11 Towns, 20 Libraries and the Goldsmiths Graduate Festival - Jen Li's visit to the US and UK

HDR candidate Jen Li blogs about her recent month-long visit to libraries in the US and UK, and the Goldsmiths Graduate Festival.

By Jen Li (opens in a new window)

28 May 2014

Libraries visited: 20
Cities/towns visited: 11
Boxes of books shipped home because they wouldn’t fit in my suitcase: Only 2!

Since even before I formally began this PhD in January 2012, I’ve kept a mental bucket list of libraries, libraries that I would love to visit before I die. This year, I was fortunate enough to see a number of them. The Institute for Culture and Society generously funded two students to attend the Goldsmiths Graduate Festival in London, and I was lucky enough to be one of them. The trip to the festival turned into a bigger itinerary that took in eleven cities and towns in two countries, twenty libraries, and a number of meetings with quite inspiring individuals.

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(I) America

I left Australia on the 19th of April, the day after Good Friday. I arrived in Seattle on the same Saturday, just in time for an Easter Sunday service in Seattle. The church that I went to was on 8th Avenue. After church, I'd planned on wandering around the city for a bit, and walked as far as 5th Avenue. I remembered the library was on 5th Ave, so when I was on the corner of some street and 5th, I looked right, and then I looked left. And when I looked left, I saw a strangely shaped building that looked a bit like it was covered in metal mesh - I only saw a corner of the building, but as soon as I saw that metal and that shape, even from a distance, I knew. This was the building that I came to America for.

I walked closer. I walked in. And I felt like I was making a pilgrimage. Near the entrance to the library, past the library cafe, is a small librarians' desk with a bright purple sign declaring 'Reading Suggestions'. I stopped and had a chat with the person on the desk, and told her that being there felt like a religious experience. I have been reading about this library for three years, looked at photos, studied diagrams and floor plans, and referred to it in things I've written. Finally, I was here. We spoke about the library, I told her a bit about my PhD and why I'm here, and then I took the escalator up to level five. And then walked up the stairs to level six.

There, on level six, was the beginning of this innovative library design feature I had been struggling to imagine for three years, and that I had been longing to see - the book spiral. At Seattle Central Library, their nonfiction is shelved in one continuous spiral, starting with government documents, magazines, then 000. It spirals all the way to 999 and then reference biography, and you just keep walking up these gentle slopes at the end of each floor and get to the next level of Dewey. It is pretty awesome.

At the top of the library is the reading room and Seattle Room. The Seattle Room was amazing. It holds their local history collection, and there are some incredible things in there. I browsed through a Seattle Directory (bit like the Yellow Pages, I suppose), from the 1800s and marvelled at the fact that I was holding something that was printed before Australia was officially a country. I love libraries.

I walked back down (the Seattle Room is at the top level of the library), and used the stairs this time, to experience the non-fiction area in a variety of ways (both stairs and spiral). I went back to level three (the level I entered on - the 5th Ave entrance leads to this floor, also called 'the living room' floor. There was a different librarian on that desk, so I had a chat with her too. I went downstairs to level one and saw the world languages section and the children's library - the children's library was pretty impressive. It was curious that world languages was down there, though. It's almost like the basement of the library - almost as though non-English collections were an afterthought. It has a cool floor though, embossed with lines that are found in books in the library.


New York was the next stop on the itinerary. Ah, yes. The New York Public Library. When I returned home, my dad reminded me of a childhood dream – to visit New York so I could go to the library. Pilgrimage part two, complete. I went to both the mid-Manhattan branch (that actually lends books and is the largest circulation branch in the NYPL system) and the central research one. It's big, marble, grand and wonderful. It holds a copy of one of the Gutenberg bibles and that was awesome. In the proper awe-inspiring meaning of the word, too! That object was made in the 1400s and was one of the things that changed the way books were produced and distributed. I’ve since made it my life's mission to go and see every copy of the Gutenberg bible still in existence.

One of the most useful and influential books I read during the course of my PhD was ‘The New Downtown Library’ by Shannon Mattern. She is a media scholar at The New School in New York, and she kindly agreed to meet with me when I was in town. We drank tea at Bar 9 and talked about libraries, Seattle, my research, her book, and I went to the Morgan Library (the private library of JP Morgan which is now a museum/research library and holds three copies of the Gutenberg Bible) on her recommendation. It was an inspiring and exciting meeting, leaving me with even greater enthusiasm for my research than before.


Boston Public Library was another library on my library bucket list. It is the second library in the United States, after the Library of Congress, and the second publicly-supported municipal library in the US. I went to Boston and Cambridge after New York, and visited six libraries in just a few days: Boston Public Library, Cambridge Public Library, and four of Harvard’s university libraries. Boston Public Library was interesting. There are two buildings, one which is the grand building with the impressive façade, and holds the reading rooms and research collections. The second building is the circulation library, which is due to undergo major renovations. This was a beautiful library, but it did not evoke the same emotional response as Seattle.

When I met Shannon Mattern in New York, she told me I should meet Jeff Goldenson at Harvard - he's part of the library laboratory project at Harvard libraries. I'd read about this but didn't know much, so I sent him an email before I left NYC, and then met him for lunch on Monday. The library laboratory is a class he teaches, mostly to architecture students, about new ways of envisioning what a library is and does. He has a worksheet called 'library machines' which is a madlibs type sheet where you come up with objects that enable you to perform particular actions. One student came up with a desk that played music only you could hear (the desk had speakers in it), and someone else came up with a small room/space that had special paint on the walls so that when you entered, all wifi and phone connections stopped working - sometimes willpower isn't enough. This was a great meeting that prompted me to think differently about libraries and imagine what was possible.

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(II) England

I arrived at Heathrow at 6am and caught the bus straight down to Southampton. On my first full day in Southampton, I had lunch with an old geography colleague, Dr Nick Clarke. We spoke about my research, his research, and I left the meeting with a few papers to track down and yet another person to email. All of these meetings were really helpful in forcing me to think about what my research really is about and articulate it in a few sentences. I think I have a slight idea of what I’m doing, now.

In Southampton, I was staying with my friend Ellie, and on Saturday, Ellie and I went to the Isle of Wight. Ellie's from the IoW and her mum volunteers at a community library in Brighstone, the village where Ellie's parents and younger sister live. In 2011, local councils in the UK were faced with drastic budget cuts and consequently many libraries were faced with closure. A lot of libraries looked to community-library models where the library was turned over to volunteers to run. A number of library systems in the UK now have a version of the community model for some of their libraries, and I was given the tour of the Brighstone Community Library.

Finally, the reason for this trip - the Goldsmiths Graduate Festival. When I was planning the trip and booking flights and accommodation, the festival was meant to be from the 6th of May to the 16th of May. I’d booked my accommodation at Goldsmiths for the 6th to 12th, thinking I would go to the first half of the conference. Then the final program was released and things had changed slightly - the opening keynote address ended up being at 2pm on the 8th of May. On the bonus free day I had in London I went to Birmingham to go to the library (what else?)

Birmingham opened its new central building in September last year, and it was rather interesting, architecturally speaking. It looks a little bit like a gold wedding cake, and the focus seems to be on providing public space rather than books. There is an impressive book rotunda in the centre of the library that held some non-fiction and rare collections, but the books were not easy to find, especially the fiction collection. The tagline of this library is ‘Rewriting the book’, and it was interesting to see yet another conceptualisation of what a public library in the 21st century looks like.

The day after Birmingham was the first day of the Goldsmiths Graduate Festival. I ended up only being at the festival for three days because of the program change, but they were an interesting three days. I listened to talks about fraudulent practices in science, journalists’ use of Twitter and social media, why people write. The most exciting part of Goldsmiths actually occurred across the road. Directly opposite the university is the New Cross Learning Centre, once upon a time a council library. It is now a volunteer-run community library. On the noticeboard at the entrance, I noticed a sign recruiting volunteers for a PhD research project. The research was by Alice Corble, a student from sociology at Goldsmiths, looking at the social uses of public libraries with New Cross as one of her case studies. I emailed her, and we met up after my presentation and talked about libraries, PhDs, and PhDs on libraries. We have grand (and vague) plans to start a library research consultancy after we both finish our degrees.


This trip has been wonderful for a number of reasons. Partly because I visited some incredible libraries, some that I have been reading about and admiring from afar for years, and others that were new discoveries. Partly because I met some inspiring and intelligent people undertaking fascinating research on libraries, and I found other people who owns many of the same books as me on libraries and also have Google alerts set up for ‘public libraries’. But this journey has been great mainly because by seeing these libraries and speaking with librarians and library researchers I can see we have a common goal. Public libraries everywhere, whether it’s a big, new, innovative building or a small library in an English village run by volunteers, all have a common vision: preserving knowledge and culture, and providing a space for people to be. The librarians and volunteers who work in them, and the researchers who spend their days reading, writing and thinking about them are united in their belief that public libraries are relevant, vital, great institutions. Long live libraries!