think the idea of microlibraries challenging the public library system in terms of stealing their patrons or making them seem superfluous is pretty far-fetched. However, I can say for sure that one mom I met at the corner library in Williamsburg was pleased that it was available to her and her kids 24/7 as opposed to the limited hours of the nearby BPL location, because they have a hard time getting there during open hours sometimes, she said. But certainly it would be extremely pretentious of us micro-librarians to think that our systems could ever take over for the wonderful, incredible public library system in this counry, underfunded and necessarily limited by the trappings of bureaucracy though it may be. I just think of the Corner Libraries as an ancillary system that, if anything, can help promote the cultural importance of libraries as the essential public institution that we need, in order to continue striving for our American ideal of a democratic society and an informed, engaged public. Essentially then, these microlibraries may ultimately be simply a reminder to people of how valuable libraries are to our communities and our sense of cultural identity. I’d say that’s as much as I could realistically hope for with the project.

How can people participate?

I’ve been getting a lot of volunteers lately with all the press and I need to start organizing some more libraries with them. There are people interested in being librarians in several other neighborhoods in Brooklyn, Queens, and Manhattan so far. I think really the goal is to develop a collaboration with LFL at this point and see if we can’t help each other help people build libraries themselves by providing plans and advice online, or producing a how-to ‘zine perhaps. I’ve made a bunch of observations and trials about how to locate them in public space on the hotly contested sidewalk space of NYC, while LFL’s main tactic seems to be locating them in front yards, so it seems like we can share what we’ve learned from these different settings and trials to produce a practical guide that is based on some real empirical research. And that way people could just do it themselves.

Or if they don’t want to do it themselves, maybe folks can raise the funds with their neighbors to get a handy person they know or to hire me or one of the guys from LFL to build them a library. Or do the building of the library as a hands-on workshop where they also learn carpentry skills and get to make something that they can use for a long time. Aha! That’s a good idea, writing about this helps you know.

So I guess one way people can help is by being proactive and willing to get their hands dirty a bit. That way we can get more libraries out there in a shorter time frame. I would also say for the existing libraries, and moving forward too, it will help get more of your neighbors involved if you spend time at the library, and leave the door open so people can discover it. That’s the best way we’ve found patrons so far. I sometimes sit on a bench by the library and read a book, and leave the door open, and I always meet people who want to join. Usually the library is locked and a lot of people won’t take the trouble to send me an email or call me on the phone so that they can get access (there’s a sign on the door that tells them to do so). And that way too, who knows, you might meet a neighbor you never knew who you have a lot to talk about with. And that’s how these can hopefully function as sites of real democracy, if I allow myself to dream big…