On Saturday 19 March a community event focussing on lifelong learning, civic engagement and the Library of Birmingham project (LoB) was held at South Yardley Community Library in Birmingham. The event was organised by Aston's John Blewitt, Director Lifelong Learning Centre, with members of Birmingham City Council’s threatened public library service using Catalyst funds awarded by the Royal Society of Arts.
The event was an opportunity for local people to visualise, articulate, debate and express their feelings about the LoB and the future of a major public service while also exploring how real places and virtual spaces could develop as new public arenas for civic engagement and lifelong learning. The community event has been conceived as one of a series of linked research and development interventions hopefully taking place in five community libraries recently refurbished with money from the Big Lottery Community Connection programme.
South Yardley Community Library is a few miles from the centre of Birmingham and event integrated a number of related activities including a screening of an Mecanoo’s animated flythrough of the LoB interior, a demonstration of a virtual LoB still under construction in Second Life, opportunities to blog comments and upload images onto a site specially created on Posterouous.com or create a digital graffiti design using free software uploaded onto library laptops. A community artist encouraged adults and children to express their ideas and understandings visually by contributing to a collage made up primarily of circles of coloured paper (mimicking the external design of the new library), a “Big brother’ style video booth was set up where participants could speak their views direct to camera and ‘fun’ activities such as face painting and balloon tricks occured throughout the day to offer entertainment and fun to children and their parents. A group of largely Asian women who regularly use the library on Saturdays to learn and develop their skills of Mehndi design also became part of a vibrant and fascinating day.
Libraries are social spaces where all manner of activities occur and it was their importance as a site of social learning, intercultural understanding and interaction that was most valued by participants. New media technologies offer new opportunities and affordances for social learning, networked sharing and cultural development. Public libraries, if reconceived as places where the real and virtual may effortlessly entwine, may be able to rrevive their founding purpose as constituting a people’s university. To do this though they will need to remain a genuinely public asset and unashamedly a public good.
For more information on this project please contact John Blewitt firstname.lastname@example.org or call ext 4284.
Words by John Blewitt
21 March 2011