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The Artist's Library: A Field Guide

The Artist's Library: A Field Guide

by Erinn Batykefer, Laura Damon-Moore

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Creativity, like information, is free to everyone who steps into a library. The Artist's Library offers the idea that an artist is any person who uses creative tools to make new things, and the guidance and resources to make libraries of all sizes and shapes come alive as spaces for art-making and cultural engagement. Case studies included in the book range


Creativity, like information, is free to everyone who steps into a library. The Artist's Library offers the idea that an artist is any person who uses creative tools to make new things, and the guidance and resources to make libraries of all sizes and shapes come alive as spaces for art-making and cultural engagement. Case studies included in the book range from the crafty (pop-up books) to the community-minded (library galleries) to documentary (photo projects) to the technically complex ("listening" to libraries via Dewey decimal frequencies).

The Library as Incubator Project was created by Erinn Batykefer, Laura Damon-Moore, and Christina Endres. It highlights the ways that libraries and artists can work together, and works to strengthen these partnerships. By calling attention to one of the many reasons libraries are important to our communities and our culture, it provides a dynamic online forum for sharing ideas.

Erinn Batykefer is a librarian, a writer, and a lifelong do-it-yourselfer. She earned an MFA in writing and a Master of Library and Information Studies from the University of Wisconsin-Madison. Her first poetry collection, Allegheny, Monongahela, won the Benjamin Saltman Poetry Prize.

Laura Damon-Moore is a librarian, blogger, and avid art-maker in her spare time. Laura received her master's degree in Library and Information Studies from the University of Wisconsin-Madison in 2012.

Jessica Pigza is the assistant curator in the New York Public Library's Rare Book Division. She also writes on handmade material culture, DIY, and handicrafts at Hand-Made Librarian.

Editorial Reviews

Library Journal
Librarians Damon-Moore and Batykefer (cofounders, with Christina Endres, Librarian as Incubator Project [LaIP]) have succeeded in producing a guide that benefits artists, librarians, and all creative learners. Libraries and the people who work in and visit them can be an immense resource for building and inspiring creativity, no matter the media in which one works. The authors explore how the institution's materials, the space, the staff, and the patrons can be valuable to assisting any artistic pursuit. The book details creative research, e.g., artists discuss the benefits to browsing the online catalog, digital collections, and the stacks for a specific project. Sample exercises will motivate learners to take a second look at their neighborhood libraries and use them in new ways. Reference librarians will enjoy suggesting this read to their curious patrons as well as to arts organizations that currently have little or no involvement with libraries. Programming librarians and staff who are tasked with forming tighter community relationships will find a plethora of suggestions for projects that work. VERDICT Librarians who wish to make their library the connecting point between artists and the community should purchase. Perfect for brainstorming planning guides, this book is a permission slip to have fun at the library. [The authors were chosen LJ 2014 Movers & Shakers for their work with LaIP (LJ 3/15/14, p. 34).—Ed.]—Kendra Auberry, Indian River State Coll. Lib., Port St. Lucie, FL
Publishers Weekly
Librarians Damon-Moore's and Batykefer's book is a call-to-action that re-envisions the local library and its place in the community. With "collaboration, creation, and community connection" as their core values, the authors advise artists and writers on the best ways to use the library through real life examples from around the world. They speak to many creative types about their experiences using libraries as a source of inspiration, including Jamie Powell Sheppard who photographs the historic Carnegie libraries and Chris Gaul, creator of multimedia pieces in which visitors to the University of Technology-Sydney's library can use hi-fi tuners and rotary phones to listen to books. The authors note the importance of libraries as community spaces for readings, exhibitions, and performances, like Brandon Monokian's "Page to Stage" program at New Jersey's Princeton Public Library. A variety of exercises are designed to prompt artist creativity such as choosing books based on color, flipping through an "unusual dictionary," or branching out into unexplored shelves as a means of intellectual discovery. For those working on more concrete research-oriented projects, the authors have tips on engaging with digital collections and asking reference librarians for assistance. They also offer advice on getting involved at the library, either recreationally or professionally, pointing out many resources available for small business owners. This is a fun and accessible guide, particularly for young readers who may not be aware of everything the library has to offer. (May)
From the Publisher

"Wisconsin authors and librarians Laura Damon-Moore and Erinn Batykefer have a broader vision for what a library can be. . . The Artist’s Library is designed to give readers an overview of the landscape they’ll be exploring and share specific examples of how artists have used libraries in their work. . .” Capitol Times

"Librarians Damon-Moore and Batykefer (cofounders, with Christina ­Endres, Librarian as Incubator Project [LaIP]) have succeeded in producing a guide that benefits artists, librarians, and all creative learners. Libraries and the people who work in and visit them can be an immense resource for building and inspiring creativity, no matter the media in which one works." Library Journal

"This quirky and imaginative book celebrates individuals’ potential for creativity and libraries as vital and vibrant community resources." Kirkus Reviews

"The Artist’s Library: A Field Guide is the best kind of self-help book—the library providing intellectual and artistic growth on a personal level." NewPages

"This is a fun and accessible guide, particularly for young readers who may not be aware of everything the library has to offer." Publishers Weekly

“In an overstimulated age, when inspired contemplative space can be challenging to secure—whether you live in a culturally rich city or a more remote locale—it can be easy to forget that libraries even exist, that there’s a place full of literature, art, reliable resources, and unimpeded quiet available for free—often just a walk or short drive away. But Batykefer and her cohort, along with their creative contributors, are predicting an expansion of the idea of what a library is and does.” Poets & Writers

“Like the generosity of the library itself, this little book is an inventive and highly accessible source book, sure to inspire new forms of art, engagement and learning.” The Journal Sentinel

“The Artist’s Library is brought to us by the inspired folks at The Library as Incubator Project and . . . is a celebration of artists and their use of the library as a space, as a resource, and as a creative font.”—MPL Mad Reads

"[The Artist's Library] details unexpected (and easy) ways to use library resources to boost your creativity, whether you’re a professional artist, writer, or performer—or simply have an itch to create something cool." Book Riot

"In [The Artist's Library], Laura and Erinn share some artistic projects that prove today’s library isn’t the shushing environment you may remember from first grade. . . . Maybe that’s not quite how you’ve always thought of libraries, but that’s exactly what the Incubator Project hopes to change." Midwest Living

“While people are wondering about the future of libraries, this fabulous guide shows how the institution is an active, essential center of art and public life, how the creative community is engaging with it, and how we can, too. Required reading for anyone interested in art, books, society, creativity, and information. Namely, everyone.” —Wendy MacNaughton

The Artist’s Library: A Field Guide is an immeasurable delight in its entirety.” Brain Pickings

Kirkus Reviews
Librarians Damon-Moore and Batykefer show how libraries are more than just places to shelve books. Founders of the Library as Incubator Project in Madison, Wis., the authors conceive the library as "a one-stop shop—a place where a broad variety of creative lifelong learners, artists of all kinds, and librarians could gather to share ideas about programs that support hands-on creativity." The Incubator Project believes that "a library isn't just about things—like books, databases, magazines, and free tax forms—it's about people." Their ideal library would welcome knitters, crafters, musicians, filmmakers and photographers, as well as readers, all of whom would be nurtured by the special ambience. Interviews with poets, teachers, actors, researchers and artists working in a variety of media are followed by exercises that encourage readers to think imaginatively: "The library is alive, and you are listening to its heartbeat. Record your ideas in a notebook." Mostly, Damon-Moore and Batykefer focus on public libraries geared to general-interest readers, but their project is applicable to specialized and university libraries, as well. One artist, working at the National Library of Australia, Canberra, finds historical artifacts there that she interprets in her drawings. Recently, for example, she discovered 18th-century medallions commemorating the voyage of Capt. James Cook. "I am interested in how events and ideas of the past have influenced and persist within current cultural preoccupations," she says. Another artist decided to illustrate every page of Finnegan's Wake, a book, he decided, "that would really benefit from illumination." Besides inspiring particular artists, libraries can serve as showcases for the arts: mounting exhibitions, hosting readings and book signings, staging performances and concerts, and providing a communal space for artists to work collaboratively. This quirky and imaginative book celebrates individuals' potential for creativity and libraries as vital and vibrant community resources.

Product Details

Coffee House Press
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Books in Action
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Read an Excerpt

The Artist's Library

By Laura Damon-Moore, Erinn Batykefer

Coffee House Press

Copyright © 2014 Laura Damon-Moore and Erinn Batykefer
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-1-56689-353-4


Exploring the Library as Subject

If you've ever experienced a creative block, you've probably wished there was a way to just remove yourself from the pressure of not writing or drawing or making, some place you could go to empty your brain of all the "should" and simply wander around, discovering evocative stories, beautiful images, inspiring music—anything that might accidentally-on-purpose jump-start your creative brain. You might've also wished there were a tour guide for such a place, someone who could help steer you through all the endless stuff that might inspire you and take you straight to the stuff that works (with a few interesting detours along the way to introduce things you didn't know about).

This place exists, and no matter where you live, it's probably not far away: it's called the library.

In this chapter, we examine the inherently inspiring nature of libraries—from the monumental architecture used to build them, to the basic concept of free access to information for all, to new and creative riffs on discovery and inspiration found in familiar stacks and online catalogs.

Capturing the Unexpected

* * *

The library itself can be an evocative subject. the world over, architects have designed libraries to communicate the incredible power of knowledge. Trolling the web for "beautiful libraries" yields a treasure trove of stunning images: gilded domes, columns, and friezes that hearken back to classical Greek architecture; marble floors; and mahogany shelves—and that's just from older specimens!

In this section, we take a look at how libraries, both grand and practical, are part of a longstanding story of human knowledge and experience. Our example here is a photographer who deliberately uses vintage film, cameras, and developing processes to document libraries. Jamie Powell Sheppard's The Libraries Project seeks to capture the unexpected, to force viewers to appreciate libraries not only as architectural marvels, but also as an often-overlooked force for good that should be supported and preserved. Her work goes beyond simple composition, light, and shadow to comment on the larger social narrative of libraries and the people who use them.

Jamie Powell Sheppard

Jamie Powell Sheppard is drawn to what others might not notice—a trait that's useful in her work as a photographer, and especially poignant considering her subject matter. Her ongoing photo-documentary work, The Libraries Project, began when she was working at a library in Tennessee. "After several years of photographer's block," she says, "I started photographing my own library, as well as others in our consortium. A few years later I was living in Louisville, Kentucky, where I encountered my first Carnegie library. I was smitten and my inspiration was fully reawakened."

Jamie's project engages with the stunning narrative of Andrew Carnegie, who famously built 1,689 "Carnegie libraries" between 1883 and 1929 in the United States. No one who applied for a Carnegie grant and agreed to his terms was turned down, which means that libraries were built in many small towns and rural outposts that probably wouldn't have had any cultural anchors otherwise. Today, they are disappearing; they are old buildings, usually too small for significant collections even in the smallest of towns, and often costly and difficult to rewire and refurbish.

"Part of my desire is to document these graceful buildings before we lose them forever," Jamie says, "but I also want people to rediscover their libraries, to realize that they offer so much more than just free babysitting, and to celebrate that. I believe that if I could show people their libraries from a different perspective, they'd develop pride and be less willing to lose such a gift. If nothing else, I'd like them to say 'Wait, that's from my library? I've gotta go back now and look!'"


[] Take a moment to really look at your library. Where is it? How does the location and design make you feel about what's inside the walls? How might you communicate similar ideas and themes in your own work?

[] Check out some online galleries of beautiful libraries around the world (our favorites are listed in the Resources section on page 199). Pick your favorite and sketch a scene that might take place there.

[] Find a hidden corner in your home library. Take a few moments to describe what you can see, hear, smell, and feel from where you are sitting. Which titles can you see in the stacks? What is the light like? What sorts of noises and activity can you perceive? The library is alive, and you are listening to its heartbeat. Record your ideas in a notebook.

Playing with the Notion of the "Library"

* * *

What is a library, if not the representation of an idea? People the world over have long believed that information and knowledge are so important to preserve—and more recently, make available to the public—that special civic and educational structures should be dedicated to the practice. The contents of a library make up a working document of what a community values as much as a particular book, song, or painting is a document of a subject.

Our artist example for this idea is Doreen Kennedy, who decided to zoom in on one library's collection for a recent photographic project. Her work focuses on the small details recorded in library books—date stamps, dog-eared pages, broken spines—that come together to create a map of people's interest and curiosity, and their interactions with knowledge and information.

Doreen Kennedy

Doreen Kennedy introduces her series, Portrait of a Library, with a glimpse into her childhood fascination with books as artifacts: "I have been visiting local libraries since childhood," she says. "I am fascinated by the idea that you can borrow books for free and that these books will pass through many hands before reaching you. Each book has its personal history documented by the date stamps in the inside cover, a new reader with every new date.

"Looking at the dates, I would wonder about the other people who had read the book. Did they finish it? Perhaps they just read a few pages and lost interest? Sometimes a clue about previous readers would be left in the form of a bookmark, a receipt from a supermarket, a postcard from a sunny location, or a scrap of paper torn from a notebook. [Recently discovered] routing slips suggested books ordered from other library branches and made me consider the motivations of the people who sought these specific titles."

Doreen's lifelong interest in the many human stories that library books record—in addition to their printed stories—peaked in 2010, when she approached the public library in the Dublin suburb of Dalkey about using the library as the subject of a photographic project. "My idea was to visit the library a number of times to document its contents. My visits began in August when I started the work of photographing the books and other aspects of the library space. Across several visits I made over a thousand photographs.

"The resulting images became a series of photomontage grids, diptychs, and single-image photographs of book details and the library interior [that] documents the contents of a library. Its history of borrowing is marked by the beautiful worn book covers, broken spines, creased pages, and intriguing date stamps."


[] Pick out a book from a shelf in your library. It could be one you've read and know well, or one you've never seen before but like the look of. Look at its table of contents. Read the introduction and maybe a page or two from the first chapter to familiarize yourself with its subject matter. Speculate for a moment on where this book has been before you held it in your hands. Who might have checked it out over the course of its life in this library? Draw your idea of the book's journey in a notebook.

[] Wander through a genre section of your library (e.g., romance, westerns, science fiction, mystery). Let the condition of the books tell a story about the books in this section.

What do the spine, corners, and repairs tell you about the pages inside a book? See what totally inconclusive, nonscientific conclusions you can draw about this section based strictly on what you can see as you walk along. Jot down your ideas. Later, see if you can write a few paragraphs about that section in the style of a travel guide, pointing out "landmarks" and "undiscovered treasures."

Examining the Living, Breathing Library

* * *

If you know where to look, the library can be full of unexpected surprises. Despite lingering stereotypes that cast libraries as rigidly silent spaces and librarians as severe, bun-headed women, libraries have always been about juxtapositions and discovery. Have you ever gone to the library stacks in search of a particular book, only to emerge bearing three or four (or ten!) other titles you found shelved in the same area? This happy accident is no accident at all: librarians study the importance of serendipity in the act of what we call "title discovery," and the best library designs aim to increase it.

Great art works the same way, fueled by accidental juxtapositions that suggest new interpretations, new ideas, and even book recommendations. Chris Gaul, a visual artist and designer who recently completed an artist residency in a library, riffs on the concept of title discovery in order to reimagine the library as an intuitive space that fosters curiosity and investigation in a variety of delightfully unexpected ways.

Chris Gaul

Chris Gaul is fascinated by simple, everyday objects. "When things like bus tickets or library cards are well designed, they can create moments of playfulness and discovery in daily life," he says. His time spent in the University of Technology–Sydney (Australia) library as artist-in-residence generated a lot of ideas in this vein.

Chris's projects range from the simple to the wildly complex, but all hinge on the idea of how we find and value objects—often books. Here are a few concepts he worked on while at the UTS library:

"Book Babble ... lets listeners wear a pair of headphones and wander the library listening to books reading themselves aloud. The headphones are connected to an rfid [radio-frequency identification] reader and a mobile device. The rfid reader senses nearby books, and the mobile app finds the content of those books and reads them into the headphones. As the listener wanders through different parts of the library, the tone of the babble drifts through different subjects

"Library Tuner [repurposes] a vintage hi-fi tuner so that listeners can turn the dial to tune in to the different Dewey 'frequencies' for books in the library.

"Another project involves repurposing a vintage rotary telephone so that listeners can use the call numbers of books to call the books on the telephone."

Not all of Chris's ideas are so technically complex. This one changes how patrons find new books, and how librarians collect data about how their collections are used, simply by relabeling the library's bookdrop chutes:

Currently borrowers return books through one of three chutes based on the call number of the book. Replacing these Dewey number labels with new labels (for example, "I loved this book," or even "I didn't like this book," or "I didn't read this book") not only gives the borrower a moment to reflect on their reading experience but also provides the library with valuable data. For example, it would be straightforward to create a shelf of recent returns that the last reader loved.

Even if your library isn't home to an artist residency, creative interpretations of the library abound. There are infinite and unexpected ways to understand a library and its collections, and to incubate a wandering curiosity that can fuel creative expression.


[] Play with everyday objects in your library: Grab a stack of books, a golf pencil or two (find them next to the computer catalog), a magazine, and other easily moveable items. Hole up in a study room or at a worktable and arrange your objects in front of you. What are their relationships to one another? If these objects were alive, what would they worry about? Be excited about? What secrets would they hold? What do their nights look like? How do they interact with each other when the library is closed?

[] Think about how you go about finding information, whether it is a new novel to read, a field guide for local birds, or a medical study. Make a list of all the different ways you find information. Do you do research on your own? Ask friends for recommendations? Ask a librarian? Use an app on your phone or computer? How would you reorganize your home library to facilitate your style of title discovery? Jot down your ideas for ways to reorganize your own collections of information.

[] Are you interested in what other library users thought of a particular book? Talk with your librarian about implementing a patron recommendation display or shelf at the library.

Libraries and You

* * *

No matter where you go, there is likely to be a library. This can be a wonderful, grounding element in a creative life—a life often spent moving around, either from place to place or from idea to idea. No matter how far you travel, a library will likely be a part of your community, and no matter how quickly you leap between ideas as you pursue the next great project, that library can help you find the information you need to create something extraordinary—even if it means ordering rare or out-of-print books from somewhere else.

Joseph Mills, a poet who has moved quite a lot, gets a new library card each time as a way to anchor himself in a new town. To him, libraries represent an exciting sense of possibility, as well as a sense of comfort—and we think this is the perfect place from which to make consistently thoughtful and meaningful art.

Joseph Mills

"Lending libraries are beautiful in their basic ideals. In enabling people to educate themselves, they are the most empowering and humanistic of institutions."

So says Joseph Mills, a poet whose creative curiosity has been nurtured by dozens of libraries throughout his life.

"Forty years after getting my own first card (at the Shawnee Public Library in Fort Wayne, Indiana), I still feel a sense of amazement at having access to so many materials," he says. "In a very real way, libraries have shaped who I am."

It's interesting to think about artists' identities in this way. What does one need to be creative and to make art? What environmental factors do you need to be an artist? For Joseph, many of the elements he needed to write came together at the library:

• A space that was part of the community, but that also respected individual privacy

• Freely available collections of interesting materials and the freedom to explore and discover new things

• Capable people who could help find tricky materials and suggest other things he might find interesting

Throw in good lighting, comfortable seating, and long hours, and this is a recipe for many artists' ideal library. But it is also a place that is conducive to creativity, a place to invent and nurture new projects. "When I walk into my library," Joseph says, "it feels like optimism and hope. It simultaneously offers a sense of adventure and safety."


[] Book a tour of your local library with a librarian as tour guide. (If you're a recent transplant, this will be a great excuse to learn about the wealth of collections and services available to you as a resident or student, but even if you've lived in the same town for years, this can be an illuminating exercise.) Bring a short list of materials and subjects that are evocative for you and facilitate your creative process, and ask your tour guide to give you an overview of the whole library with particular emphasis on the topics that interest you (Foreign films? Local history? Image databases? Cookbooks? Tai chi classes?). Take notes.

[] Think back to the first library you ever visited. Write about or draw moments from that experience. What was exciting, frustrating, comforting, or playful about the experience? What was the first item you remember checking out of a library? Did you think of the fact that you were sharing that item with many other people? Why or why not?


Excerpted from The Artist's Library by Laura Damon-Moore, Erinn Batykefer. Copyright © 2014 Laura Damon-Moore and Erinn Batykefer. Excerpted by permission of Coffee House Press.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

Meet the Author

Erinn Batykefer is a librarian, a writer, and a lifelong do-it-yourselfer. She’s worked in libraries almost constantly since she was fifteen--both as a staffer and as a writer scribbling away at the back of the 811s. She earned an MFA in Writing and a Master of Library and Information Studies from the University of Wisconsin-Madison. Her first poetry collection, Allegheny, Monongahela (Red Hen Press 2009) won the Benjamin Saltman Poetry Prize.

Laura Damon-Moore is a librarian, blogger, and avid art-maker in her spare time. Laura received her master’s degree in Library&Information Studies from the University of Wisconsin-Madison in 2012 and graduated from Beloit College with a double major in Literary Studies and Theatre Arts (Acting) in 2008. She lives in Madison, Wisconsin with her husband James and her chinchilla Barnaby Jones.

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