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Over the weekend, I (and several other members of CityLIS) took part in two annual Fun Palaces events held in the Barbican Library and Clapham Library. The Fun Palaces initiative aims to, in the words of its organisers, facilitate “free, welcoming annual events combining arts and sciences, made for and with local people”. As such, it represents a wonderful opportunity for public libraries to promote themselves as community centres by hosting these events, within the ongoing repurposing of the institution itself as a dynamic social space for activities, collaboration and engagement, rather than merely a repository of physical items. This is particularly important in this country right now due to the current government’s continuing policy of austerity, which is threatening the effectiveness, and even the future, of many public libraries.

City University London was involved in organising two events this year, both of which were guided by professional public events creator Matt Finch. The first, which I helped out with during the morning at the Barbican, was a guide to serendipity in the library run by Stephann Makri, who specialises in Human-Computer Interaction; the second, held in Clapham and to which I defected after lunch, was a zine-making workshop led by the already oft-mentioned Ernesto Priego, whose research interests include the relevant areas comics and publishing.

Dr Makri’s research into serendipity is rooted in the age-old library (amongst others…) problem of how to effectively retrieve information. He and other academics have noted that library users often find information serendipitously—by chance, with a positive outcome—due to the simple fact that it exists in a physical form and must be laid out in a physical space. This means that a person looking for a specific book will see other books whilst navigating the library shelves, and will be able to form connections easily between them and their initial area of interest. By contrast, electronic information retrieval relies on ever more-precise algorithms to return only the most specific results; the overwhelmingly vast majority of electronic, online documents remaining invisible unless specifically searched for, hence reducing the possibility for serendipity.

The serendipity event involved Dr Makri giving a short presentation on the subject to the participants (as with all the Fun Palaces events, willing members of the public who were visiting the library), followed by a practical exercise in utilising various “serendipity strategies” to find new and interesting books on the library shelves. The subjects carried this out with aplomb, finding books that interested them in new areas of the library that they had not previously thought to explore, and also contributing their own techniques which they already used to encourage serendipity (even if they were previously unaware of it as a subject of serious academic research) to the project’s bank of data.

The second workshop, in Clapham, was completely different but no less related to issues affecting libraries. Under the leadership of Dr Priego, we encouraged children to make their own “zines” (short for fanzines)—a self-made publication collated from repurposed texts and images on a subject of the creator’s interest. To facilitate this, we provided a stack of recent newspapers to cut up and reassemble, in addition to access to the Internet, from which further items of interest could be printed. The finished zines were then photocopied using library facilities to encourage further dissemination.

The subjects of the zines made by the participating children included Chelsea F.C., information technology and luxury houses. The CityLIS people helping to run the event also made their own examples; mine was on the subject of cars and motorsport (above). The experience reminded me not only of my own childhood of undertaking similar projects, but more generally of a time before ubiquitous access to and use of the Web, when the creation and exchange of fan-made content had to be carried out without the benefit of computer programmes or social networks.

All in all, the Fun Palaces events made for an interesting and rewarding Saturday. After a year spent studying the theories, technologies and issues surrounding library science in a classroom environment, and working in an academic library, it was particularly beneficial for me to spend the day experiencing life in two public libraries, and how the subjects we have studied can have considerable practical significance in the real world.