Rediscover an Overlooked Hotbed of Creativity: The Library

jefflibraryI was a terrible employee at my first job – but for all the right reasons. I was 17, and my favorite place on earth was the public library. In retrospect, assigning me to shelve recently returned books deep in the stacks was like hiring the proverbial kid to watch the proverbial candy store – I knew better, but I just couldn’t stop consuming on the job.

My library career may have been brief, but it was an important moment in a lifelong love affair that continues to this day. In my role as a creative strategist for Ketchum, I’m always seeking fresh sources of inspiration – and even in the Age of the Internet, there’s no better place for doing so than the public library (click to tweet). Here are a few reasons why.

The Building
For people who are accustomed to scanning the world from behind a desk, I can’t overestimate the power of accessing a wealth of information stored in a single physical location. The literal act of browsing in a library engages you on multiple levels by involving your body and senses as well as your mind, easing you into a more deliberate sense of pace and attention. It’s much like visiting a museum, except that museums generally don’t let you touch stuff, let alone bring it home.

The Books
Despite the many other services they provide, libraries continue to revolve around the printed page. You can find just about any book you could name, free of charge – but more valuable still can be finding books you can’t name. The Internet is rarely truly random – your ability to stumble on something completely new online depends on knowledge or connections that you already have. The library, conversely, can provide a unique series of surprises, convergences and juxtapositions as you wander past the shelves – a colorful spine or an unexpected title viewed from across the aisle can open up an entirely new direction of thought and lead you into a new imaginative landscape.

The Librarians
Librarians are long overdue for a re-branding – despite their undeserved reputation as buttoned-up, boring or strict, most of them are intellectually adventurous pathfinders of knowledge. They can do much more than just tell you where to find a specific book (besides, they have computers for that) – they can point you in fruitful new directions or make you aware of possibilities you never knew existed. Consider them potential collaborators in whatever creative initiative you may be working on.

The Other Resources
Of course, libraries are so much more today than they used to be. At any reasonably up-to-date facility, books will be supplemented by a full array of multimedia materials, access to research databases and opportunities to hear lectures or participate in workshops and activities, among other things. If you’re lucky enough to live in a metropolitan area, your library system will probably feature some amazing collections – to take an (unfair) example, the New York Public Library allows access to rare maps, prints, photographs and beyond, the physical handling of which provides a strikingly different experience than staring at them on your monitor (though most research libraries have online archives as well, accessible from anywhere, which are invaluable in their own right).

The Patrons
In providing a truly democratic community service, libraries play host to people from all walks of life, ranging from professional scholars to curious children to job seekers who type and print their resumes on public computers. What better place to observe – and even (gasp!) interact with – individuals and groups that you might not normally come into regular contact with? Few things are more inspiring than joining your fellow citizens on their own journeys of outreach and self-improvement, and your observations might lead to valuable insights or new lines of inquiry.

So next time you need to take a breath, get some new perspective or dive into researching a new project, put your local library at the top of your reading list. And when you run into a kid in the back who’s deep inside the book he should be returning to the shelf, tell him I said hi.