TEDxUCLA 2012: Open
Libraries can be loud
About a year ago, when I was still living here in LA, someone who was very close to me observed that I seemed to be uncomfortable with not knowing.
Okay, so this is a common feeling among us humans, but I truly experienced it as a revelation. Despite knowing this about myself, however, I shortly thereafter accepted a new position at the Robert E. Kennedy Library at Cal Poly San Luis Obispo. Now, I am not a librarian. In fact, the last time I had even been in a university library was the late 1990s. And from that time I could remember two things: one, searching for journals in the stacks for a paper I was writing about personal ads, the kind that you find in newspapers; and two, using the computer search stations at the help desk to watch Beastie Boys videos because the library had access to this awesome new thing, the world wide web.
So clearly I accepted this new job, not knowing much about today’s university libraries. But I’m not alone. It turns out that university libraries are also in the position of not knowing, because while a lot has changed, their future is uncertain.
And this, of course, is because how we get information has changed. Learning has changed, and higher education is in a slow process of changing. And there are many librarians who can speak to the future of libraries in a way that I can’t.
What I’m going to talk about is how I learned to love not knowing in a place that is all about knowing. And I have something else to say after that.
So on campus, I like to think of the library as an international Switzerland. And this is because it is a place for everyone. It’s neutral. Anyone can come here. And one of the ways that we like to remind people that the library is there for them is through public programs. And one of the reasons why I was hired was to manage a public program called Cal Poly Science Cafe.
If it’s new to you like it was to me, Science Cafe is actually an international movement designed to bring together a scientist — or in our case, an expert — together with the public for casual conversation, usually in a pub or a cafe. So there you have sort of a factual overview.
Now, when I was growing up, I was the new kid a lot, often in other countries. And starting this new job felt a lot like moving to a new country. And when I was the new kid, I kind of liked to keep my head down, wait until I had lay of the land a little bit.
But what I did know was that the culture at the library felt very different from the art and design world where I’d been working at UCLA. It felt pretty serious. And I figured this was because the library’s preference for knowing over not knowing is taken to a whole new level. I figured that, because it was essentially built for knowing, that this is why it was so serious.
Well, it turns out that my theory was wrong because here we are throwing tennis balls down five flights of stairs in the library for Cal Poly Science Cafe. So we called this DIY physical computing at play.
How did we get here? Well, the short answer is through collaboration and a shared desire to see what could happen if. Now Scott and Michael were two designers and developers who I knew from working here at UCLA and they came up with this game. But it wasn’t until we asked them a simple question that the seed of the idea was planted. And that question was, “What do you want to do in this space?”
On one of their road trips up to San Luis Obispo, we were all standing around in that staircase talking about if it was going to work, how it was going to work, when a man approached us. And he was angry. Because we were being way too loud. And he pointed at us: “This is a library!”
And as somebody who appreciates monastic silence — and for that matter print books — I really, I understand where he was coming from. But for a few hours on a Friday morning, we wanted to be loud. And we wanted to push people’s expectations about what a library should be.
And now I’d like to play you a short video about it. You may have recognized a couple familiar faces in there, including our fearless organizer, Scott Hutchinson.
So when I’ve played that video for my friends, they have told me they don’t really get it. They’re not sure what happened, or how it worked. But what they do get — and I hope maybe some of you do, too — is a feeling. And for me, that feeling comes from watching people who don’t know each other work together to create something new. It’s not for work, it’s not an assignment. They just want to see what happens. And this idea, that we as people like to get together just to figure something out, makes me feel like we’re all going to be okay with all of this not knowing.
So obviously the people who I was getting to know at Kennedy Library are experimenting all the time, and I’ve learned that libraries everywhere are reconfiguring what they’ve got to encourage collaboration. You can find all sorts of things: data studios, cafes, radio stations, maker labs. It turns out that what we did in the stairwell is really a life-sized metaphor. For if we can embrace not knowing, then we can start imagining.
And critical to that creative process is asking questions. Questions like, “What do you want to do in this space?” Which leads me to a couple of things that I would like to share with you in closing.
Not knowing is so much a part of all of our lives. It’s inherent in the future. And it can be painful for people and for organizations. But not knowing also gives us opportunity to experiment and create. And while we may want to keep our head down until we have the lay of the land to know what we’re going to do, what if together we dare to be loud while not knowing? Thank you.