On the Saturday before Halloween, over the course of nine hours, teenagers in Telford, Cannock and Worcester will be taking control of their local libraries, and performing live to a worldwide audience online. The takeover is the culmination of a project called A Place Free of Judgement and the performance will unfold through the evening, travelling from one library to another. The teenagers will talk to live and online audiences about personal stories and strange ideas, creatively re-imagining libraries, story telling and their place in the world.
Over the past five months these young people have been attending workshops in participating libraries—Telford Southwater, Cannock Library, Worcester St John’s Library—in three separate library authorities, working intensively with Ju Row Farr of the multi-award-winning artists Blast Theory, and me. It is interesting looking back at my notes from when we started work back in the spring. "If you plan to use technology in the final piece," advised Blast Theory’s Nick Tandavanitj, "get participants using it immediately for making and creating: it is the on-ramp to the project."
We took that to heart, and the young people have been learning to use some pretty high-end kit—complex, up-to-the-minute sound gear, cameras and streaming technology—bringing their own creativity to bear, writing and telling stories and developing new kinds of interaction which will be put into practice live on the night, and which perhaps will also help to tell a larger story.
During the summer, Ju Row Farr and I wondered if A Place Free of Judgement was also becoming in part a kind of love song to libraries. It was clear that a project like this one could only happen in and through the public library network. The title A Place Free of Judgement refers of course to libraries’ fundamental ethos of access for all by right, and it stuck early on, yet all of this has been going on against a national and local backdrop of unprecedented library closures and organisational restructures the scale of which beggars belief. When so many libraries are closing and under threat, I’m glad to have seen again first-hand the vital role that libraries and librarians play for young people today, and to have been reminded of just how important my own local library (in Farnham, Surrey, where I grew up) was to me when I was their age. Libraries change lives—many of us know this from our own experiences, but also because we have asked people anew—and yet all around the country libraries and librarians have been seemingly under attack like never before. The young people we’ve been working with through the summer, some of whom have overcome many challenges to take part, have been actively supported in doing so by librarians who have stuck with it and carried on doing their jobs brilliantly, even as colleagues around them have been losing theirs. It has been heartbreaking to see this on the ground. But it has also been an active demonstration and reminder of libraries' invaluable and multi-faceted function in the community, and of the important pastoral role that highly qualified librarians play: vital roles that are not replaceable by volunteers, however well-meaning, nor by vending machines and online ordering, much less the recent and now notorious ‘gym-with-a-bookshelf’-type proposals.
As well as encouraging the young people to tell stories of their own, I am contributing a new work of fiction to the project: a story that might entertain participants and audiences, drawing on the myriad of conversations and material that has been generated along the way, but also as a means of sharing the creative processes involved in writing a story, and of reflecting upon this wider landscape. Zombies Ate My Library is a YA story in twenty-six short parts that will be broadcast as part of the livestream on Saturday. I will also be reading extracts from Zombies Ate My Library in live events at each of the three libraries in turn, starting in Telford at 3:30pm, and the story will be published by Blast Theory as part of a limited edition book about the project that is due for publication in February.
I am convinced that authors and publishers can use digital technology—and collaborations beyond the traditional book trade—to ‘rapid prototype’ new ways of reaching readers, to learn from these experiments and move on; perhaps creating knowledge rather than immediate revenue streams. Sometimes—as with my recent novel for the Science Museum, and the dedicated touchscreen e-book dispenser that we developed—this might be about using footfall and hardware to take books to places readers go. Working with Blast Theory on this (and previous projects such as ivy4evr, our interactive SMS drama for Channel 4, broadcast in 2010) is perhaps more about exploring the nitty-gritty and the intimacy of interactivity, and in this case livestreaming, which is beginning to be used creatively in other art forms, by theatre companies such as the International Ibsen Award-winning Forced Entertainment, say, but perhaps less so in literature. I know that I am not alone in wanting to explore the wider opportunities digital technology might offer me as an author, beyond e-books.
Blast Theory has been working at the interface of mobile devices, performance and gaming for some 20 years so has an amazing understanding of interactive storytelling and participation. Having that experience and knowledge effectively at my disposal over these past few months has been a privilege, just as it has been a rare privilege to work closely with the librarians and some incredibly talented young people.
Tony White is an author and he chairs the board of directors of Resonance 104.4fm. His next novel The Fountain in the Forest has just been acquired by Faber.
To take part in A Place Free of Judgement you can watch the livestream here, from 3pm to midnight on Saturday 29th October. In person, there will be readings by Tony White at 3.30pm at Southwater Library, Telford, at 6.30pm at Cannock Library, Staffordshire and at 9.30pm at St John’s Library, Worcester. The readings are free but tickets must be booked through Eventbrite.