We all know about Patrick Henry, Arthur Ashe, and other figures so ingrained in Richmond lore. A new initiative will give ordinary Richmonders a chance to make history.
A horde of Richmonders are descending into the basement of the Richmond Public Library’s main branch to grab books by the handful, tear out their contents, and shred pages in blenders. And librarians are totally cool with it.
It’s just one aspect of the The People’s Library Project, an ongoing public art initiative to catalog Richmond’s many histories into repurposed books, which are then available for checkout beginning Friday at the Main Branch.
“I think that there’s a very limited reading of our history,” said Mark Strandquist, one of the project organizers. Monuments and statues constantly remind Richmond of the city’s past. But that past is only part of the Richmond story. “We wanted to come up with a way to explode that idea,” Strandquist said.
Since February, individuals have made blank books in a series of free workshops open to the public. Beginning Friday, Richmonders can check out those books to write their own histories, then return them to the library for others to checkout and read. “A lot of this project is about creating this new kind of ‘monument’ that is not built from granite or stone but from a history of all of us.”
Since February, over 1,000 people of all ages learned to make paper by blending, pulping, and drying material to create new pages, then binding those pages into new books. Paper for these books came courtesy of the public library system.
“The library has a lot of redundant books they discard…and these are the books that no one wants,” said Courtney Bowles, co-facilitator of the project. They can include multiple copies of the same title, damaged editions, etc. “We took those books, tore the pages out, used a shredder to shred the pages.” The pages were then mixed with water and blended.
Then a unique process was used to create the new paper from the shredded remnants. “You’re not making your own book, you’re making the paper that will then become the paper in someone else’s book,” Strandquist said about this part of the project. After creating the paper, workshop attendees bound those pages into covers that came from the original discarded books. A $5,000 VCUArts grant helped Stranquist and Bowles purchase the equipment needed for the project.
Richmonders who check out blank books from the library can respond to one of two included prompts, or they can write their unprompted historical memories. Writers can choose whether to include their names or write anonymously.
The books, which will also be digitized, are tagged by author name and subjects to build an ongoing catalog and are expected to remain part of the Richmond Public Library’s permanent collection. In addition to checking out blank books, Richmonders can checkout books already written in for reading.
“This project creates really challenging and alternative models for the way we engage with each other, with our collective and specific histories, with our public institutions,” Strandquist said. “But it also creates a set of relationships that will then hopefully go well beyond the project,” such as promoting like-minded projects elsewhere in the city or country, as well as encourageing the local library to engage with other artists in the future.
Bowles stressed how supportive the library staff has been of the project. “For them to allow us to do this is also a way that they’re keeping their institution alive,” she said. “I’m really excited to support them.”
She also looks forward to giving an opportunity for all Richmonders to read, record, and share histories with one another. “I believe that everyone’s stories should be considered equal,” she said. “I don’t feel that just because you have money that makes your history more significant. Because everyone has something to share.”
The Main Branch of the Richmond Public Library is located at 101 E. Franklin St.
photos courtesy of The People’s Library Project