The Stories Behind the Stories: How Libraries Can Use Public Sculpture of Literary Figures to Bring Our Cultural Memory to Life

Posted on
Gertrude Stein’s larger-than-life character, immortalized in bronze in New York City, continues to inspire new generations of readers.| Image Source: Flickr user K. Kendall
Gertrude Stein’s larger-than-life character, immortalized in bronze in New York City, continues to inspire new generations of readers.| Image Source: Flickr user K. Kendall

Gertrude Stein had a larger-than-life personality. As one of her biographers described her: “Gertrude was hearty. She used to roar with laughter, out loud. She had a laugh like beefsteak.”1 Reading her work, I feel like I almost share her memories of warm, clattering dinners in her home, gossipping with the members of her artsy supper club like Pablo Picasso and Ernest Hemingway as they orbited around Gertrude and serving plates piled high with thickly-sliced beefsteak. For me, the public sculpture that captures her portrait in cast bronze in Bryant Park in New York City seems to perfectly contain her essence that I always longed to experience in real life. Spending time with this statue never fails to reignite my love for her oddball poetry and her razor-sharp art criticism.

At the heart of it, that’s what public sculpture is about — bringing our history and culture to life. Libraries, perhaps more than any other public institution, have a unique opportunity to give color to the collective memories we share as a culture. And some of our strongest cultural memories come from popular books and literary figures. What would American cultural history be without Mark Twain’s Huckleberry Finn and Tom Sawyer? What would French cultural history be without Alexandre Dumas’ story of the Three Musketeers or Victor Hugo’s Hunchback of Notre Dame? By preserving our most beloved literary figures in sculpture, libraries can continue to connect modern-day readers with great works of art from our history.  

Libraries Must Tread the Line Between Lasting Value and Passing Fads

As libraries choose how to best allocate their precious funds to nurture literary passion through the generations, it’s easy to try to get ahead of the curve and invest in the latest digital trends. But before libraries jump on the digital bandwagon, decision makers should consider projects like the Library of Congress’ recent and arguably disastrous attempt to archive Twitter. This campaign, which was first announced in the spring of 2010, intended to siphon around 400 tweets per day from social media and archive them for later access. Instead, it spawned public ridicule and headlines like “Twitter Archive is a huge #FAIL” as the project lagged over the last five years. In the end, this attempt to connect to a contemporary audience did more to alienate potential library-goers than attract them, with critics citing it as a “waste of time and money” to archive “social media ephemera.”2

This makes a poignant remark about the unpredictability of the long-term value of media and contemporary communications. It begs the question: Should we try to preserve our cultural memory in 140-character snippets? Of course, we’d like to preserve everything, but with tight budgets and an ever-increasing amount of content, libraries have to make tough decisions about which initiatives will successfully connect today’s readers with our cultural history. Figurative sculpture is a long-standing tradition at libraries because it works: it teaches a biographical story in an immediate, engaging way and connects us to our collective cultural memory.

The Library — Where Our Cultural Memory Lives

The Library of Congress’ attempt to catalog our social media output was an admirable, if perhaps ultimately misguided, attempt to redefine the way we preserve cultural memory. Cultural memory, rather than an individual memory, is the collective memory that exists in the imagination of the public. It defines the stories we tell about ourselves and is comprised of the books, films, and artwork that we choose to immortalize in public institutions like libraries and museums. Why are libraries so important to the cultivation and preservation of cultural memory? The answer may best be summed up by the Canadian historians Jacques Mathieu and Jacques Lacoursière:

Collective memory is society’s knowledge about itself. It defines who we are in the light of who we no longer are. . . .Our collective and cultural memory is reflected in the knowledge we find about ourselves in the library — in any great library. Such knowledge serves to connect us to a point of self-recognition related to the greater whole of generations that have preceded us — part of something that has endured since the beginning of recorded history and will continue to endure as part of some future legacy.3

Our minds process information in a way that creates meaning, and we remember the things that we feel are significant and meaningful. Likewise, libraries, have the unique and vital role of curating collective memory, which they do by filtering through the vast quantities of content that our culture produces to determine which works are worth remembering.

In biology, this is called encoding: the process by which a memorable event causes your neurons to fire more rapidly, thus giving you a more intense experience than normal and increasing the brain’s ability to store it as a memory. As with literature, real-life events that trigger our emotions are more likely to be encoded to our memory.4 The books and authors that are able to activate our deepest, most complicated emotions — for me, the Romantic poets and the great adventure stories — are the ones that we treasure and remember.

Designing Libraries to Set the Stage for Learning

Considering the vital role that they play in preserving our cultural memory, libraries need to be conscious that their spaces are truly inviting and that they facilitate learning. With the internet and smartphones making it all-too-easy to be distracted from the spaces where we exist, it can be difficult to engage people long enough for them to sit down, relax with a book, and have a meaningful experience at a library.

As libraries address this challenge and consider how to allocate their funds to best engage future generations of readers, the ability for figurative sculpture to capture personality, aesthetically grab our attention, and draw us into a story is more vital than ever. When you look at the straightforward gaze and challenging stance of Gertrude Stein’s sculpture in Bryant Park, you can’t help but stop and think, who is this woman? There are so many ideas within her figure.

When selecting a literary figure to honor, authors whose works carry a great deal of personality within their pages — for example, Mark Twain’s colorful witticisms about American culture — are more likely to engage prospective readers. Once you’ve selected a literary figure you’d like to highlight in your library, it’s best to consult with an experienced artist who can deliver a piece that captures the charisma and character of the subject.

Public Sculpture Helps Libraries to Connect with Readers of All Ages

Reaching young children through fun activities is a straightforward approach for libraries to connect with our youngest generations, and older, lifelong readers are already accustomed to regularly using libraries. But for that age group in between — those tricky millennials — it’s a common fear that young people aren’t interested in reading more than 140 characters at a time.  

It’s clear from initiatives like the Library of Congress’ failed Twitter project that libraries and other public institutions are worried about connecting with younger audiences who are given to modern-day digital communication. But more than ever, we need libraries to hold onto the deep and valuable works of literature that let us escape from the shallow world. The advent of Twitter, hashtags, and easily-digested snippets of information hasn’t brought an end to humanity’s love for literature that offers depth and meaning. Biographical statues at libraries will play a vital role in bringing our culture to life for many generations to come.

The McLeods are Australian bronze artists with experience creating public sculptures that celebrate Australia’s colorful history and invite people to learn our shared stories. If you’re considering investing in new artwork to make your library an engaging place for learning, contact us today for a consultation.

  1. Carson, Anne. Glass, Irony, and God. New York: New Directions Book, 1995. 121.
  2. “Library of Congress’ Twitter Archive Is a Huge #FAIL.” POLITICO. Accessed December 4, 2015.
  3. “The Library and Its Place in Cultural Memory: The Grande Bibliothèque du Québec in the Construction of Social and Cultural Identity,” Libraries & the Cultural Record, Vol. 42, No. 4 (Fall 2007): 349-386.
  4. “Memory Encoding – Memory Processes – The Human Memory.” Memory Encoding – Memory Processes – The Human Memory. Accessed December 4, 2015.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *