The Library That Was Once a Church

  • Purple Rocks and Pond Water, September 18, 2015
  • Rolande Duprey

Excerpt:
It has been a busy week for the Library That Was Once A Church.
In addition to the normal busyness of library business, we had six major programs in five days.

The first was the first Friends’ Book Sale of the season. That same weekend, Jazz Drummer Victor Lewis came to Noah Baerman’s series, “Jazz Up Close”. The following Tuesday our film discussion series opened. Tuesday evening we had three toy theater companies performing, one from Mexico City, one from New York City, and one from Berlin. Thursday, in addition to our "Jobs Group" in the morning, we had two evening programs. Our Veterans Writing Group met, as it does every Thursday, and Eiko Otake performed part of her solo series, “A Body in Places”...

Eiko Otake’s performance was unique. Most of our patrons did not know her or her work. In creating the piece, she wanted to relate to the “real world” of the public library, so we were instructed not to interrupt our normal routine. She discovered that our library – and most public libraries – are an “oasis” in the real world.*

Her interaction with the staff began on Wednesday when she was rehearsing. She had various requests to which several staff members responded. This continued through the morning and afternoon of the day of the performance.

Some of these requests were fairly mundane: Could we provide her with books and a bookcart?  Could the temperature in our Hubbard Room be controlled? Could she use the lobby monitor for the slideshow of Fukushima photos?

Some requests pushed the boundaries of what staff knew or understood about the nature of her performance. Would she be strewing the books on the floor, as she [did] at Olin Library? Would it scare or harm the children to see the slideshow in a darkened children's activity room? How would our regular patrons react to her wandering through the library?

Before the performance, I asked the circulation staff to write down any of the comments they heard from patrons. Some of these were positive, some negative. "It was the strangest thing I ever saw", said one. Another patron, who sits daily in the main Reading Room, encountered the surprising performance with awe: "It was beautiful. It brought tears to my eyes."

One of the library's pages, following Eiko around throughout the library, commented, "It was the quietest the library has ever been."

It was indeed quiet. Even after Eiko had left the lobby, the circulation staff still spoke in whispers. The Library That Was Once A Church was experiencing something sacred, holy, powerful. 
As the performance came to a close, and Eiko exited the library, someone began clapping. The noise was startling, foreign.

During the discussion that followed the performance, audience members were invited to ask questions. Several people were stuck by the accidental association that were made -- by a book title, or the tree in the children's activity area on which the slideshow was projected. The associations in the minds of the audience are amplified in such a performance. The reality of Fukushima, the reality of radiation poisoning, the reality of human error is seen again and again through many lenses and minds. Eiko's performance connects us here at our 'oasis' in Middletown to all the other places in which she has performed and will perform.

Having Eiko perform here was a big risk for our library to take. Each staff member showed a great deal of courage in doing their part, helping to set up the spaces she required. Children's Librarian Kitty Robinson was very cognizant of the stakes involved:
"If we (as librarians) do not takes risks, if we are complacent or quiet, we will not exist. We ARE the people. We have to stop being afraid."


*Eiko said this numerous times during the discussion after the performance.


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