Library of Nearly Lost Moments

There is something really cool happening at the State Library of Western Australia. The Library of Nearly Lost Moments is a bit of an experiment but just the kind of thing I love, plus, it has been extremely popular!

The library is really collecting for its ephemera collection – all those transitory bits of paper that come in and out of our lives – but instead of a general call out, the education and outreach teams have come up with (thanks to some external inspiration) The Library of Nearly Lost Moments.

The idea is that the public come in and leave items for the collection – they can be any items. Yes, anything. Already there is a beer bottle, quite a lot of food, guitar picks, condoms, library cards, receipts, train tickets, toys…hundreds of items. The donor puts the item in a provided plastic bag along with an old catalogue card on which they can write a story (real or made up) and then hang it on the wall for all to see. The beauty of this is in the anonymity. There are some lovely, wacky, scary, joyous, brave stories up there. More than the library would have expected I suppose.

On the other side of the space, dug out of storage and awaiting disposal, are all kinds of obsolete equipment that the library once used. From typewriters to early Macs, huge machines that did now unknown things with transferring sound, an old card catalogue stand (awww), copies of The Times, maps, posters and more. Best of all, except for a few randomly selected items from the ephemera collection under glass in the middle, everything is supposed to be handled! Nothing – or only one thing, an old Mac – is tied down. I think the organisation deserves a medal for pushing this through doubtless red tape hurdles.

I love this exhibition so much I’m volunteering there for a few days over the next few weeks. During my first stint a steady trickle of people came in to look around – some staying for ages! Most of them added something to the collection and while I would have thought that 1-10% of visitors as contributors would have been expected, it seems that they are getting much higher figures here. I think this is for two reasons. First, the way it is laid out – the flow is perfect for buttering people up with all this quaint old stuff and then asking them to do something. Visitors don’t go in knowing they’ll do that; it is a surprise. The library  has done this very cleverly in a rectangle space too. The second reason is that, as Nina Simon would say, the feedback loop is closed. It is very clear that the feedback for your contribution is the joy of someone else reading it. The visitor has just read others and enjoyed them; they want to be part of that but don’t need to be specifically or personally identified, thanked or acknowledged. The ‘contract’ between the library and the visitor is neatly and clearly understood. People leave feeling happy at having contributed and know it has been meaningful. I’m keen to talk more to those running the exhibition about what they’ll do with all these stories they’ve collected. Especially for items that won’t fit into the ephemera collection. Just in a few hours I’ve already seen some themes emerging that would be great to be explored further.

Big congrats to the library for this exhibition. It is by far the best thing I’ve seen there.

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