Open Environments Contribute to Creativity

Librarians get stereotyped. Old ladies. Hair Buns. Glasses on chains. Shushing. Always reading books. Libraries have their own stereotypes. Books, books and more books. Very quiet. Lots of bookworms sitting around reading. Finger puppet story hours. Maybe some computers for research. Kind of deadly dull. In general – the image suffers.

Words like excitement, novelty, learning and especially creativity, are rarely associated with the library. For those in the know, like the librarians who run the place, today’s libraries and their workforce tend to defy all those old stereotypes. Sure, there are still lots of books, but there are other spaces that community members are pleasantly surprised to find when they do finally visit the library.

Increasingly librarians want to position the library as a community space that contributes to personal and group creativity. Hence, the great interest in maker spaces. But there’s more beyond that and according to new research, the environment we design for community members can make a significant difference in stimulating their creativity. What matters most is designing a space that fosters a culture of openness in the community – in itself a rather unique experience these days.

Librarians who want to explore such possibilities may be interested in a new book, Geography of Genius: A Search for the World’s Most Creative Places, from Ancient Athens to Silicon Valley. In an interview with Knowledge@Wharton, author Eric Weiner shares what he’s learned about the connection between place and creative genius.

In his research about the places where creative ideas emerged throughout history Weiner developed the concept of a “genius cluster”. That’s a particular locale, where at a particular point in history, lots of creative ideas were brewing and the advance of civilization was sparked by the exchange of genius. Here’s one of his examples:

Look at Athens as an example in 450 BC. You had Socrates. You had Sophocles. You later had Plato and Aristotle. All in the same city at roughly the same period of time. Not a coincidence — and not just a Western phenomena.

What was the common thread that links together these clusters through time and space? In a word – attitude. But it was a particular type of attitude.

Weiner describes it as “openness to experience”. He says that this trait of being open to new ideas and experiences is the single most important thing in the development of a genius cluster. No doubt libraries, or some form of information/knowledge collections were also present where these clusters emerged, but to what extent if any they served as a catalyst is unclear. When you consider what institution, over the ages, is a source, nourisher and defender of openness in the community, it is the library.

Public libraries are open to everyone. Academic libraries, less so, but many welcome anyone who wishes to enter. Libraries are spaces where ideas are openly shared. They are, or should be, safe spaces for community members of all ages to access needed information without fear of privacy invasion. Simply by their nature of bringing together people and content together, they can lead to collisions of open discovery and idea exchange.

Librarians are emerging as architects and global champions of cultures of openness in the institutions and communities where they exist as evidenced by library leadership in advancing open scholarship and open learning.

If we believe there is value in Weiner’s ideas, then we should position the library and librarians as engines of creativity in the community. At the 2016 American Library Association Conference I attended a session on building trends. The architects who study and design library spaces emphasized the importance of open, naturally lighted spaces where there was a high level of intuitive way finding.

Those using them can easily see what they seek to find without barriers that cloud their experience. In other words, emphasize openness. Design was presented as a powerful tool to create spaces that ignite the spark of creativity in those who dwell in them.

Did Weiner discover any other contributing factors to genius clusters? It turns out that alcohol may have played a role. Shocking indeed! Wine and scotch are particularly notable as being present in those times and spaces that birthed great creativity. Perhaps that makes a better case for wine at the library – and not just for those occasional community events. Openness + wine = creativity? Now there’s a formula worth considering.

Author: StevenB

Steven Bell is currently Associate University Librarian for Research and Instructional Services at Temple University, and was previously Director of the Library at Philadelphia University. Steven is the author of two regular columns published by Library Journal, From the Bell Tower and Leading From the Library. With John Shank he is co-founder of the Blended Librarians Online Learning Community. Bell and Shank are also authors of the book Academic Librarianship by Design. Bell’s latest book is Crucible Moments: Inspiring Library Leadership. More information is found at his website.

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