Object as Catalyst

The scope of my thesis research has ranged from macro to micro. Positioning the project in the big ideas – social capital (Robert Putnam), weak ties (Mark Granovetter), sidewalk culture (Jane Jacobs) and third places (Ray Oldenberg) – has grounded my prototypes. But when it comes to actually implementing these ideas, I've decidedly focused on the micro because that is the scale for which I have a grasp, have access and have time.

During my midterm presentation, it became clear that there was a gap between the foundational theory and the theory defining my actions on the ground. In my selection to replicate a Little Free Library, I was building upon a successful precedent. Specifically, the exemplification that people are capable of taking care of an object that is vulnerably placed in the public domain, and that this object can breed enhanced community sentiment.

How is this respect and reciprocation possible? Based on my own observations and the writings of theorists Elaine Scarry, Christopher Bollas and Lewis Hyde, I think it's because objects have power. Their aesthetic and functional qualities are valued, and when communally share, breed mutual respect. 

Elaine Scarry writes about her love of beautiful things in her book On Beauty and Being Just. She poses the question: “What is the felt experience of cognition at the moment one stands in the presence of a beautiful boy or flower or bird?” She describes beautiful things as "generative objects," and I see in her insights almost the Field of Dreams cliche of "if you build it, they will come." The tiny library that is posted outside Willoughby General is not a masterpiece of novelty, but it is a delightful structure for which people smile and pause. It's a small gesture to passersby, and an invitation to passively (read: without intimidation of having to talk to a stranger) engage in the exchange of the universally-appreciated commodity of a book.

On the subject of commodity, Lewis Hyde writes in his 1983 book The Gift that there are two kinds of property: gifts and commodity. He classifies a work of art as a gift; as the contribution of "creativity and the artist in the modern world." He highlights the status that can be achieved "by giving things away instead of pulling them up," and points to the impact of the "flow and movement of gifts." In making books free and open to the Bed-Stuy neighborhood, my aim is to encourage a gift culture, one that values reciprocity over individualism (harkening to the community work of Peter Block and the promotion of associationalism from Alexis de Tocqueville). 

Christopher Bollas positions object theory from a psycho-analytical perspective. His book The Evocative Object World looks at how "architecture and built environment interact with individual and societal dream life." He stresses that we're unconsciously "shaped by our use of evocative objects" and that "each place we visit triggers intricate chains of associations." By creating a network of tiny libraries in Bed-Stuy and expanding upon their offerings – such as opportunities for engagement, events in the third places or exchange of non-book commodities – maybe these structures can evoke heightened pride and reciprocity in the neighborhood.

I fit all of these theorists near the sociology idea of social constructionism (not constructivism), that contends that artifacts are created through the social interactions of a group. As I push toward the thesis finish line and start making sense of all these investigations, I must be intentional about how I frame the wooden libraries. The libraries are but one object that has the potential to catalyze deeper interactions in the neighborhood. They are the starting point upon which to build more touch points and higher hanging fruit.