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Friday, July 1, 2011

Q&A with Portland's Street Librarian

Posted by Alison Hallett on Fri, Jul 1, 2011 at 9:44 AM

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In this week's paper, I ran an interview with Portland's "Street Librarian," Laura Moulton—but Laura gave me a ton of great answers that I didn't have room to include in the print edition. Hit the jump for our complete Q&A.... including questions inspired by YOU, Blogtown. It's an interesting read, if I do say so m'self.


What's your background?

I'm a writer/artist/teacher in Portland. Right now I teach at Marylhurst University and for Writers in the Schools. I've lived here since '98, and over the years I've worked with different kinds of people (postal workers, immigrants, homeless people, teenagers, women prisoners at Coffee Creek) on writing projects to help document their experiences. The art projects I do generally have a built-in public component. One of those was Gumball Poetry, (1999-2006) which published poems into gumball machines in cafes and bookstores, and on the internet. My husband Ben Parzybok and I ran that. Another was a project I did for Portland State University in 2009, with a grant from Oregon Arts Commission. My brother James Moulton helped me build a giant Object Mobile, a kind of rolling gallery with plexiglass windows featuring objects of sentimental value gathered from PSU students. It was on display in the Park Blocks over a few days, and passersby were invited to stop and contribute writing about their own precious objects (on 2 magnificent old Royal typewriters which folded out from the Object Mobile — turned out to be a lovely but impractical way for people to add their 2 cents. Everyone is so used to the feathery laptop key typing these days..). I'm also at work editing a novel, hoping to get it done soon. The oxen are slow but the earth is patient.

Can you describe the impetus for this project?

In 1999-2000 I lived in inner southeast and had many occasions to talk to some of the guys who lived outside in the neighborhood of the St. Francis dining hall. I wound up doing a radio feature on them for KBOO, where I was volunteering at the time. I got to know the group, and among them was a guy named Joe. He and I compared notes on the books we liked—we were both fans of AB Guthrie, who wrote The Big Sky and The Way West. They're basically frontiersman vs. wilderness stories, and I was impressed at how in a way, Joe was living out a modern-day version of the old adventure stories. He said he was homeless by choice, that he made his living collecting discarded metal and had a very good place where he liked to sleep. So I think the idea of Joe combined with a good book has stayed with me, and might have helped hatch the Street Books idea. Street Books is partly about messing with time: books have always contained the power to transport a person from their reality, and to help pass time. So that's part of it. But Street Books aims to take a space and time in which a person previously had no particular place to go, nowhere to be, and offers new parameters in the form of a kind of assignment (ie be at Skidmore Fountain between 10 and 1 if you want to get a new book). I hope that the project will also create new conversations about books.

How did it come together?

I applied for a grant with Regional Arts & Culture Council, and they funded the project. I found a Haley Trike via Craigslist in southeast Portland, and the guy gave me a deal on it when he heard what I planned to use it for. My brother James customized the box for me, added a little roll-out drawer and stenciled the Street Books lettering on it. Mercy Corps is hosting it for me this summer in their Action Center, as a temporary exhibit, which is so great because it means people can see it even when I'm not out lending books, and it also means I don't have to bike the thing back and forth from downtown to my house in the Cully neighborhood (I tried it once and found it was like a Gym Jones workout, only instead of dragging a giant tire around, it was pushing a heavy box up a steep hill).

Generally, how has the response been (from both the people you're serving, and others)? If you've faced much criticism, what's been the gist of it?

I think early on I had the occasional naysayer who would say, "Well, you're not going to see any of those books again." But I have always operated on the assumption that I wouldn't see them again, that people living outside might have bigger things to worry about than returning their books to the street library, which is why it's so exciting that I've already had about five or six returned, with patrons seeking me out on my shift and checking out a new book. So the response from the patrons has been overwhelmingly positive. I've had a lot of them thank me for stopping to say hello, for taking the time to have a conversation. Also, lots of people who don't live outside stop and ask about the project, inquire about donating books, etc.

One thing several folks have brought up in web comments is that public libraries already exist, and anyone can use 'em. Can you address that issue? What about the idea that this is something "upper middle class white people" like because it makes them feel good, but it isn't necessarily making real change?

Multnomah County Library is a really kickass library system, and a great resource for people. They have volunteers who deliver books to social service centers, where some homeless or formerly homeless might be. They also provide space for people to sit and read, or use computers. So that's great. But to get a library card, and be able to check out books and carry them off, people have to show proof of an address, and that's something my patrons don't have. So I give them an official Street Books library card, with my hours of operation and contact information. We agree to look for each other the following week, or weeks, during my shift, and that's how it works.
Not sure I understand the "upper middle class white people" question. Do you mean that UMCWP will walk by my library and feel better because they see someone is fraternizing with people living outside? Or do you mean that it's just the kind of feel-good redemption story that UMCWP are looking for, something that allows for a little grubbiness, but just in a story, and with a tear-jerker finish? I don't tend to create or discard projects based on who might get behind them. I think if we thought that way, we'd never make or do anything, for fear someone might hate it or, God forbid (depending on their race and socioeconomic status), support it. What I can say for certain is that I've had really great conversations with people who are African-American, Native American, White, and a mix of everything, and some of them are living outside and some are living inside (in probably nice houses), and we've talked about books, how James Frey made stuff up in his memoir, how Louis L'Amour's son just isn't the same writer his dad was, and I'm not sure it matters about what the upper middle class white people think. I actually believe that many people of means would really like to help a person living outside, but because of fear, of assumptions from both sides, no conversation happens, and it's either give change, or just walk by. There are more options, I think.


How have you decided what books to include?

That's been pretty random. Things I like, mixed with requests from patrons. I had a great conversation on my very first day with a firefighter named Fred who asked how I decided what to stock in my library, and I said I wanted to have a bit of everything, and not inflict Jane Austen on somebody who needed more of an escape, and it was funny because Fred said, "Don't let the guys know," (and he gestured behind him at the fire station) "but I love Jane Austen." And he talked about his favorite titles. But I try to have a bit of everything.

Are you partnering with any local literary organizations?

Robyn Steely at WRAP donated anthologies their students have published. Other organizations that have been supportive: Mercy Corps, Street Roots, 2nd Glance Books, Microcosm Publishing, Bohemian Vintage.

Why is it important that the project has a documentary component?

I always invite my patrons to be photographed with the book they've checked out, but make it clear they can opt out. I've actually been surprised at how readily they pose with their book of choice — I've only had two young guys decline to be photographed, compared to about 35 patrons who said yes. The documentary component is intended to help me track the people I've served and the books that have come and gone, but of course it's more than that. I think that each portrait of the patron with their book of choice is a compelling look at a person who is living outside this summer, in Portland, Oregon, 2011. That's what I want to document. They have first names like Mark and Danny and Pamela, and they like to read philosophy, or detective novels, or feel-good stories. They each have their histories, and it shows on their faces. They go to sleep and wake up just like all the rest of us, but they do it outside.

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