Guest Post: Walking Through Walls – Library Spaces Everywhere

Following guest posts from Adrienne Hannan on what librarians can learn from military strategy and Hamish Lindop on the best way to reach out to our customers, we’re joined this week by Auckland Libraries’ Baruk – aka @feddabonn on Twitter – an outspoken, audacious, and innovative librarian who co-designed and delivered our interactive teen space (featuring real live teens!) at the recent Auckland Libraries hui New Rules of Engagement. Here’s Baruk on ‘Walking Through Walls’:

We usually think of libraries as being confined to specific spaces that people come to. Even the more liberal expressions I have heard, “parks with walls” still focuses on a particular geographic space…with walls. And one wonders – does this attitude wall us in psychologically as well?

I’m an Aucklander and a librarian: although I grew up in a remote corner of north eastern India, I work in New Zealand’s largest city, in the biggest public library system in the southern hemisphere. A decade into the 21st century, the majority of the human race lives in an urban environment – but at the same time, the concept of the city is being re-imagined. This breakdown is a rich source of inspiration for librarians; here are three examples.

Frieze magazine recently published a piece on the methods of urban warfare used by the Israeli Defence Force (IDF). It’s a philosophical change as much as a tactical one, based on a drastic re-conceptualisation of space. If a soldier sees an urban space as consisting of streets and houses, each doorway and window becomes a threat that could hold a sniper or be booby trapped. The IDF therefore ‘walks through walls’, using explosives to blow apart roofs and walls that stand in the way of the direction they wish to go.

“We interpreted the alley as a place forbidden to walk through and the door as a place forbidden to pass through, and the window as a place forbidden to look through, because a weapon awaits us in the alley, and a booby trap awaits us behind the doors. This is because the enemy interprets space in a traditional, classical manner, and I do not want to obey this interpretation and fall into his traps.” – Brigadier-General Aviv Kokhavi

What’s good for war is also good for play: the increasingly popular sport of parkour does something similar, in its refusal to stick to prescribed paths laid down by urban planners. Parkour players – “traceurs” – make a game of moving vertically, climbing walls and jumping roofs to move between spaces. While at first glance it looks like it requires more athleticism and gymnastic ability than most of us have, it is more about one’s attitude to space, and really another way of tracing desire lines in the urban landscape. (See more on desire lines and libraries from Books and Adventures guest Jess Begley).

If we lack the acrobatic skill to move through the urban space as a traceur would, there are other options. The smartphone app Ingress places a game layer over various cities across the world. Players join one of two factions battling to turn real-life landmarks into points of power from where one can attack enemies or recharge one’s energy in what looks (so far) like an eternal war. As an adventure in reconceptualising civic space, it’s the gameful twin of the IDF’s new approach to urban fighting.

But how is all of this relevant to libraries?

A hongi with the Rebel Alliance
A hongi with the Rebel Alliance

For one, it challenges us to break down the walls in our concepts of library service. One of my most interesting projects this year has been a community outreach event, in which Auckland Libraries took a trolley full of library books (plus librarian) to comic stores on May 4th – Free Comic Book Day and Star Wars Day. Using a laptop loaded with offline library software, we issued items out to people who had library cards, and signed up people who didn’t.

It was a chance for the public to see what we had in our collections, and for us to share our services with people who were keen comics consumers, but didn’t necessarily come through the library doors on a regular basis.

The activity broke down the conceptual barriers between retail and librarianship too. Sure, if you want this week’s Batman, or a collector’s edition hardback for your shelves at home, you’ll buy from the store – but in our collections, the library holds editions that may be hard to purchase, even online. Also, borrowing from the library means you can enjoy the story and artwork without getting your mint-in-wrapper comic book you just bought all grubby. Retailers and librarians both win when we join forces to offer the public services which complement one another.

It’s not just limited to comic book stores, either: the “trolley library” model was replicated in a couple of bars in Auckland, with bar owners and patrons responding very well.

What excites me most about this project (and I’m hoping it will continue to grow)Walking through walls with Auckland Librariesis the same sense of the re-conceptualisation and re-visualisation of space that is evident in the new tactics of the IDF, the way traceurs use the city, and in how Ingress works. What does ‘library space’ mean? Why confine it with walls? Could we blast through urban space like the IDF, or play with it like a traceur? Could the Digital Library be an Ingress-like layer on top of Auckland? Who is going to be first at running a library in a skate park? Or on a ferry?

None of this is really new, and already the world of librarianship is beginning to find answers. Adrienne Hannan of Wellington City Libraries has shown us recently how librarianship can learn from 21st century soldiering.

There are libraries in airports now, and on beaches, and Radical Reference were ‘street librarians’ a long time ago – meeting the information needs of protesters by guiding them to the nearest toilet or police/crowd movement. Recently Matt and I visited a class of teenagers who are ‘not enthusiastic readers’ with a pile of comic books, and ended up signing up 10 out of 16 to Auckland Libraries. Maybe none of this is new…but all of this is relevant. It can be done, we can re-look at our spaces…the only question is – will we?

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