Laura Moulton is focused. Even during a bustling meeting of the Portland Correspondence Coop with typewriters clickety-clacking, she can talk as if we are the only people in the room. I tell her about my projects on a local poet; she tells me about her writing practice and classes she teaches. We agree to keep in touch via letters instead of texts and email.
But even before meeting in person in January 2020, I knew about her. Years beforehand, I wanted to take her class on The Lost Art of the Letter. Of course, as a fan of bikes, books, and libraries, I knew about Street Books, the organization she founded in 2011 that uses a bicycle-powered library to provide people who live outside with access to literature.
As I prepared for our interview, my questions were mostly about operating a street library, especially since my art practice is focused on publications, libraries, and what happens when they’re mobile instead of fixed inside a building. But I sensed that I was missing a key question: how Street Books relates to a socially engaged art practice. Our interview quickly revealed that the art happens when books, bike, and librarian intersect with their public.
Laura Glazer: How do you explain Street Books to kids?
Laura Moulton.: I think the Street Books formula is pretty simple and it might be the same to kids as it would be to grownups, which is just that we are a bicycle-powered mobile library and we focus on people living outside or at the margins that might not access the mainstream county library. And that’s for reasons of systemic barriers like not having ID, not having an address. And I think that I would describe to a younger person that the core magic of Street Books is connecting with a person and getting them a book and getting them a good story and offering them another world outside of the world they’re sitting in at the moment, if they can use that escape.
Laura G.: Does that escape work?
Laura M:. I think so. I’ve seen it so many times with patrons who are keen to kill an afternoon. A lot of the challenge of living without shelter and not having a spot to put belongings and things like that is just the tedium of killing a day.
And I’ve definitely had interesting conversations with people over time where they’ve looked for something that would just transport them, whether it’s sci-fi or fantasy. Or in the case of Ben Hodgson, who is now part of our team, he used to weigh whether to just kill an afternoon or to sort of enlighten himself. Given that he’s an incredible reader, it was always a dilemma for him. Would he go with something that he called kinda “garbage books” or would he go with something a little meatier for his brain to tear into?
Laura G.: Is Street Books a social practice project or a community service project?
Laura M.: I think a lot of social practice projects often look like community service projects because there is a beneficial component to a community. But in this case, I feel like it began very much as a social practice project in its conception. I imagined rolling out this beautiful library, this sort of rolling case of curiosities, and drawing people in. And I imagined the conversations that we would then have.
In terms of it being community service, I think from the beginning this has felt to me like more of a collaboration, and that is because I’m showing up, and I’m showing up with books and reading glasses, but there is no requirement that says to a person that they have to come and engage in a conversation. Maybe they do want something like a book, and then they want to disappear. But what I found instead is that people facing enormous challenges in their lives, like, “What am I going to do next, where am I going to sleep tonight?” are willing to come and greet me or whatever librarian is at the shift and have a conversation about books. And in fact, bring their own insights and their own history with reading.
Every encounter with the Street Books library is interesting and most of them are a little bit mind-blowing. I always leave having learned something or re-situated the way I thought about a thing. I look at it very much as, Street Books does provide a service—there are books, there are reading glasses—but the community component and that collaboration is something that I think has always had a life of its own and always been ever-present in those interactions.
Laura G.: That is such a great explanation! We spend a lot of time in this first year of the program and maybe throughout our time in the MFA really defining social practice. I was just in a workshop last night, talking about that exact thing, and I wish you had been there because that was perfect!
Laura M.: It’s funny. I was looking back through notes I’d taken and I was looking at [Nicolas] Bourriaud. It’s that idea of relational art, and the thing that I liked was the idea that instead of encounters between a viewer and an object, it’s encounters between people that is the art and that is the practice and the work of community. Just the idea that the meaning is reached or encountered or elaborated on collectively, rather than in an individual consumption kind of way.
So we create this little intersection and people happen upon us, or they come and they say, “Hey, it’s the book lady. Do you have my book this week?” And I’m like, “Yes, I have your Gwendolyn Brooks poetry collection. How are you doing, Pamela?”
We are not distributing sack lunches. We’re not handing out Q-tips one at a time, which I once watched this Russian Orthodox church do and it was really super bizarre. [Laughs] They would come to the corner of Fourth and Burnside at the Right to Dream Rest Area and they had like tweezers or something. I can’t remember what they clamped them in, but they would hand out Q-tips one at a time. Maybe they wanted to just make sure that a guy didn’t walk away with three Q-tips instead of two. [Chuckles]
But anyway, it’s that idea that maybe the best social practice projects are the ones that benefit the community who take part in some material way. Like maybe there is a new revenue stream created. Maybe a young person is empowered to become a printmaker when they didn’t know what printmaking was. That is, to me, the best outcome. And it’s certainly not baked into a requirement for a successful project to be realized. But if it’s not, if it doesn’t somehow empower a community or make a shift in that direction, I don’t have as much interest in it.
I feel like the emphasis should be on participatory exchange in an authentic way. So it’s not one person offering a sack lunch to another, if that makes any sense.
Laura G.: Based on what you’ve heard from patrons of Street Books, what’s their perception of the interaction?
Laura M.: I think that people are really grateful to see us, that’s for sure. I remember that this project was supposed to be a three-month, neat little Regional Arts and Culture Council (RACC)-funded project. And when I biked to Skidmore Fountain, as it was starting to get cooler in the fall of 2011, there was Keith, waiting with his books to return, and he checked out new ones. I realized all of a sudden this was not something I could just fold up and say, “Thank you for the great art project guys, good luck out there,” because he was camping in the West Hills and coming down to connect with Street Books and get more books. And he was a serious reader and a serious patron. That’s an example of the level of commitment and loyalty people have had over time, the community that’s been forged.
The other piece of Street Books that’s been interesting is we have made it one of our missions to build a bridge—constructed of literature—between our patrons and the housed community who might be doing pretty well, but also recognize the importance of a good book and love books, too.
I’ve seen incredible conversations happen that feel like I’m listening to a workshop at a college level. Like a conversation between a guy named Mark who lived at the Right to Dream Rest Area and a housed dude who stopped to say, “What is this thing? what is this project?” They talked about Frankenstein and Mary Shelley, they talked about who was the real monster by the end of that book, what was Shelley’s intention and what was her message. I was in the background just having my mind kind of blown. I know that the guy who would go home to a house that night also was changed because he walked away reflecting on the fact that he’d just had a pretty heavy, interesting conversation with somebody who lived in a tent at the corner of Fourth and Burnside.
In terms of how patrons react and what the project is like to them, I feel like they are part of forming this community and they certainly have a lot of stake in it. We have had patrons come to our defense when needed, which was rarely, but they have been very loyal to the street librarians.
I had a bike stolen that was recovered within a week. Thanks to putting the word out on the street. It was stolen while I was out on the shift with the big Street Books bike. When my patrons heard that somebody had pinched my bike while I was out on a shift, they were livid and put the search on and it came back. One of my street librarians actually, Pépe, helped me recover it. There’s that kind of community at the street level. If you saw that German documentary, you saw one of the women outside of Sisters of the Road, just saying, “this library is not afraid of people out here. They treat us like we’re human there.” Of course that’s the case, right? But that is not what we see at the city level.
Laura G.: At what point in your life did you realize you could talk with people…that you could connect with conversation?
Laura M.: It’s funny, my dad used to make me do stuff when I was a little kid, like make phone calls to ask about hours of opening or go into a store and ask for something. I remember hating that because I felt shy and a little bit scared about it, but it actually served me in terms of daring to start a conversation with someone or take something on in terms of addressing something or someone. I have loved conversation with people, I’ve been fascinated by humans for forever.
I’ve thought about the genesis of Street Books and one of the things I loved was hearing stories from people that were different than me or that had had a different life than I had. I grew up Mormon and I was going to Brigham Young University and I worked at this place called the Food and Shelter Coalition. Basically, guys would hop off the train or they would drive up in an RV. It was a lot of folks living outside or out of vehicles that would stop in to get a meal. They often had emergency shelter just in the form of a voucher for a night or two at this hotel called the Hotel Roberts, which was so wonderful and dilapidated and classic, but now it’s been torn down.
I was tasked with overseeing getting the meal going and also arranging for this emergency shelter. They sat at this desk in this little waiting room as a result, and I had the most amazing conversations. At the time I was so sick of this shellacked, religious shininess up on campus and these guys—even though I would not want to romanticize their situations if they were not loving being on the road—those were such interesting conversations and I soaked them up.
I think conversations have been part of what I love from an early age. That conversation in the very beginning with the first person that was living outside with a backpack was way more challenging than I would have thought because I realized how audacious I’d been in writing that RACC grant.
I realized I had never broken down what that would feel like, to approach someone who is sitting on a piece of cardboard or who was waiting at the MAX train stop with a number of pieces of gear that would indicate they’re outdoors. It was really scary for me to make that approach and I did so somewhat apologetically and like, “Hey, I don’t want to bother you.” I did have a guy holler at me that first season when I started my spiel, “Hey, I have an outdoor library here. And I wondered if…” and he was like, “No!” But aside from that, people were always cordial, even if they felt like they weren’t up for a book and they didn’t really want to have a conversation.
I didn’t get in their face. I gave them an easy out if they wanted to be unbothered and keep going. I was very aware of that space and not being like, “Hello, I’m doing a service and I’m here to make your day.” Nothing like that. It was always just about, “Hey, I’m running a library here. Could you use a good book today? No fees, no fines. There’s no money.”
Gradually I got more confident and more recently now I’ve been really grateful for the excuse to say hello to someone who’s clearly outdoors and maybe struggling and to strike up a conversation; it’s like the ultimate pass. I don’t have to avert my eyes and walk around someone. Instead I can say, “Hey Mike, how’s it going? I haven’t seen you in awhile.” It’s been a huge game changer from that angle.
Once you know a person’s name, you’ve got all the tools you need to greet them warmly the next time you see them. That is a gift that Street Books offers the fleet of eight librarians now and the board of directors. Everyone who’s involved has been able to have this opportunity to connect with people that were like statistics or that were the sad food bank advertisement with the nicotine-stained beard and the sad expression. It’s access to one another, which I keep coming back to: when we have access to one another in an authentic way then we’re going somewhere together.
Laura G.: How you would do it differently as you were setting up Street Books, if you would do it differently?
Laura M.: I’m not sure I would do anything differently. I think that part of the magic was maybe leaping or finding myself out on that bike, biking around and suddenly a little bit terrified about what I might have taken on. I feel like I gave people plenty of space, which I think I would do again. I think that was a really important part of it.
When I say it’s important to have access to one another, I also mean respecting someone. If somebody’s outdoors, they have no door you can knock on, they have no walls to protect them from other humans. If you’re outdoors, you are extremely exposed to the public and to the commons. Sometimes that means a great conversation with someone, but sometimes it means abuse. Probably more often than not, it means abuse or being swept or random kicks in the ribs at night.
In terms of whether I would do anything different, I think I would still be very careful about the approach and giving people space. But I think I’d be less afraid that they wouldn’t be receptive, because of course, humans, when approached with kindness and a gesture, under most circumstances are glad to return it.
Laura G.: In hindsight, would you have done different research on the community you were intending to serve?
Laura M.: I’m sure that I could have been better researched in terms of the numbers of folks on the streets and the factors involved in them arriving there in the first place, but I’m not sure that I would have changed up too much. I feel like my method was basic, and was pretty organic. I biked around downtown and just watched for where people congregate and that’s where I chose my two spots.
I started out Wednesdays at Skidmore Fountain and Saturdays in the Park Blocks outside the art museum. That was just based on a square in each case where I could see that people were sleeping and congregating. The next summer, Skidmore Fountain had been swept and I no longer went there because there were no people camped there.
I was lucky at every turn for the way I was received, and the way people responded. The passersby of means who were headed to houses or apartments stopped often and were really intrigued and excited about the project and would offer books. So, I got inundated with book donations that first summer, we got good press, which was totally accidental. We were in the Mercury and I think The Oregonian and there were some nice articles.
Laura G.: Why was it important to you to work with people living outside?
Laura M.: I was coming off that other ungainly rolling, beautiful object, which was the Object Mobile at Portland State University and I was imagining what I could create that was mobile again. I don’t remember the process by which I landed on a library in the street, but I will say that for me in thinking about audience, which I think of like the community that becomes part of a social practice project, I think I was intrigued by the notion of drawing people in who rarely get invited to be a part of a project.
The way we treat people living outdoors is: maybe they’ll be included back in the fabric of things once they have their shit together, or once they have an apartment or once they have fulfilled these metrics that we have somehow decided makes for a happy life. I was intrigued at the notion of starting from where everyone was and seeing what we could do, and seeing what would happen when people were invited who rarely got invited, or who rarely got to be known because they were defined already by where they were sitting outside the art museum, or what they were wearing, or how many bags they were carrying. It was kind of an experiment to see who would come, who could participate, who might benefit from it, and it was a happy outcome.
I feel like it’s something that took up its own momentum and drew together really fascinating people that were in all stages of outside on the way to inside. Some folks who have gotten into apartments still check out books from us, which is pretty awesome. They often will say, “I can’t find what I need at the public library, can I get it from you guys?” That’s always kind of a shot in the arm, you know?
Laura G.: I see that you have the title of “street librarian.” How did you come up with that title?
Laura M.: Oh, man, I love that title. It’s like the best job I’ve ever had and it’s funny ‘cause we made it up. I guess I had to design that job title, but the street librarian with Street Books for me is someone who is ideally comfortable with a range of life experience. We try to make sure that we have librarians on the team that have lived experience outdoors or are living outside.
We hired a guy one summer who was living in his van. When I said, “Man, is this a lot for you to balance?” He said, “No, I can drive and park where I need to be a librarian.” I was thinking of the ways it might be hard and he was thinking of the ways it was more convenient in a way.
Our librarians typically are readers and love to talk about books, but they also maybe have lived experience outside or a social service background. We tend to get folks who are interested in this work because they’ve done similar work, and maybe this is refreshing because it’s stepping outside of some traditional transaction in social service work where someone’s required to do some things, to hit some metrics, to make some marks on a to-do list before they’re able to access this next thing.
The beauty of Street Books is “no fees, no fines.” These books are for you. If you’re experiencing living in a car, staying at a shelter, living outdoors in the city, this project was designed exactly for you.
It’s not for the person that is listening to a podcast running in spandex that stops to say, “What is this?” In that way, it’s kind of deliciously exclusionary. If you can go to Powell’s and buy yourself a book, keep going, you know?
I think the librarians are somewhat renegade, for sure. They’re not traditionally trained though we have librarians from Multnomah County that are on our board of directors. We use old-school library tricks like the card-in pocket.
I love the adhesive pockets inside the cover. Plenty of our patrons are like, “Oh, I remember these!” It’s sort of old school and we track what books go out and how many by the cards. We sort of operate from the idea that people will have more pressing concerns than getting their library book back to us. We invite them to return the book or to pass it on to someone who might enjoy it so that they know it’s not high pressure to keep it in super nice condition, which is also an impossibility in a rainy winter in Portland.
I think people appreciate the fact that there’s no money that has to exchange hands. There’s no fees, there’s no fines. Among our regular patrons there’s a great rate of return because they really make an effort to see us the next week and get our books back.
I remember a guy that was in his upper seventies named Fred, who came every week. When I tried to say, “If ever you run into trouble, Fred, and you can’t get these back, please just feel free to pass them on.” And he seemed kind of offended. He was like, “No, I’ll see you next week.” For him, that was a clear self-mandate.
Laura G.: I’ve watched a lot of the videos on your website and the German documentary from 2019 is especially good. I noticed there’s something special and unspoken that happens as you’re helping patrons pick out books. How do you experience those moments?
Laura M.: Early on I was so grateful for the little drawer that my brother helped me build on that bike because the Haley trike that I bought did not have that feature; it was just a box. The fact that I could pull that out and set the little kickstand underneath it so that those books were on display and then move back away from that meant everything in the beginning because people could amble by and just take a little gander. Then I would greet them from a distance and just say, “Hey, I’ve got books here. If you’re interested, this is a library, have a look.”
I remember that very first summer in 2011, a guy named Eric, who was a cowboy. He had a baseball cap that said “one way” that pointed to Jesus and he had these awesome cowboy boots—he was kind of a Wrangler, pearl button shirt guy—probably in his upper seventies when I met him. He just walked a wide berth around me for like a month and every day I’d greet him and say, “Hey, I got some, I got some books here, you’re welcome.” Finally, one day he came and then he just never left. He was an incredible Louis L’Amour fan. He checked out a cowboy book every week and I would save one for him so that I made sure I had one.
I encountered all kinds of reactions when I invited people to come look at the books. Sometimes they felt like it wasn’t for them. Sometimes they felt like they needed money and they wouldn’t be included. When I made that clear and I got better and better at saying, “This is a street library for people living outside, no fees, no fines. You’re welcome to take something if you see anything you’d like.”
I would say, “Is there anything that you’ve been meaning to read or an old favorite that you’d like to look at again? We take requests and I’d be happy to bring it to you next week.” That was a great way into a conversation about books and about their favorite authors.
Very quickly someone could say, “I love crime, fiction, anything by Ann Rule, or true stories.” Over time, you get to know people’s likes and then it’s such a pleasure; you can see in them when you say, “Hey, I have the newest blah, blah, blah and I had you in mind, do you want to try that out?” They feel seen and recognized as the reader that they are and with the tastes that they have.
I also see people who haven’t had great access to support and good education when it comes to reading or loving reading, so they are less inclined to read or feel like their skills are limited. I’ve plugged them into more basic texts over time. Children’s books, graphic novels, things like that.
We can definitely adjust and plug someone into what is a good fit for them. I love gently teasing someone I know pretty well about what they’ve been reading or not reading, and joking with them and saying, “We want a full report on this next week. Like if this book on the power of habit really changes your life, will you come back and tell us? Cause I need some help on that.” There’s such friendship built into it and camaraderie.
Laura G.: When you were talking about the drawer being integral, can you say more about that? Was it that it allowed people that wide berth? Can you say more about the drawer? Can you describe the bicycle? That might be a good place to start.
Laura M.: The Haley trikes, I think they’re still being made, I think they’re out of Pennsylvania. I found one on Craigslist that was just basically a plywood box mounted on a tricycle.
It’s a box with two wheels on either side and then a little seat with the last wheel perched behind. I bought that for a couple hundred bucks off of Craigslist. In fact, I think the guy gave me a discount when I described what I was going to use it for, which is pretty cool. Gotta love Portland and bike culture!
My brother painted it for me, added this kind of neat classic looking wood trim, and then added this pullout drawer so that the little drawer would pull out and it has a row of books inside. It can do a couple of paperbacks end to end and I carry about 40 to 50 titles on the bike at any time.
I could pull this out and put a kickstand underneath it, then open the box and line the inner lid with books and just make it available for people to have a look at from a distance without committing. If they didn’t really want to be talked at, or if I picked up on a sense that they wanted to kind of scope it without too much chatter, I would definitely just sort of be quiet.
I write about this in the book that I’m working on with Hodge. I had the sense when he came up that I could have spooked him very easily. And that was the energy he was giving off at the time because he was really struggling, and he was really not up for much in the way of conversation.
I really had this sensation like I could have overdone it once and never seen him again. So I was very warm to him when I would see him, but I kind of left him be in the beginning and then he became more and more familiar, and more and more comfortable. I feel like that’s the story of many patrons who might’ve approached sort of tentatively to see what it was.
Laura G.: I’m just looking over my next question and I think you answered it really well, regarding the design and aesthetics of the bicycle connecting to the work of Street Books. I’ve heard you talk about it being a cabinet of curiosities of sorts. It creates a safe space around it, but it’s also a source of curiosity. Do you want to talk a little bit about that dichotomy?
Laura M.: I’m just now realizing that I can’t remember this artist’s name, but I bet you’ll know it right away. I went to the Tate in London and I saw these incredible cases, and it was based on excavations that this artist had done of the Thames River. Who is that?
Laura G.: That’s Mark Dion!
Laura M.: That blew my mind, the idea of reframing items in a museum context that had been refuse just before. Maybe it’s the same notion, like I’m creating this object of, I think beauty, but also oddness, in a cityscape when there is so much that’s just urban and not art; like cold surfaces and steel and stone and nothing that throws a surprise at you, or that causes you to wonder.
I liked the idea of creating something that causes someone to pause and maybe wonder or admire, and then be intrigued. It’s like a set of reactions and those have to do with being surprised by what you have encountered.
Laura G.: I noticed that in one of the interviews that you’ve done, there is a mention of the five laws of library science.
Laura M.: I vaguely remember that. I loved that interview, but it’s been a while since I looked at that.
Laura G.: Are those part of what you think about?
Laura M.: Can you remind me what they are? And I’ll tell you if I think about them.
Laura G.: They’re beautiful. The first law is books are for use. Second law, every reader, his or her book. Third law, every book its reader. Fourth law, save the time of the reader. And the fifth law, the library is a growing organism.
Laura M.: Wow, where are those from?
Laura G.: In 1931 S.R. Ranganathan proposed them as his theory of library science.
Laura M.: I would love to say that we have fully embodied that and that that’s integral to our mission, but I haven’t even thought about that in a few years. I will say that Hodge —who lived outdoors when I first met him and all these years later, has an apartment and is a street librarian for us—has a quote: “Street Books is the real community college. The university is a collection of books.”
It would be interesting to try to get people college credit from standing around, having the conversations that we do, reading the books that they do, returning the books, and giving a sort of sometimes half-assed report. Street Books is such fertile ground for ideas from books, conversations about those ideas and a larger sense of ourselves as humans and what’s possible.
That’s the other thing. I’ve been really on a “what’s possible” bent, reading Parable of the Sower by Octavia Butler and Emergent Strategies by adrienne maree brown. Leaping from that idea of possible futures, and the way we get there outside of traditional structures or systems.
I feel like that’s something Street Books has been able to do well. The fact that we’re still going 10 years later after this three-month art project, speaks to that idea of people showing up, loving an idea and just never leaving. That certainly describes our staff and our board and our librarians and our patrons and such support over years, sometimes by the same people outdoors for some time, willing to come back each week and find us for more conversation.
Laura G.: Is there anything you would like to include that I haven’t asked you about?
Laura M.: I would just offer up Street Books as an example of a kind of project that offers the opportunity to create a space. That grants people access to one another in a new and safe-feeling way. I would love for projects like it, or projects of a similar nature, to proliferate across the globe because it feels like that might be what we’re lacking: access to one another in a genuine way where everybody’s safe to be their full selves.
Laura Moulton (she/her) is the founder of Street Books, a bicycle-powered mobile library that serves people who live outside in Portland, Oregon. In 2020 she created the Truth & Dare workshop, an ongoing contemporary arts and writing adventure she offers to high school students. Moulton is a writer-in-residence for Literary Arts and an adjunct professor at Lewis & Clark College. Her social art practice projects have included postal workers, immigrants, incarcerated women, and students. She earned an MFA from Eastern Washington University. www.lauramoulton.org
Laura Glazer (she/her) is a first-year student in the Art and Social Practice Masters of Fine Arts program at Portland State University. She graduated from Rochester Institute of Technology with a Bachelor of Fine Arts degree in photography and lives in Portland, Oregon. An avid letter writer, she is a member of the Portland Correspondence Coop and creates artwork at the intersections of photography, design, publishing, and curation.
The Social Forms of Art (SoFA) Journal is a publication dedicated to supporting, documenting and contextualising social forms of art and its related fields and disciplines. Each issue of the Journal takes an eclectic look at the ways in which artists are engaging with communities, institutions and the public. The Journal supports and discusses projects that offer critique, commentary and context for a field that is active and expanding.
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