Santa Cruz Public Libraries Have Nothing at All to Do with Silence

The Inside Out project inside the Santa Cruz Public Libraries Downtown Branch.

When TED Prize winner JR announced his wish to turn the world “Inside Out,” inviting people around the globe to share a photo portrait along with a statement about what they stand for, Santa Cruz (Calif.) Public Libraries stood up to participate.

The Inside Out Project is a large-scale, participatory art project that transforms messages of personal identity into pieces of artistic work. Everyone is challenged to use black and white photographic portraits to discover, reveal, and share the untold stories and images of people around the world.

JR asks participants to identify a theme; here is ours:

The libraries’ most powerful asset is the conversation they provide—between books and readers, between children and parents, between individuals and the collective world. Take them away and those voices turn inwards or vanish. Turns out that libraries have nothing at all to do with silence.—Bella Bathurst, “The Secret Life of Libraries,” Manchester Guardian, May 1, 2011

We choose our Downtown Branch. We wanted the community to look at that building and see not the bricks or the glass, but the people who use the library, work in the library, and advocate for the library.

During May 2012, Joop Rubens, a professional photographer in Santa Cruz, stood outside the branch with library staff and asked people if we could take their photograph. “We’re going to put it on the outside of the building.” We showed them the quote and asked them to express that thought with their faces. You’d be amazed at how many people thought that was a great idea. We got so many portraits that we have 10' x 6' images outside of the building, and many more 3' x 4' images inside on both floors.

And so many volunteers! We had hordes of people of all ages as well as interns from the local museum to help us mount the art inside and out. We sponsored a successful Kickstarter and raised more than $5,000 from sixty-five contributors to pay for printing the outside portraits and for the equipment to hang the inside portraits (JR’s project paid for printing all the 3' x 4' portraits).

The project was launched on August 3, 2012. The reaction has been all that we hoped for. “It’s like the people are part of the building!” I can’t hear that enough. On the outside, Mother Nature will determine when the installation will end … it’s just paper and wheat paste on a brick wall. Inside portraits are more permanent, and will circulate eventually to the other nine branches.

But it isn’t over yet! On the first Friday of every month until the rainy season we will put up a new portrait by the front door. The portrait will be chosen online, and you can vote! Choose your favorite by September 7.

Max Eastman wrote: “It is art that makes life, makes interest, makes importance and I know of no substitute whatever for the force and beauty of its process.” We are living that in Santa Cruz … and not silently.