Librarianship and “Tactical Urbanism”

Shannon Mattern, a faculty member of the New School’s School of Media Studies, has a new and wonderfully wide-ranging article about “little libraries” that gets into a number of issues about public space, community involvement, and the essence of librarianship. (Disclosure: I’m quoted in the piece, but that’s not why I like it.) “Little Libraries in the Urban Margins” is published in Places, “an interdisciplinary journal of contemporary architecture, landscape and urbanism,” but I think that she “gets” the human aspects of librarianship in an important way (I mean, not that architects and planners don’t think about people, too). And if you’ve been trying to keep all these DIY library projects straight, this is the resource for you. Of course there’s discussion of the OWS libraries (with quotes from the excellent OWS librarians as well as one of my heroes, Barbara Fister). Then there are descriptions of little libraries all over the world (shout-out to Baltimore’s Village Learning Place, which I have visited and donated to!). I especially appreciated the extensive section about the Uni Project. As Mattern describes, they have collaborated with my employer, but I learned quite a bit here.

From Mattern’s conclusion:

Material protected by stringent copyright and held in proprietary databases is often inaccessible outside libraries, even to the most “connected” among us; and as digital rights management becomes ever more complicated, we may come to rely even more on our libraries to help us navigate an increasingly fractured and litigious digital terrain. Many communities rely on their libraries to collect their local histories. And in cities and towns across the country, our public libraries are often one of the few — sometimes the only — freely accessible public spaces in town. In other words, the continued relevance of the public library means that it’s not worth nostalgizing yet. These little libraries are perhaps less “heirloom,” less “vintage” — less exercises in nostalgia — than we might assume.

Yet regardless of their aims — whether aesthetic or political or tactical or civic — these projects can’t help but raise big and important questions regarding the protocols of access, the ideals of knowledge and rules of intellectual property, the health of public institutions, the viability of public space and public life, and the definitions of civic values.


This is the second such article I’ve contributed quotes to. I don’t know how coherent I sound here, but I definitely have mixed (albeit mostly positive) feelings on the phenomenon of these “little” libraries. Really I don’t spend a lot of time thinking about them. But you should read this article.

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