Artist Residencies: The Public Library

In this latest edition of Unbound’s InfoFuture-inspired series on library-based artist residencies, we’ll be taking a look at a successful example of an artist-in-residence program at an innovative public library system.

MPL_logoIn 2013, the Madison Public Library in Madison, Wisconsin launched the Bubbler, a maker-focused program active in all branch locations and in various outreach locations. Their vision for the Bubbler is to foster creativity in their community through activities, demonstrations, and workshops focused on art, design, and technology.

bubbler_logoIn September of that year, the Bubbler launched an artist-in-residence program. Their residencies are both brief and frequent. Each is one to three months long, and as soon as one residency ends, the next begins. The Bubbler’s artist residencies are very successful at engaging with the library’s surrounding community. Their artists have taken quite varied approaches that illustrate different types of impact a resident artist can make.

The Bubbler’s artists are encouraged to pursue work that is accessible to the whole community. A public library’s demographic pool is about as broad as it gets, so this can prove challenging. In the Dream Collectors’ residency, they accomplished it by engaging with a subject that everyone can relate to: sleeping and dreaming. During all open library hours, the Bubbler operated a space where children and adults could create art based on recent dreams they’ve had, and display them in the space. This very wide range of hours made it easier to reach patrons on all sorts of schedules. The Dream Collectors also undertook several special events for patrons, including a late night cocktail party in the library and a two-hour workshop on Surrealist games.

dream collectors
The Dream Collectors. Photo via Madison Public Library.

Other residencies have engaged with community-specific subject matter. The Private Public collective’s residency, titled Our Madison, “invite[s] residents to participate in visualizing and recording our current lived experiences (both positive and negative) within our city to foster conversations about the issues facing our community.” The results included a wall of sticky notes with community members’ desires for the future of the city, as well as a map of the city that patrons marked at places they’ve had important experiences. At the end of the residency the artists published a book of the results, titled People’s Atlas: Our Madison. The collective’s focus on the lives and surroundings of the library’s patrons helped them connect and create meaningful collaborative art.

Our Madison. Photo via Madison Public Library.

Victor Castro’s residency was noteworthy for his work with marginalized community members and for his ecologically conscious use of the community’s recycled materials. One initiative from his residency, the social sculpture project ARTinside: filling spaces took place at the Dane County Juvenile Detention Center. He teamed up with the teens residing there to create sculptures out of recycled materials like clothespins and milk cartons. They then installed the sculptures in the detention’s common spaces. During these sessions, everyone wore special masks they’d assembled and used nicknames they’d chosen for themselves. The project gave the participants space to play with their identity and agency to decorate the parts of the center they spent the most time in. During a radio appearance discussing the project, Castro summed up his goals: “We are filling the spaces of the facility but also, why not, we are trying to fill up spaces inside them, inside the souls and the minds of these kids.” In the end, the project generated a great deal of enthusiasm from both the teen participants and the detention center’s staff.

ARTinside. Photo via Madison Public Library.

An artist in residence at a public library faces the challenge of engaging a patron base that is extremely broad and diverse. Through their attention to relevant and accessible subject matter, community engagement, and thoughtful connections with marginalized groups, the Bubbler’s artists have provided a great model for other public libraries looking to initiate similar programs.

The Bubbler’s rapid success brought the library new funding opportunities. In 2014, the Madison Public Library, in partnership with the University of Wisconsin-Madison, received a two-year National Leadership Grant from the Institute of Museum and Library Services to help support the Bubbler and its many initiatives, including their artist-in-residence program.

For more information on The Bubbler’s artist-in-residence program and a list of artists who’ve participated, check out their website!

(Post by Derek Murphy)

Artist Residencies: The Academic Library

In January of this year, Simmons College hosted an IMLS-sponsored conference called “Envisioning Our Information Future and How to Educate for it.” There, notable librarians and information professionals conversed about future paths for the field. One popular subject of discussion was the potential for artist residencies to become more common in information institutions. Over the next several weeks, Unbound will be investigating case studies of successful artist residencies across various types of libraries and archives. Today, we’ll be taking a look at a successful residency program at a forward-thinking academic library.

The University of Technology, Sydney (UTS) hosts a yearly artist residency they call the Artist-In-Residence Program. During a time of major transition for the library, they hoped that bringing artists into their space would assist them in “injecting playfulness, art, and culture into all aspects of the Library’s operations” and “ensur[ing] the ongoing relevance and development of a dynamic library into the future.”
The LRS in action. Photo via UTS Library.

The creation of the residency program was precipitated by a major operational shift for the library. In 2012, the UTS Library installed an automated storage and retrieval system (called the Library Retrieval System, or, LRS) underneath its library. In order to ease space constraints, books were transferred from the library stacks to efficiently packed metal bins stored in an underground facility. Upon a patron’s request, a robotic system retrieved the books from storage.

This system was a great success, but it raised concerns about discoverability. Though the most frequently used parts of the collection were still shelved in open stacks, it was suddenly much harder for patrons to stumble upon books they didn’t know they were looking for. In response, the UTS Library convened an advisory panel of academics and art curators to select an artist who could bring his unique skills and design sense to bear on the problem. Their choice? Visual Communication Design specialist Chris Gaul.

The Library Spectrogram. Photo by Chris Gaul

Gaul, their first resident artist, created a set of art installations themed around discoverability. The Library Frequency Tuner, a modified radio tuner, allowed patrons to use a dial to scroll through the full spectrum of Dewey numbers and listen to associated audio excerpts of books from the collection. The Call Number Telephone allowed patrons to dial a Dewey number and hear a reading from a random book associated with that number. The Library Spectrogram beautifully visualized the collection as a colorful, easy to read diagram. The Spectrogram originally took the form of an educational wall chart. After it was exhibited, the library then integrated it into their online catalog search as an interactive tool for discovery. This tool, the Collection Ribbon, is still in use today. Gaul’s residency culminated in an exhibition at the on-campus DAB LAB Research Gallery.

Gaul’s residency provides an excellent example of the benefits an artist residency program can have for an academic library. The residency resulted in a successful gallery exhibition, new opportunities for patrons to engage with the library’s organizational systems, and elegant, concrete operational improvements to those systems.

Following the success of Gaul’s residency, the library has continued to host yearly residencies to this day. Successive residents have created dynamic installations, developed audio poetry inspired by the collection, and investigated the concept of the ‘book’ in the digital age.

Stay tuned for our next post, where we’ll discuss the Madison Public Library’s innovative approach to public library artist residencies!

And below, please enjoy these videos of some of Chris Gaul’s work from his UTS residency.

(Post by Derek Murphy)


So You Say You Want a Revolution…? Introducing Radical Librarianship

Essay by SLIS Asst. Professor Laura Saunders

Through its Code of Ethics, Bill of Rights, and Freedom to Read Statement, the American Library Association is clear in its support of intellectual freedom and resistance to censorship. Libraries are heralded as institutions that promote equality and democracy by providing free access to information sources and technologies, as well as instruction in how to access, evaluate, and use these resources. Information is essential to good decision-making and full participation in a democratic society, and ALA (1989) suggests that information literacy, or the ability to access and use information efficiently and effectively, can help to reduce socio-economic disparities. We can point to many examples of librarians standing up for equal access and fighting against censorship, from Miss Ruth Brown who worked against segregation to Ann Sparanese who touched off a campaign that saved Michael Moore’s book Stupid White Men, to the many librarians who spoke out against the USA Patriot Act. While we can certainly be proud of these instances, in reality the history and current situation of libraries is more complex and fraught than these examples suggest.

To begin with, the profession’s commitment to intellectual freedom and equal access is a relatively new development, and there are plenty of examples of librarians during the World Wars and McCarthy eras promoting government propaganda, engaging in censorship, and denying access to entire communities of people. Even now, some librarians contend that as a profession we should be neutral, avoiding taking positions on political and social issues. These librarians often pit the value of intellectual freedom against social responsibility, arguing that if librarians take a stand on social issues, they will inevitably be favoring one perspective and effectively censoring another. However, this argument ignores an important reality: libraries, like any other institution, operate within an existing political and social power structure. Indeed—since libraries deal directly with information—if we accept the adage that information is power, we could argue that libraries need be especially aware of these power structures. Libraries employ systems that were developed by and largely reflect the white, middle-class, Christian, heteronormative culture in which they are embedded. These values and perspectives are evident in our cataloging and classification systems, collections, programming, displays, and so on. By ignoring this reality, libraries are denying the impact of these legacies and are perpetuating the status quo. As such, many librarians challenge the idea of a neutral profession.

The importance of these debates to the field is evidenced by recent conference themes, publications, and even informal conversations on social media. Brian Mathews posted a series of interviews on his blog The Ubiquitous Librarian focused on issues of critical information literacy, social justice advocacy, and challenging the status quo. Library Juice Press publishes monographs on library and information science from a critical perspective. Recent titles have included Information Agitation: Library and Information Skills in Social Justice Movements and Beyond edited by Melissa Morrone and Information Literacy and Social Justice: Radical Theory and Praxis edited by Shana Higgins and Lua Gregory. Librarians on Twitter have regular conversations on integrating critical theory into their practice using the hashtag #critlib, while others have been discussing how to address social justice themes within the new Association of College and Research Libraries (ACRL) Information Literacy Frameworks.

The Association for Library and Information Science Educators (ALISE) has likewise demonstrated interest in addressing questions of social justice and advocacy. The theme of the association’s 2015 conference was “Mirrors and Windows: Reflections on Social Justice and Re-Imaging LIS Education,” while the theme for the upcoming 2016 conference is “Radical Change: Inclusion and Innovation.” These themes certainly suggest an interest on the part of LIS faculty to integrate a critical perspective into LIS curricula, ostensibly with the intention of encouraging a similar perspective in their students’ professional practice. Certainly, educators like Nicole Cooke at University of Illinois at Urbana-Champagne, Kevin Rioux at St. John’s University in New York, and Emily Drabinski at Pratt School of Library and Information Science, among others, teach courses that focus on social justice, advocacy, and questions of race, gender, and sexual identity in library practices, programs and services. However, such topics are often addressed in separate, stand-alone courses, such as UIUC’s Race, Gender and Information Technology course, or Simmons’ own Information Services for Diverse Users. It is difficult to determine how widespread the attention to these topics is in core MSLIS courses and programs. Yet, without specific attention to these issues, we are at risk of perpetuating exclusionary systems and practices.

Image by John Hain

In spring 2016, the SLIS community will be able to engage with these questions and challenges in a special topics course, Radical Librarianship. Beginning with the premise that the library profession is not and cannot be neutral, this course will use a critical theory lens to examine and question the systems, services, and resources employed by our profession. Drawing on the writings of Freire, Habermas, Giroux, and others, we will reflect on the library’s sometimes uncomfortable relationship with race, gender, sexual orientation and identity in order to develop responses that are inclusive of the many communities that we serve. We will examine libraries as socio-political institutions that have the opportunity to be progressive or to promote the status quo, and analyze their role as civic spaces with the potential to foster civic engagement and debate. We will investigate the ways in which libraries promote and silence different voices, include and exclude various communities, and promote and inhibit access.

There is much to be proud of in the history of libraries, and much to be excited about as we engage our communities and develop our programs and services. But if we hope truly to embrace our potential, we first must acknowledge and engage with what is problematic in our profession. After all, we can’t wage an effective revolution unless we know what we are working to change. With Radical Librarianship, we can help to move the discussion forward. I hope you’ll join me!


While there is a limit to how much we can do in a single semester, I’m eager to hear your thoughts and ideas on what you think this course should be! Please see the draft course outline at:

The Simmons community can comment directly to the document. Others can email me at laura.saunders (at) to share your comments with me.

Presidential Committee on Information Literacy. (1989). Final Report. Retrieved from


This post was written by SLIS Assistant Professor Laura Saunders.

3D Printing Peripherals – Real and Speculative

3D printerOver the past few years, 3D printing has become a frequent subject of discussion in the library world. Library makerspaces have proliferated. Patrons have printed innovative and essential objects, including prosthetic hands. Now that 3D printers are becoming a common feature in public libraries, we’re beginning to see discussion of potential legal dangers, and the formulation of rules to keep this new technology from creating problems. Debate is ongoing about whether 3D printers represent a major source of innovation or a passing fad. We at Unbound even weighed in on the subject last year. Whether or not we’ll all have 3D printers in our homes one day, it’s undeniable that they’ve made an impact. Today we’ll be taking a look at two new technologies that synchronize with 3D printers to expand the scope of what they can produce. One of them is currently finding its way into libraries across the country, and the other is still a laboratory prototype.

3D Scanners are tools for turning physical objects into digital models. Just as the 3D printer took manufacturing from a factory scale into the home, 3D scanners make three-dimensional imaging possible without a large, expensive device like an MRI scanner. Indeed, many 3D Scanners on the market today are produced by the same companies that produce 3D Printers. The devices make sense together—one could scan an object and then use the resulting model to print a replica of it. But how accurate will that replica be?

Here at SLIS, our tech lab owns a 3D scanner called the MakerBot Digitizer. To learn more about its efficacy, I consulted with Linnea Johnson (Manager of Technology) and Gabriel Sanna (SLIS student). The Digitizer is surprisingly lightweight and streamlined. I was expecting a heavy, brutalist kind of object, but instead I was presented with something resembling a small, abstracted replica of the Enterprise. We tested out the device by scanning Gabriel’s sunglasses.

glasses2         Glasses-scan

As you can see, the scanned glasses were not entirely accurate. The general shape was mostly preserved, but the details were rough. In the area around the lenses, however, things got a bit strange. The scanner works by tracing the object with two lasers as it rotates on a built-in turntable. The glare on the lenses disrupted this process and made it difficult for the system to get an accurate read on them. MakerBot recommends coating reflective objects in a thin layer of baby powder to remedy this issue, but we elected not to fill every crevasse in Gabriel’s glasses with fragrant powder. Next we scanned a small statue from Linnea’s office, and this time we printed the result.

Statues         buddhamodel2

Absent the glare, this time the scanner captured the overall shape of the object much more accurately. The finer details were captured at a pretty low resolution, but you can still tell what you’re looking at. When we printed the object, it lost additional resolution and came out looking pretty vague (and orange). Admittedly, this process represents the minimal-effort use case for the scanner. Canny users of the scanner could take the model it produces and correct it manually before printing it. This would result in a much higher-quality end result.

Still, it seems clear that prosumer 3D scanners still have a ways to go. A trained and dedicated user could certainly save a good deal of 3D modeling time, as long as they were willing to put some effort into correcting the original scan. However, the device isn’t magic—a novice user could not expect an immediately accurate replica of their object in most circumstances. We are still in the fairly early stages of this technology, and I expect it to improve dramatically in the coming years.

If the 3D scanner is still young, this next technology hasn’t even been born yet. At this year’s SIGGRAPH (ACM Special Interest Group on GRAPHics and Interactive Techniques) 2015 conference, a research group from Zheijiang University will be presenting a new process they call “computational hydrographic printing“.

Hydrographic printing has been around for some time. It’s a method for printing color and patterns onto objects. Basically, you produce a colored plastic film, rest it on top of a pool of water, spray the film with chemicals that activate bonding agents within the plastic, and then dunk an object into the water, allowing the film to wrap around the object and coat it with color. Hydrographic printing is good at applying solid colors and patterns, but it’s not so great when you need accuracy. Dipping an object by hand is an imprecise art. It’s difficult to keep a steady hand during the entire process, and nearly impossible to accommodate for the way the film stretches and warps as it bonds to the object. You’d be fine printing a brick wall pattern onto a mask, but trying to print a face would work out maybe once in a hundred times.

That’s where computational hydrographic printing comes in. The Zheijiang University researchers have developed a new device and process that can print hydrographically with an accuracy and consistency that was previously impossible. Their technique couples cheap, off-the-shelf components (binder clips, an Xbox Kinect, a linear DC motor) with advanced physics simulation software that can predict how the film will stretch when an object is immersed.


By simulating the dunk in advance, the software is able to generate a design that is distorted just enough to compensate for the stretching of the film when placed onto the object. This design can be printed onto the film using a common inkjet printer. Their rig incorporates an aluminum arm that grips the object, as well as a 3D visual feedback system that ensures that the arm remains perfectly steady and maintains its position, for a perfectly executed dunk. The result is so consistent that a single object can be immersed multiple times, to print complex designs onto all sides of it, as seen in the above gif.

If this technology continues to develop, it could easily sit alongside a 3D printer in a library’s makerspace. 3D printers already use digital models, and that same model could be fed directly into a hydrographic printer. After 3D printing an object, all you would have to do is send that 3D model and a 2D design into the hydrographic printer, and you could paint your object with excellent accuracy.

It isn’t hard to imagine a future library makerspace where you could use a 3D scanner to model an object, use a 3D printer to create a physical copy of it, and then use a hydrographic printer to paint it. It wouldn’t quite be a Star Trek replicator, but it wouldn’t be too shabby either.


(Post by Derek Murphy)

Data Streams from the Okavango Delta

A visualization of wildlife sightings along the Okavango Delta, by Jer Thorp

At this very moment, a team of intrepid scientists, artists, and adventurers are traversing one of the world’s most untouched habitats: Botswana’s Okavango Delta and its dangerous source rivers, the Cuito and the Cubana. Beginning with a wetland bird survey in 2012, The Okavango Wilderness Project has been undertaking yearly expeditions to the Okavango, and these expeditions have been expanding in scope every year. Now, on the 2015 trip, the Cuito River is receiving particular attention. Due to a 27 year long Angolan civil war (which ended in 2002), the lands along the river are seeded with live land mines. The explorers aim to travel the full length of the river, a feat never before attempted due to its inhospitability. They hope to raise awareness of the many conservation issues affecting the Delta and its source rivers, advocate for legislative protections, gather useful scientific data, and share the cultures of those who live near the Delta. To these ends they have assembled a crew with a diverse set of specialties: ichthyologists, ornithologists, herpetologists, botanists, photographers, polers, and more. Of special interest to Unbound is their data artist, Jer Thorp, and the data reporting methods he has orchestrated.

This year, the Into the Okavango expedition is recording and broadcasting a very thorough suite of data. Their mekoro (a kind of specialized canoe) are equipped with GPS sensors that record their locations at all times. Members of the crew are wearing heart rate monitors that record their biometrics. They have brought a Data Boat equipped with sensors that measure water and air quality. They are uploading photos to Instagram, tweeting, and creating podcasts and field recordings. As they reach certain planned points on their route, they are deploying stationary, autonomous, solar-powered sensor platforms that will automatically record water temperature and pH over time, and report back over the internet.

Their process for recording animal sightings is particularly clever. When one of their experts spots an animal of interest they call out the species name and use a custom-made android app to take photos of it and report the sighting. The app sends the data to a Raspberry Pi computer in the back of the boat, and then an antenna connected to the Pi sends the data to the internet. The sightings incorporate GPS data so you can track where each one occurred along the route, allowing for maps of sightings like the one at the top of this post. Some of the large corpus of data they collect is reported live, but most of it reaches the internet in one transmission every evening. When the explorers have made camp they sort through the records of the day and upload it to the expedition’s website.

All of the data uploaded to the website is comprehensive and completely open to the public. The site features an interactive map that intuitively displays the crew’s geographic location over time, paired with their photos, tweets, and wildlife sightings. They also provide an open API which allows anyone to interface with the complete database using their own software. By providing such immediate and open access, the expedition team hopes that they’ll allow people at home to have a personal relationship with the research data, and by extension the Okavango Delta itself. Ideally, their data will persist as a legacy for future researchers to use in ways they’d never expected.

Today we said goodbye to one of the expedition's unsung heroes and most valuable members. I found Jer Thorp @blprnt at the edge of the trickle of the Kuito River he had fought so hard beside the team to reach. He was staring back at the path he had just forged and was soothing his shredded, cracked feet in the crystal water that would eventually find its way into the Okavango Delta. Aside from dragging fully laden mekoros Through the muck and reeds he had spent every day and night since we started over 2 weeks ago (with limited resources, components and internet) slaving away at the tech component of to ensure that everyone of you interested in this expedition would have access to all the research, data, images and stories that you do. He resembled a heart-broken soldier as the helicopter rotors started up. He has a loving woman and their unborn child to ease his pain…… but I know his soul will journey with us as we continue along the Cuito and into the Okavango he so longed to return to, and is fighting so hard to protect. Farewell friend. You have helped the world see and understand this wilderness. #okavango15 #wilderness @natgeo

A photo posted by Into the Okavango (@intotheokavango) on

I first became aware of Jer Thorp’s work when he visited Simmons College for the IMLS-sponsored conference Envisioning Our Information Future and How to Educate for it. His experience as an artist embedded in information institutions lent him a valuable perspective on the issues and ideas we discussed there. He is known for his software-based art that visualizes and conceptualizes scientific data in creative ways. His Sustained Silent Reading, a 2010 installation at the Gottesman Library at Columbia University, used semantic analysis to find important people, places, and things in a text and display their relationships in a stylized diagram. His contributions to Manhattan’s 9/11 Memorial allowed for the organization of victim’s names by their relationships to each other, with coworkers and family members’ names placed together. Since 2013, Thorp has been lending his talent for data manipulation to The Okavango Wilderness Project.

Thorp did not physically attend their 2013 expedition, but he created an open API for their data from home, allowing anyone following along from their computers the ability to create their own tools and visualizations using the data. In 2014 he expanded this API and traveled with the explorers, helping them report their data in real-time. At one rather notable point during that trip he ended up facing off with a hippopotamus one on one. Undaunted, he returned in 2015 to refine the team’s process for reporting data and to assist them in the field.

After spending several weeks preparing the expedition’s technology and venturing on the first leg of the journey, Thorp’s segment of this year’s trip ended on the 28th of May. The systems he designed will continue to serve up data for the rest of the expedition.

Thorp’s design of the expedition’s data workflow could provide a blueprint for librarians with an interest in real-time open access data. In this expedition, Thorp’s job facilitating his colleagues’ research was not entirely dissimilar to a faculty services librarian’s role when supporting academic research. Librarians’ expertise in information seeking, manipulating data, and facilitating information access could make them good candidates for joining future expeditions of this type. Perhaps the time is right for a new breed of adventure librarian?

If you’ve heard of any librarians undertaking similar projects, let us know in the comments!


(Post by Derek Murphy)