When the DCMS released figures 'affirming' the steady decline in library use last year, we decided early on to make public libraries a central theme for London Word Festival 2011.
The debate about the future of the library has been fought publicly and with some heat. Over the last six months, familiar names and faces have rallied to defend municipal libraries against closure, 'reading-in' with Joe Public as well as speaking out. Industrious and dedicated 'Joe's' have formed independent groups in protest, gathering numbers through social media. There are those who feel the move is overdue – with cheap secondhand book sales on Amazon, who uses the libraries anyway? Its been suggested more than once that supporters have romanticised the buildings themselves rather than the service they provide. But statistics justifying public spending cuts seem to have ignored how usage has changed - e-lending & online reservations reducing but not eradicating the need for us to visit the library itself.
With the event, No Furniture So Charming, we want to present something that explores the importance of the library as a physical space, as a place we go to. How inherent is this physicality to its definition? Could the future library be an entirely remote experience? Or is it just as integral as a place where people come together? Perhaps there is 'No Furniture So Charming' as books as Sidney Smith once said, but even books are being re-upholstered by the digital age. We've pulled together a cross-section of thinkers and find out what the future library might look like for them, providing a forum for audiences to respond in the process.
It's important to us to explore the public library in a way that celebrated its significance and looked to the future. Our focus as a festival has always been an artistic one – commissioning and supporting artists to create and present new and challenging work. We aim to curate a strand of artistic work that gives both artist and audience space to consider and create, but in very different ways.
We approached singer Emmy The Great to collaborate with poet Jack Underwood on a personal celebration of the space, culminating in The Goodbye Library with guests Miriam Elia, Nikesh Shukla and Submarine writer Joe Dunthorne. And running every single day of the festival in reading rooms across London, Ant Hampton & Tim Etchells' The Quiet Volumeis a whispered, self-generated performance for two, exploring the tension of concentration and silence in reading. It is currently resident in Hackney Central Library, and has certainly drawn in some audiences who hadn't thought to set foot inside their local library for quite some time.
Visiting nearly 30 library spaces in preparation for The Quiet Volume, I can tell you people are using the spaces, but perhaps differently from how they once did. People are still borrowing books, studying, teaching percentages to their siblings and stumbling across hidden gems (as I did myself with Wayne Winner's beautiful, comical graphic novel, ArtHouse Cinema). But they are also reading newspapers. They are using computers because they don't own one, or need assistance sending an email. Many need help with the language to apply for jobs or grapple with the internet. Hackney is a hubbub of (often unpredictable) activity, but it is anything but dormant.
So this Thursday, at No Furniture So Charming, we invite you to consider the space itself, how its used, how it could be used and how creative thinking can reinvigorate the space. To think beyond the bricks and the mortar and the furniture, and consider what it means to be a library for the modern user.
No Furniture So Charming (part of London Word Festival)
7pm, Thursday 21st April 2011
Bethnal Green Library, London
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