A Serious House Built with Glitter and Toilet Rolls

I asked Justin Hoenke to join me for an online chat about community and libraries and a thousand other things. Justin is a highly accomplished, much-loved American library director who currently resides in rural Pennsylvania, where he leads the Benson Memorial Library while his family is restoring an old church as a community space.

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Justin’s work reminded me of Philip Larkin’s poem Church Going – “A serious house on serious earth it is, In whose blent air all our compulsions meet” – so we each read that prior to our chat.

It made for a nice jumping off point into a long talk about service, legacy, academic vs. public libraries, and the ongoing dance of community engagement.

Matt

Hello! How are you?

Justin

Good sir, I am well. How are you? We’ve got a lovely spring morning with the birds singing songs. I plan on watering some plants after this. I think this is ideal.

Matt

Lovely. I saw you had a chat with Turbitt & Duck’s library podcast – excellent stuff – how did that go?

Justin

I loved my chat with Turbitt & Duck. 

Those two have something….it was so easy to chat with them. We wandered off into some neat stuff and overall it was good.

Matt

Maybe we could start there, with that special something they have, rapport and chemistry.

How do you see that in public library service? Can we cultivate that “something” with our community?

Justin

By the way, I loved the poem. It felt like something I needed in my life. I’ve been doing a lot of changing and growing in the past three years and it feels like it all started coming together in April 2018.

“For, though I’ve no idea

What this accoutred frowsty barn is worth,

It pleases me to stand in silence here”

Matt

It made me think of you & Fidelia Hall!

Justin

Can we cultivate that something in our community? Yes, and in fact I would argue that is probably the most important thing we’ve always done.

Folks always go right to the books thing and I get it. They see the physical books and it’s easiest to just say “that’s what libraries do”. But spend some time in them and what you start to see is how the biggest thing they do is connect people, counsel people, chat with people.

I think we’re (librarians) just starting to go “oh my, yes that is exactly what we do!” now that the whole “libraries are community centers that do everything” discussion is happening all around us.

Matt

Yes, that focus on relationships is an interesting turn. I think sometimes people look at bookshelves and have mistaken the tools for the job.

Do you have any fear about the “being expected to do everything” thing? I know some people back away from that…

Justin

Personally? I try not to have any fear about this library thing. At some point in my life I adopted this idea that I would take in as much of this life in as I can while I’m here. I feel this approach has been liberating…trends and ideas come and go and I can learn about them, adopt them, and move on from them as needed.

An example: my life at the Chattanooga Public Library was really focused on 3D printing. I moved to Titusville and my life suddenly changed and there was really no need for 3D printing at my library. That could’ve been devastating to some folks but I found it actually kind of nice…it was time to try the next thing.

But fear in others? I see it. Doing everything can look overwhelming from afar. I think my current staff, at least some of the folks I work with, have that fear. “You mean we’re now gonna have to do that?”

Matt

It sounds like you relish the opportunity to change personally, but how do you ease that anxiety in others?

Justin

I’m learning how to do that! Seriously, I think that has been one of my biggest projects in the past few years…..balancing my willingness and almost need to change with others and their “don’t give me too much too fast” style of life.

Learning how to not unveil the entire plan that I have in my head at once was something I’ve done. I’ve started picking parts out of the picture, focusing on the little bits and getting those done really well, and then moving onto the next thing. That way a project I am involved in is moving ahead but it is not doing so in a way that freaks everyone out. I think I can be overwhelming at times. That’s just who I am. So I dish it as slowly as possible.

I also try to talk to my staff as much as I can. Of course there are things you can’t talk about, but I find it really helpful to share details and ideas in a nice peaceful, calm setting. We’re usually sitting around, having tea or coffee and snacking on way too many sugary things, and just chatting about library stuff. Those are good moments and I always look back fondly on those moments.

I once had iced tea with the Danish librarian Jan Holmquist in Hamburg, Germany, at some outdoor cafe and we sat there for like 3 hours talking about libraries and music. I loved that day. I always think about that when my staff and I have those chats. Of course the staff room of my library is nothing like that cafe in Hamburg.

Matt

That sounds like bliss. As you were writing that, I was thinking about how a conversation is like a dance – the turn-taking, the moments when we mirror one another.

And maybe part of change in an organisation or a community is also like that.

There’s moments when someone is in the spotlight and it’s like Travolta strutting out in Saturday Night Fever…but that’s hardly the only kind of dance, let alone the best way to get everyone doing the Neutron Dance or sharing their own best moves on the dancefloor.

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Justin

Oooooooh I like the dance comparison. Yes, you have to be in step with the other person/people but at the same time you’ve gotta SHINE. I think we all have moments like that in our work and our conversations.

I don’t know about you, but I kind of feel it in my gut when that balance is off a bit. Like just something feels off….and as I get older I’ve tried to fix that to restore the balance.

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Oh my, the Pointer Sisters. I have a greatest hits collection of theirs….what an album. Sometimes bands have such amazing greatest hits albums. I mean like the Greatest Hits album is a different kind of amazing album. Different than like PET SOUNDS or PINKERTON but kind of the same.

Matt

Yes, there’s no shame in a Greatest Hits album! A lot of my musical and emotional landscape was shaped by what was in my parents’ record collection as a preteen. The 80s best of Blondie, from before they reformed…all sorts.

I guess a Greatest Hits speaks to the identity of the band, even if an individual album is a greater coherent artwork, a hits collection can be … their accumulated vibe, and how it’s changed over a career.

Justin

I once BEGGED my Mom for the first New Edition album. I loved COOL IT NOW. What a song. But she must have got confused and she got me Debarge RHYTHM OF THE NIGHT. It was a fair trade off though. I very specifically remember the mall, the smell of that place, and the vibe of what was going on when I got that album.

Matt

Ahahaha that’s brilliant. Serendipity by proxy.

I just realised, I don’t know: when did you figure out you were going to be a librarian? What was your childhood dream? Did you want to make music for a day job?

Justin

As a kid, all I wanted to do was be a musician, but at that time I thought it was all about being a rock star. I don’t think I knew what that meant at the time, but I did have a lot of daydreams about being on a stage.

After I discovered the book THE BEATLES: RECORDING SESSIONS by Mark Lewisohn all I wanted to do was write music and be in a recording studio.

That was my teenage years. I went to college because my blue collar father wanted me to do so. He never did and I think he always thought that was the way for the next generation to level up over the previous. I went there and thought I’d be an artist. I had no idea what that meant and of course I quickly noticed I did not like to draw still life fruits and nude models. I had been writing songs since I was 16 and that felt right to me, but I did not want to be a music major.

So I became a creative writing major, because I thought that would help me write better lyrics. I loved it. I got to read so much great poetry and so many great essays. I put together a band called Zomo and we played a lot of shows, wrote a lot of songs, and recorded a lot of music. That all fell apart and I wandered a bit.

I didn’t come to the library thing until I met my wife Haley. Her mom is a librarian. She once said to me “hey you like music and video games and stuff, you would make a great teen librarian.”

So I don’t remember how it all happened, but then I just started doing all this stuff in libraries and now here I am running a small rural library. I still do write and record my own music in a project called Abigail Foster’s Photosynthesis Machine. I’m trying to balance everything. My family, my library stuff, and my urge to be creative at all times. It has been a pretty neat journey so far.

Matt

I’ve been helping organisations lately explore what it would be like to set up a position like the creative residency I had at the State Library of Queensland.

One of the distinctions between a Creative-in-Residence and an Artist-in-Residence is while the artist practises their artform – painting or pottery or songwriting or whatever – based on what they experience during their residency, the creative residencies are about changing the organisation itself.

It’s almost as if the organisation was the artistic material.

Could you see your library work as a kind of artform?

Justin

Oooh man, I like your definitions of Creative-in-Residence and Artist-in-Residence. That really helps me understand the whole thing. Like I’ve always got what you did at SLQ but it just all came together at that moment.

I have to say yes that I have thought about this library thing as one big long career that is almost like some kind of performance art. It’s like this space that we call the library, well that’s the canvas. And I’m not really the artist. I don’t think that the librarian is the artist. The artist is the entire community. They are the ones that are deciding how the library is used and what it does for the community.

As a librarian, I’m more like a radio, tuning into the different stations that the community members are broadcasting. I’m trying to keep up with what they want.

Matt

Yes! I remember doing the mouth-taped-shut collective keynote at the New Zealand library conference and that was our touchstone. Work as a performance art.

I do think there is a space for librarians to be part of the dance – to provoke, inspire, surprise their community and not just be the blank canvas. But there’s a tension there; sometimes I think that librarians should be like kabuki stagehands, unseen. What distinguishes libraries from other institutions is that the community steers the experience…

Maybe the resolution is this: the artist is the entire community, as you say. But librarians have to recognise that they are part of that community – not separate, not aloof, not even the most important part – but they are within the community.

Justin

Nate Hill, he’s the Executive Director at METRO NYC now, but I used to work with him at the Chattanooga Public Library. He always talked about the library as a platform. I loved that. It was this thing that we all could contribute to and build off of. That way of thinking really influenced the work I did on The 2nd Floor in Chattanooga. It was just an empty space. What shall we fill it with? Let’s see what tools and items and ideas we get and give it all a go.

I once used a slide that said something like YOU ARE AN ARTIST when I spoke to Youth Services Librarians. It was a popular slide in many of the keynotes I was giving back in 2013-2015.

I felt like librarians needed to hear that. The stuff they do in libraries and how they do it with supplies like toilet paper rolls and pipe filters and glitter….holy cow, that is just some amazing stuff.

Matt

Yep, definitely. And I like this idea of the platform – one of the interesting things to me, which goes back to what you were saying earlier, is how responsive public libraries have to be.

That really distinguishes them from other institutions, even closely related ones like museums.

Justin

You think they’ve been responsive? That’s good to hear. I think I may be in too deep sometimes…I feel libraries are slower to respond than most institutions!

Matt

I just think if you imagine a member of the public coming to the desk in a public library versus coming to the desk in a museum… The response to a community member saying, “I need this and I need it now!” is quite different.

Justin

I see what you mean… Yes, librarians totally do the dance and make sure they try to make something happen for the person. I haven’t seen that in a museum.

Matt

Like, as a librarian, you listen to the community, hear their needs – listen to the music of what’s going on – maybe break out a few dance moves of your own, but essentially help the community to…find their groove?

I’m making myself laugh here. Too corny!

Justin

Find their groove for sure! That’s one of the best things that a librarian can do….find the groove of their community.

Matt

Librarians at their best learn to dance with their communities & let them lead.

Librarians are not preachers, not teachers, they help other people to explore the universe of knowledge, information, and culture on their own terms.

(I guess this is the kabuki stagehand thing again. You know Adrian Stagg, the open source guy at the University of Southern Queensland, calls himself OpenKuroko?)

Justin

If you roll into your library job and are like “OK, listen up, here is what I think and what I like and we are gonna do this”, sure: you may do some stuff but are you actually doing something for the community? Kind of maybe. You may have some people get interested in it. But if you listen to your community and do what they’re telling you? WOW. I think that’s where magic happens.

Matt

Yes! And I’m a big believer in artistic listening, on Linn Ulmann’s model:

…the process requires a form of artistic listening, of understanding the consequences of the decisions you’ve made. If you are lucky enough to find voice and place, there are real consequences to those choices. Together, they limit the possibilities of what can possibly come next—and they help point the way forward. Your role, then, is to not stick to your original idea—it is to be totally faithless to your idea. Instead, be faithful to voice and place as you discover them, and to the consequences of what they entail.

Maybe it’s all about voice and place in the end…

Justin

Here in Titusville it is all “good small town everyone knows your name customer service” and in Chattanooga it was”3D printers and virtual reality and technology”. I feel proud to have been part of two libraries that really listened to their communities. Sometimes librarians never get that experience. I got it twice.

Matt

This is also something I think public libraries, especially, give to the profession, to their community, & to all knowledge institutions.

Teachers inflict a curriculum on students, instruct them, and want them to make their grades. It shouldn’t be that way, and in some corners of education it’s changing, but there does tend to be a certain imbalance between the instructor and the instructed.

Whereas library relationships, ideally, are about learning (perhaps) rather than teaching; exploration on the user’s terms, following their curiosity.

I sometimes think the dominance of academic librarians in US library discourse obscures that, because they are embedded in academic politics, and in an institution which ultimately grinds out graduates…

Justin

I sometimes wish public and academic libraries/librarians didn’t share the library term. The work we do and the experiences we have are so very different.

I like that you brought up exploration. That’s one of the best things about life that I think we all have the ability to experience. And you are right…public libraries really do encourage that.

You got me back onto the track with reading poetry when you sent “Church Going” to me. A few days after that, I wandered our stacks and after some exploration I picked up an anthology of Samuel Taylor Coleridge’s work. I don’t know why I picked that. It just showed up after I explored.

Matt

Lovely. I saw the quote you picked out:

“For, though I’ve no idea

What this accoutred frowsty barn is worth,

It pleases me to stand in silence here”

What did you make of the Larkin?

Justin

I picked that out simply because it reminded me of my home (Fidelia Hall) and where it currently stands and where our heads were when we bought the entire place. Back in 2015 we jumped into buying a big old house and a church and had no idea what it was worth and what journey it would lead us on.

The entire poem just gave me this feeling that everything in this life is built, has a moment in time, and then it fades….and you know what? That’s ok! Sometimes humans think that these things that we build and dream will always be around but then in time they’re forgotten or they change so much they become something totally different.

Take my house for example: so many people tell me that they were either baptized, married, or that they buried someone in that building. But now we use that building to record music. My kids use the altar to perform their own plays. We have movie nights for our closest friends in the space. We set up plant and seed swaps and share nature. It’s kind of similar but in a way a totally different thing.

Matt

Larkin’s like the arch-poet of waning.

Justin

“Arch-poet of waning!” I love that, and I especially loved reading it in a British accent. I then tried to imagine it in a Titusville accent. Oh no one here would ever say that. Hahaha!

Matt

Varieties of English – of any language – are their own kind of music 🙂 And Larkin was a public and then an academic librarian for a day job, which makes me laugh.

It also made me wonder, that bit:

“When churches will fall completely out of use

What we shall turn them into, if we shall keep

A few cathedrals chronically on show,

Their parchment, plate and pyx in locked cases,

And let the rest rent-free to rain and sheep.

Shall we avoid them as unlucky places? “

I could see something similar with the library – certainly in places like the UK which have suffered cuts – you just keep the city centre showpiece venues…

Justin

The English language as music. Ours here in the USA is like the mumble rap version I must say.

Matt

…but even in “successful” countries, the library fifty years from now might have nothing to do with what we currently inhabit.

(Mumble rap has its own glory. I am always shocked that when I return to the UK it’s actually nice and fun and friendly… I always expect it to be like a Morrissey song & I think Larkin captures that moany vibe too!)

Justin

(Mumble rap: it does have a place. I have enjoyed a few tunes. It has also encouraged me to think differently about music. Will this music be my “old man back in my day” moment or can I grow from it?)

I can see how you go to libraries when you read those Larkin lines, especially libraries in the UK where the future has always seemed grim to me. Here in the USA? I don’t know. I see big city libraries thriving easily into the future. They’re not going anywhere.

The smaller ones? We will most likely have some losses here and there, but I think for communities that are smaller like mine that libraries have to and will stay here because they’re so integral to how the community comes together. The people in these areas just need them too much and they’ve still got the support they need…keep in mind it is bare bones support, but if there’s one thing I know about librarians is that they can make that work for a long period of time.

These are the people who take toilet paper rolls, duct tape, and glitter and make robots. Hahahhahahah.

Matt

This is why I urge you to pursue playful activities at work, especially those which are unpredictable. The level of technology at your disposal is not important.” – yeah, I think we’re on the same page for sure there!

Toilet paper roll-bots for the win.

Justin

The library in 50 years? Oh yeah, that space is gonna be different. I remember visiting the State Library of Queensland and thinking that space was like the library of the future.

The first thing I recall seeing there was people, open space, and a lot of collaboration. I feel like the books were up three floors or something like that and that they were something people would visit and go “ahhhhh yes, remember those days where it was all books and it smelled like old books.”

Matt

Yes! I like that. And that building in particular always reminds me of a spaceship:

Justin

“Back at the door I sign the book, donate an Irish sixpence,

Reflect the place was not worth stopping for.”

I read that and think that there will always be people like Larkin looking for an adventure or a journey, stumbling upon it, and then thinking it may not have been worth it, only to realize that it actually was once they reflected on it.

State Library of Queensland as the Star Wars rebel base we need in the future. Oh yes. I can see myself and Warren Cheetham sitting there fixing an X-Wing. He and I had some great chats in that lobby back when I visited in 2015.

Matt

Yes, I also felt strongly about those lines. The place not worth stopping for, and yet it compels him.

Some of my favourite libraries are precisely those least glamorous, suburban concrete boxes.

I think there’s some danger in fetishising the fact that previous generations blessed you with schmancy architecture or good real estate. The conversation & being where the people need you, how the people need you, is the thing.

In Toronto Libraries, I know it’s a point of pride that their network is well distributed geographically, even if some of the libraries are very small. You’ve always got that neighbourhood library branch close by, however humble.

Justin

People are gonna continue to react quickly and somewhat harshly to libraries in our rapid fire social media age: “libraries, why do we need those!” is a sound bite that fits our times.

Something like this Larkin quote doesn’t fit in a tweet, hence it is not something people point out first and foremost.

“A serious house on serious earth it is,

In whose blent air all our compulsions meet,

Are recognized, and robed as destinies.

And that much never can be obsolete”

But give it time…I think people will realize that they forgot about seeing the whole picture. We can’t get too caught up in the fancy old buildings. Bring it instead to the present, to the conversations and ideas that are happening now. I wonder what Byron Benson would say if he saw how his library was being used today. I like to think that he’d be happy we’ve keep it up with the times and kept it for the people.

Matt

Here’s one of my favourites, the absolute least “fancy” small library on a housing development in outer suburban London.

Justin

Is this image from that library?

Matt

Yeah. It’s in the Borough of Hillingdon, right on the edge of London, where they do great stuff – people like Sam Everett coordinating the YA Shot teen literature festival for example.

Justin

In that photo, I can see why you love that library. The tables and chairs are not the fanciest, their setup isn’t the most jaw dropping, but there’s a feeling of LIFE in that space. Give me whatever tables and chairs you have and I can make a library out of that. How? By making it a space where people and their energy fuel the place.

Matt

I think libraries are that serious house on serious earth. Those compulsions & destinies which Larkin writes of are met in ways other than the religious, but still ones that transcend & interweave with daily life.

Justin

We meet people where they are at that moment and we give them the opportunity to explore. That’s what makes us a serious house. We give off an energy that is infectious, and in turn it helps people see that they have an energy inside of them. They then make their own choice: to recognize that energy and use it or to just ignore it.

Matt

Oh god, yes. Infectious energy – fun – connection – but the reason for that, the underpinning of it, the commitment to providing opportunity – that is what makes libraries a serious house. Love it.

I honestly – this is sad to admit maybe – but I get the prickles on the back of my neck whenever I walk to the library on the Charville Lane estate.

It reminds me of being a kid when Doctor Who would go not to some weird alien planet that was clearly a TV studio, but just landed on a suburban street to face monsters on roads that looked like your own.

That sense of wonder and adventure, right there with the bricks and mundanity.

It’s not something I always get with the more architecturally stunning big city venues.

Justin

That feeling when you walk into the Charville Lane Library….I get that. I feel that when I walk into Fidelia Hall. The space isn’t fancy and needs some repairs, but damn that place just gives me feelings. I think it has something to do with the possibility of the space…it is a platform, an open canvas. It isn’t adorned with the fanciest things. It just has what it needs and with that the ability to become whatever the person inhabiting needs it to be. I bet I’d feel the same about the Charville Lane Library.

I think back to the Larkin poem. That old church he visited almost seems like a living thing in his poem…it’s a thing with an energy and a life…some places have that. Those are the special places. The places that are new and untouched and very intentional….those places don’t have that.

Matt

I think it’s a challenge for institutions.

In the age of tighter metrics and tighter budgets and an urge to plan and control everything, and make sure the surface is shiny — how do you ensure that you focus on strong relationships, which are messy and uncertain and at times frail?

Yet the reality is people create the most amazing things in straitened circumstances, if you let them.

Justin

I’ve thought about this a lot, especially when I write grants and fill out state reports, etc. They want those numbers! They don’t really want the warm and fluffy stories and the philosophical ramblings about libraries.

I think that’s where a long term change needs to happen. Maybe what we need is a complete reinvention of the world? We need a refocus on what’s actually important here. The connections we make and lives we help build. Will it happen? I don’t know. But I’m gonna play my part and help us get there.

Matt

Larkin’s church is neglected, but inhabited by a sense of purpose that has built up over generations; earlier, you imagined Byron Benson visiting your community in 2018 and passing judgement on what you’re doing now.

How do you want to haunt this community after your time?

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Can you see where that might be happening already?

Justin

Ooooooh that’s a good question, Matt. A positive haunting. One that whispers in your ear and says “remember, be patient and kind at all times”. One that reminds everyone that they’re gonna fall down a lot but that they will always get up.

I do see it happening. A positive message is infectious. People want to have that in their lives, more so now than ever before, given the current state of my country. It happens so very slowly, though, that you have to pay attention to it.

Otherwise the bad stuff just bubbles over and covers up the good stuff. I’ve been making more of an attempt to notice the positivity that is put out into the world. Since then that’s all I’ve been able to see.

I kinda love it all.

Catch more from Justin Hoenke at @justinlibrarian and justinthelibrarian.com.

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