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5 Inspired Ways Libraries Can Kick-Start Your Creativity

This is a guest post from Margret Aldrich, a writer and editor who has worked with authors from American Indian activist Winona LaDuke to punk-rock guitar legend Cheetah Chrome. Her book about Little Free Libraries comes out from Coffee House Press next spring. Follow her on Twitter @mmaldrich.

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Creative types are naturally drawn to libraries. The public spots have luxuriously quiet spaces, wide-open room to think, endless books, and all-knowing librarians—not to mention free Wi-Fi. Now, a new book details unexpected (and easy) ways to use library resources to boost your creativity, whether you’re a professional artist, writer, or performer—or simply have an itch to create something cool.

The Artist’s Library: A Field Guide, out from Coffee House Press this month, is written by Erinn Batykefer and Laura Damon-Moore, two of the cofounders of the innovative Library as Incubator Project, which highlights how artists and libraries benefit from working together.

“Personally, I love the way that libraries can provide a creative kick-off point for people who just want to make something,” says Damon-Moore, a librarian and art-maker who often turns to libraries for inspiration.

“When I don’t have a specific project that I’m working on, one of my favorite things to do is wander in a section of one of the libraries I frequent, pull books off the shelf, and page through them,” she says. “Sometimes a drawing or diagram will catch my eye (I really like cookery books from the 1950s and 1960s!) and I’ll trace it right into a notebook. Or a snippet of text—chapter headings, lists, etc. (etiquette and entertaining guides are super great for these)—will inspire me to scribble it down to come back to later.”

The Artist’s Library compiles dozens (and dozens) of exercises to jumpstart creativity. In most cases, all you need is a notebook and some imagination to spark your project. Here are five of my favorites:

  • Go people-watching at your local library. (Jot down bits of conversation, too.) Then, use the patrons as inspiration for sketches or narratives. “Imagine what they did this morning before coming to the library,” Damon-Moore and Batykefer write. “Imagine what they’re working on and why.”
  • Contact a librarian to book a tour of your local library. He or she will be able to tell you about collections and services you wouldn’t otherwise find. They can also point you toward materials based on what you’re interested in—whether that’s kung fu, Art Deco design, or Ukrainian politics.
  • Look at a classic text in a new way through drawing or doodling. “Try illustrating a character or a moment from Stevenson, Shakespeare, Vonnegut, or Bradbury,” Damon-Moore and Batykefer suggest.
  • Draw a detailed map of the route you take to your library, illustrating special points of interest, like a street sign, a statue, a childhood friend’s house, or a favorite bar. Be as minimalistic or as intricate as you like.
  • Listen to free music, via the library’s CD collection or Freegal digital music subscription. (Check with a librarian to learn more about their music sources.)

One of the most charming things about The Artist’s Library is its accessibility: “Our book is meant to be read and used by a wide assortment of people; and this includes professional artists and designers who perhaps haven’t considered using a library as part of their creative process. We also wanted to reach people who make art as a hobby, or people who perhaps haven’t picked up a crayon or colored pencil since grade school,” says Damon-Moore. “This is the great thing about libraries: they’re a democratic, free, accessible space where permission to get creative is inherently granted, whether you’re using the library as a space to work on a writing project; using the collection to research period costumes for a painting; or working with a librarian to track down that botany section.”

So grab your composition notebook, pastels, and pencils—or whatever your favorite medium—then head to your local library to get inspired and get making.

Note: If you use The Artist’s Library as a starting point for creative projects—of if you’ve completed another library-inspired project—the team at the Library as Incubator Project would love to hear from you. Send emails (and pictures!) to them at libraryasincubatorproject@gmail.com.