Stories from the Walking Library

Professor Deirdre Heddon (University of Glasgow) and Dr Misha Myers (Falmouth University) shared tales from their ongoing art project The Walking Library, as part of Innovative Learning Week 2015.

Heddon and Myers introduced the audience to the Walking Library project by referencing examples of literary figures who took books as companions on walks in the past: John Hucks and the poems of Thomas Churchyard; Samuel Taylor Coleridge and a book of German poetry; John Keats and Dante’s Divine Comedy. The Walking Library thus follows in a long literary tradition of the side-by-side practices of reading and walking. These practices beg the question: what does it mean to take a book on a walk? What do literary companions contribute to a journey? And how might location and mobility affect both the act of reading and one’s hermeneutics of reading?

The project has been exploring these questions since 2012: Heddon and Myers outlined the Walking Library’s journey, from its first walk as part of the itinerant arts festival Sideways in Belgium in 2012, to its transatlantic Nightwalking Library where walkers visiting the libraries of Palo Alto, to its most recent Bedrock Walk along the Thieves’ Road in the Central Highlands in association with the Royal Scottish Geographical Society (RSGS). Heddon and Myers’s presentation focussed on the details of the first walk, the 334km Sideways Festival walk across Belgium, using a network of underused and lost paths, and discussed their practices and reflections on books that are “good to take on a walk”. 90 books were carried by four volunteer “librarians” at a time on this trek.

For this walk, the first task was to choose the books. Their collection consisted of books on walking; books that spoke to the historical and cultural context of the walk; books that catered to the physical and emotional demands of walking in company; practical books for the walk; and books that dwelt on the utopian possibilities of walking. At the Lotegat Bunkhouse, near Menen, the walkers transformed the books into a library through the use of the antiquated accoutrements of archiving and cataloguing – catalogue cards, book pockets – and transformed a collection of books into a library through a performative act of librarianship. Each catalogued book carried its own library book card, its own autobibliography, explaining the reasons for its proposed inclusion.

As they walked through Belgium they added books, never refusing any offered, thus transmuting the Walking Library into an “archive of connections made”. At another stop, at the Culture Centre de Steiger in Menen, they set-up another site-specific library using materials found only at the site, which was a necessity that became an organising principle for later libraries. A methodology for exploring the relationships between readers, walkers, materials and environments began to reveal itself on the walks. By walking through both books and landscapes, reading on the move enacted wayfaring or “way-finding”; the purpose was not to experience books or landscapes as objects of knowledge. Instead, reading and walking took place side-by-side, co-constituting each other.

However, as their journey progressed, the wayfarers moved from dust tracks onto hot tarmac, stymying Romantic expectations of walking through a pastoral idyll with a book. When they collapsed at their camping sites, they found the book also offering a sideways space for sociality, being used as a shade or pillow. Throughout the walk, they read to people they met; received books with personal histories attached. Their mobile, ambulatory library not only reaffirmed a nineteenth-century commitment to free and open access to books, but also enacted the idea of library outreach during a time when contemporary mobile library services were, and are, diminishing in the UK.

At the journey’s end, they donated the entire library to the Sideways Festival, in the hope of facilitating new stories and journeys for the books and their readers.

The Walking Library is an ongoing art project. In 2013, the Library travelled to the Bothy Suibhne on the Isle of Eigg to install the library and build new paths by bringing books on walks. In February 2014, they returned to build new library connections with a local primary school. As the animated discussion at the seminar’s close demonstrated, the project draws our attention to the history of the edification of walking, to the romanticised attachments we have both to walking, as a contemplative act, and to the physical incarnation of the book, which we perceive as offering certain kinaesthetic pleasures unavailable via digital forms. At a time when certain UK bookstores are reporting increased demand for physical books and a concurrent slump in e-book sales, the Walking Library is a responsive and creative intervention in our ongoing love affair with the book as object.

Deirdre Heddon is Professor of Contemporary Performance at the University of Glasgow. She is the author of Autobiography and Performance, and co-author of Devising Performance: A Critical History (both published by Palgrave).

Misha Myers is a Researcher and Senior Lecturer in Theatre at Falmouth University. She researches and makes located, participatory and digital performance work.

Report by Muireann Crowley, PhD student in English Literature at the University of Edinburgh.

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