Blame it on Jerome; it started with him.
Jerome Rivera, aka @jeromical, is Community Library Manager at Ranui in Auckland, New Zealand. He’s smart and thoughtful and highly accomplished, and one of the sharpest dressers I’ve ever seen. Jerome and his wife Rachael form something of a library power couple: she manages Auckland’s central city library and her teams have been responsible for amazing projects such as specialised services for homeless people and bespoke one-to-one encounters with Kiwi musicians for NZ Music Month. But I’ll have to get to the full story of Rachael’s greatness another time, because today is about Code Brown, and Code Brown starts with Jerome.
You see, being a librarian today is about all kinds of things. Access to information. Bringing communities together and giving them the opportunity to share their skills and stories, or create new knowledge. Offering new technologies and the skills to explore those technologies.
But, as Jerome pointed out on Twitter, when you work in a space like a library which is open and welcoming to all members of the public, sooner or later, you end up dealing with a Code Brown.
It turned into a running joke: encounters Jerome and other library friends had with poop and other body fluids in these public spaces. The messy, unglamorous side of being that one welcoming space where anyone could step through the doors and feel safe: a public library.
Stories started coming in from other quarters, on and offline.
Artist & producer Thom Browning shared a Code Brown story in emoji form, recounting a school holiday program which took an unfortunate turn:
And it wasn’t just about poo. We got to think about all things stinky and messy and bodily in these spaces. The rural library in NZ which coped with teens engaging in what was once called “heavy petting” (and more) by introducing wipe clean sofas and putting the family planning brochures on display right next to them. Or my own story, which was really about the smell of stinky feet.
When I shared this story, I was thinking that these issues only applied to dedicated public spaces – but a health librarian working in a hospital admitted that one of her library users walked around in bare feet. This user was a member of the public who wanted the Internet access available on library terminals. This was challenging for the hospital library staff because they preferred to only serve hospital professionals – and didn’t even want to let those fellow hospital workers use the library bathroom!
Yet if you are serious about libraries being “the TARDIS on your streetcorner” – a magic space that can take you anywhere in knowledge and culture – that means accepting that people will use your TARDIS in ways you didn’t desire or foresee – and that some of these uses will be messy and troubling.
We realised that Code Brown stories were gross and funny only in the sense that you’d have to laugh or go mad – but they were also an inescapable messy part of accepting that our doors were open to all. You could set standards of behaviour and police them, you could design spaces to minimise this kind of activity, but ultimately people are messy and they’re going to do messy stuff in ways that don’t fit what an institution wanted.
Jerome talks about “the unmentioned realities of libraries. The messy and unruly things that no one cares to highlight because it’s not the sexy and on trend side of librarianship. I think improvisation and situationism are part of successful librarianship. I may have lots of knowledge, but it doesn’t help if I encounter something i’m not familiar with or refuse to adapt to situations that come unexpectedly.”
Libraries, as knowledge and culture institutions, are conversations with a community. And conversations are about as messy and unpredictable as human interactions get: “A good conversation is a constant stream of unexpected responses. A new collaboration forces fresh perspectives and demands attention.”
And this was the true birth of Code Brown.
This is the first of three blog posts on the messy realities which challenge the designs we have for our organisations and our communities. Stay tuned for the next instalment.