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Bookless: Once in a Lifetime

Madison Public Library
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Innovation Summary

When our Central Library closed, we hosted a once-in-a-lifetime party featuring over 100 artists in the empty library space. The unique event brought together people of all ages and backgrounds to celebrate our library's past and generate excitement for our future library.

Problem Statement

Madison Public Library’s Central Library closed in November of 2011 for renovation and expansion. That day was nearly a decade in the making after two failed attempts to renovate or relocate the Central Library. We also wanted to counteract a growing negative perception of our Central Library as “no longer needed in the digital age” and “an expensive homeless shelter” by showing what the new space could offer to the Madison community. We needed to host a goodbye party that would both honor the 46-year old building and its past, while generating support and excitement for the new library, expected to open in 2013. We had no budget and very little time to prepare.


Trent Miller, Central Library’s gallery coordinator and an artist himself, had the idea to host a party in the empty building and invite artists to create one-day art installations in the unique space created by a completely empty library. He worked with Courtney Davis at the Madison Public Library Foundation to create a one-day event that offered a free, family-friendly daytime gathering and an evening party featuring live music and DJs, food, drinks, and interactive art activities. Over 100 local artists rose to the challenge, many integrating library themes into their work through use of discarded furniture, microfiche, and card catalog cards. Offices were transformed into landscapes. Book ends and magazine boxes were transformed into sculpture. Activities included a painting wall, card catalog souvenirs, handmade tshirts, a photo booth, and a Library Oracle who answered questions with poetic and literary flair. A QR code tour placed at intervals around the building showed what the spaces would look like after renovation.


Bookless attracted 5112 attendees in a single day. Over 2500 people attended the daytime Free for All event and another 2500+ people attended the evening Party in the Stacks event. The Foundation raised $29,000 from ticket sales and donated receipts from food and beverage vendors. Bookless took on a life of its own through social media (#bookless on Twitter) and through the personal networks of the participating artists, and was supported by the active professional library community in Madison. In addition to the success of the event itself, Bookless has strengthened our ties to local artists; to Sector67, a local creation space; to Library As Incubator Project from the UW-Madison School of Library and Information Studies; and to Madison residents who are excited to see the new library take shape. The event brought out long time employees and retired librarians as well as families with young children and many people in the 20-something demographic that we’ve historically had a hard time attracting. We increased our social media presence and audiences, made some new connections with local media as a result of the event, and we inspired staff to dream up additional ways to celebrate the new Central Library and to market our libraries in new and interesting ways. We set out what we meant to do – offered a way for long-time Central Library users to say goodbye to a building they loved, and created an event that lingered in the minds of attendees and associated the new Central Library project with an innovative, creative vibe that we hope to carry through to our new space in 2013.