Community Column: A Living Library

A Living Library brings multiple subjects to life through hands-on learning for students of all ages while greatly improving and transforming public spaces.

I was first inspired to design A Living Library, or ALL, for the space next to the main branch of the New York Public Library, now Bryant Park, in 1981. The original concept proposed interactive gardens based on the Dewey Decimal System, and international gardens to be developed with the United Nations and diverse consulates. As a systemic ecological artist, landscape architect, educator, and Smithsonian Laureate, I wanted to further develop my global vision of interconnected, place-based, content-rich gardens and landscapes as springboards for learning all subjects, and, in 1992, I incorporated Life Frames, Inc. as non-profit sponsor of A Living Library. Today, Life Frames works with schools and communities around the world to transform unused or underused public places into magical, green, ecological learning landscapes of wonder and delight, each called A Living Library.

Bonnie Ora Sherk
Bonnie Ora Sherk
Founder, A Living Library
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As the name implies, A Living Library brings multiple subjects to life through hands-on learning for students of all ages while greatly improving and transforming public spaces. One of Life Frames’ goals is to create place-based Branch Living Library & Think Parks in communities, both locally and globally. These branches will be linked through sculptural Green-Powered Digital Gateways, so that we can share and learn about cultures and ecologies near and far. Life Frames currently has several branches under way in San Francisco and one here on Roosevelt Island, and there is great interest in bringing ALL to Mexico City, Mexico; Udaipur, India; Chengdu, China; Sierra Leone, Africa; San Antonio, Texas; and other cities around the world.

Everyone and everything on earth and in space is part of A Living Library of diversity: people, birds, trees, air, water, and all the things we create, such as parks, gardens, schools, libraries, curricula, artworks, networks, communities. ALL provides a way for us to learn that culture and technology are part of nature. What is necessary is for us, as humans, to become more sensitive, conscious, and in better balance with diverse life systems and our environment. ALL provides a framework for understanding linked systems (biological, cultural, and technological), and incorporates local resources (human, ecological, economic, historical, technological, and aesthetic) as seen through the lens of time (past, present, future) in its research, planning, design, implementation, use, maintenance, management, and communications.

I was first introduced to Roosevelt Island by longtime resident and artist Arline Jacoby in 2001. I fell in love with the Island and the diverse community of neighbors living and working here. Then 9/11 happened, and the then-principal of PS/IS 217, Sherry Gregory, invited me to work in the school. We were determined to create a place-based, life-affirming, hands-on learning environment with and for the children and whole community.

Supported by a Ford Foundation grant to develop A Living Library Master Plan for the Island, we worked together with all community sectors: artists and gardeners; teachers and students from PS/IS 217; Coler-Goldwater staff and patients; Senior Center, Disabled Association, Historical Society, and RIRA members; international and multicultural neighbors; several officials from the United Nations; and many others. During the first year, we came up with an exciting, content-rich, Living Library Conceptual Master Plan for Southpoint (plan and WIRE article at tinyurl.com/wire2413), but many people in the community said, “We don’t just want to plan! Let’s create something tangible and real, now!”

We all worked together, and in 2002 inaugurated what has become our Annual Community Planting of the Living Library & Think Park Gardens in conjunction with Doryne Isley, Roosevelt Island Day, and the community. We have done this every year since, and this year celebrated our 14th Living Library Planting Day. The original Roosevelt Island Living Library & Think Park Garden in the PS/IS 217 schoolyard began in 2002, and transformed an unused open space and also developed large wood compost bins with the students. We also later developed an Orchard and Gardens on the river side of the School, expanding the School’s outdoor classroom space. Since 2002, we’ve worked with hundreds of students during the school day, after school, and summers with the Beacon Program, incorporating hands-on, interdisciplinary, standards-based lessons to bring math, science, history, language arts, multi-arts, technology, nutrition, health, and youth stewardship to life. Longtime resident and mother of three Lydia Tang says, “My children and I have been participants in this program for the past 13 years on Roosevelt Island, and know it to be educationally sound, environmentally beautifying, and personally inspiring. The involvement in gardening is basic for all creativity: taking raw material and using it appropriately to foster a new creation that benefits the participant, the whole community, and the environment. A few years ago, my son planted an apple tree in the new orchard behind the school while participating in this program. He couldn’t contain his excitement as he pointed out ‘his tree’ to me over the summer when we had to stop as we were biking by it on the promenade.”

This work with the students resulted in beautiful gardens at the school until about five years ago, when the scaffolding went up for school renovations and leveled our orchard and gardens. RIOC generously offered us the unused space behind 504 Main Street, soon to be the home of the new Island library. This new site is fantastic – centrally located, and much easier to access for all residents, including the disabled.

Now in our fifth year at the new site, the Roosevelt Island Living Library & Think Park has grown into a gorgeous place for the whole community. In addition to working with 217 children during the school day, and Beacon children after school and every summer, we are excited to launch a new program with the Roosevelt Island Public Library this summer: ALL Gardening/Literacy/Multi-Arts/Science / Nutrition/Local History Program for Parents & Children in conjunction with the Library and incorporating the Living Library & Think Park Gardens. Nicole Nelson, Branch Manager of the Island Library, says, “The ALL Gardening/Literacy/Multi-Arts/Science/Nutrition/Local History Program for Parents & Children will be a great partnership with A Living Library and the community to support literacy and science while enhancing the beauty of Roosevelt Island. It will also provide learning opportunities to understand diverse cultures, plants, and nutrition from around the world.”

This free program will be held on Tuesdays and Thursdays 2:00-4:00 p.m. July 7-September 3. We also plan to continue the program during the fall, and again next spring and summer. The pilot program is open to 25 families (children ages 4-14 with their parent, guardian, or caregiver) this summer. The flyer and application are available at the Library and online. We will also work with the Beacon Summer Camp children earlier each day throughout the summer. Come and grow with us!

Matt Katz, former RIRA President, says, “The new Roosevelt Island Living Library & Think Park Garden behind 504 Main Street is a Bonnie Ora Sherk gift to this community, and you may have seen children tending the garden on Roosevelt Island Day, and during the school year and summers. I, and many of my neighbors, have been happy to welcome Bonnie here, and to receive the bounty of her fertile brain with innovative uses of land that teach children, delight adults, and connect with other ALL Branches around the world.”

For more information about ALL, go to alivinglibrary.org/blog. You can see an overview of ALL at alivinglibrary.org/blog/omiexcelsior/presentation-bonnie-ora-sherk-living-library-goals-accomplishments. You can contact Bonnie Ora Sherk directly at 212-242-1700.

Tags: Community Column A Living Library and Life Frames

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