Monday, 28 October 2013

Library Camp Glasgow - A piece of Reflective Writing about Creativity in Libraries

I was at McConechie's Tyres at 8 am on Saturday morning, got my burst tyre replaced, and took the car home.  Took the bus into Glasgow, and was at the Mitchell Library in good time for Scotland's first Library Camp.  Good time?  I was almost the first delegate to arrive.  Armed with my 'bingo card', I cheerfully filled in everyone else's cards with "I play a musical instrument", and collected their distinguishing statements in return.  It was a great ice-breaker.

We had rants (a one-minute soapbox performance).  We had pitches.  These were longer presentations, allowing time for discussion afterwards.  I hadn't indicated my intention to do either, since I couldn't make up my mind what to rant about, and didn't think I had a topic that I wanted to 'pitch'.  However, as I got ready yesterday morning, I had an idea for a rant, so I spent the bus journey pondering it.  Yes, it would do.

After three other rants, on co-production, the 'dead hand of organisation' and e-books in the Higher Education context, I stuck my hand up and indicated I was ready to rant.  I mentioned the old 18th century fiddle tune book I was shown on Friday (by the father of one of our piping tutors), and our James Simpson flute manuscripts, and urged people to recognise the value of our national musical heritage. If it's old, whether printed or manuscript, urge patrons to consider depositing it in the library, because these things tell us much about attitudes to Scottish music, perhaps the preferences of a particular compiler or collector, and also much about Scottish history.

Then came the pitches.  There were choices at each of four sessions.  I attended a lively session about the next National Libraries Day, then a paper on library provision for disabled patrons. 

After lunch, I heard Delphine Dallison from Glasgow School of Art Library.  A graduate of GSA, she is currently their library graduate trainee, and she is interested in how libraries can inspire creativity in their patrons.  Delphine told us first about her undergraduate project, hiding small cards between books for patrons to find (not in the art school);  and then about a new project at the art school, called The Hatchery - where various artists were asked to seek inspiration from the library's own collections in making various resources for the collection.  There were three "virtual books" - just catalogue entries, in fact, as there are no actual physical books attached to the records.  Then there were "artists' books" and "tableaux vivants".  I was interested in the fact that, whilst the GSA encourages visual creativity, the Whittaker Library quite naturally focuses on the spoken word, vocal or instrumental music. Although we have been known to have exhibitions of pictures or costume, we are more likely to sponsor book launches, poetry readings, or Scottish oral history and music recitals.  It's still creativity, just our own brand of it.

There were staff from the Glasgow Women's Library at this session, and they had also done project work involving creativity. Theirs was called 21 Revolutions - 21 artists and 21 writers taking inspiration from the library collections.   All were agreed that the results were both effective and moving - the words "gorgeous" and "lovely" were expressed by more than one library camper.

Finally, I heard Richard Aird from West Dunbartonshire talking about a new opac and content mannager, aggregating e-content to make user access much more streamlined.  What an excellent idea! This was a really interesting presentation.

It wasn't until I got home  that I started thinking more seriously about the talks I'd heard, and most particularly about fostering creativity in libraries.  I've blogged about this on Whittaker Live more than once.
I suppose it's only natural that creative and performing arts libraries are going to be interested in this subject, since the colleges' very existence is predicated upon creativity.  If students' creativity isn't developed, then something is seriously wrong!

As I thought about it, all manner of questions flooded my mind.  For a start, why did we feel the urge to foster creativity in our patrons? In art colleges, conservatoires and drama schools,  chances are the creative urge is there already.  It's only natural we should want to share the treasures in our collections, and what could be more fitting than to display the artistic outcomes of these explorations and collaborations.  In other libraries,  the motivation can be subtly different,  helping individuals discover fulfilment in skills they didn't even know they had, and maybe making new friends into the bargain.  If library patrons are from some marginalised element of society - maybe hindered by language barriers, poverty or domestic turbulence, then working on a creative project in the peaceful environment of a library may be even more meaningful for them.

The other big question,  though, is almost one of aesthetics.  How do we describe the outcomes, these commissioned art-works or  spontaneous outpourings of creativity?  If we want to write professionally about our initiatives, we need to develop a critical vocabulary with which to do so.  I'm a musicologist as well as a librarian, and I'm used to writing about music, not just theoretically but also in performance.  I'm not a visual artist, though, so I haven't as wide a vocabulary for describing (and maybe in some circumstances,assessing) these aspirational, visually motivated projects.  However, if we're to continue a conversation about creativity in libraries, then we do need to be able to articulate why we set up these projects, what we hoped to achieve, what the outcomes were, what was particularly successful, and what was maybe less so.  

The "and" Factor

If I learned one thing during my time as a research student - apart from a whole bookful of facts about Scottish songs - it is that every short statement can be expanded upon.  I call it the "and" factor.  Let's say a particular piece of music has a distinctly Scottish feel about it.  If I'd said that in my viva, the examiners would quite rightly have asked me to expand upon the statement and justify it.  "And ....?"

In the same way, whether we as librarians coordinate a fabulous exhibition, provide the inspiration for a piece of improvised drama, or offer performers the opportunity to explore an early Victorian flute manuscript, we have to find a way to talk and write about it, if we want to continue the conversation and drive it forward.  What makes this collage gorgeous?  What makes that saxophone sound so seductive?  What is so touching about that book of poetry?

Saxophones in the Whittaker Library
This is not intended as any kind of criticism of the session I attended last Saturday.  It was an informal, "unconference" - the kind of event where anything goes, and we weren't trying to be quasi-academics.  I found it a really interesting subject, and I was delighted to find other people of like minds to myself, albeit in different arts.  (I'd like to find a way of inspiring students to do creative writing, too, but I've never thought the idea through.)  But the point I'm trying to make is that the more we talk and write about creative inspiration, the more impact the idea will have.  And for that, we shall have to work on - as I said - our vocabulary and our aesthetic appreciation. It's just another aspect of the reflective writing that we're all encouraged to do as part of our professional development.

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