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Stacks of Inspiration

Can you remember your first trip to a library? Well, I can’t quite place mine either. But I easily recall the excitement of walking out with a stack of books of my own choosing, all in exchange for the simple act of filling out a little card with my name on it. To this point in life, I’d been taught to not even think about leaving the premises with rental roller skates or ugly bowling shoes. But here I was taking 20 books anywhere I wanted, no questions asked. See you back here in three weeks.

If you’ve felt the magic of libraries fade in the face of tablet devices, streaming movies and countless other digital distractions, it’s worth rekindling. Especially this time of year, when winter’s grip puts a high priority on finding indoor escapes that lift the spirit. In fact, that’s the whole mission of a couple of University of Wisconsin-Madison alums out to remind us all that libraries can light a creative candle like no other place. (Even the buildings are exciting when they're designed like the parking garage of Kansas City, Missouri's central library, above.)

The new book The Artist’s Library by Laura Damon-Moore and Erin Batykefer sprang from the Library Incubation Project, which the women started to promote libraries as locations where anyone can find a new idea, gather information to carry out a vision or simply hang out with interesting folks who really geek out on helping other people expand their understanding. To be sure, the book is unmistakably the product of two library sciences graduates. But even if some of the suggested activities sound like things you'd do only for a freshman library orientation, many are worth a shot on a wintry afternoon. How could you not have fun walking down an aisle and imagining the stories behind the books' travels based on the condition of their covers?

Much of the book profiles artists talking about how they discover inspiration and practical information for their work at libraries of all kinds. Poet Joseph Mills, for example, says that whenever he moves to a new town, which is quite often, he gets a library card as a way of anchoring himself to the locale. His first card was from the Shawnee Public Library in Fort Wayne, Indiana (a town known for its tremendous genealogical research library).

Joseph says, “When I walk into my library, it feels like optimism and hope. It simultaneously offers a sense of adventure and safety.”

In their book, Laura and Erinn share some artistic projects that prove today’s library isn’t the shushing environment you may remember from first grade. Artist Chris Gaul, for example, once set up what he called Book Babble in an Australian library. Participants wearing headphones walked around the library listening to books read their own contents aloud as the person passed a shelf. (Radio frequency ID tags let the audio player sense nearby books and pull up their recordings from files.)

Maybe that’s not quite how you’ve always thought of libraries, but that’s exactly what the Incubator Project hopes to change.

For more information on The Artist's Library, visit Coffee House Press. For more information on the library effort, visit Library As Incubator Project.

Kansas City library photos courtesy of Kansas City Convention and Visitors Association.

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