How can libraries and artists work together?

The Library as Incubator Project

Do artists use libraries as part of their creative process? And if so, how are they using them? For research? For a quiet place to work and contemplate? For project inspiration? If artists are using libraries in their creative process, are they getting what they need? How can libraries serve artists more effectively?

About the Library as Incubator Project

These are just a few of the questions that prompted the development of the Library as Incubator Project during the 2010-2011 academic year when the project’s co-founders, Laura Damon-Moore, Christina Jones (then Christina Endres) and Erinn Batykefer were graduate students in the School of Library and Information Studies (SLIS) at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. The project started as an independent study course through UW-Madison SLIS with a short qualitative survey where approximately 100 visual artists, performers, writers, poets, and musicians were interviewed about their relationship to libraries. The responses revealed that yes, many artists do make use of their library and many find them deeply important to their creative work and process. 

The responses to the initial project survey were compelling enough to warrant an expansion of the independent study. The Library as Incubator Project became a blog where the founders and volunteer writers share interviews, feature articles, resource guides, and program ideas collected from creatives and library staff who facilitate interesting arts programs. Since the blog’s launch in 2011, the LAIP has talked to over 750 artists, writers, performers, and library staff members about art in and inspired by libraries. The LAIP’s volunteer administrative team has changed since its founding, expanding to include Katie Behrens and Holly Storck-Post, both alumnae of UW-Madison SLIS. 

Example projects and programmes

Featured examples include a post series written by Wisconsin librarian Nick Demske, who wrote about his experience facilitating large scale art programs (titled the BONK! Performing Arts Series) for his mid-sized community. Nick included plenty of down-to-earth insight in his series, ending with two elements he considers vital to successful, community-focused arts programming: “passionate individuals and at least one institution to act as a large supporting partnership.”

Another series that explored the arts in a library outreach context came from artists and library staff in Cleveland, Ohio, about their artist-library partnership, Literary Lots. Literary Lots is a Cleveland-based program that re-purposes abandoned spaces in order to bring art and literacy programs to the city’s kids in partnership with the Cleveland Public Library. Artists built large-scale installations that invited kids and families to crawl inside and read together. Cleveland Public Library Director Felton Thomas, Jr. wrote, “Not only did Literary Lots bring an amazing group of partners together, it brought families and neighbors together. It was so refreshing to see families connecting in this space at a time of year when other summer programming is ending, and school is yet to begin.” 

A rise in the number of libraries with artists-in-residence

Since the Library as Incubator Project began nearly five years ago, the founders have seen a rise in the number of libraries with artists-in-residence. One such residency, at Pennsylvania’s Shaler North Hills Library, saw artist-in-residence Jennifer Nagle Myers make herself available to be “checked out” to library patrons who want to talk to her about her work, and to get her ideas and insight on their own creative projects. She led a “Cabinet of Curiosities” interactive art program, where patrons were encouraged to bring items of significance to the library, display them, and talk about their meaning and significance. Says Jenn of her experience so far, “Being an artist can be extremely isolating if you let it be.  Time spent in the studio can be all-consuming.  I realized several years ago that I needed another outlet other than just the studio work/world, and that led me to create performances for site-specific public spaces throughout the city as a way to connect to the world and the people.  I am still exploring what that means.  Being an artist at a library is one way that this is being explored, as I like to think of the library as a site.  I am doing a site-specific residency at this particular wonderful library, that is full of the most supportive and interesting people, and it has been a wonderful and rich experience.”

How library staff can set up arts-incubating programs and services

In 2012, the LAIP founders were approached by Coffee House Press, an independent publishing company in Minneapolis, Minnesota. Together they worked to create an outline for a book which would become The Artist’s Library: a Field Guide which was published in May 2014. The Artist’s Library is part anthology, drawing from artist interviews from the website, part how-to for artists who are interested in partnering with or otherwise using their local public, academic, or special library as part of their creative process. 

While the book was written with primarily an artist audience in mind, there is some downloadable content available through the publisher’s website that offers ideas and suggestions to help library staff who are interested in facilitating arts-incubating programs and services at their library. Some highlights to consider from that content include:

Offer Programs & Provocations

One way that library staff can encourage artists to use their library is by offering engaging programs and “provocations,” or stations that promote art-making that aren’t necessarily tied to a class or workshop. Some examples include:

  • Professional Development Workshops, such as those offered in the Work of Art workshop series at the Hennepin County Library in Minnesota. 
  • Blackout Poetry, a very accessible way to do poetry using discarded books or photocopied book pages—an excellent drop-in activity or to use in writing workshops as a warm-up exercise.
  • The Big Draw. Get in on this fun, international day of drawing by inviting professionals and amateurs alike into the library to make some low-pressure visual art in a collaborative environment.

Encourage Hands-On Exploration

  • Make some room. Even if you don’t have room for a permanent makerspace in your library, find a spot—a table, a corner of a room, a standing desk—that you can designate as the drop-in maker area. 
  • Find your partners. Make a mental—or even physical!—map of your community’s art organizations, makerspaces or hackerspaces, community theaters, etc. Who can you approach about facilitating maker or arts programs at your library? Are there businesses you can partner with who can help offset supply or facilitator expenses? 
  • Make it consistent and available. When people know that something will be regularly available at the library, they’ll be more likely to incorporate it into their routine. Make sure that your programs or space are consistent and reliable, even if it isn’t a permanent space (so, if you’re borrowing equipment, do so as part of a program series instead of a one-off).

Leverage Collections

  • Library tours. Can you reach out to arts organizations and offer tours of your library for their members?
  • Reference/research assistance for artists. Think of outreach to arts groups as no different than outreach to schools, retirement homes, or after school programs. Make sure that they’re aware of the research and reference services that they can take advantage of particularly when it comes to creative projects.
  • Invite artists in to explore specific collections or archives. If you have an interesting local collection, why not invite artists from your community to explore your holdings and even create new works based on the collections? 

Offer a Venue

  • Auditions and rehearsals. Many theatre and other performance groups require audition or rehearsal space, and traditional stage space may not be available. Let local community theatre groups know if you have a public meeting or conference room that can be reserved for free. 
  • Performance space. As site-specific and non-traditional performance spaces become more popular, you may consider offering up your library as a performance space after hours—or even when the library is open. This does open up questions such as staff time, liability, insurance, and more, but may attract a different audience than the usual library patronage.

The Library as Incubator Project exists in many forms, online and in real life through workshops, speaking engagements, and more. Stories, workshop examples and ideas, and more, are welcome and encouraged. 


Image source: Library as Incubator Project logo designed by Rebecca Light.


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