Performing the Library

F17_PerformingLibrary 2 During "Performing the Library," students presented original works, including creative writings, musical compositions, and photography. (Photo by Joao Rosa.)

Libraries are often considered to be functional spaces, intended primarily for research and study, rather than personal enjoyment. At Columbia, our spaces are filled with students, faculty, and researchers engrossed in serious work, and we enjoy spaces, architecture, and art that inspire such scholarly pursuits. But Libraries can also inspire inquiry and exploration that pushes the boundaries of traditional scholarship, as was the case last semester. In partnership with Librarian for Film Studies and Performing Arts, Nancy Friedland, and the Interdisciplinary Arts Council, a group of School of the Arts (SOA) students tapped the Libraries’ potential for artistic inspiration in Performing the Library: A Series of Happenings!, curating a diverse and personal series of performances that brought the stacks of Butler Library - and beyond - to life.

“I wanted to draw on the creativity of the students in the School of the Arts to reflect on their experiences in the Libraries as well as the stories, ideas, and creative works that are ‘alive’ in the stacks,” said Friedland, who works closely with SOA faculty and students as the Libraries’ liaison to the school in the areas of performing arts, media, and dance.

Friedland developed the concept for Performing the Library in 2016 and received ardent support from the Libraries and SOA. Friedland’s subsequent call for proposals during the Fall 2016 semester elicited a similarly enthusiastic response from students: she received more than 20 ideas, ranging in form from art exhibitions to site-specific performances and readings, from students in SOA’s Theatre, Visual Arts, and Writing divisions.

“I was drawn to Performing the Library because I love the Libraries and the [Butler Library] stacks in particular,” said Liza St. James, SOA '17, who participated in the event. “I'm always astounded when I hear from fellow classmates and colleagues that they've never been in Butler or don't use the library as part of their artistic practice, whether for research or for inspiration. The library is one of the reasons I chose Columbia's program over others. The access we have to resources here is truly mind-blowing, so I was interested in involving as many people as possible, especially those less accustomed to using the Libraries.”

Performing the Library debuted in March with three live performances in Butler Library’s Rare Book & Manuscript Library, including Exquisite Stacks, a piece conceived and organized by St. James and Will Augerot, SOA '17, that featured readings of original works inspired by Butler’s collections.

“Part of our goal [in developing Exquisite Stacks] was to let everyone make their own discoveries,” said St. James. “More than any single book or author, our own inspiration was the stacks, so our prompt was designed to encourage exploration within the stacks in the hope of sharing our own excitement about them. Through a series of discussions with [Augerot], we came up with a prompt that would require the use of the stacks, but be open enough for our writers/readers to do their own thing and interpret it in their own way.”

The pair also encouraged their participants to select “books with a chip on their shoulder,” a phrase coined by Augerot that summarizes the creator's’ intention behind the concept of Exquisite Stacks.

“We both wanted the prompt to function as a way for our participants to shed light on books they considered to be under-appreciated…[or] to highlight books that, in whatever way, for whatever reasons, haven’t received their due,” said St. James. “I think this gets at the heart of what we were aiming for with this performance.”

The 12 pieces that were recited during Exquisite Stacks were testaments to the creativity and thoughtfulness of their writers – as well as the brilliant works found in Butler’s stacks.

“Fellow students whose work we already admired came up with new, really remarkable pieces that pushed them in new directions – and they were all so different from one another. It made for a fun and varied reading,” said St. James.

Other pieces from Performing the Library included a multimedia reading from Bethany Hughes, SOA '18, which reflected on the work of artists Yves Klein and Rotraut Klein-Moquay, as well as an operatic composition by Ashley Grier, SOA '17, inspired by writer James Hilton’s 1933 novel, Lost Horizon. Original works from Performing the Library, including works of photography, text, and objects designed by Delphine Adama Fawunu, SOA '18, Michael Hanna, SOA '18, Cy Morgan, SOA '17, Ana Rivera, SOA '18, and Hannah Rogers, SOA '18, are currently on display in room 301 in Butler Library.

Collectively, the performances demonstrated the breadth of the Libraries’ holdings and the potential for students to engage the materials in new, more dynamic ways than strictly for research or study.

“The ‘happenings’ brought to life the books and objects that make up our collections,” said Friedland. “The students artistically and very impressively explored the stories, ideas, lives, and creative works bound together on pages in Butler Library.”   

The Performing the Library series will continue in Spring 2018. A call for proposals will be issued this semester.

For more information about the Performing the Library series, please contact Nancy Friedland at

F17_PerformingLibrary 1
Librarian for Film Studies and Performing Arts Nancy Friedland (front row, third from left) developed "Performing the Library" as an opportunity to showcase both the creative talents of SOA students and the breadth of the Libraries' collections. (Photo by Joao Rosa.)