madison public library bubbler

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This spring, one of the UW-Madison SLIS student chapters brought Trent Miller from the Madison Public Library (MPL) in to speak. I eagerly hiked over to Helen C. White. There were only 8 total people in attendance – 4 online and 4 in person – a strange shortage for a newly minted Library Journal Mover + Shaker. I’m very grateful I had the chance to hear some of his thoughts on MPL and the Bubbler. In this post I will most certainly mis-paraphrase Trent (apologies) but I do hope I can capture a bit of the essence of what he had to say.

Preface: I am driven by aesthetics. If the design is ugly, I dislike it. I avoid it. I know this about myself by now. I’m interested in clean lines and simplicity, generally. I’m not presumptuous enough to think that my taste level is better than anyone else’s, but I know what I like and I am now admitting that it helps me feel more creative… or not creative at all. It helps me dive in or lose interest almost instantly. Yes, I judge a book by its cover (and its fonts, too, let’s not forget that). That was my headspace as I took in his presentation.

Trent kicked things off by introducing himself as an artist who happens to work in a library (“Here’s what i do when i’m not working in libraries“). He likes to mix his art and library job, noting the intersections and overlaps. He knew the art community and just kind of brought them with him when he started working for the library.

He talked about Bookless, the first event that marked what was coming for MPL. He recounted that they spent $248 for a sound system for the dj, and Trent threw in around $100 out of his own pocket. Then they just did it. Bookless built community around artists. Afterward, in Trent’s words, “management caught on that something happened that they didn’t want to lose,” prompting the question: how do we get these people back in the library?

More programming followed Bookless. They offered learning opportunities in the form of workshops and Night Light, a series of social events celebrating makers. They developed an artist in residence program. I was charmed when he mentioned that one summer they donated their Beanie Babies, selling them for $280 and making that their summer program money! Dedication. Luckily, they received an NEH grant soon thereafter.

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I was most struck when Trent stated that he thinks of the Bubbler not as a stationary space but instead a programmatic mindset. This, this is something that I would love to see more discussion of in all the talk about makerspaces, digital scholarship centers, etc. So often I think those talks devolve into nitpicking over what technology to fill them with – important conversations to be sure, but the fixation on space before services seems problematic. I get it – spaces seem easier than crafting a vision, a personality. I see this play out in my sphere too. It’s an interesting question and I think it leads to an uncomfortable space for some, the idea that it might be more of an art than a science.

Trent was very quotable. Some of the gems that came out of this talk include:

  • “For many adults, creativity and play signals it’s for kids, not for me. I try to push that it’s for everyone.”
  • “My job is to curate disturbances. If you walk into an art museum, you expect art. If you walk into a library, you don’t. I love seeing surprised people and letting art spill into unexpected spaces.”
  • “One of my life goals is really just to offer people unique experiences.”
  • “Find the connectors. They’ll be able to find the people out there to do the things you want to do.”
  • “That was never the plan, we just tried it and look what happened.” [totally decontextualized I know but WHAT A STELLAR SENTIMENT.]

And then he mentioned something I have rarely if ever heard talked about before in the context of libraries. He discussed the emphasis he and the Bubbler crew placed on documenting what they have done. He was emphatic over the detriment of neglecting this as he touched on the wealth of bad websites, bad design, and BAD PICTURES (or lack of images at all) in and around libraries. He wasn’t mean or intense about it, and in fact I think it came up after he recounted an anecdote where he spoke to someone who commented that he had never seen a library website like the Bubbler’s. He simply talked about the importance of telling stories and how good quality photos can help do that.

In any case, it really struck a chord with me. I believe in aesthetics. I believe in telling a story. I believe in spaces and services with PERSONALITY. I think maybe that’s it. Personality is what creates the magnetism that draws people into our spaces and helps push them to take the next steps with our services. Personality helps make us irreplaceable and connect to the sharpest people. If you combine a focus on design plus user experience plus your strategic goals and vision, it’s a recipe for some serious magic. Yet I worry that libraries instead settle on blandness and neutrality because it feels uncomfortable to branch out, to trust anything that deviates from the norm, to innovate.

These are things I have thought about and cared about forever. Hearing Trent talk reminded me that I have rarely if ever heard these concepts – documenting, prioritizing aesthetics, creating experiences – articulated as priorities in libraries. The saddest part about it was almost like hearing him say them affirmed in my mind that it was okay to think those things. (Why is it so often that we don’t trust our own intuition and priorities, and only when cool people say things do we feel like it’s okay to feel that way?)

In any case, I was and continue to be very inspired by Trent and his work with the Bubbler. I would love to see the UW Madison Libraries influenced by some of the fresh ideas coming out of the Bubbler – our audiences are of course different but I think there’s a lot to be gained.

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