Armed with a briefcase of books, a heap of haiku, some very smart knickers, and a rather formidable stamping technique, Sara Wingate Gray couchsurfs across borders, bringing library power to the people.

How long have you been on tour?

Our first installation was in Amsterdam at the end of May in 2006, and we’ve been going continuously since then. Sequentially, that means we’ve made it to: Amsterdam, Berlin, Munich, Dresden, Prague, Vienna, Budapest, Paris, Barcelona, London, York, Newcastle-Upon-Tyne, Norwich, Antwerp, San Francisco, Oakland, Berkeley, Portland, Seattle, and Vancouver, BC. We’ve just hit the 11 countries mark. Sweet!

Where are you headed next?

The plan is to head back to the European Union, probably landing somewhere smack bang in the middle of Germany, more than likely Leipzig is what we’re thinking right now. This is because we’ve been given a tip-off about housing there (since we’re a free library finding free housing / resources is key to our survival) and also because that’s a pretty central base from which to then shoot on out to other spots we’ve yet to make it to (Phase III), including hopefully Scandinavia, the Baltic states, across to the Ukraine and Moscow, and then down a bit to Croatia, Slovenia, etc. We aim to reach the parts other libraries have yet to reach. However, Copenhagen may also be in the running as the Danish Royal School of Library Science is based there, and we’d really like to hang out some with the peeps, but seeing as it’s officially the world’s 6th most expensive city to live in right now… actually, who knows? We’ll go anywhere in the world we can get to, as long as once we get there we can figure out how to feed and house ourselves: to run a successful library you’ve got to start with the basics, and the Librarian gets very grumpy if she hasn’t eaten or slept in a while!

Quite understandably so! Do you receive any funding?

We are not funded at all. We did try to get Arts Council of England (ACE) funding for the project when we started, but the funding landscape for artists in the UK is pretty dire right now. It doesn’t help that funding bodies want you to slip neatly into a little box marked either Literature or Visual Arts or Performance. And they’re heavily slanted towards creating an economic model for art, ie, you must be selling tickets for your event. Our project is about reminding people of the importance of poetry; the importance of public libraries and universal access to knowledge as a basic human right; the idea that levels of service should not be based upon economic wealth hierarchies, and we consider it our mission to remind people that everyone, everywhere, deserves free access to a library. We are definitively not interested in representing regionalist, nationalist, or indeed any other sort of ring-fenced tribal arrangement.

When it comes to borders, boundaries, or breaching of gaps, poetry is everywhere, and so are people. We’re going to take the Library wherever we can get to, and to whoever needs it, regardless of race, location, education, nationality, or gender.

Sounds like part-performance art, part-social work.

It’s a real live library service, performance art and social experiment, all at the same time. We are interested in re-assessing the notion of the ‘how’ and ‘what’ of a public library in the 21st century. Our communities, people’s needs, education and access to lifelong learning, our personal goals and expectations as individuals and citizens in a global world have all changed, and public libraries should be at the forefront of exploring and negotiating this dynamic world. That is what our library is about.

Since public libraries are continuously fighting their own battles for funding, and poetry remains a non-commercialised genre, when it comes to funding, we think we are basically fucked.

Consequently, this means that since May 2006, we’ve not only lugged the Library [and our life] round on our back entirely by ourselves, but in order to install the library in all the places we get to, we’ve had to rely on a mix of couchsurfing and dumpster diving, the kindness of strangers, and a pretty damn frickin’ good ability to problem solve. Especially when it comes to finding a bed in 12 hours, or how to be okay with not eating for a day. It is hard. We won’t pretend it isn’t. People think it is kind of romantic, but we can tell you, when you’ve just finished a 12 hour library shift in a cafe in Prague, and you get back to your couch at 1am, and there’s a note saying that the next day you have to find somewhere else to sleep, and in 12 hours you’ve another 12 hour library installation to run, and you’ve got some weird insect bite that’s made your leg swell up to twice its normal size, and you can’t afford to buy any medicine, and you’ve only eaten once that day… well, let’s just say, that day SUCKED. We’re currently working on models of sustainability, as we really do see this as a lifetime’s work, and it’s become entirely clear to us from user response that there is a need for our service. Figuring out the “how,” however, is wickedly difficult when it’s just, erm, one woman.

Have you been on the receiving end of any RAK (Random Acts of Kindness) lately?

We’re lucky like that, sometimes it seems that RAKs swoosh across us like shooting stars. Most recently the best have just been hanging out with some of the people we’ve met in the places we run the library in, you know, someone taking the time to befriend you so you go take a walk, look at stuff, talking and walking on some grass with a glass of wine: being human. Sometimes, we forget to do this.

How many members have you signed up?

Right now, we’re back in San Francisco again, as this is Phase II of the project—working with a particular user base and community for a more sustained period of time—and we just signed up our 704th member, a homeless fellow who lived in Golden Gate park. He was very happy to be Valued Patron of the Library [VPL] number 704, and he came back the next week to tell us how much he’d enjoyed reading our Bye-Bye Laws. San Francisco is currently Top-of-the-Library Membership Chart with 311 members [as of April ‘08], as we’ve had some hardcoooooore library action going on here. This means that right now, 1 person in 2500 in SF is a member of our library! So our current Top 5 cities looks something like this: 1st is San Francisco with 311 members; 2nd is Portland (Oregon) with 89 members; 3rd is Vancouver BC with 55 members; 4th is Seattle (Washington) with 50 members; and in joint 5th place it’s Norwich (UK) and Budapest (Hungary) with 34 members apiece. Our overall membership figure doesn’t, however, factor in the original UK members who joined prior to 2006, so really we’re probably on over 800 by now.

Over 800! Yowza. How many books have you acquired?

Overall, the Library is thousands of items; it was originally founded in 2002 in Norwich (UK). It wasn’t travelling at that point, though we did rove around a little with a mobile shelf (a former BBC wooden display unit), taking bits of the library around the UK as part of a more events-based performance / installation. We’ve had Library members since we opened up, and they had access at that point to hundreds of items: poetry books, pamphlets, LPs, CDs, knickers, handmade zines, comics, individual poems. Each place we take the Library to, we acquisition new items, according to our “lost & forgotten poetry” Acquisition Policy, as there is a tendency, as we know all public libraries experience, for people to try and off-load any old thing on to you, and frankly, since we also have to physically carry it all ourselves, we’re even more aware of this than just your average stationary public library. But our collection continues to grow. Part of the project is about subverting the mainstream channels of distribution, so this means that, say, poets in Budapest or Berlin or San Francisco donate items which fit our policy and so we acquisition them, and then we circulate the items as we physically circulate also. So handmade independently-published poetry, which might indeed never make it out of places such as Budapest or Dresden or Portland, then get added to the collection and placed out in to circulation in the next places we take the library to. So, for instance, we acquisitioned an item by poet Suzanne Stein in San Francisco, and it was toured and read by people in Portland, Seattle, and Vancouver, BC. We’re willing to bet that more people will have read this item in our library collection than through the other 49 individual copies that are out there.

Kind of like a bee carrying bits of pollen to different fields of flowers. Only with literature instead of pollen. Wait— did I hear you say knickers have been a part of the library?

That is correct. I wouldn’t have recommended necessarily wearing (if I remember correctly, a thong-type affair with just enough crotch for a haiku-esque text), but reading was definitely part of its object-existence in the Library. The Poetry Cubicle’s founding aims are, after all, “to explore, interpret, document, preserve and archive ‘poetry’ in its myriad, and hybrid, forms, expressions and states, and to provide access to such artistic expressions through the physical and digital realms to as wide an audience as possible.” I would suggest that “exploring the physical and theoretical boundaries of what a ‘spectator / observer’; ‘participant / reader’; and ‘artist’ accept and define as ‘poetry’ in a ‘live art’, ‘performance’ or ‘dissemination’ context” also covers us with regard to this particular item. We do love our discourse.

Indeed. I feel an essay question coming on. Whoomp, here it is:

Ten to twenty percent of the world has internet access. Which means all the fantastic resources of the web aren’t accessible to maybe 80–90% of the world’s population. Physical libraries are an important resource; they help bridge the digital divide. And even if everyone had access, there’s still the factors of literacy and censorship. For instance, in China, North Korea, and Iran, there’s massive internet censorship programs in place. Discuss.

And don’t forget that there are 22 Arab censors to get through if you want to publish something for Arabic readers in that region of the globe. A 2003 U.N. report said that the “production of literary and artistic books in Arab countries is lower than the general level. In 1996, it did not exceed 1,945 books, representing only 0.8% of world production.” Reading that reminded me that as a native English speaker, I sometimes take very much for granted the wealth of information available to me. The U.N. report goes on to talk about the disparity of translated texts available to Arabic readers: “in the first half of the 1980s… the average number of books translated per 1 million people in the Arab world during the 5-year period was 4.4 (less than one book for every million Arabs), while in Hungary it was 519, and in Spain 920.”

Something that I’m reminded of constantly with my current project is that when access is impeded to life’s basics—heat, light, clean water, food, somewhere safe to sleep—so is your ability to take part in, and enjoy, the learning process. So really we should be running a travelling soup kitchen, but I’m always doing things in a funny order.

Hm. Perhaps a tamale cart / bookmobile is in order. Now, looking through your Bye-Bye Laws, I notice that #14 states:

No person shall spit in the library or spit on the librarian, unless given the express permission of The Poetry Cubicle Project Manager.

Have you had any problems in the past with spitting patrons?

Actually, no, not really, not yet at least. Although in Seattle someone who had yet to join the library did spit on us, entirely accidentally, and was then really worried that she’d either be banned from the library or have some other action taken against her as per our Bye-Bye Laws. Her friends had already joined you see, so that when the spit landed, so to speak, there was a collective intake of aghast breath by them all, as they were aware of a potential Bye-Bye Law infringement. But we pointed out that since she had yet to become a member of our Library, it meant technically that although she had contravened Bye-Bye Law #14, until she became a Library member she could not, in effect, contravene said Laws. And she was technically not in the Library at that point, although if she’d been a member already, we’d have more than likely insisted she was in the Library (we can do that, see Bye-Bye Law #1c) so that she’d have performed a double contravention by both spitting on the Librarian and in the Library. Then it would have been a rum do for sure.

A rum do? Is that like a ruckus? a rumpus? a brouhaha?

Specifically, an event that is disreputable or strange is one definition we’d stand by. Technically, however, it could be said that all of the above have occurred in the Library at one point or another. It’s an interesting place to work, that’s fo’ sho.

What’s the harshest punishment you’ve had to mete out for breaking of the Bye-Bye Laws?

Well, there’s one incident, in particular, which stands out, though whether it was harsh or not I guess depends on your perspective: in Prague we did take the opportunity to catalogue and add a chap to the Library. This entailed him being stamped in his sleep, and a “From the Library of” bookplate glued to his chest. We then closed the Library as we were scheduled to shift location. This meant that by the time he woke up, we’d in fact left Prague and moved the Library to Vienna. New VPLs are warned, when they undergo Joining Procedures, that if we catch them falling asleep in the Library this is a possibility, and that we don’t provide travel expenses, but some people just don’t listen.

Tsk. Your vigorous rubber-stamping technique is formidable. Where did you acquire such premium technique?

It’s the strangest thing. One day it just started. It is incredibly organic, and came out of nowhere. It’s just the way it is, the way it is meant to be.

It sounds like you’re in touch with the Tao of Library Science, aka The Flow. So: what’s the strangest thing that’s ever happened during an installation of the library?

Since every installation is unique—not just in the sense of a distinct geographical location and specific time, but also the items that get put out that day, as well as the incidental mix of people who happen to chance upon us for that particular period of time—what this means is that strange stuff happens constantly. To give you just a taste of what that might mean: one of our favourite happenings so far has been the completely co-incidental (and, one might deign, universe-synchronous) timing of arriving in Vancouver, BC to find that a public services’ strike was in operation. This meant that we were the only public library to be open in the whole of Vancouver! So, the obvious thing for us to do was to go down to the striking librarians’ picket line and offer our services in support of their strike, as we figured that striking librarians needed access to a library and reading materials, too. So we turned up, gave a speech in support of their actions, opened up the library and started signing them up. They were all very supportive, and even offered us a free breakfast. It was beautiful and made our heart sing.

Hooray! Seems there’s a new generation of radical librarians emerging. Funny— the stereotype of the stodgy conservative fuddy-duddy librarian still persists.

There is a stodgy librarian stereotype still in circulation. Our Librarian has a lot of fun fucking with this.

It would appear so. What’s currently on your Top Ten Favorite List of indie publications?

I read widely and constantly, including by necessity all newly acquisitioned items to the Library. Here’s a list of publications put together from the current touring Library collection:

Come What You Wished For | Ramona Herdman
A Peculiar Air: Collected Poems, Volume 3, 1968–1970 | Bob Cobbing
The Writing’s Flood | Ken Edwards
No Hurry | Alan Chong Lau
River under the House | translated by Ted Berrigan & Gordon Brotherston
(Explicit) Ode in Defense of Poetry on St. Lukacs Day | Harold de Campos
Tendril | Bim Ramke
PLR: Prague Literary Review | Volume 3 Issue 4
Gunslinger Book III: The Winter Book | Ed Dorn
The Path | poem by Tim Lenton, art by Annette Rolston

You also collect and archive audio samples as you travel…

Yes, the Library’s mother unit, so to speak, is The Poetry Cubicle, so the Library is just one of its projects—there is also a Poem Repository and Digital Audio Archive in the works. As the Library tours the world, we’ve also got an analogous sound project in operation, that is, we’re collecting “lost & forgotten” sounds, found sounds, some might say. This might mean anything from the sound of a train arriving at a platform outside a forest in Prague, the sound of the hum of the Hawthorne Bridge in Portland, the sound of a trumpet player on 16th & Mission Street in San Francisco, to the sounds of an accordion player in Vienna’s Naschmarkt. Everything will eventually be curated in an online, Creative Commons-licensed digital archive. We’re also collecting and archiving poets reading poetry in their native languages (Hungarian, Slovenian, Dutch, English, German, etc) and the Archive overall is tied towards exploring the psychology of sound. We’d like to call it Psycho-Acoustics, but technically that term means something entirely different within the discipline, but that’s kind of what we’re trying to get at—the idea of how we relate sound to a place, to a memory of a place, how we name it—and fundamentally, how we go about locating ourselves within, from, or to it. The Poem Repository has a similar ontological bent. These are project facets that intrinsically relate back to our overall philosophies, the exploration and designation of the periphery of the periphery, that shifting, transient boundary—it is, in fact, somewhere we’ve always found ourselves. Foucault knows what we’re on about: “…the imaginary is not formed in opposition to reality as its denial or compensation; it grows among signs, from book to book, in the interstice of repetitions and commentaries; it is born and takes shape in the interval between books. It is the phenomenon of the library.” But perhaps our Library Statement of Purpose can sum us up best?

Members of the Library, pursuing a search for truth in the goings about of their days, find in the Library a means to meet their various information needs for learning and living.

If you’d like to learn more, please do get in touch. You can turn up at the library in person, email us, or visit us on the web. ¤

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