Library under siege

Last week was a huge one for British public libraries. A BBC report highlighted the severity of cuts to library services in recent years, and library lovers in the borough of Lambeth made national news when they occupied a branch due for closure.

I believe that the battles happening in Lambeth, and across the UK, aren’t just about those communities. They have lessons for librarians around the world. Read more

We The Humanities: Interview with Ludi Price, City University London

This week you can find me over at @wethehumanities, a rotating Twitter account where people working in the humanities get to share ideas, experiences, and stories. I’m using my week to talk about the grey areas between fact and fiction, dream and experience, stories and everyday life – as well as people who cross back and forth over the walls of universities and academic institutions.

Today I’m joined by Ludi Price, who is a fanfiction writer, doctoral candidate at City University’s School of Library & Information Studies, and also works as a librarian in the Far Eastern Languages collection at London’s School of Oriental and African Studies.

Ludi began by telling me about her doctoral thesis.

In a nutshell it’s about the information behaviour of fans on the internet. That means, how fans create, collect, organise, disseminate and share information on digital platforms. Of course, information can be instantiated in many different forms, from books to magazines to wikis to library catalogues – and much, much more. A lot of the information fans deal with are fanworks (what might be termed derivative, fan-created works, such as fanart and fanfiction), and, almost by their very nature, the circulation of these cultural artefacts is through, for and by informal channels. In an age of crowdsourcing and social tagging, this is something that is very interesting to me.

How did you come to choose fandom as a topic?

In short because I’m a fan myself! It’s been a huge part of my life since I was a child, when I used to write Malory Towers and Sailor Moon fanfiction, and draw Little Mermaid fanart. Read more

Dulwich Picture Gallery, “Your Mind Is The Scene of the Crime”

Today I’m running an event for Dulwich Picture Gallery’s Off The Wall series of teen workshops. Dulwich is the oldest purpose-built public art gallery in the world and this year I’ve been working with them on outreach events which address 21st century challenges in making art with communities.

M.C. Escher, Hand with Reflecting Sphere
M.C. Escher, Hand with Reflecting Sphere

Today’s event, Your Mind Is The Scene of the Crime, is linked to Dulwich’s current exhibition of M.C. Escher’s work, which was put together by the Scottish National Gallery of Modern Art.

Escher is currently undergoing something of a reevaluation, as Darran Anderson captures in his review of the exhibition.  The artist, once seen as a creator of mere visual tricks, more suited to student-dorm posters and video game designs than critical interrogation, might now be recognised as influential and intriguing in ways we’d previously overlooked. This process of recognising the artist and his works afresh has parallels to the work of detectives re-opening a cold case; returning to the accumulated files, seeking new evidence, and trying to see it all from a fresh perspective.

Solving crimes is never really about arriving at a final truth; it’s about making a story which more closely and convincingly tends to the evidence at hand. This process also applies to the business of art history, and the activities which ran at Dulwich today.

Critical examination of Escher’s biography plays a part in our reopened investigation. Divorced from context, sold as a poster, used as the background of an old video game, an Escher landscape can look impersonal, technical, heartless. Nowadays, however, we recognise the ways in which Escher’s mindscapes are grounded in personal experience and observation. His youthful travels in Italy seem to have informed works like Belvedere; Escher’s visit to the Alhambra in Spain shaped his later explorations of pattern and tessellation. Micky Piller, curator of the Escher Museum in the Hague, recently discovered that many architectural elements from the artist’s “impossible worlds” can be found in the stairwells of Escher’s old high school.

For young people creating art, Escher offers a range of possible paths to explore. His Italian and Arabic influences demonstrate the way that leaving home for travel and adventure can provoke and inspire deeper reflection. At the same time, the fact that Escher returned to, and spent most of his life in, the Dutch town of Baarn reminds us that wonder can be generated in even the most ordinary of settings. In an age when we are increasingly preoccupied with the need for technological skills and scientific thinking, Escher reminds us that mathematics, science, and technology are always grounded in feeling, in human possibility, in a sense of wonder. As Anderson puts it:

The view of mathematics and science as purely and coldly intellectual exercises is exposed as inaccurate in Escher’s work; they are at work everywhere in nature; indeed, they are how we interpret the cosmos.

Countless books, movies, and shows from Harry Potter to Labyrinth and Doctor Who (which named an episode after Escher’s Castrovalva) have helped us to explore Escher’s cosmos by placing characters within their impossible architecture, lending life and motion to his precise, troubling geometries.

The figure of Escher, “modest yet colossal”, challenges our ongoing attempts to pigeonhole creative work. He is at once popular and ubiquitous to the point of banality, yet also marginal, his work set aside by the art-critical establishment. If his work has been dismissed on occasion as a “juvenile curiosity”, perhaps we should think on the current debate in which literary critics disparage YA literature, written for adolescents. Juvenilia has never been a weaker term of critical disparagement, in an era when young people are finally being accorded some of the power and voice to which they are entitled, and in which so many of us still feel the tensions and complications associated with adolescence. If Escher prints like Other World and Relativity are haunted by the traces of the artist’s high school experience, maybe he is the secret YA artist we never knew we had.

The contradictions abound. For the viewer, Escher made visual puzzles for which there was no solution; for artmakers, he found solutions to challenges in perspective which had no real-life equivalent. His work is “cold” and technical, yet steeped in personal experience and memory: the villages of Italy, the school of his youth, the tiles of the Alhambra where he imagined “a place of serenity where the universal laws of physics were everywhere and yet somehow might not apply.”

In Your Mind Is The Scene of the Crime, visitors explore this blend of the personal and perspectival when they are given visual and textual clues from the life of a mysterious woman. These photographs and snippets of prose will form the basis for a collaborative 3D visual artwork, creatively reconstructing a life story from limited cues.

In solving the mystery of a stranger’s life, and the challenge of juxtaposing images in three dimensional space, our Dulwich detectives will discover that solutions are only ever provisional; that the neatest account of the cosmos may defy the laws of nature; and that your mind is always the scene of the crime.

Lemon Knight: International Games Day at the British Library

It’s been an eventful weekend, and I’m five days out from running a day-long experimental project here in the UK – more on that further down the line – but I wanted to share some of the excitement from yesterday’s International Games Day at the British Library (BL) in central London.

Gary Green of Surrey Libraries invited me to join the team of volunteers who were running events under the leadership of BL Digital Curator Stella Wisdom.

Stella is co-founder of the BL’s Off the Map video game competition, and Off the Map winners Fancy Crab were there with their offbeat riff on Lewis Carroll’s Alice stories. The event was also tied in to this year’s 150th anniversary of Alice in Wonderland, and Ludi Price was in full cosplay mode as Alice herself.

There were video games, board games, and some that were just a little off the wall, including the bizarre German box-stacking game Ordnungswissenschaft:

We were able to play this by repurposing the boxes from the infamous Comic Book Dice, which had also made a visit to the BL.

I got introduced to the German game by gaming aficionado Ross Fowkes. Ross also showed me a digital jousting game which used motion sensors and the music of Bach in multi-player battles.

Johann Sebastian Joust” was inspired by a party game played with lemons and spoons. One quick trip to the supermarket later and we had unleashed the Lemon Knights in the heart of the library.

Both the BL’s child-friendly daytime sessions and the later evening event were great successes, with lots of visitors trying their hand at games old and new. Stella and her team did an incredible job playing host to a wide range of people and offering some truly bizarre activities. (Libraries are sometimes cautious about wild play, so I was delighted that Stella gave us permission for a full-on lemon battle in the shadow of the venerable stacks).

Read more

Comics, everywhere (where to find me for the next two weeks)

Just a quick update to tell you I’ll be speaking at two events this month.

This Sunday, 8th November, I’ll be presenting at the Thinking Through Drawing symposium in London, making 3D biographical comics with attendees in a session on “Play, Chance, and Comics”.

Then, on 12th November, I’ll be speaking at a day training course for London’s Youth Libraries Group, looking at frame-breaking ways to expand and challenge existing library services – from community festivals and librarians embedded in comics book stores through to digital comic making and the inevitable zombie battles.

You can read more about the Fun Palaces Comic Maker over at The Comics Grid:

Lambeth Libraries Fun Palaces 2015

So yesterday was a huge success for Lambeth Libraries and you can still take part for a few days yet via our online Comic Maker.

Fun Palaces will of course be delivering a full report, evaluation, and celebration in coming weeks but for now here’s my Fun Palaces 2015 on social media.

#LoveLamLibs Fun Palaces: Lambeth Libraries’ Heroes

Over the past week, Lambeth Libraries have been gearing up for their borough-wide, simultaneous 11-venue celebration of arts and sciences.

On the blog, I’ve featured special guests like the author Lucy Beresford, Stephann Makri and the zine-making team from City University, plus entrepreneur Tara Benson – as well as special projects like the online Fun Palaces Comic Maker.

Now the big day has arrived and today I want to celebrate the real heroes of Lambeth Libraries Fun Palaces – the librarians themselves.

Staff across the borough of Lambeth have worked tirelessly to deliver amazing events in every venue run by Lambeth Libraries and Lambeth Archives. They’ve sought partners and special guests, helped to devise and deliver activities, and reached out to give their communities the chance to make good on the Fun Palaces motto, “Everyone an artist, everyone a scientist.”

I can’t talk about every Lambeth Libraries staffer who has made this weekend possible, but I will highlight three names as examples of the brilliance these librarians have shown, delivering an amazing cultural programme within tight budgets and short notice.

Zoey Dixon is my co-producer on Lambeth Libraries Fun Palaces and the lead for the event within the organisation. Dynamic, creative, energetic, and determined, she’s been the guiding light for everything we have achieved over the past few months. Self-effacing but brilliant, she’s well worth contacting for workshops, conference panels, and speaking gigs. Expect to see her taking UK Library Fun Palaces on to ever greater heights in the future.

Caroline Mackie, pictured here with Mishi Morath of Dulwich Hamlet Football Club, has been one of the most proactive and inventive library managers on this project. She’s been resourceful and ingenious in teaming up with a wide range of community partners, from footballers to jazz musicians to the fire service, all with an eye on Fun Palaces’ ethos of participation and play. Caroline works at Carnegie Library, which I’m aiming to visit this morning before heading off to Clapham.

Vincia Bennett with Stephann Makri

Clapham Library is run by Vincia Bennett, pictured here with City University’s Stephann Makri. Vincia has co-ordinated activities at Clapham Library, one of the most modern and beautiful buildings owned by Lambeth Libraries. Vincia and her team have arranged printmaking workshops and big-name partnerships, cake and snacks from neighbourhood cafes, plus a whole world of wonder and play for visitors on Saturday 3rd October.

These librarians, going above and beyond to showcase the best of British public libraries, deserve to be hailed for their work. All of them were a little camera shy, but no-one deserves to be celebrated more than they do.

If Lambeth Fun Palaces succeed, it’ll be through the efforts and expertise of Lambeth Council’s librarians, who have used their professional skills and their relationships with their community to make brilliant things happen for Londoners this weekend.

People sometimes think that libraries can be cut back in the 21st century, because they equate libraries with books on shelves and presume that in the age of the Internet and e-books, these public buildings and public servants are no longer necessary. But nothing could be further from the truth.

The UNESCO Public Library Missions established more than twenty years ago that community librarianship was more about play, creativity, and self-directed learning than items on shelves. The three women I’ve chosen to celebrate today are full-time library professionals who make good on the vision of public libraries as “the TARDIS on your streetcorner“: a humble box that can take local people anywhere in human knowledge or imagining, free of charge.

I hope that we’ll see you at a Lambeth Library Fun Palace today, but if we don’t, show your appreciation for Vincia, Caroline, Zoey, and public librarians everywhere by sharing this post and using the hashtag #LoveLamLibs.

Have a great day!

Fun Palaces Countdown: Role-playing games with Andy Horton

As the 2015 Fun Palaces launch on Saturday 3rd October approaches, Lambeth Libraries are gearing up for their borough-wide, simultaneous 11-venue celebration of arts and sciences.

In the countdown to Fun Palaces, I’m showcasing some of the special guests who are partnering with Lambeth Libraries this weekend.

Last year, at Australia’s first Fun Palace in Parkes, we created a tabletop role-playing game derived from the work of Cory Doctorow.

Tabletop Superheroes was quick to learn and difficult to master, an all-ages Dungeons and Dragons-style game which tied in with the School for Supervillains theme we’d taken from guest author Louie Stowell. You can download it now from Parkes Shire Library.

This year in South London, roleplaying game expert Andy Horton – a librarian at Regent’s University – will be hosting a special Fun Palaces game event at Upper Norwood Library.

Andy and friends will be giving Fun Palaceers the chance to try their hand at a range of role-playing and board games, and there also be a specially-written Dungeons and Dragons scenario for people brave enough to take on a Fun-Palatial quest.

Like Stephann Makri and the #Citylis zinemakers, Andy’s another academic who is partnering with public libraries this October in the name of play, learning, and outreach. Fun Palaces salute you, Dungeon Master!

Upper Norwood Library is a special case among those taking part in Lambeth’s Fun Palaces this year. Jointly funded by Croydon and Lambeth for 100 years, it’s a public library which provides a model for local government co-operation in providing cultural and information services to a local community.

Find out more at the Upper Norwood Library Campaign website. You can also find out more about Fun Palaces at Upper Norwood Library.

Download Tabletop Superheroes from Parkes Shire Library.

Read Cory Doctorow’s latest Fun Palaces article over at BoingBoing.

Fun Palaces Countdown: Q&A with Lucy Beresford

As the 2015 Fun Palaces launch on Saturday 3rd October approaches, Lambeth Libraries are gearing up for their borough-wide, simultaneous 11-venue celebration of arts and sciences.

In the countdown to Fun Palaces, I’m showcasing some of the special guests who are partnering with Lambeth Libraries this weekend.

This afternoon’s guest is Lucy Beresford, who will be visiting Clapham Library for a Q&A session from 2-3pm on Saturday, October 3rd.

Lucy hosts a weekly phone-in show on LBC Radio and describes herself as the “no-nonsense Agony Aunt” for Healthy magazine.

Her Clapham Library Q&A is a chance for in-depth conversation with a novelist, psychotherapist, and broadcaster who explores sex, relationships, health, and happiness on air, online, in fiction and non-fiction.

Lucy Beresford, Invisible Threads - Front Cover

Lucy’s latest novel, Invisible Threads, set in India, is out now. The Q&A session, hosted by our Fun Palace entrepreneur Tara Benson, will offer the chance to talk with Lucy about writing fiction, the practice of therapy, and her own experiences travelling and working in India.

Come and join her from 2-3pm this Saturday at Clapham Library.

Find out more about Clapham Library Fun Palaces at the main Fun Palaces website.

Fun Palaces Countdown: Entrepreneurship workshop with Tara Benson

As the 2015 Fun Palaces launch on Saturday 3rd October approaches, Lambeth Libraries are gearing up for their borough-wide, simultaneous 11-venue celebration of arts and sciences.

In the countdown to Lambeth Libraries’ Fun Palaces, I’ll be featuring some of the amazing activities and special guests we’ve got lined up for Londoners this weekend.

Today it’s the turn of entrepreneur Tara Benson, the founder & CEO of Here and Now.

Here and Now helps families find exciting activities in their local area. It was the Sun‘s website of the week in April.

Tara is a commercial marketer and entrepreneur with 26 years of experience in tech, consumer brands, publishing and communications. She has worked with start-ups, rapid-growth and established businesses such as Gumtree, PayPal, Mills & Boon, and Blackwood Distillers. Tara was the opening speaker at NatWest Bank’s 2014 “Marks…Set…Grow” business banking conference.

Tara’s Fun Palaces workshop on entrepreneurship and start-up culture will help people interested in founding, running, or developing their own business. It runs from 3-4pm at Clapham Library on Saturday 3rd October.

You can read an interview with Tara on ‘achieving super-human start-up stuff and bashing down the barriers for women’ at Womanthology, and also watch her 2014 ShedTalk on Youtube.

Find out more about Clapham Library Fun Palaces at the main Fun Palaces website.