Quiet riot: From parties to weddings to hip-hop albums, nobody says "shhh."

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by Rob Thomas, courtesy of The Cap Times

Madison (WI) hip-hop artist Rob Dz used to come to the old Madison Central Library on 201 W. Mifflin Street all the time to use the computers, meet friends and read books.  Since the opening of the new Central Library, Dz (pronounced “dees”) has spent a lot of time there, but for very different reasons. He’s been recording his new album “The Good Guy Memoirs” there, designing the cover art and even shooting and editing the lead music video.  And nobody says “shhhh” about it.

Dz has been busy in the renovated library’s new Media Lab, which includes computers equipped with music mixing and editing software and video editing tools — even a soundproof booth to record tracks. And he’s learned how to use those programs from Media Lab manager Nate Clark.  Could Dz ever have imagined recording a hip-hop album in a library? “Never in my wildest dreams,” he said. “Knowledge is power, I say that all the time. The people and the staff here enable me to go on and utilize that power. I never really had all the components that I needed before.”

What Dz has been doing in the Media Lab is just a small part of a transformed Central Library, which has opened its doors to all kinds of programming, nighttime parties, meetings, classes, even weddings and baby photos.  While the physical look of the new library, which opened in September 2013, is strikingly beautiful, what’s drawing the attention of library directors around the country is what’s going on inside.

“Gosh, we’ve had classes on everything from cheesemaking to 3D printing,” said Trent Miller, director of the library’s Bubbler program. “We always want people coming in saying ‘Huh, I can’t believe a library is doing this.’ or ‘I’ve never been to the library.’ Those are my favorites. ‘Whoa, this is crazy.’”

The new Madison Central Library offers a variety of innovative ways to connect, from daytime classes to nighttime parties.  There’s the Media Lab, a state-of-the-art digital facility where patrons can learn how to edit video, design video games or record their own podcasts.

There’s the Bubbler, the library’s “makerspace” program that provides space, materials and instruction on all kinds of topics. The space also has a rotating artist-in-residence who works on projects there and teaches classes. Last month, artist Justin Bitner created a 50-foot-long derby car track and artsy cars to race on it.

Sparking off programs in both the Media Lab and the Bubbler is Night Light, a monthly series of after-hours events that transform the library into a space for food, drink and music. The Nov. 14 Night Light event featured Bitner’s “Art Car Derby,” and on Friday, Dec. 5, Rob Dz will host a listening party for his new album.

The biggest draw for the library is the Wisconsin Book Festival, the popular event that brings in an estimated 15,000 people annually, both to the four-day October festival and to events year-round. The library took over the festival in 2013 and has made the Central Library its hub, with not only author readings but live spoken-word poetry, children’s programming, writing workshops and other related events.

Outside of scheduled events, the public has found all sorts of ways to make use of the library, including weddings, photo shoots and community meetings.  All of the programs are tied to the library’s mission, reflected in the official library slogan: “your place to learn, share and create.” Rather than the traditional passive environment, where books wait to be checked out and read, the new library is an active space where Madisonians are encouraged to make things, learn and interact with each other.

“There’s been this evolution of libraries,” said Jenni Collins, director of the Madison Public Library Foundation, which seeks private donors to fund library capital projects and programs. “I think libraries have done a good job of evolving to meet the community’s needs.  “For centuries, they were warehouses of books, they were repositories of materials. The evolution in Madison has kept pace to be the community gathering spaces that people desire. They’re free, they’re public, they’re accessible.”

Wisconsin Book Festival director Conor Moran said that evolution has begun with jettisoning the “Quiet, please” reputation of a library as a place to be seen and not heard.  “You don’t have to be quiet,” he said. “You can eat and drink. There are a tremendous amount of different spaces available to the community at any given time for reasonable prices.  “I was not able to design video games at my library when I was 12, that’s for sure.”

Library director Greg Mickells, who came to Madison in 2012, sees the revolution in public libraries as having two distinct phases — the “living room” and the “kitchen.”  “If you go back, libraries were very institutional and had a lot of rules and policies,” he said. “And then libraries started to loosen up a little bit and recognize their value in the community. They focused on being the living room. They wanted to be comfortable places, and that’s still part of our delivery.

“The way I see libraries now is that we’ve become the community’s kitchen. Anytime you go over to a friend’s house or to a party, where do people hang out? They really hang out in the kitchen. It’s interactive, you can participate at whatever level you choose. Whereas in the living room you sort of lay back and be entertained, there’s an expectation now that we want the community to contribute to the experience as well. And they’re embracing that.”

Miller said that Madison’s interest in a different kind of library was evident before construction had even started. In January 2012, just before the old library closed for renovations, Miller turned the empty space into a massive, 100-exhibit art show where patrons could eat, drink, look at artwork made out of library materials, even spray graffiti on the walls.

That event, called Bookless, drew over 5,000 people. That people lined up in the street to attend was stunning to directors of other libraries and gratifying to Mickells and his staff. They were on to something.

“It was this one-day revelation that ‘Oh my gosh, this is amazing,’” Miller said. “This needs to happen more. This is what the library should feel like. From then on, I haven’t been shocked at anything, because that was such a big crazy event that showed all the dynamic people in the community. It’s all just built off of that.”

Bookless has spun off into the funky and innovative Night Light events, such as the Art Car Derby that brought in hundreds of people to drink and race little wooden cars, sort of an adult Pinewood Derby. 

“That was way cool,” Mickells said. “We had over 300 people racing these cars. It’s just fun. It’s bringing fun back.”  Mickells thinks it’s important for the library to be part of Madison’s fabric not just during the day. Whereas people used to walk by an empty building on their way to a show at the Overture Center, now there’s just as much going on across the street.  “It’s really fun when we’ve got something happening at the library, and we’ll look over at intermission and everybody’s at the window watching us,” Mickells said, chuckling.

The library’s Bubbler space and program keeps that connection going, with classes and events intended to whet people’s appetites for all kinds of activities. The library initially received a NEA grant for two years to fund programs like the Bubbler, and just received a follow-up grant for over $500,000 from the Institute of Museum and Library Services that’s good for another two years.

Miller said the purpose of the Bubbler is not to supplant educational programs going on elsewhere in Madison, whether in the schools or in community programs or private businesses. But, as the name suggests, it’s meant to be a place where enthusiasm can bubble up, where people can try different things.

“We’re here to give people a little taste of it,” he said. “We’re the hub. If you’re like ‘I really like printmaking,’ we can give them a taste. We’re not going to give someone a full education in any of these things. But we’ll give people enough for them to know if they are interested and want to pursue it.”

Miller said the library is particularly interested in reaching out to underserved communities and does outreach programs promoting literacy and artistic pursuits in places like juvenile shelters and incarceration facilities.

The Wisconsin Book Festival, which the library took over from the Wisconsin Humanities Council, is in many ways a microcosm of the library’s greater mission to reach out in different directions. Whereas book festivals of years past may have had a heavy focus on author readings, the library’s festivals are targeting a variety of audiences, including those who may not have thought they’d ever want to go to a book festival.

So at the 2014 festival alongside readings by big authors like Gail Sheehy and Garth Stein were a live hip-hop/spoken word performance from students in the UW’s First Wave program, workshops where authors gave budding writers tips on getting published, even an event with the authors of a book on craft beer held at the Great Dane.

And while the book festival only runs four days in October, the library hosts festival-related events all year long. The final Book Festival event of 2014 was just announced last weekend; on Saturday, Nov. 29, at 7 p.m., best-selling fantasy author Patrick Rothfuss will host an event on the third floor of the Central Library, reading from his new novella “The Slow Regard of Silent Things” and raising money for his Worldbuilders charity.

Mickells said there was some debate about whether the library should even keep calling the event the Wisconsin Book Festival, given all the new areas it’s moving into. But just as the Central Library is a different type of library, the Book Festival is a different type of book festival.

“The Book Festival’s mission is in part driven by the library’s mission — the share, learn and create mission has really guided who I bring and the programming that I offer,” Moran said. “I think the book festival is an incredible way for the library to realize that vision with the Madison public.”

Another way to bring library newbies into the new Central Library has been to open the doors to special community events, including club meetings and weddings. Collins said she expected the community would enjoy using the space for such events, but has been amazed at the amount of interest. The meeting rooms alone get 10 times the amount of use that they did before the library was renovated.

The library is an increasingly popular space for weddings, with its downtown location and spectacular view. While nobody would have thought to get married in the utilitarian old space, brides like Anna Peterson chose it as her wedding spot last summer.  “It’s great to have a public library that serves the community in so many ways,” she said. “I hear about cool interesting events going on there — lectures and fundraisers and parties — it seems like every weekend.”

Peterson said she was attracted not only to the physical beauty of the space but also the significance of having her wedding at a library. While it didn’t have a particular literary theme, books did play a role, with readings from “Where the Wild Things Are” and “The Giver.”

“My mom’s reading in particular was drawn from books, especially ones we had grown up with about love and marriage,” Peterson said. “To be surrounded by not only our loving family and friends, but all these books, was really special.”

Florist Ann Sensenbrenner of Farm To Vase has provided flowers for several weddings there. She said she was impressed by the space, and that after covering costs of hosting a wedding, any additional money from renting the space goes directly into the library’s operating budget.

“The first time I delivered flowers there for an event I was really surprised at the light and the views,” Sensenbrenner said. “Everything ran so smoothly it was as if the staff had been coordinating weddings for years. They are also one of the venues in town that will store flowers after the event for them to be picked up and donated the next day, instead of just tossing them.”

Tana Elias, digital services and marketing manager for the library, said people use the library for all kinds of reasons, from shooting graduation photos to a place to hang out on their lunch hour. Even if they’re not taking part in the programs or checking out a book, having such a community gathering spot is a big part of the library’s mission.

“They’re using it as a home office or a place to meet friends, a hangout place,” she said. “It’s kind of a social space.”

“We’re kind of a model for other libraries around the country to say here’s what we’re doing, here’s what’s worked, here’s what doesn’t. We’re feeling pretty good, and we’re starting to get some national press. It’s nice to get that affirmation, that people are calling us, emailing us, taking trips here to see us.”

All the attention that the Central Library is getting has increased visibility for Madison’s neighborhood libraries as well. Mickells said doing more in regional libraries will be a big focus of the library’s mission in 2015. The east side Pinney Branch Library is being relocated, and Mickells said the new design will definitely be influenced by what’s happening downtown.  And they will keep trying other things, including their own spin on the “Bookmobile,” using a bike outfitted with books that cruises around town.

For Dz, the library has become a way of life for him — not only did he record his album there, but he teaches music classes at the library as a volunteer and recently landed a job there as a security monitor.  “This is the way that libraries should really go,” he said. “Unfortunately, a lot of people just aren’t picking up books and reading books. But having access to information and technology is super dope. This is like a playground.”