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.