Growing tomorrow’s libraries
February 28, 2012, 6:37 pm
Filed under: Uncategorized

Just a quick update today:

We were excited to read this post from Nate Hill at the Public Library Association encouraging public librarians to actively shape the future of their institutions as sites of knowledge production, rather than just consumption. This is something near and dear to us at the Green Garage library, and something that we’re still figuring out how to do for our own community. (That, of course, is going to be part of the fun over the next few years.)

We were especially struck by this sentiment:

“The new public library needs to establish itself as an institution with a commitment to the production of knowledge just as deep as its existing commitment to the consumption of knowledge. The public library needs to be involved in all the touchpoints of the creative life cycle rather than just the beginning and the end.”

And this:

“The future I propose and the means by which libraries might create it requires an intentional shift; no future is inevitable.”

Hear, hear! We love learning about other innovative librarians who are giving serious thought to the value of the knowledge in their communities in addition to knowledge that’s passed down through books and other media. It’s the great transformation that makes library work so exciting right now, and that will keep us innovating into the future.

In related news, David Lankes’s transformational Atlas of New Librarianship, a text that was influential to us when we were building the foundations of our library, has just won the 2012 ABC-CLIO/Greenwood Award for the Best Book in Library Literature, issued by the American Library Association. The new mission for librarians that Lankes articulates (“to improve society by facilitating knowledge creation in their communities”) remains a touchstone for us as we grow.

Signs of the times? We think so. The future of the library is all about the knowledge of the community. But as Nate Hill says, it’s up to us to make that future a reality.


New year, new librarianship
January 24, 2012, 5:14 pm
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Happy New Year from the Urban Sustainability Library! It’s been a fun and challenging few months as we officially made ourselves available to Detroiters with questions about sustainable living. And without any traditional advertising, the questions have been coming. They’ve emerged from conversations happening at the Dally in the Alley, on a city bus, at parties, over Facebook and email, and at the Green Garage with folks who simply walked in from the street and wanted to chat. The new reference desk, as we see it, is everywhere.

And the questions (31 so far and counting!) have been exciting and diverse. The manager of a neighboring apartment complex asked for help setting up a recycling program in his building, a designer asked if we knew where to find used brick and cinderblock to create raised beds for his garden, and a group of Wayne State engineering students were looking for scrap steel for a bridge-building competition. Several people asked specific questions about increasing the energy efficiency of their homes and businesses, and a budding urban farmer needed help determining soil content and finding drainage information for particular areas of the city. Our two latest requests, meanwhile, are from popular local businesses looking for help greening their operations.

It’s easy to see how inappropriate it would be to use traditional library resources to meet these information needs. (“Excuse me, where’s the book on the best sites in Detroit to find old cinderblock?”) On some level, we knew this would be the case from the beginning. (We designed the library around the questions the Green Garage had been receiving even before it had a library, using a permaculture-inspired design model that starts with careful observation of an existing system.)

Often, when I tell librarians that the Green Garage library is non-traditional and that books aren’t our focus, they assume that we’re concentrating more on electronic resources (like licensed databases) than books, as is happening in many academic libraries. That’s not entirely incorrect, since we have a wealth of information available digitally on our wiki (we have some books for loan, too), but even something like a database of articles is, for our purposes, unnecessary. The information we’re most interested in is much less fixed than that; in most cases, it lives inside members of the Green Garage community.

If we want to differentiate information from knowledge (according to the data/information/knowledge/wisdom hierarchy that every library & info science student studies until they never want to talk about it again), it’s clear that what we’re really concerned with is the knowledge of our community, not recorded information at all.

The shift from thinking about libraries as repositories of information in a variety of formats to agents that facilitate the exchange of knowledge between community members is a profound one. (And once you make it, it’s hard to go back.) This emerging function of libraries (one of many new exciting roles we find ourselves performing these days) takes all kinds of fascinating shapes, such as the Australian Human Libraries project, which seeks to mitigate social strife by facilitating conversations between diverse community members, and the Douglas County Libraries’ recent efforts to tell community members’ stories in the form of live theatre. (And, of course, it’s not just librarians that are seeking to understand and make new and productive use of a community’s knowledge; see Detroit Public Radio’s Public Insight Network for one example of another kind of organization that is leveraging community knowledge to a valuable end.)

What’s especially exciting about this work is the potential it has for real, sustainable community-building. Margaret Wheatley famously wrote that, “Rather than worry[ing] about critical mass, our work is to foster critical connections,” and that rings especially true in a place like Detroit. With every request, we have the valuable opportunity not only to connect people with information, but with other people. And the more connected people in Detroit become to one another around the universal subject of living sustainably, the stronger we believe our communities will be.

New, community-focused universal library symbol designed by Aaron Schmidt

Our challenges in this new paradigm are becoming clearer as we keep working:  to get to know our community members (our “collection,” for all intents and purposes) and the depth and breadth of their knowledge, and to connect them to others who would benefit from that knowledge. And then to keep track of it all, both for organizational/workflow purposes and to measure our success. (We’re using a Google Docs spreadsheet.) And to create a knowledge commons by publishing information and encouraging community members to do the same. (We’re using our wiki, Facebook, Twitter, and YouTube, so far.) And to tell people what we’re doing, so they have some sense of what new librarianship can look like. (Hello, that’s this blog.) And to keep trying to do it all better.

The library at work: BreezeCab
November 21, 2011, 4:55 pm
Filed under: Uncategorized

A couple posts ago, we talked about the work that the the Urban Sustainability Library did to support Mend, an emerging sustainable furniture business. We’d like to continue the discussion of how librarians at the Green Garage are participating in business development (and determining best practices for embedded small business librarianship) by turning to another business that’s currently being grown in the greenhouse: BreezeCab.

BreezeCab, owned by Victor Bothuel, is a Detroit-based pedal cab company, providing visitors the opportunity to travel short distances in the city via an Earth-friendly bicycle taxi. It’s been around since 2007, but Victor wanted to overhaul the business, sharpen its focus, and establish a new business model that would better position the company for future success.

Victor with one of his pedal cabs

Members of the Green Garage community, including local business leaders and cycling activists, have been working for months on BreezeCab, gaining an understanding of how it already works, participating in anything-goes brainstorming sessions for possible new directions, determining the various urban networks (or ecosystems) in which it exists, assessing potential risks to its success, and determining the “3-D,” or triple bottom line, nature of the business, among much else. (To get a better sense of the work that’s been done, check out the BreezeCab wiki page.)

Susan Connelly Murphy, a Green Garage librarian who also holds an MBA and owns a market research/business intelligence company, has been part of the process the whole time. Along with the other embedded librarians at the Green Garage, she’s helping redefine community-focused librarianship in Detroit by actively participating in small business development from the very beginning.

During the BreezeCab development process, Susan’s experience and skill in information work encouraged an interest in BreezeCab’s ecosystems, in particular. One of the earliest understandings that the BreezeCab group came to about the business was that it was more connected to downtown and midtown Detroit’s hospitality and entertainment ecosystems than the city’s transportation ecosystem. (Riders in Detroit typically use pedal cabs to travel between major events, like sports games, and restaurants, hotels, and parking lots, whereas automobile cab riders crisscross the whole city.)

Susan started with this understanding and worked from there to make a Google map of a typical BreezeCab route, determined with the help of Inside Detroit. This valuable visualization was populated by downtown’s major hotels, sporting and entertainment venues, and about 20 or so restaurants: BreezeCab’s downtown ecosystem. Victor’s thinking of turning the map into something he can give to his passengers who aren’t familiar with the city, and he’s also figuring out how he can use it to generate advertising revenue.

When combined with Susan’s experience in market research, this work on BreezeCab’s ecosystems becomes potentially even more valuable. She’s noted that when it comes to entertainment/dining market data that could potentially be of use to BreezeCab, the lowest, most granular level currently available is for the whole Detroit metropolitan region (what kinds of food regional restaurants are buying, for instance, or what broad trends diners have come to expect).

But Victor’s pedal cab drivers, shuttling passengers to and from restaurants, hotels, and events, will have the opportunity to collect highly specific, hyperlocal, “street level” business intelligence that will be of use to both Victor and the businesses themselves. (Think: What’s the service like at that restaurant? The cuisine? The atmosphere? Who would it appeal to? What does one hotel have to offer over another? How friendly is the staff?) This kind of information-gathering will not only build community connectedness and understanding, it will create real value for the new BreezeCab, positioning drivers as knowledgeable agents, ambassadors on behalf of a city that is, famously, hard to really “get at” without insider information. With Susan’s help and perspective, this focus on street level data has become extremely important in reshaping BreezeCab. Victor wanted us to make clear how instrumental her contribution has been to his business’s transformation, citing “not only her information-gathering ability, but also her energy and her willingness to listen, envision the possibilities, and bring them to life.”

Her involvement didn’t stop there, though. She’s currently documenting the whole BreezeCab development process, something that will establish best practices for future embedded library work at the Green Garage. We’d say that the business greenhouse sessions are idea factories, but we’re trying to avoid the loaded language of industry — let’s say instead that they’re abundant idea gardens. Not all of the ideas will be of use to Victor, especially from the earliest design sessions, but there’s no telling what power an off-the-cuff observation might have down the line, or how valuable it will be for him (and others) to have all the ideas available in one place. Susan’s collected the various documents that were created during the brainstorming sessions and is in the process of scanning/photographing them and transcribing them into BreezeCab’s publicly accessible Wiki page.

Here she’s applying more traditional librarian skills, determining how the information can best be organized, making determinations about what’s more or less relevant, and making it all accessible. It’s important work, not just for Victor and BreezeCab, but also for the rest of the librarians at the Green Garage so we can apply this strategy to future businesses in development.

This is the new embedded librarianship, as we see it at the Green Garage. Librarians are involved with growing businesses from the very beginning, applying their skills and interests in information work and community-building to add value to the businesses and the development process. It’s pretty new ground, as far as we know, though if you’ve heard of something similar, we’d love to hear about it!

So far in this blog, we’ve spent a fair amount of time talking about librarianship at the GG as it relates to small business development, but that’s not all we’re doing. We’re also helping everyday Detroiters live more sustainably by referring them to knowledgeable members of the extended Green Garage community (people, as it turns out, are our best and most useful collection) — look for an update on that work next time!

Designing a sustainable library
October 7, 2011, 5:17 pm
Filed under: Uncategorized

The Urban Sustainability Library has a new home! Thanks to Chad Dickinson, a furniture maker from Nashville who recently set up shop in Detroit, we now have a thoughtfully designed and beautifully built library inside the Green Garage.

The library is one of the first things you’ll see when you enter the building from its Second Avenue entrance (along with two more of Chad’s incredible pieces, a welcome desk and bench). Situating the library so that it’d be immediately accessible to visitors was important to us, since it represents a point at which the communities inside and outside the Green Garage intersect. We believe that if we’re going to successfully help people in Detroit make more sustainable choices, our first steps must include having meaningful conversations and building supportive relationships with them. The physical library was designed to facilitate those conversations.

Several concerns guided the library’s design and construction. We wanted it to be semi-private, at once part of the larger Green Garage environment and intimate enough to encourage one-on-one and small group conversations. We also wanted the design to reflect several core Green Garage values:  accessibility, transparency, and acknowledgment of the past-present-future continuum that we’re all part of. We wanted the space to be repurposable, as well, keeping in mind that styles of learning vary by person, and that our work will surely change over time.

These concerns were met by two relatively simple, dominant design elements: an L-shaped shelving unit made of 3/4” birch plywood and a walnut peninsula table.

The collection seemed bigger before...

The generous shelves, to start, are being used to house a small collection of books with a focus on sustainability. While we don’t expect most of our work to involve books (we’re thinking of the Green Garage community as our most important collection), we’re all book lovers and believers in their transformative power. We’re also conscious of their value as familiar symbols to community members, who might be thrown off by a library without books. But the shelving unit does much more than house books: for one, it establishes the semi-privacy of the space, enclosing it comfortably while not reaching so high as to cut it off from the rest of the building. It also allows for repurposability, as individual shelves are easily removed to transform the spaces behind them into display surfaces.

What’ll we display? That’s where the past-present-future part comes in. The Green Garage building and its surroundings have a pretty fascinating history. When we began deconstruction in 2008, we found a number of documents and artifacts from businesses that previously occupied the space (most from between the 1920s and ’40s). We’re thinking about hanging some of those materials from the shelves, as well as historical photos of the building and its immediate surroundings.

The building in 1922

We’re also going to display work produced by the Green Garage’s learning communities. From our library meetings to business development sessions and the conversations taking place in the sustainability labs, there is an abundance of new ideas being generated at the Green Garage all the time. Many of our design sessions result in the production of wonderfully illustrated diagrams that render these ideas in organic forms. (We’ll share and explain some of our library designs in an upcoming post or two.) By hanging these illustrations from the shelves, we’ll display some of the ideas that are currently animating the Green Garage’s growth, and provide a window into what Detroit’s sustainable future might look like.

Green Garage "org chart"

David Lankes, whose book The Atlas of New Librarianship provided us with a conceptual framework for our library, writes that a library is not the heart of its community, as common wisdom holds, but rather its circulatory system, facilitating the vital flow of information to community members. One way we’re applying this principle at the Green Garage is by hanging work produced in our learning communities from the physical library itself, giving the ideas new life outside each individual learning community and making them accessible to anyone who walks in the door.

Finally, the intimate quarters and beautiful table were designed to be a place where conversations happen. We don’t have a reference desk, with a clearly defined space on one side for the librarian and the other for the member of the public. We have a table: a place to meet, one on one or in groups, a place to talk, and a place to learn from each other. The table leads into the shelving unit, terminating at a wall that can double as a projection bay.

Members of the library group getting a surprise visit from Chad (right) during our first meeting in the new space

Chad, whose process is heavily influenced by the work of the architect Christopher Alexander and his classic design book A Pattern Language, constructed the library using the natural building method. (Check out his philosophy page for more information about what motivates and informs his practice.)

Chad during construction

The shelving unit is made out of plywood harvested in the US. The two individual pieces that form the L are not glued together, but connected with fasteners (from Perry’s Screw & Bolt Corporation, a family business that’s been in Detroit since 1919). As a result, at a time well into the future when the unit has outlived its usefulness, it will be easily deconstructed, allowing its materials to be repurposed rather than thrown away. The black trim is made from leftover oak and ash used for the Green Garage’s hardwood flooring, and provides important structural support in addition to contributing to the piece’s bold aesthetic. The walnut table, meanwhile, is hand-joined to a Douglas fir base, making it, too, easily deconstructable. Chad sees these natural, internal reinforcement systems as metaphors for healthy, sustainable communities. We are stronger, the library’s design suggests, when we support one another.

The library at work: Mend
September 2, 2011, 12:32 pm
Filed under: Uncategorized

What value can a librarian bring to an emerging small business? That’s an important question for us as we consider the future of a profession in transition. For the past several years, public libraries have concentrated on providing entrepreneurs with meeting space, educational and networking programs, and targeted collections, like books and specialized databases that offer access to market research data.

Those are good and valuable things. But at the Green Garage Urban Sustainability Library, we’re trying to think beyond inviting entrepreneurs into the library (whether physically or digitally) to use collections and attend programs. We’re figuring out how we can embed librarians within emerging businesses to help them succeed. Our team of librarians is intimately involved in the process of growing sustainable businesses in the Green Garage business greenhouse. The work we do emerges from the conversations we have in the greenhouse, and varies based on the unique needs of each business.

Finding new ways to work with business owners and communities in Detroit is an exciting challenge, and we’re looking forward to sharing our experiences with you as we learn and grow. For now, we’d like to tell you a story — what we’ve all agreed is the first great story to come out of our work so far:

It starts with Jason Peet, who’s been doing construction work at the Green Garage for the past year and a half. Jason, a resident of Detroit’s West Village, is developing a sustainable small business called Mend. The idea behind Mend is to reclaim wood from historic Detroit houses slated for demolition and use it to build uniquely designed pieces of furniture. Jason is interested in uncovering information about the former inhabitants of each buildings in order to learn and tell their stories, stories that will in turn become an essential part of each piece. In effect, he’ll be breathing new life into old wood that’d otherwise be discarded, and bringing Detroit’s richly textured history into his customers’ day-to-day lives.

Jason got a chance to put some of the ideas he’s been developing in the business greenhouse into practice when a West Village property owner requested the demolition of a run-down house on Van Dyke. The West Village Neighborhood Association, of which Jason is a member, had to decide whether or not to grant the request to the property owner. (She intends to fill a nearby building with retail outlets and wants to use the lot for parking.) The Neighborhood Association is generally against demolition, urging property owners to renovate their properties instead, but an inspection of the house revealed that it was in such bad shape that the cost of renovation would have been well above its market value. Down, it was decided, the house would come, but not before Jason could get his hands on some of the wood.

Front, extensively modified (some would say remuddled) over the years since 1885.

Back. This side, with the single second story window and more steeply pitched roof, provides a better sense of what the house looked like as originally constructed.

In the meantime, Martha Peterson, a Green Garage librarian, history buff, and research fanatic, was busy trying to piece together the story of the house. (It was built around 1880 but extensively modified in the years since.) She’d been a part of Mend’s development sessions, and had identified historical research as the area where she’d be most valuable. (And as something she could do gladly. There’s a rule at the Green Garage, where much of the work is done on a volunteer basis: do what you love.)

She and Jason got started in the Burton Historical Collection of the Detroit Public Library, where they found the massive Polk City Directories, invaluable indexes that list every commercial and residential property in the city and their residents/owners from the late nineteenth century until the 1970s. From the Polks, Martha and Jason made a list of the house’s residents over the years. Martha then used her membership at to find out more about each of them.

She struck gold with Winfield Dubois (pronounced doo-BOYZ), who was listed on Ancestry simply as an “Engineer – Lakes.” Intrigued, she plugged his name into Google Books and learned from excerpts from a few different books that Dubois was the Chief Engineer of Detroit’s White Star Line. He was also the engineer of the Tashmoo, the line’s flagship steamer (built in 1900) and one of the fastest ships on the Great Lakes.

Winfield Dubois (and his mustache)

The Tashmoo, further web searching revealed, was involved in a famous 1901 race on the Great Lakes known as the “Race Between Two Centuries,” a 94 mile run from Cleveland, OH to Erie, PA that pitted the ship against the steamer City of Erie, built in 1898. The Tashmoo didn’t win (in fact, it lost by just 45 seconds), but the race forever cemented its –and Dubois’s– place in regional history.

The Tashmoo (not exactly a model of clean energy)

After uncovering this incredible story, Martha returned to Ancestry and used the site to contact Dubois’s great-grandson, who lives in Ann Arbor and was able to provide her with more information, including a few photos and a 1901 article from the New York Times that refers to the race as “the most noteworthy contest ever sailed on fresh water.”

What a remarkable history was hiding in the walls of that dilapidated West Village house! By piecing it together, Martha has given Jason a great story for his furniture, for sure, but also identified a niche market. Maritime history enthusiasts know Dubois’s name well, and Jason is confident that when he’s ready to build and sell pieces from the house’s wood, he’ll have little trouble finding interested buyers.

So what value can a librarian bring to an emerging sustainable small business? We’re excited to figure that out at the Green Garage, business by business (and librarian by librarian). For Mend (so far) we’ve honed in on historical research as one important contribution we can make. Using a host of resources (most freely available to the public), Martha was able to uncover an exceptional story and identify a promising niche market. Together with other members of the Green Garage community, she’s actively helping Jason develop a business that will keep Detroit’s remarkable history alive by literally reshaping it, piece by piece.

Jason & Martha with the reclaimed wood

We’re also delighted to report that Jason and some friends are starting a seasonal West Village beer garden near the site of the house. Its name? The Tashmoo Biergarten. The party starts on Sunday, September 25th, and will continue for the following four Sundays, from noon to 9 pm each day at 1416 Van Dyke. See you there!

Hello world!
July 5, 2011, 3:41 pm
Filed under: Uncategorized

Hi there! We’re the Green Garage Urban Sustainability Library, and this is our introduction:  to folks in Detroit, to people who want to live more sustainably, to librarians the world over who are interested in new kinds of librarianship, and to anyone else who might be interested in what we’re up to.

So what’s the Green Garage? (You mean you haven’t heard?!) In a nutshell, it’s a sustainable business incubator in Midtown Detroit. Housed in a historically & sustainably renovated 1920 Model T showroom, we’re providing space, resources, and the knowledge and wisdom of the local community to new, sustainable small businesses. What’s a sustainable business? Think people dedicated to keeping restaurant fat, oil, and grease out of the great lakes, turning it into biofuel instead; think a local pedal cab company, committed to green transportation in the region and looking to develop a new business model; think designers re-claiming wood from buildings slated for demolition to make unique pieces of furniture enlivened by the buildings’ history. (Those are three businesses being grown right now in the business greenhouse, a community-centered model of small business development.) The Green Garage is a home for innovative entrepreneurs committed to a triple bottom line, lifting up their businesses (and metro-Detroit) economically, environmentally, and socially.

The Urban Sustainability Library is an essential part of the Green Garage. We’re a team of people (some professional librarians, some not) who are committed to helping people in Midtown Detroit (and beyond) make more sustainable choices. We consider ourselves a new kind of public library, eager to help individual community members and local organizations improve their sustainability literacy. Our mission is to help people and organizations make more sustainable choices. In support of that mission, we believe that:

  • Everyone has a right to the information needed to make these more sustainable choices.
  • Making more sustainable choices is fundamentally a learning process.
  • Choosing more sustainable ways of living is more likely to be successful when the person is connected to an encouraging community.
  • Each person’s journey into a deeper understanding of sustainability is unique and they know best what’s sustainable for them.
  • We are one of many resources people have available to them to help them make more sustainable choices.

In addition to improving the sustainability literacy of the local community, we’re also dedicated to adding value to the businesses being grown in the greenhouse. In that way, we function a bit like a corporate or special library, embedding ourselves with the developing businesses to help them succeed.

We’re probably not the kind of library you’re used to. We believe that traditional models of librarianship are largely insufficient for the kind of work we do, and that we have an obligation to think differently. We’ve been guided in our thinking by the information requests the Green Garage has already received from the community, as well as the recent work of R. David Lankes, whose Atlas of New Librarianship articulates a new way forward for a profession in transition. Lankes’ new mission for librarians is this: to improve society by facilitating knowledge creation in their communities. Sounds simple enough, but in that brief mission is a fundamental re-orientation, away from physical collections as our primary concern and toward the community itself as a valuable, complex collection with ample knowledge to share. It’s also a shift away from librarians as passive agents, staying in the library and waiting for the community to come in and ask for help, and toward being active, getting out of the physical library, meeting the community where it is, and generating valuable information ourselves. We see ourselves as information activists rather than archivists, believing that librarians today and into the future have a vital role in improving society by connecting and empowering their communities.

We intend to use this blog as a place where we can articulate what we’re about in more detail, profile projects we’re working on, and trace our development as a growing, changing organism. We have a lot of work to do, and a lot to learn — we hope you’ll join us along the way!