Library as Laboratory: Bedford Creative Arts project

Library as Laboratory: Bedford Creative Arts project, November 2016

Library as Laboratory – How can Libraries exist in the future?

Bedford Creative Arts has been exploring new ways that libraries can evolve for the future by bringing together artists and libraries. The result is five pioneering projects created by eight artists, ranging from festivals and performances to slot car championships.

The project is funded by Arts Council England Libraries fund and sits in the context of the government spending review which has brought about cuts to spending on libraries by local councils. Libraries are now looking at what services and community offers they can provide in order to stay open and working with other local organisations like BCA is a way to deliver this.

Library as Laboratory is a brand new, open and collaborative way of working for the Library Services which usually follow a more planned, traditional approach. This project promotes non-traditional activities and ways of working with artists to devise projects and workshops that collaborate with communities and library staff. High quality new work has been created as a response to people and place through collaborating with the local community and brings innovative projects into the library setting.

The artists selected to develop projects are Ania Bas, David Littler, Rosalie Schweiker, DashnDem, Roshi Nasehi, Chris Dobrowolski and Gerry Pilgrim. The projects created:


Flitwick Future Library Festival – a three day multi-activity festival exploring the concept of business not as usual in the library, from cocktails and comedy to yoga, skater films and musical bingo.

Flitwick Future Library Festival. Photograph: Andy Wilsher.


Biggleswade B-Fest – a one day multi-activity festival with activities related to the local history of the bike and the brussel sprout from a bike smoothie, brussel sprout supper and a new mobile bike library.

Biggleswade B-Fest. Photograph: Andy Willsher


Dump It On Parliament Revisited – a multi-layered collaborative project involving local bands, youth drama groups, a wellbeing group and musicians to create a new compilation of music that explores the alternative local post-punk music history of the 1980’s meshed with today. Created and performed in the libraries.

Dump It On Parliament Revisited. Photograph: Andy Wilsher.


Selfie Slot Car Championship – a digitally-based making project that invited families to create a personalised slot car and race it in a special one day event, all taking place at the library.

Selfie Slot Car Championship. Photograph: Andy Willsher.


Handbag – a performance work involving female participants dancing around their handbag on an alternative open stage space to ‘Billie-Jean’ by Michael Jackson.

Handbag. Photograph: Andy Willsher.



The project enabled and empowered library staff to gain experience and skills in working with artists, programming and organising events while demonstrating opportunities that encourage long term use of library services. Houghton Regis Library held their first ever live gig in a library and Flitwick their first ever comedy event in a library.

The projects achieved significant increases in the footfall of the libraries of up to 20% with 3802 people joining in with the activities. The long term effects of these projects mean that the libraries are now looking at creating film clubs, recruiting a theatre development officer and hosting workshops.

Three of the artists focused on the idea of the local library as the custodian of local histories, in particular alternative local histories of the late 20th century and communities now.  One project in particular Dump it on Parliament Revisited focused on what the role of the library could be, exploring the potential of libraries being a sound archive for recent local history as told by local communities from their perspectives.

Tessa Jackson OBE comments on the Dump it On Parliament project: “The phrase ‘socially engaged art practice’ is much over used but Dump it On Parliament genuinely enabled a wide range of people to be creative on their own terms, participating in the truest sense of the word. Artists DasnDem and Roshi Nasehi, by collaborating with some of the original musicians and activists, were able to incorporate song writing, theatre making, printmaking, fanzine creation, fashion and make-up into their project; new forms of expression inspired new skills.”

Artist DashnDem said: ‘Libraries are one of the last free social spaces, which we don’t want to disappear, but that means they have to move with the times while retaining what is unique about them. This project looks at how we can better emphasise their place as repositories for local history, making it more accessible and relevant today and to future generations.

The outcomes of the project demonstrated to Central Bedfordshire and the Library Service that potential programming ideas from artist run activities to film and comedy nights could bring new library users in by using their Library spaces in new ways. CBC is now recruiting a new service team including Marketing and Engagement Officers who will develop new activities for the libraries and the theatre auditorium.

Partnerships have also developed out of the project; The Library Service has been awarded funding from Royal Opera House Bridge for an exciting project linking Leisure, Libraries and Countryside with Children’s Services and Public Health. The project will provide vulnerable learners in the Dunstable and Houghton Regis area with an opportunity to experience arts and cultural activities including music, theatre arts, digital arts and natural art in an outdoor environment. It will also look to engage families and carers and feed into the design and use of the new Dunstable Library Leisure Centre ensuring it is accessible to young people and provides appropriate space, resources and activities.

Cllr Brian Spurr, Central Bedfordshire Council Executive Member for Community Services, said: ‘We are very proud of our libraries, but as times change so must they. That is why we embarked on a refurbishment and modernisation programme across all our libraries, in which we consulted extensively with our residents to understand their needs, expectations and aspirations.

The three arts commissions that form the Library as Laboratory project are an intriguing next step as we seek to discover what our service can offer, now and in the future. They will always be places of learning and discovery and now through different forms of art projects, this innovative initiative also enables libraries to become places of culture and creativity.

In partnership with Bedford Creative Arts, the artists commissioned have all developed three inclusive projects that have tapped into the area, its rich history and its people. I would urge residents to get involved, as they have done before, with these experiments in shaping their library for the future.’



Links to the Library as Laboratory projects:

Dump It On Parliament

Selfie Slot Car Championship

Future Library Festivals




User numbers at libraries are low with the number of library visitors, according to Government-sponsored research, declining by 29.7% since 2005. BBC research reveals that 343 libraries have closed in the past four years and that another 100 are earmarked for closure. In the process 8,000 jobs have been lost and more than a hundred libraries are planned to close by the end of 2016.

About the Grants for the Arts Libraries fund

The Grants for the Arts Libraries fund invests National Lottery money in projects delivered by public libraries or library authorities working in partnership with artists and cultural organisations across all art forms.

The fund aims to inspire innovative partnerships between libraries and art organisations.

It is hoped that this second phase of funding will once again inspire ambitious, innovative partnerships between libraries and art organisations and encourage library users and those living locally to take part in artistic and cultural activities. More here.

About Bedford Creative Arts

Bedford Creative Arts is a contemporary arts organisation that has worked across Bedfordshire for 30 years. We are committed to commissioning quality art working with local communities. We make work with people and in response to places. Art made in public and community spaces by artists and musicians who actively encourage participation in their work.

We deliver monthly Creative Bedfordshire events for creative professionals and the Culture Challenge website for schools.

Bedford Creative Arts has appointed Alan Dodd as its CEO succeeding Dawn Giles, who has stepped down after 7 years in post. As CEO Alan Dodd will be leading the development of transformative experiences for communities in Bedfordshire through contemporary art, while providing strategic leadership in developing, supporting and commissioning artists to create inspiring artistic work that contributes to a vibrant local, regional and national scene.

For more information, contact Binita Walia: