November 26, 2014

Dark Night: Library Burlesque | Backtalk

This is the true story of how the librarians of New Zealand’s largest city decided to show a little leg and unleash the power of burlesque on its ­community.

From Maker spaces to children’s play, loaning out telescopes to supporting new business development, today’s public libraries are hot spots of community innovation, open-ended learning, personal creative development, stimulating imagination, and access to arts and heritage through the widest possible interpretation of what kind of collections we may hold.

Auckland just decided to take that impulse one step further.

Planning play for grown-ups

The city of Auckland recently merged a number of neighboring library systems to create Australasia’s largest public library service. As part of a six-month season designed to reorient this service for the 21st century and implement its “Future Directions” strategy document, we sought to make a statement about performance and play, not just for our youngest library users but also our over-18s. This year, during an intense period of service development, branches explored everything from off-site librarianship in bars, bookstores, and fan conventions to online gaming and zombie-siege role-play events held in deprived suburban communities.

We decided to demonstrate verve and audacity in extending the business of librarianship to new sites, both physical and cultural. We decided to run a burlesque festival.

The festival created an opportunity to address issues of sex and sexuality in our culture—and to find appropriate ways of reaching communities who might otherwise go ill-served. We characterized the season as “a guerrilla festival of burlesque, literary, and cinematic events that question, celebrate, and challenge sex and sexuality on page, stage, and screen.”

New Zealand’s leading comics creator, Dylan Horrocks, kindly gave us a provocative, cartoony, yet nonexploitative image, which set the unapologetic tone of the season. The image appeared on flyers that we handed out in the streets outside the city’s nightspots and on posters that we put up in bars and music venues.

Claiming space to talk about sex

Our launch event took place in an art cinema adjoining Auckland’s Central Library: a screening of Steve McQueen’s Shame, a harrowing portrait of sex addiction starring Michael Fassbender and Carey Mulligan. The movie was introduced by a librarian with expertise in erotica and fanfiction and an academic specializing in the critical psychology of sex, gender, and sexuality. Audience members sat, drinks in hand, on the floor of the packed cinema bar to hear the speakers’ preshow discussion of sexuality and its representation in the media.

After this exciting kick-off, our program—dubbed “Dark Night”—continued with events designed to make a loud and proud public statement about libraries’ right to address this cultural space. These included a talk from an erotica author; a panel discussion on fan­fiction, Fifty Shades of Grey, and “the new erotica”; librarians with trolleys and laptops offering books and memberships to drinkers in the city’s watering holes; and, finally, a curated cabaret evening in the bohemian suburb of Grey Lynn.

More than 80 people turned up to experience a night of live music, erotica readings (including James Joyce’s filthy letters to his wife!), a drag queen performing traditional Maori poi dancing, a frank sexual health audience Q&A, and a showstopping performance from Auckland Fringe Festival stars Oh! Is for Opera, offering a unique brand of operatic burlesque. Glamorously attired librarians were on hand to issue membership and loans from our collection.

Of course, experimenting with such a hot topic is nerve-wracking for a public library service. There were endless questions in the run-up to the event.

Satisfyingly, Aucklanders embraced the Dark Night ethos: local politicians praised us for finding ways to reach out to the 18- to 25-year-old age range and for providing a forum to address issues of sex and sexuality just as New Zealand’s Marriage Equality Bill was passing into law. The national press was somewhat bemused by the thought of library burlesque but supportive and celebratory—the closing event merited a review in the arts pages of the New Zealand Herald.

Events like Dark Night are about making sure that libraries are still part of the conversation when Fifty Shades of Grey sells 70 million copies and burlesque dancer Dita Von Teese is a household name. If we’re willing to stock erotica on our shelves, why aren’t we also reaching out to that audience in our programming and events? It’s about respecting all patrons’ tastes and at the same time—given that we are publicly funded cultural organizations—providing a space to challenge those who use sex and sexuality in the media for mere profit.

So…what’s wrong with libraries showing a little leg? And could your library perhaps show a little more?

Matt Finch (www.matthewfinch.me) is a British writer and a community outreach consultant to libraries and other cultural institutions. We welcome opinion pieces for BackTalk. Please send them to mschwartz@mediasourceinc.com

This article was published in Library Journal. Subscribe today and save up to 35% off the regular subscription rate.

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