The SXSW Interactive conference in Austin, TX, is all about bringing together different elements—technology, play, education, and branding—to create new and memorable experiences for the attendees. Last year, librarians Cindy Fisher and Andrea Davis (a 2012 LJ Mover & Shaker) raised the profile of the Libraries Archives and Museums (LAM) group at SXSW by organizing a conversation around #sxswLAM on Twitter and getting librarians and festival goers to sport the group’s signature zebra print.
This year, the sxswLAMers wanted to think of a way to get people to really ‘interact’ with libraries during the festival.
“We want to change people’s perception about what a library actually is,” said Fisher. “It’s not just a warehouse for books. It’s also a space for play and a space for digital delivery of content and for creating content.”
Inspired by the bicycle-powered taxis that shuttle around stranded conference goers during the festival, Fisher and Davis came up with the idea of a mobile pedicab library.
The library is a zebra-print lunch box tucked into the back of a pedicab and stuffed with old-fashioned paperbacks and digital LibraryBoxen.
Developed by University of Tennessee librarian Jason Griffey, LibraryBoxen are open-source, easily re-chargeable, and completely customizable in terms of what content they contain. These little wireless access points—mischievously plastered with pirate skulls in homage to their parent art project The Pirate Box—allow riders to download everything from out-of-copyright ebooks (as well in-copyright ones made open access by Unglue.it and other vendors, according to INFOdocket.com) to free music and movies using their mobile devices or laptops.
“SXSW is all about marketing for sale,” said Davis. “This is an experiment; we are creating something free for the community.” Indeed, the zebra print of the mobile library stands in stark contrast to the Oreos ads that plaster the pedicbab in which it’s placed.
In addition to typical library fare, SXSW LibraryBoxen were loaded with public data sets and other content from the Digital Public Library of America, which helped fund the project. (The University of Texas iSchool and EveryLibrary also helped with the project, according to a DPLA blog post.)
The boxes also offer web archives of memorials to Aaron Swartz, who left a mark on the Internet, and on SXSW, as an open data activist and one of the original developers of RSS feeds. At the time of his recent suicide, Swartz was being prosecuted for attempting to liberate the bulk of the JSTOR content, despite JSTOR’s urging the government to drop the case. Swartz inspired many panels and talks at this year’s conference.
The boxes went a step further to bridge the digital and physical worlds by allowing riders to download sample chapters from books being promoted by authors doing readings at SXSW, who they could potentially then go and meet.
“We wanted to have different content that would engage what we perceived to be our audience here at [SXSW],” Fisher said. “So the things that would maybe be on a Library Box in a different place at a different conference or maybe somewhere out in rural America would be very different than what we put on here.”
Only two of the mobile libraries contained LibraryBoxen; six more offered paperbacks on a “take-one, leave-one” basis. Some patrons found the Life of Pi in their lunchboxes, while others were treated to ’60s and ’70s westerns set in Texas, which Fisher had been collecting. Fisher said the humorous touch is meant to get people to think of “libraries as the ultimate playground,” which is also the title of the panel that Davis organized at this year’s SXSW.
While the concept of the pedicab library was a long time in the making, the project came to fruition very quickly. The EasyRider pedicab company was eager to host the mobile libraries and already had the perfect liaison for sxswLAM: Meghan Currey personifies the library pedicab project year-round. When she’s not taking people around the city in her cab, she’s a she an adjunct, part-time librarian at Austin Community College. But she’ll only be bringing the library directly to pedicab patrons for the length of the festival, which lasts until March 17.