Reinventing the Library, then Reinventing it Again: Why I’m Here

By     Jun 26, 2015
Creative Community Fellow

Nell Taylor

Reinventing the Library, then Reinventing it Again: Why I'm Here

Creative Community Fellows is a program that I wish would have existed when I was first starting what would become Read/Write Library nine years ago. Now that I've come to realize the extent of the restructuring needed to sustain the organization, I’m grateful that this program gives me an opportunity to approach it with fresh eyes. It's rare that you get to actually act on the notion of "What would I have done differently, knowing everything I know now?"

I'm also grateful that over all these years, others have finally recognized that support and scalability are important for community-based, grassroots projects and organizations. The fact that Creative Community Fellows has put its trust in all of us and our ideas speaks volumes after seeing so many capacity-building or professional development programs with a qualifying budget threshold so far beyond our means. I appreciate the work that has gone into developing the alternative credentialing approach for this program, especially as traditional funding resources have become scarcer, making existing budgets an even less consistent predictor of future innovation.

As we scramble to stay afloat, many of us smaller orgs have had to develop atypical, adaptable program, business, and partnership models that can be a source of inspiration not just for one another, but for larger organizations and municipalities who now find themselves having to do more with less. A program that not only values community projects but acts as connective tissue between them and more established organizations fills a critical void in the new arts and culture economy. We all have to rely on each other more, but thankfully it’s never been easier to share our knowledge.


Putting (a Little Too Much) Theory into Practice

Starting an organization when you’re 23 with no formal nonprofit or business background poses some challenges — namely yourself, in my case. Being the founder, I thought it was on me to be responsible for everything. Not necessarily the doing, as I had no problem recruiting volunteers and delegating, but definitely in the planning and strategy-setting. At the time, funding or a business model seemed like a nonstarter for a number reasons. Given that our library’s mission is to collect and raise the visibility of media from people of all backgrounds who write the history of a city — professional and nonprofessional, literacy student to academic, no judgments based on perceived quality, marketability, or monetary value of the object — keeping our barriers to entry low was essential to the collection, but even more so for access to it and the tools used to interpret it.

The most critical consideration was keeping the decision-making about the collection, access, and programs open to the community, which made me uneasy about recruiting a fundraising board that might limit or undervalue the in-kind contributions and labor of people who had the time, energy, expertise, and community organizing skills to meaningfully participate, just not the money. We felt that if this program were to truly able to be replicated by other communities regardless of their own resources, we had to prove that a distributed model that made room for and was adaptable to everyone’s contributions and strengths could work. We found ourselves fighting so many battles and trying to prove out so many theories at once that we couldn't give any of them the attention they actually needed.

Getting Out of My Own Way

My own background was also a factor in our approach to funding and business model mechanisms. To put it simply, I was raised in an environment where being resourceful, creative, and figuring things out were the greatest values, along with working very hard for little personal return. In the past year or so, I reached the tipping point where this was no longer an asset, but a liability. My boyfriend once joked that my ability to delay gratification was nearly pathological, and I didn’t find it funny, only true.

My uncomfortable relationship with money and always finding ways to get things done without it led me through some pretty amazing experiments and achievements, but it also led me to jump through a ridiculous amount of hoops to try to legitimize the organization and prove myself as a leader. We would show our track record of programs and outreach and public recognition to potential funders in the hopes of scaling, and I remember being completely dumbfounded — on a deep, almost physical level — when they would ask how we were funded and we would show dozens of line items of in-kind support and hundreds of volunteer hours all totaling tens of thousands of dollars, only to find out that just “doing” wasn’t enough. Feeling the gut punch of being told that not having a paid employee meant that “we didn’t have skin in the game” after half a dozen years of having the library as my second full time job (unpaid) alongside other brilliant and generous people who gave so much of themselves. It's hard to hold up the work as its own reward after that.

It wasn’t until I began working as a technology consultant and Read/Write Library began partnering with larger organizations that I started to understand what budgets actually looked like. I began to value my own time more and am starting to develop a different relationship with money as I've realized that having time and ability and energy are just different forms of privilege and that being able to create jobs to sustain our organization and ensure the collection is developed effectively and accessibly (and that our staff can support their families) aren't in conflict with community input and self-determination.

So I am excited about continuing to gain perspective during my time as a fellow and sharing my hard-earned experiences — they are legion. I am also still determined to work on new models that do affirm the value of different kinds of contributions, perhaps not just for media, but towards new means of recognizing and sustaining more open and participatory organizational models. Maybe the work isn't its own reward, but it should count for something.