Friday 29 July 2011

More than just books and buildings

I'm not sure you're ever off-duty as a librarian. The questions about libraries keep coming no matter where you are, not that I mind. Recently one of my friends asked me if there is an age limit on borrowing toys from toy libraries. I've never worked in a toy library, or anywhere that lends toys, but it got me thinking about the different types of libraries that are out there. While libraries battle to define their place in a changing technological landscape, and groups and individuals look towards being more environmentally aware, I thought I'd look at what some libraries are doing to provide services to their clients.

Animal libraries
Starting with the endearing, you might have heard about the biblioburro or bibliomulas, travelling libraries in Colombia and Venezuela. In Magdalena, Colombia, Luis Soriano spends his free time operating a biblioburro. Every Wednesday and Saturday Soriano travels with his donkeys Alfa and Beto to visit a rotation of 15 villages, providing books, homework help, and tales to the children.

In Venezuela, the bibliomulas have even been equipped with laptops and projectors, becoming "cyber mules" and "cine mules", bringing technology and internet access to the villages they visit.

Tool libraries
In Australia and around the world, groups have set up tool libraries to lend and share resources (there's even a Wikipedia page). While there are permanent tool libraries, some were set up in the wake of the 2009 Victorian bush fires to provide not only the means for rebuilding, but as a space to provide emotional support for survivors. Tool libraries provide more than just tools. They also offer spaces for woodworking, workshops, DIY classes, and a community environment.

Seed libraries
I'm not sure if these are happening anywhere in Australia, but in the USA there appear to be at least 5 libraries who have opened seed libraries. The San Francisco Library's Potrero branch, Richmond Public Librar, Alameda Free Library, Fairfield Woods, and the East Palo Alto brach of San Mateo Public Library. Patrons can check out vegetable seeds to grown their own, and then save and return the seeds after harvesting the crops.

Floating libraries
Alright, so this one isn't technically a library, in fact it's a bookshop, but a library could do it so I'll include it. The Book Barge is a floating book store in Lichfield, Staffordshire, that is currently taking a 6-month tour of the UK canal network.

The Logos Hope is the world's largest floating bookstore/library. Run by GBA ships, the Logos Hope holds over 6000 books for purchase or loan, and the crew also help to build houses and donate provisions in under-privilege countries.

People libraries
If borrowing books isn't enough, why not borrow a person? Visitors to the Whitehorse Human Library in Victoria will able to borrow people, to provide "an opportunity for people in the  community to connect with and learn about people from diverse life experiences and backgrounds." The 'human books' can be borrowed for a short, informal conversation.

This idea has been tried elsewhere. The Human Library has held events around the world to try to "break stereotypes by challenging the most common prejudices in a positive and humorous manner." There have been living libraries in Turkey and the UK and Lismore, to name a few.

Footpath libraries
The Benjamin Andrew Footpath Library provides books to the homeless and disadvantaged in Sydney and Woolloomooloo. Books are donated (by publishers and ordinary people) and are available for the homeless to choose themselves. Unlike a normal library, there aren't any due dates.. the books don't need to be returned.

The Crouch End Unlibrary in London is managed by a charitable company, interested in "exploring the future of the book in the digital age." The Unlibrary provides a space to discuss books and ideas, use wifi, use workshop space for readers, writers and makers, has a training centre, and even a portable bookshop. The managing company if:book also has a branch in Australia that is part of the Queensland Writers Centre.

It's not the same thing, but this reminds me of The Edge, the digital culture centre of the State Library of Queensland. The Edge provides "a place for experimentation and creativity, giving contemporary tools to young people to allow them to explore critical ideas, green initiatives, new design practices and media making." I've checked it out in person and it's amazing. The tools and technologies are fantastic. While I was there I met one of the artists who took me on a tour and explained how he'd created works that wouldn't have been possible without access to these resources.

I suppose the result of this is to question just what is a library, and to consider what else libraries could be doing with their communities.

And from looking into toy libraries around Australia, no, there doesn't seem to be an upper age limit. So go forth and borrow!

Katrina McAlpine
Librarian & ALIA Sydney Committee Member

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