Monday, 22 June 2015

Creative reading, libraries and the arts.

So, over the weekend, whilst in Prague, I had the opportunity to take part in a street theatre performance as part of the Prague Quadrennial of Performance Design and Space (or PQ as we all called it). The piece was called Kafka Dances - opening with a flashmob-like interaction of beleagued trenchcoat-wearing characters, burdened with their suitcases and trapped within their own futile nightmarish Kafka-esque existence... only to contrast with a hyper-absurd ending involving colourful costumes, pom-poms and swing-dancing.

Apart from the pure joy of being part of a creative process leading to a performance for an audience, this also made me think quite a bit about our relationship with literature and the arts. One cannot deny the impact that many works of literature have had on the arts - whether it's a pure adaption from print to stage or film, or a reinterpretation, or even the influence of literary themes, philosophies and perspectives. Stories and literature have influenced art since they were first told, whether it's the Nordic, Greek or Roman Epics, traditional folk tales, or sacred texts.

And even now, literature has permeated our popular culture. Whether it's the mega-successful film franchises of Harry Potter, Lord of the Rings, and the Hunger Games (Twilight not so much). Or who could have imagined that Alison Bechdel's graphic novel Fun Home could have been made into a Tony Award winning stage musical - and it's quite amazing too! I can't watch the following clip without getting all the feels...


And on a more indie and personal creative level, there have been countless communities for fanfic writing - if there's a literary genre or cult-following, then you can bet that there's a fanfic community for it. Similarly, there are musical subcultures where bands might write music purely about Harry Potter (Wizard Rock), John Green books (JGrock) or, yes, Twilight (Twi-rock). Nerdcore rapper MC Lars has written songs inspired by Shakespeare, Edgar Allen Poe, and Moby-Dick. And that's all just the tip of the iceberg. Beyond the performing arts, there are also countless examples in the visual arts.

So, both in a mainstream, indie and pop-culture level, our literary culture continues to inspire and provoke creative arts. Which brings me to libraries.

Obviously, I'm mostly talking about public and state libraries here. There's a lot of focus on "What are libraries doing wrong, and how should they change so that they don't die?" Here's an idea: focus on the intersection of libraries and the arts. Reader development is a form of audience development. Don't just be a repository for people to borrow books and return them - provide opportunities to respond creatively to their reading experience. Turn readers into artists by fostering a culture of creative reading. Turn libraries into a reader-centred creative spaces, where reading is not just a passive activity, but an experience that you can share with others, be it through discussion and reading groups, or other forms of creative expression.

And seriously - invest the tens of thousands of dollars that you currently pour into reference collections and rarely-used databases into arts initiatives and creative spaces that intersect with reader development. Create partnerships with arts organisations for installations and performances. Most of all (and here's a modest proposal) stop pretending that public libraries are places for students to do research (with the exception of local history research). Let's face it, they're only using print books because their teacher didn't want them googling everything for their homework. We can do better than that.