A little more than a year ago, I was asked to give a talk during the opening of a library. This was rather strange, given that in the same month the public library announced it would be closing 15 of the 21 libraries across Rotterdam in the coming 3 years. But this was no ordinary library. It was actually situated in a flat which was going to be refurbished in the coming years and was one of the actions undertaken by the resident group. Their reasoning behind it was simple, but very smart: the refurbishment has put quite a strain on the people living in the flat and we have mostly negotiated with the housing corporation up till now; it is time to change this. So let’s create a place where we can actually meet each other and have a conversation. They convinced the housing corporation to give them one of the empty apartments in the building for free and turned it into a conversation-cafe. After a couple of month, they realized a bit more was necessary to get people in and one of them came up with the idea of a library. And no ordinary library, no, the collection would consist of all the books from the people living in the building. Within a month they had a) another apartment from the housing corporation b) a 1000 books c) book cases and a computer from the concierge of the estate who found these in the basement and d) a couple of volunteers who would actually run the library.
Since I had been thinking, talking and experimenting a lot with abundance and the use of what we have spare (time, stuff, places, knowledge), a friend of mine who was involved in this asked me and Joke van der Zwaard to give two opening speeches. It was a great day, especially given its timing. But what I didn't realize then is that it would be the start of a long term project.
Because since then I have been on the lookout for people and projects who where re-imagining libraries across the globe. And believe me; once you start looking there are many, many examples that can inspire you. I started collecting them over at thelibrarylab.tumblr.com (Feel free to add examples if you want to)
But it didn't stop at just looking for examples, since we had a situation on our hands in Rotterdam too: the closure of 15 out of 21 libraries. The argument for closing these neighbourhood-libraries was pretty straight forward: less and less people are coming to these libraries, people are getting their information elsewhere, and we have to do with a smaller budget. True as that may be (although I seriously doubt the first argument, and the second is no argument for closing a library), it raises the question what to do next. People organized themselves, protested and got a lot of signatures on a petition to keep the library open, but alas, it was a lost caused.
And maybe, if we where honest to ourselves, it had been a lost cause for a while, Joke van der Zwaard, whom I gave the talk with in September, said to me while we were having another conversation. For the neighbourhood libraries where no longer what they used to be. For the last 10 years they lost their adult-section, a lot of newspapers and magazines, staff, and opening hours where ever more diminished. Maybe these libraries were not something we should preserve after all, maybe it was time to reinvent them. This was the start of a project which is called Leeszaal Rotterdam West (Leeszaal means Reading Room. We deliberately don't call it a library because we want to distinguish it from the current library, although we will have books).
Off course we immediately had all kinds of ideas what such a Leeszaal should look like, but we thought that if we wanted it to be run by the people from Rotterdam West on a voluntary basis it was best to engage them right from the start and see what they would like the Leeszaal to become. So we devised a strategy to get information, but also to get people engaged from as early as possible.
Using some of the lessons I learned from Tessy Britton and her travelling pantry methodology we organized a couple of meetings to get peoples imagination of what a future Leeszaal should look like going. This information was then processed by Joke and myself and turned into a proposal for a 5 day festival this November. The idea behind the festival is to test out the ideas that we received from the residents (is it actually something they want; do they want to be involved in organizing it), to built a community around the future Leeszaal (by involving people now, we will have a community supporting us, if the Leeszaal actually materializes) and helps us built a public argument (something I learned from Jerry Stein while he was over here in January) to convince public officials and skeptics that this is a good thing.
(Another way to put this last point is by calling it a prefigurative intervention. This is a term I learned from this great book “Beautiful Trouble. A toolbox for revolution”, composed by Andrew Boyd. He described the prefigurative intervention in the following way: "prefigurative interventions are direct actions sited at the point of assumption — where beliefs are made and unmade, and the limits of the possible can be stretched. The goal of a prefigurative intervention is twofold: to offer a compelling glimpse of a possible, and better, future, and also — slyly or baldly — to point up the poverty of imagination of the world we actually do live in.")
In order for people to get to know us, to get involved with us and to just keep the whole process fun, we jumped on the opportunity to be part of the celebration of the 25th anniversary of the neighbourhood park this Saturday. Inspired by the people from Bureau M.E.S.T. , who where again inspired by Lars van Trier's Dogville, we created an Imagined Leeszaal by using nothing else but some tape and some objects.
During the day, a lot of people joined us for coffee and tea and gave us their time and ideas about what the Leeszaal could look like, but also what they could offer. We were also giving away books for free and we made some people very happy with copies of Stephen Hawkins The Universe (the illustrated version), Marx Communist Manifesto and Alain de Botton’s ‘The pleasure and sorrows of work’ and some nice novels too. People were surprised we were giving away the books for free, but once we explained the way we were doing it, it got them thinking.
Over the day we collected a lot of ideas and email-addresses, which we will use to invite people to come to our next meeting, where we will be forming working groups to help us put together the festival in November.
I like where this is all heading very much. The project enables me to bring together both some of my more fundamental questions (how to reclaim our publicness and built it in new ways), the many inspiring examples and people I know across the globe, and experiment with all this in my own backyard. I will keep you posted on the developments of this concrete experiment in re-inventing the public.
ps: a nice addition to the story about the flat-library is that it is a home for people of 55 and beyond. The group consists of people whose average age is well beyond 65 and the oldest lady involved (who also came up with the original idea) is almost 80). So sharing, bartering and taking public institutions is not only something done by younger people, but can actually be done by all age groups. Maybe it is even easier for the elderly to imagine taking matters in one’s own hands, since some of the stuff we now imagine needs to be taken care for by a professional was something that was being done by people themselves when they were growing up. Part of what we are doing now is re-inventing what we have lost in the last 40 years. This doesn't mean that we are reverting back nostalgically to 'the good old days', but it means we are re-appropriating and re-imagining what we have come to realize we didn't want to lose in the first place.
Alas both pages are in Dutch.