Sunday, July 8, 2012

Summer Creativity Challenge #1: The Library

The third floor of the Newton Public Library is a mausoleum for magazines.    

I made this discovery a few weeks ago on a hot and muggy Saturday, on a trifold errand to renew a book, escape the heat, and find an inspired place to do some end-of-the-semester class prep.  Despite the sign on the door that stated that the air conditioning was not working correctly, I marched on and up the spiral steps of the library to the unexplored reaches of the third floor, eager to find a quiet corner to seclude myself in.

Taking a right at the top of the stairs, I discovered a row of unoccupied study desks (thanks to the broken AC) and row upon row of archived magazines in sagging, canvas-covered catalogue boxes or uniform rows of beastly-sized annual editions. 

It was there that I made one of my greatest finds of the summer: an army-green, big-boned volume of House & Garden from 1923.  It sat alone on a shelf, its nearest neighbors a set of volumes beginning in 1963.  Unable to resist, I tugged the mammoth book from the shelf, carrying it through aisles that spoke of different eras (and that I would return to explore in further weeks).  Here was an entire collection of The Saturday Evening Post starting with volumes from 1935.  I passed St. Nicolas Magazine, two shelves of leather bound journals from 1904 to 1912 filled with Edwardian children's stories.  A volume of Harper’s Magazine from 1865, with marbleized cover and gold stamped leather binding.  Which, when browsed, featured current events such as Sherman’s march from Savannah; Sheridan’s operations in the Valley of Shenandoah, “and his junction with Grant’s army, and of the series of actions before Richmond . . . ”  All this news in a size six font on a packed two-column page.  A single paragraph among hundreds of stories of about war and love, many likely read out loud by candle light in the final months of what we would call the Civil War.

The House & Garden volume though was my true obsession.  All other tasks forgotten, I lost myself in the now almost foreign world of 1923.  Articles entitled, “The Electrically Equipped House: In Which Comfort, Convenience, and Pleasure Can Be Increased In Many Ways by the Thoughtful Use of Electric Current,” educated on how many outlets should be in a room.  Advertisements featured maids in crisp black uniforms with knee-length skirts and ruffled white aprons.  There were also ads for automobiles—most from the chauffeured passenger’s point of view.  For “those planning on traveling to Europe and The Orient” there were multiple ads boosting of the being the best cruise ships.  All you needed to do was send a written inquiry and they would mail you a brochure in return. 
"The day of the big, bulky enclosed motor car has gone."
Jordan Motor Car Company
Each individual House & Garden magazine was a fascinating world of black and white photographs of patterned parlors and proper dining room interiors (no intimate spaces like bedrooms and no work spaces like kitchens).  1923 is a prosperous place where the world is full of new “conveniences” and where, in a decorating magazine, the word modern still only means “most current.”  At the time, the Bauhaus School, founded by Walther Gropius in Germany, was only five years old.  The idea of stores such as IKEA, unfathomable. 
"Standard" kitchen sinks, "yard stick high," provide
comfort and prevent back-strain.  How high is yours?
Standard Plumbing Fixtures
What I love the most is that all these magazines and volumes are available to anyone curious enough to look, to get a little dust on their hands.  It is wonderfully straight from the shelves.  No special cotton document gloves, no appointment-only archive room.  It is a perfect exhibit of happenstance, which is part of the magic that is the library.

I am a fan of technology (I have a much-used Kindle) but I will argue that the library is a sacred place.  Not just for readers, but for creative thinkers.  The library offers us the one thing that instant downloads to your e-reader, Amazon reviews, Google searches and StumbleUpon can’t: the tactile act of random discovery.  In the meditative quiet of the library there is no algorithm guiding your search, no SEO, no commercial interest, it is just you and whatever sparks your curiosity.  Who knows why we pick up a book?  It could be the condition of the cover, the typeface of the words in the title, or it could be the fateful mystery of it being out of place on the shelf.  The public library has always been about discovery, education and curiousity, and I would argue that it represents all of those things now, even more than before the "digital age."

All of this is inspiration for the first Summer Creativity Challenge: The Library.  This week, plan an artist date (or at least a half hour) to browse the shelves at your local library.  If you are a student and spend lots of time in the school library, choose a city library, to visit.  Or, if you are a frequent library attending bibliophile, plan time to explore a new-to-you section of the library.  (I still remember my first time discovering the rare book room at the Boston Public Library—it was a holy experience.)  Make sure to bring your library card, or the documents to get one, and a tote bag in the case that you find more than one book you want to check out.  If you are a dedicated eBook Reader, maybe consider switching it up and borrowing your next book from the library.  After all, it is free!
With this as your touchpoint, record your impressions, book lists, or library explorations in your sketchbook or notebook.  If the library sparks memories from another time in your life, feel free to capture your memories in detail.  You can interpret this challenge in many ways, as an artist date, writing exercise, or inspiration to start a book list, just to name a few.  Record in your sketchbook any inspiration, ideas, illustrations, or thoughts—then share here on The Paper Compass.   


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