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No Books Allowed: Libraries of Puppets, Humans, & Other Oddities


Libraries have always held a sacred privilege: the custody and delivery of information. The definition of libraries is drastically shifting as institutions eliminate books, often substituting collections of eBooks, tablets, and an entirely digitized catalog of resources.

On the other end of the scope, more libraries are experimenting with loaning out a range of non-book objects, such as fishing poles, works of art, tools, and human bones. Here's a look at non-traditional libraries that offer collections of realia — those real life objects and ephemera entirely unliterary in nature.

London, England

Shelves full of wondrous curiosities at the Institute of Making's Materials Library (photograph by UCL News)

At the core of the Institute of Making at University College London is a glorious repository — the Materials Library — that contains over 1,500 of the most extraordinary materials on earth.

The Institute’s workshops allow students to experience the tactile pleasure of real objects by fondling the most unusual tangible substances in the world. Culled from grottoes, labs, and the human body, this cabinet of curiosities serves as a veritable playground for the raw materials fetishist. Many of the materials are futuristic or defy logic, such as a concrete that heals itself, a bioactive glass that turns cells into bone on contact, and a metal that cries like a human.

Copenhagen, Denmark

article-imageA Human Library branch in London promotes its Human Books (photograph by London Public Library)

Originating in Denmark as a movement to prevent prejudice-based violence, the Human Library has grown as a widespread institution that promotes awareness through interactions with diverse individuals.

Patrons visiting the Human Library can actually borrow and “read” a Human Book, that is, interact with a live volunteer who represents a distinctive background of age, race, sex, or culture in order to identify and eradicate stereotypes. A few of the notable books include Funeral Director, Facially Disfigured, Vegan, Redhead, and Prostitute. Increasingly, the Human Library and other living library branches are opening up worldwide, thwarting shallow assumptions one intimate dialogue at a time.

Urbana-Champagne, Illinois

Various keyboards and a toy glockenspiel from Oddmusic (photograph by Joe Futrelle)

As part of the Urbana-Champagne Media Center in Illinois, Oddmusic is a public musical instrument library that supplies a unique assemblage of music-making resources, including a treasure trove of rare and peculiar musical instruments from around the world.

Featured in the One-Off Collection are a toy glockenspiel, a melodica (a keyboard played by blowing into a mouthpiece), and an udderbot (a bottomless glass bottle with a rubber glove on it). The library specializes in xenharmonic music, a system of tuning that deviates from the typical 12-tone equal temperament method and opts for fewer tones and a more experimental sound. Now you can play out of key on purpose!

Cicero, New York

Patrons can borrow a plot of land and hoe their cares away (photograph by Northern Onondaga Public Library)

The swiftly evolving concept of the library in the 21st century remains loyal to information access. Whether the data is found in books or fertilized soil, both are meant to convey an understanding, to educate, and to sustain the community.

The librarians at Northern Onondaga Public Library have transformed the library’s half-acre of land into an institution of agricultural literacy. LibraryFarm loans small plots of land to card-carrying library patrons who are free to dig in the dirt whether or not they sport a green thumb.

Brooklyn, New York

A couple of the colorful critters loaned out for free inside the arch (photograph by mulaohu)

Yes, puppets. Formerly concealed within the dank catacombs of the Soldiers’ and Sailors’ Arch in Brooklyn’s Grand Army Plaza, the wondrous New York Puppet Library offered those in the know with access to over 100 puppets, stacked like rainbow-colored corpses, from sock creatures and giant dancing cats, to life-sized horses and 20-foot skeletons.

As part of the Puppeteers Cooperative of Brooklyn and Boston, the library’s collection holds a fantasyland of puppets employed for parades, festivals, and public loan. The resident librarian would lead visitors up a precariously narrow staircase, instructing them on the ancient art of puppetry. Due to leaks eroding the inner walls of the 80-foot Beaux-arts style triumphal arch, the Puppet Library has relocated to the Arts Lab at Roosevelt House of Brooklyn College and is open by appointment.

Glasgow and Darlington, UK

Rolling crates filled with ready to hang works of art (photograph by Colin Gray)

In an inspired project to transform public access to the arts, collaborative artists Zoë Walker and Neil Bromwich have created an experimental pop-up lending library that is a mobile art installation within itself.

Housed in expansive galleries and ancient public library spaces around the UK, the rolling geometric sculpture of detachable crates holds 60 individual works of art that can be checked out by patrons. The diverse collection of the Art Lending Library ranges from robot paintings and elephant sculptures, to bird taxidermy and sound compositions, which are detached from the structure and delivered to the patron’s home. Et voila! Instant art connoisseur.

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