Thursday, January 01, 2009

Inspiring Libraries

Libraries are a natural source of inspiration for the curious and creative.

Listening to Paul Holdengraber, the Director of the New York Public Library's Public Program Series, is an inspiration in itself. Here are my notes on an interview filmed with him in 2007.
His job is to "oxygenate" the New York Public Library -- to make the famous lions outside "roar" -- to create a library without walls.
We need to make people think it's sexy to think -- that there should be both information and inspiration. We have to free the books. To have a thought is to caress our brains. Thinking is exciting!

Inspiration comes mainly from arguments around the kitchen table. We need each other desperately as humans (e.g., you can't tickle yourself). A library is a space of conviviality -- which can help us get references in common. We all need something to talk about.

Curiosity is one of the most important things we can arm ourselves with in life -- if we're not curious at 20, we'll be boring at 50. We must inspire curiosity -- to be interested in the world -- to have interests -- something to replenish our minds.
The blog Design*Sponge has done a couple of videos showing how a librarian at the New York Public Library has inspired five different artists -- a glassblower, a letterpress printer, a maker of ceramic dishes, etc. -- with material from the library's collection, whether images in books or artifacts themselves -- maps, old postcards, prints, etc. See the videos on the NYPL webpage: Design by the Book.

Similarly, Jay Walker is a man who believes a library should have objects to inspire -- as well as books. There is a 7-minute TED video of him showing off some of the treasures in his amazing private library: Jay Walker: A library of human imagination -- including an Enigma machine, a flag that's been to the moon and back, and a real Sputnik satellite.

Wired did an article on his library not long ago -- Browse the Artifacts of Geek History in Jay Walker's Library - with plenty of photos. Go check it out.

I'm going to end with a plug for the book I think should be in every library -- as a source of inspiration: Alan Fletcher's The Art of Looking Sideways (2001), which has been described as "the ultimate guide to visual awareness, a magical compilation that will entertain and inspire all those who enjoy the interplay between word and image, and who relish the odd and the unexpected. "

Fletcher, a famous British graphic designer, is now dead, but here's a YouTube video of him talking about his unusual book.

Flickr photo credits: lion: MacRonin47; library: jamesjk ; Jay Walker library

Curiosity: a close cousin of creativity

Robert McKee, in his book Story: Substance, Structure, Style, and the Principles of Screenwriting, presents curiosity as the intellectual need to answer questions and close patterns -- a universal desire which story plays to by doing the opposite, posing questions and opening situations.

Olivia Judson, scientist and New York Times blogger, sees curiosity as the defining characteristic of the best scientists and as something that must be caught, not taught:
In schools, science is often taught as a body of knowledge — a set of facts and equations. But all that is just a consequence of scientific activity.
Science itself is something else, something both more profound and less tangible. It is an attitude, a stance towards measuring, evaluating and describing the world that is based on skepticism, investigation and evidence. The hallmark is curiosity; the aim, to see the world as it is. This is not an attitude restricted to scientists, but it is, I think, more common among them. And it is not something taught so much as acquired during a training in research or by keeping company with scientists.
Ryszard Kapuscinski, the Polish journalist and author who died a couple of years ago, argues for this same centrality of curiosity for historians and journalists (who are really just current historians) -- exemplified by Herodotus.

Kapuscinski kept company with him by carrying around a copy of Herodotus's History throughout his years as a foreign correspondent, and he describes the influence Herodotus had on him in his 2004 book, Travels with Herodotus (which I highly recommend as an introduction to either Kapuscinski or Herodotus).

Here are snippets from the book:

In Herodotus's days, the Greek word "history" meant something more like "investigation" or "inquiry".... [Herodotus] strove to find out, learn, and portray how history comes into being every day, how people create it, why its course oftens runs contrary to their efforts and expectations. [p. 257]

    What set him in motion? Made him act? .... I think that it was simply curiosity about the world. The desire to be there, to see it at any cost, to experience it no matter what. It is actually a seldom encountered passion. [p. 258]
    To be a conduit is their passion: therein lies their life mission. To walk, ride, find out -- and proclaim it at once to the world. There aren't many enthusiasts born. The average person is not especially curious about the world.... So when someone like Herodotus comes along -- a man possessed by a craving, a bug, a mania for knowledge, and endowed, furthermore, with intellect and powers of written expression -- it's not so surprising his rare existence should outlive him. [p. 267]

Seth Godin, the business/marketing guru, has a short video on the importance of being curious -- a desire to understand, a desire to try, a desire to push the envelope. He also believes the curious are a minority and laments that the educational system does not (cannot?) promote it.

Can curiosity be described as having an agile mind? (like Cliff Stoll in his TED talk "18 Minutes with an Agile Mind")

Is curiosity the skill of being interested in the world? Randy Nelson, dean of Pixar University, in a short video on learning and working in the collaboration age (which is definitely worth watching), talks about Pixar looking for employees with four attributes: 1. Depth, 2. Breadth, 3. Communication, 4. Collaboration.

Number 2: "Breadth" relates to being a curious person, though Nelson defines it as the skill of being interested. He argues it's easy to find people who are interesting, but tough to find those who are more interested than interesting. These are the people you want to talk to, he says, not because they're clever, but because they amplify "me", they want to know what I know -- they lean in when I talk and ask me questions.

Pixar is one of the companies highlighted in the book Mavericks at Work: Why the Most Original Minds in Business Win -- by William C. Taylor & Polly LaBarre (2006).

Nelson is quoted there on the same subject:

"We've made the leap from an idea-centered business to a people-centered business. Instead of developing ideas, we're developing people. We're trying to create a culture of learning, filled with life-long learners. It's no trick for talented people to be interesting, but it's a gift to be interested. We want an organization filled with interested people." [p. 230]

Isn't that what we all want?