Thoughts regarding the People’s Library of Wolfenbüttel

Marshall Weber in Wolfenbüttel, September 2019

Before I start this essay about the People’s Library of Wolfenbüttel at the Herzog August Bibliothek I would like to thank the many people who made this ongoing project possible. To thank each individual would take up this entire essay so I apologize but for brevity’s sake I will thank the staff of each collaborating and sponsoring institution: Herzog August Bibliothek, Bundesakademie Wolfenbüttel, Curt Mast Jägermeister Foundation, and Booklyn. I also give a special thank-you to all the participants who studied and created artists’ books (and continue to do so) in the People’s Library workshops. I am very humbled, grateful and proud that this exhibition of the People’s Library will be open to the town of Wolfenbüttel, the surrounding area, and to all who visit the Herzog August Bibliothek.

One of my primary goals for the People’s Library was to convey the fact (and the experience) that museums and libraries are undergoing a vast shift in functionality. In the past, museums and libraries were primarily places where people of privilege went to study to get information, to look at things, but in the 21st Century this passive functionality has changed and we need to update our pedagogy in order to keep up with the new societies forming in the digital era and in the era of global climate crisis. We need to actively open our learning institutions to larger and more diverse populations, we need to make them active spaces where things are not just studied but where things are made and published and talked about in group conversations.We need to make learning active, we need to make creating books as important as reading books. We need to share the skills of production, to provide practical resources for all people to share in both material media and digital media. You may ask why we need to do this. Well I would answer that there are three very important reasons.

One is that our academic and cultural traditions have failed our children, we leave the next generations with a world in the middle of an incomprehensible mass extinction that might even end homo sapiens. We leave our children in a world still controlled by arms dealers and capitalists who have militarized our societies and exploited every resource and species. Only by engaging the next generations in the knowledge contained in material culture such as our community and cultural centers, our libraries and museums, can we provoke the interest in those resources from younger people. And with their contemporary knowledge and the knowledge of the past and the diversifying of the population of people who get to participate in global civic discourse perhaps we can find some solutions to rectify the damage of capitalism, militarism, racism, and misogyny.

Two, young people get bored with their phones and computers and that moment offers a great opportunity to introduce material culture, to teach book making, printmaking, zine making, and art making in general. Many young people who are given the chance to make something with their hands, to publish their own news, to tell their own story, to offer a solution to one of the world’s problems, will engage with that skill for the rest of their lives. They will relate to the book as something that they can read and write. It’s a relationship with active components and myriad possibilities.

And three, while teaching how to make things with one’s hands is important for young people (in part because it is antidotal to some of the more toxic qualities of ‘virtual’ culture) it is just as empowering and inspiring for people of any age. The idea that all of us, not just the experts, have contributions to make to the discourse of art, culture, literature and science is an important one. It’s a true pillar of democracy.

Give a person a fish, and they’ll want you to give them another fish, teach a person to fish, and they’ll bring you a fish in gratitude. Give someone a book to read and they will become more knowledgeable, teach a person how to make a book and they will give you a book to read and you will become more knowledgeable, and they will be more confident of both their abilities to read books and to create books. In making something we understand that thing more. By inviting our local and regional communities to participate in making books for our libraries and for each other we activate the entire community in a cycle of appreciation and empowerment.

It is in these kinds of crowd sourcing activities that we acknowledge that we are all experts, and as Joseph Beuys said we are all artists, and we all deserve to participate in not just passive relationships with our great cultural institutions (such as the Herzog August Bibliothek) but in active and reciprocal relationships.

It should be made clear that the books that compose the People’s Library of Wolfenbüttel were donated by the people who made them. They were given an opportunity to participate in free workshops and they reciprocated by providing the people of Wolfenbüttel, the people of Lower Saxony, the people of Germany and ultimately the people of the world to share their books - also for free!  So, a generous, and generative relationship is born.


Marshall Weber, Brooklyn, NY, March 2020