A Living Library:

Interactive Framework for Transforming & Linking Places — Locally & Globally

Bonnie Ora Sherk

An Invitation to You and Your Community to Participate
Now more than ever, we need to create positive, healing, and practical solutions for living, learning, and sharing together in our communities and on the planet. Creating A Living Library while celebrating and healing the Human Garden is an innovative solution.

A Living Library provides a vision and creates meaningful ecological and sustainable environmental and educational transformation in communities. A Living Library transforms sunken meadows and brownfields, urban sprawl and desolation, public parks and plazas, concrete and asphalt schoolyards, civic centers or undeveloped wastelands into vibrant and relevant multicultural community learning environments. These highly visible public magnets offer innovative and practical community and economic development and other benefits.

A Living Library develops themed, content-rich landscapes with integrated community programs, multidisciplinary project-based learning, and state-of-the-art communications technologies based on the local place and its people – past, present, and future. A Living Library is researched, planned and created by all sectors of the community, including seniors and students. With its emphasis on a social weaving of diversity, commonality, participation, and inclusiveness, it cultivates the Human Garden, thereby promoting social and environmental justice. A Living Library provides a practical and enchanting way to bring people together and celebrate life incorporating the local resources in a needed and relevant transformation process and outcome.

A Living Library demonstrates that culture, ecology and technology are linked and all part of nature. As a systemic framework and interactive transformative vehicle, A.L.L., for short, incorporates and interconnects the local resources:  human, ecological, economic, historic, technological, and aesthetic.

Life Frames, Inc., the non-profit sponsor of A Living Library, works with stakeholders in different locales to create these site and culturally-sensitive community learning environments that transform public places, incorporating the resources of the area. Ultimately, all Branch Living Library sites will be connected digitally — from San Francisco to Roosevelt Island in New York, to areas in other parts of the world, eventually forming a global network of diversity and commonalities, helping to promote world peace and social justice. When we learn all that we can about our local place and its resources, from that we can extrapolate and learn about the world.

We currently have three Branch Living Library projects underway at this time – two in San Francisco, California and one, in New York City on Roosevelt Island. Each site represents three diverse geographies — a creek valley, a hill environment, and an island. We invite other communities who learn of this opportunity, in the UK, or other places, to become part of our network, and develop A Living Library that incorporates the local unique resources — ecological, built, and multicultural.

Meaning of a Living Library, Think Park, and Life Frame: Connecting Fragments & Making Things Whole
The term A Living Library is a metaphor. Everyone and everything on earth is part of A Living Library of diversity — people, birds, trees, air, water — and all the things we create — parks, gardens, buildings, schools, libraries, curricula, artwork, computers, networks, businesses, ceremonies, communities. It is a holistic, conceptual and aesthetic framework and vehicle for linking culture and technology as part of nature, a fundamentally important systemic idea. A Living Library is also a Think Park, an environment meant to make us think, feel and become more empathetic. The term, Life Frame, refers to our perception of life and all the elements that we see. The Life Frame literally frames life so we can see it and experience it more profoundly.

OMI / Excelsior Living Library & Think Park, San Francisco, California
A Living Library & Think Park has been underway for several years in the intersection of San Francisco’s OMI and Excelsior neighborhoods. We have developed successful pilot projects and a Master Plan for future development. The initial target site for A Living Library includes three adjacent public schools (PreK-12) and surrounding land, which has been paved over with extensive concrete and asphalt, with little vegetation remaining in the area and each separate campus housing typically bleak, “factory model” schools with chain-linked environments. This low-income, historically under-served, multicultural community was once a fertile river valley, part of the Islais Creek Watershed. Housing and public buildings have been built in the floodplain over the existing creek, which floods the high school and basements of numerous homes yearly. Further development of A Living Library & Think Park here can help mitigate flooding as well as continue to bring the community together in a collaborative effort of transformation and learning. This area has also been home to the Muwekma Ohlone Indians and later historic farms and rancheros with abundant agriculture. Successes here with A Living Library, will impact other areas of the community in need of physical revitalization and community and economic development.

Initial projects of A Living Library & Think Park Garden & Streetscape Transformation have changed a weedy, unused area between two of the schools (Denman and San Miguel) into a bright, organic garden with vegetables, herbs, flowers and an orchard. Two streets adjacent to the three schools have been transformed into an environmental classroom with almost 200 native trees and other native understory vegetation, all planted and maintained by the students from the schools. An Artwalk has been created, transforming the chain-link fences into paths of visual wonder. Digital technologies will be integrated into these areas. Students and teachers work in these environments during the school day and in our innovative after school program, in which the middle school students mentor the younger students in gardening, ecological stewardship and related activities. Math, science, history, language arts, arts, and technology, among other skills, are brought to life through relevant, real world experience.

Above: OMI/Excelsior Living Library, San Francisco. Original site plan shown. Click the links to see a diagram of Learning Zones, and the Vision Plan.

South Bernal Heights Living Library & Think Park, San Francisco, California
A Branch Living Library is also underway in Bernal Heights. We have a children’s gardening program two days a week centered at the Junipero Serra Child Development Center, and are developing an exciting Master Plan for a unique Living Library Nature Walk linking several resources in the community: Junipero Serra Child Development Center, Junipero Elementary School, College Hill Reservoir, Holly Park, several streets, St. Mary’s Park, and other elements. These two San Francisco Living Library sites are part of the same watershed (Islais Creek) and will also be linked using state-of-the-art communications technologies and other programmatic opportunities with each other and other Living Libraries as they emerge.

Roosevelt Island Living Library & Think Park, New York City
Roosevelt Island, in New York City was planned in the 1970’s by a New York State redevelopment authority as a mixed-income community in the middle of the East River in New York City. It has a rich history of Native Americans, early Dutch, British, and American settlers, and later historic farms and many hospitals. It is currently home to many disabled and disenfranchised people of color, as well as many international workers from the United Nations, and is also home to a PreK-8th grade public school. Roosevelt Island will soon have an additional influx of new housing built primarily for thousands of hospital workers. Integrating these populations and disparate land fragments is part of the challenge of creating A Living Library & Think Park that will incorporate this rich mix of diverse cultures, ecology and history. Roosevelt Island is like a small town in the middle of a huge metropolis and has great potential to be filled with vital, active public spaces with integrated programs for its local multigenerational residents and nearby neighbors.

The opportunity is to link and involve these many human, ecological, and historic resources of Roosevelt Island, and to work together to create the Roosevelt Island Living Library. Initial stakeholders to involve include:  PS / IS 217, the After-School Beacon, Roosevelt Island Seniors Association, Roosevelt Island Disabled Association, Roosevelt Island Resident’s Association, Roosevelt Island Operating Corporation (RIOC), Roosevelt Island Visual Arts Association, the New York & Roosevelt Island Historical Societies, the community gardeners, theater groups, and business leaders. Building community and local leadership will occur while developing an exciting environmental transformation plan, that will result in an enchanting and newly defined series of physical places with integrated processes and community programs based on the local ecological, multicultural, and built environments of the area — past, present, and future.

Bonnie Ora Sherk was trained as a landscape architect, planner, and educator, and is also a professional artist who exhibits her work in museums and galleries all over the world. Her work has been internationally published in art books, journals, and magazines. She has been creating and implementing systemic design processes and Life Frame, Living Library, Think Park plans for sites around the country for over 20 years. For more information, visit www.alivinglibrary.org.

Photo copyright 2003 Wendy Roberts.

This article was originally published in Landscape & Art, Summer 2003.

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