Mark Strandquist and Courtney Bowles, the project’s co-founders Photo by Mike Freeman
As Mark Strandquist prepared to unveil a new bookshelf in the Richmond Public Library last month, he explained that it represents more than just a piece of furniture for housing bound volumes. Rather, he calls it a "counter-monument" for the city.
The case is an archive in the making. Labeled the "People's Library," it contains blank books that anyone can check out, write in and return, encouraging ordinary citizens to document their personal stories.
"This is about creating a monument that encapsulates all of our diverse histories, not just the monuments on Monument Avenue," Strandquist says. The project allows previously unheralded narratives to take their place in a public library alongside the tales of famous heroes. The autobiographies are instantly digitized for the permanent collection and are listed in the library's index and cross-referenced with other nonfiction works.
The concept of the People's Library was born in April as the brainchild of Strandquist and fellow Virginia Commonwealth University graduate Courtney Bowles. While students, the pair won a VCU Undergraduate Research Grant, funding the assembly of the books and bookshelf. Community members from small children to senior citizens helped laboriously recycle old, discarded books into blank pages at bookmaking workshops. In the weeks before launching the project, the duo hoped to have 300 books ready; they expect to have 1,000 by the end of the year. The project has gained nationwide recognition, including a trip for Strandquist and Bowles to the Open Engagement Conference in Portland, Ore., and an invitation to the Center for Books and Paper Arts at Columbia University in January 2014.
"I believe everyone's story is equally important," Bowles says. In a similar spirit, Strandquist seems most excited about the prospect of oft-forgotten souls adding to the collection, such as the lonely and imprisoned. He and Bowles plan to bring the books to prisons and nursing homes, so that even mobility issues do not preclude anyone from sharing their experiences.
Both are keen to emphasize that this is not just a yearlong project but an ongoing endeavor. "As long as the community contributes, it will grow," he reasons. "Hypothetically, it could grow to 10,000 in 10 years." One thing is certain — the People's Library is guaranteed to make history.