Wednesday, 19 October 2016

700s Arts Festival at RMIT University Library

This post originally appeared on the LAIP in October 2015.

RMIT University in Melbourne, Australia gets serious bonus points from the LAIP on the name of their fabulous arts festival, which is deliciously library-nerdy: the 700s Arts Festival! This late night kickoff event and ongoing celebration of the arts in the library is an inspiration for academic and public libraries alike, and reveals how one can make the most of the “temporary spaces” generated during a library renovation. ~Laura

By Adam Browne and Doreen Sullivan

On 13 August this year, RMIT University Library wasn’t as quiet as you’d expect a library to be – and strangely, the librarians weren’t doing anything to keep the noise down. In fact, they were contributing to it.

It was the launch of the 700s Arts Festival.

The party was an extravagant night to open an extravagant event. It was a spectacle, a hoot. The Library almost didn’t recognise itself. A crowd of 300 filled the normally hushed spaces, sampling vegan canapés and cheerful tipples, enjoying performances and chuckling at the witty talk on “The Art of Browsing (and the Browsing of Art)’ from Professor Paul Gough–all of this presided over by a giant dewy-eyed mural of Melvil Dewey.

"Dewey" by Simon Mazzei.

“Dewey” by Simon Mazzei.

The celebration was well-deserved. The Festival was characterised as a sort of pop-up event, and was the result of a short period of intensive organisation and labour, where talented and passionate people around the University had rolled up their sleeves to create something both beautiful and inspiring.

As the name suggests, the 700s Arts Festival was a celebration of the 700s of the Dewey Decimal System–the largest part of the collection at RMIT Swanston Library, a fascinating place to browse–and our way of embracing the temporary spaces made available through preparations for the current renovations, known as the Swanston Library Transformation.

There were art exhibitions, among them ‘Art against the Grain’, curated by RMIT Gallery–a rare opportunity to see some of the prestigious art the gallery owns. ‘Grazing the 700s’ had works from students and staff of RMIT School of Art, and ‘Referencing Artists’ featured art by students, alumni, and staff; this show surprised many with its first-class works by library staff, a demonstration of how talented librarians so often are.

"Library Artefacts" by Georgina Matherson. Described as ‘objects associated with the Library whose roles have become antiquated, get their portraits taken’ – this old sticky tape holder, this outdated date stamp, this electric fan and foot stool and their friends… How dutifully they sit for their portraits, not quite understanding that they’re obsolete.

“Library Artefacts” by Georgina Matherson. Described as ‘objects associated with the Library whose roles have become antiquated, get their portraits taken’ – this old sticky tape holder, this outdated date stamp, this electric fan and foot stool and their friends… How dutifully they sit for their portraits, not quite understanding that they’re obsolete.

Close-up: Kick stool from "Library Artefacts." Close-up: Library stamps from "Library Artefacts." Close-up: Megaphone from "Library Artefacts."

There was a Screen Arts programme, digital media and a workshop in direct 16mm film animation. There was a practical class on collage, and another on ‘designing hypersounds for ultradirectional, parametric loudspeakers’; there was a session on cartooning from the respected graphic novelist Mandy Ord; and a workshop run by Simmone Howell, a novelist and feature article writer.

Mandy Ord (featured) continues to share her generosity with students after her workshop.

Mandy Ord (featured) continues to share her generosity with students after her workshop.

There was art everywhere, wherever you turned. In all, 150 people contributed to the Festival. In this alone, it was a triumph, bringing various schools and people together, and making the Library into a vibrant hub of the arts.

Officially, the Festival ended on 25 September, but continues to fizz and spark in the form of the 700s Arts Festival Zine, currently being edited by Simmone Howell.

And as generally happens when something is a big success, there’s talk of doing it all again.

The follow-up event will be a consultative workshop that draws upon what we achieved and asked what else might we like to consider, especially in our fancy new Library.

Is another Dewey number on our radar? The 020s? The AV section? The Folios or the databases?

We’ll have to wait and see.

So how did we go about it? Here’s some insight from Amanda Kerley, who directed the festivities and is from the Library’s communications team.

How and why did the idea for the Festival arise?

Well, it began with a problem: we were facing the possibility of big empty spaces in the Library, for two months between the relocation of parts of our collection and when renovations were to begin. The University Librarian, Craig Anderson, and I discussed ways to utilise this space in a meaningful way for students. The first priority was maximising seating – so the Library brought in as much disused furniture as we could locate. The second priority was making it a comfortable and attractive study environment. This is where the idea of a temporary exhibitions came from,  which also sits nicely with one of the communications team’s objectives: to promote and engage users with our collections.

Mick Douglas LIbrary Returns

Our University has a strong arts, design, media and architecture focus and our collection analyses have shown these students are heavy browsers; it’s often a part of their arts practice and research methodology. So when we had to relocate low-use parts of our physical collections, we made sure browsing data was considered in assessing the use of our 700s, which our now our largest onsite section. And so, a quip in response to this fact: “let’s have a festival of the 700s!” very soon became a reality.

So what happened between the quip and the festival: how was it implemented?

With the generosity of a lot enthusiastic and talented people!  As well as engaging people with the Library, we saw this as an opportunity to foster relationships across the University and to also experiment with ideas we might like to develop further in the future: for example creative workshops allowed us to consult with students about the concept of makerspaces, something we are considering for the new Library. We’ve also noted the Library provides significant – and unofficial – pastoral care to students; it’s a space in which many students feel guided and supported. Conversations at the workshops allowed us to further consider this phenomenon.

So to achieve this, we first needed to the secure the support of Library managers, by first demonstrating how the festival addressed the Library’s strategic objectives and then by also demonstrating how it would be achievable. A staffing plan was needed and while the communications team was driving the festival, we’re very small, so we created secondments of staff from other Library units to work on discrete parts of the Festival such as exhibitions coordination and opening night coordination.

Louise Forthun

Next we cast a wide net across the University, asking for participation in exhibitions and the presentation of talks and workshops that we would host, program and promote: we were amazed and overwhelmed by the response!  A lecturer from the art school, Phil Edwards, curated an entire exhibition of student and staff works. We also benefitted by established relationships Library staff had across the University and within the arts. For example, Susan Wyers, who coordinated the exhibitions and also curated one of the art shows, shared her extensive professional network which ensured a strong representation of the artworks of alumni.

We were so overwhelmed by interest that we were then faced with an unexpected dilemma: how to facilitate this level of participation. It didn’t take long to fill the empty spaces of the Library with art, but it did take a lot of work to coordinate this amount of interest.  Of course we eventually had to decline works and in some cases this was due to our technical limitations: we weren’t very well equipped to exhibit projection and sound based works, but because we didn’t want to lose the opportunity to engage with people who had approached us, we tried to find other ways for them to participate, by inviting them to give workshops or participate in our consultative events to learn what we’d need to do to be technically prepared in the future.

Detail from Nicola Hardy's collage at Kim Handley's Homage to John Baldessari workshop.

Detail from Nicola Hardy’s collage at Kim Handley’s Homage to John Baldessari workshop.

How did Library users respond to having that much art in the Library?

From our surveys and conversations, we discovered most students were very enthusiastic about artworks in the Library. A significant trend was the comment that studying amongst art was an inspiration and that it stimulated their thoughts. The only repeated concern was that some artworks obscured access to powerpoints desired for charging laptops. One person was a little exasperated because they had been distracted from their study by the allure of the artworks!

What are your five top tips for people interested in running something similar?

  1. Work within a framework of scalability: identify what, for you, are acceptable minimum, medium and maximum goals and be satisfied with meeting any of them.
  2. Secure the participation of someone your community holds in high regard early on, and let their participation be known to others you are approaching: this kind of endorsement is very persuasive!
  3. Break up the larger project into self-contained tasks different staff members can be responsible for.
  4. Make time to clearly align your activities to the objectives of your library. This helps you to remind yourself ,and others, that even if it a new and experimental approach to library engagement, it is still a part of core business.
  5. Enthusiastically embrace the opportunity to experiment in a structured way (remember experimentation is a respectable component of research and development) and use your findings to inform future endeavours.

Further reading:

from Library as Incubator Project

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