This is the first of three blog posts exploring the very limits of what librarians can learn from popular culture.
I often end presentations and workshops with the challenge: “What’s the naughtiest thing librarians can do to promote literacy today?”
‘Naughty’ doesn’t mean dangerous, inappropriate, or damaging – but in a profession sometimes misrepresented as staid and conservative, and so often at the mercy of local government bureaucracy, it’s important to remember that public librarians are firebrands – that public libraries are innately subversive institutions, born of the radical notion that every single member of society deserves free, high-quality access to knowledge and culture.
So being “naughty” in the name of literacy might involve kids smashing up fruit inside your library; or playing real-life versions of video games among the shelves; it might involve zombies besieging kids and teens within your building.
In the ‘Dirty Library Trilogy’, I’m going to try and push the boundaries and see what libraries can learn at the far reaches of pop culture…from the battling broads of the rollerderby rink to the barrooms of the world.
So…could we drink our way to better librarianship?
Back in October, I visited Christchurch, New Zealand, to speak to the city’s librarians. The day before my presentation, I took a detour to the nearby harbour at Lyttelton; a suburb frequented by bohemians, freelancers, sailors, and musos. My guide for the day took me to Wunderbar, a haven of glittery kitsch overlooking the waters.
Sitting out on the balcony there, I experienced a moment of peace– sucking down a Speight’s Ale, seeing snow fall on the far side of the bay, taking a moment to reflect peaceably upon the world.
Wunderbar is as eccentric as the community it serves; alongside portrait paintings of Robert Redford and John Travolta, the décor encompasses disco balls, vintage newspaper ads, and German road signs. There are nerd costume nights and occasional ‘cross-dressing Sundays’ – fun manifestations of the same impulse which sees public libraries run Comic Book Months or cosplay competitions.
There’s a disarming sense that anything is permissible here. It’s liberating, but this isn’t – clearly! – a bland, one-size-fits-all space. The bar reflects the personal tastes of the staff, and uses its comfort with its own identity to make it hospitable to all. It’s hard to walk into the Wunderbar and have a chip on your shoulder when the disco balls are spinning and a local band are playing requests from the Clash to Johnny Cash in a corner booth.
The challenge for many bars is to both entice a broad clientele and carve out a distinctive identity in a competitive market. It’s rather like the pressures faced by public libraries in an age of Google, Amazon, and shrinking public budgets: trying to serve all elements of the community and demonstrate to funders that the librarian has not been superseded by the search engine.
Of course, there’s few nightlife scenes as competitive as that in New York. One of my favourite hangouts in that city is Tortilla Flats. I first went there on a pilgrimmage to celebrate the birthday of veteran movie star Ernest Borgnine. Tortilla Flats is a spangly, ABBA-playing, tequila-swilling kind of place, playing host to birthday parties, stags and hens, geeks and hipsters alike.
For librarians, what makes Tortilla Flats interesting is the way they playfully extend themselves beyond the core business of food and booze. On Borgnine’s birthday, there were Ernest Borgnine colouring-in sheets, with poster paints provided. The bar staff played games of bingo with us. It didn’t put any more food down our throats – maybe we bought one or two more cocktails – but it did enrich the experience and make us keen to come again. Tortilla Flats offered the kind of rich sense of identity which a library can find when it stretches beyond ideas of measuring itself by footfall and loans – creating unique and unusual programmes to engage and inspire a local community.
Of course, your own barhopping tastes may vary. For a formerly mohawked ex-punk like me, places like Tortilla Flats and Wunderbar were a home from home: I’m naturally happy in kaleidoscopic worlds of cheap neon and recycled pop kitsch, but that wouldn’t be the case for all people.
You might prefer somewhere like The Front in Australia’s capital, Canberra: chilled out, well stocked with board games, and happy for you to bring in pizza from the takeout place a few doors down. That’s a viable inspiration for the public library too: relaxed, accommodating, low-key. The kind of ‘town square’ community space described in yesterday’s New York Times article on modern libraries.
I’m sure your home town has a watering hole or two which might inspire you to reconsider the look and feel of your own local library space.
So, my first questions for librarians looking forward to 2013 are:
What makes your favourite bar or pub work for you?
What implications does that have for your library?
Where else could you look for inspiration beyond the walls of your institution?
2013 is coming – what will be your library’s New Year’s Resolution? Perhaps to be more naughty; to push boundaries in the name of literacy? Stay tuned for the next instalment of the ‘Dirty Library Trilogy’, where we’ll be looking at an eyebrow-raising Australian take on Reader’s Advisory!