Literature breaks out

Today, literature is much more than traditional books made of paper. SMS short stories, internet literature, apps, poetry slam, and literary happenings and performances are just a few among many examples of modern writers’ expressing themselves through a great diversity of formats and media.

The question is – how do libraries tackle this development? How do we communicate a clickable story on the Internet or a happening in the physical space? At the libraries in Roskilde and Aarhus, there is no doubt: The libraries can benefit greatly from following the literature forms of our day. And what’s even better: It does not have to be difficult at all.

In recent years, the development of echnology in particular has affected literature. Many writers communicate with their readers via Internet sites, including Facebook, and an increasing share of literature takes place outside the world of books.

The development presents some obvious challenges to the libraries. The many new and ‘peculiar’ literature forms do not fit into the regular work processes in libraries. The formats are difficult to place on shelves and communicate in the usual way.

The process surrounding the creation of literature also challenges our customary way of working. The new literature forms emerge in dynamic and at times very personal circuits and may therefore be difficult to capture.

Should we then not even attempt to do so? Should we not be bothered, avoid disturbing our users and just let contemporary literature be contemporary literature?

The trend is clear

If we direct our attention beyond our own library world, the trend is clear. Curators at MOMA in New York, literature researchers at the universities in Boston, Paris and Edinburgh, and writers across the world are aware of the new literary currents. Everything indicates that they will be of great significance in the future; deselecting them means deselecting a significant current within literature.

Is this what we want? No. As libraries, it is crucial that we keep an open mind about the new literature forms. The question is not whether to keep up with development – but rather how we as libraries can follow and communicate the new formats.

One of the great challenges facing libraries is that we must be prepared to be able to include almost everything.We have our professional edge, our knowledge about literature and our focus on quality. However, we need to expand our horizon and develop our physical spaces so that they become more creative and flexible.

Physical and visual

Since 2010, Roskilde Libraries, the City of Aarhus Libraries and – supported by the Danish Agency for Culture – have headed Litteraturen finder sted (Literature taking place). The project has looked at where the new literature forms are heading and what the libraries can do to communicate them. Litteraturen finder sted has organised exhibitions and supports the development of new literary, digital works.

The exhibition In words drown I (November 2012) offered a very concrete here-and-now recommendation about how modern libraries can embrace and communicate the new literature forms. Five young writers were invited to take part in the exhibition – but the challenge was that they were not allowed to participate with works in book form!

Instead, the writers presented a number of physical and visual works, which were based on film, sculpture or installation art – or on a mixture of several art forms. The exhibition challenged the traditional idea of what literature is and gave the visitors a both visual and sensory experience of current trends.

The alternative literary works no doubt seemed like a disturbance to many of our usual library users. However, many of them also expressed their enthusiasm at the fact that we as a library introduced them to new trends and thus to new literature.

Great potential

Development thus holds a potential for the libraries. The use of performance and various IT equipment means that the new literature forms take up space in a  different way in the physical rooms, and that this can enrich the library space.

They contribute a surprising element, which can help create curiosity and modernise perceptions about libraries. The new literature forms also give the libraries the opportunity to make contact with new user groups, both writers and ordinary readers who would not otherwise use the libraries.

Finally, the new literature forms are suitable for taking the libraries beyond their own physical spaces – out into the public space, to festivals and other places.

Out where the users are

For several years, Roskilde Libraries have had activities at the annual Roskilde Festival, which is Northern Europe’s largest culture and music festival. In 2011 and 2012, they participated with large exhibitions of digital, literary works.

In addition, they presented poetry readings, cosy corners and lots of (discarded) books. One of the exhibited works was an ‘interactive poetry machine’, which Litteraturen finder sted has developed in collaboration with writers, artists and IT developers.

By pressing on books with built-in digital sensors, people were able to create their own unique poem, which was printed – ready to pocket. The digital works at the Roskilde Festival have been a great success. People have flocked to see the works, which have aroused a lot of attention due to their different and interactive nature.

Make room

At the libraries in Aarhus, they have collaborated with artists, writers and actors to find out how to stage the library space and communicate literature with a focus on the performative aspect.

At the local Åby Library, they have developed a completely new communication concept – Litteraturstedet (The Literature Place) – which uses a built-in stage, screens and space for exhibitions to make room for the new literature forms.

At Roskilde Libraries, we have also taken the consequences of recent years’ experience with digital literary works, and have  – as far as we know as the first library in the world – reserved a permanent exhibition area solely for digital literature.

This is neither about giving artificial respiration to the book nor about declaring the book dead. It is about following and communicating literature where it grows in its time. Literature has broken out of the book – and libraries must keep up!

Communication specialist, Roskilde Libraries