A library is a monument. For Providence Public Library this identity is both literal and figurative. Our building’s architecture itself is a combination of the Romanesque Revival architecture of Gilded Age progressivism and the Brutalist promises of strength and transparency; emblems and sentiments intended to stand eternally in stone. Figuratively, too, libraries have long functioned to exhibit what should be remembered and who gets to remember it.
Like all monuments, stone and institutional alike, the library carries a complicated legacy. It is our duty to uphold the ideals of universal knowledge and self-betterment while acknowledging the history of failures in their execution.
Monuments are markings. They mark the landscape to evoke the permanence of ideas. By contrast, commemoration is a process, part of the cycle of ideas and of human emotion: something has marked us and we respond as a community in the way we must. As we, in this time, reflect upon the white supremacist monuments etched by our forbears, we see the hubristic and malicious motives behind illusions of permanence. No monument, nor time-bound ideal, should or will endure forever. We change, because knowledge and understanding can and must evolve. Monuments, too, are a process.
As a monument, then, the Library seeks to become a process, a question instead of an answer, a dance instead of a stone. It is through endeavors like PVDFest Ideas that we can dance that path. Reflection has proven an essential part of staying fluid, particularly in our experiences during the pandemic.
When the pandemic began, we at the Library took a moment to reflect on what programs without close contact meant, and we found ourselves driven toward the larger question: how do we even begin to process this moment? In the unimaginable month after the lockdown began in March 2020, we explored the possibilities and the paths through uncertainty with the emeriti of our Creative Fellows in a program series called Adaptive Practices. Through the guidance of artists, Adaptive Practices took many forms–sound-journey, speechless documentary, memory workshop, drawing marathon–but each embraced uncertainty in a way monuments never do.
Now we are working on Culture is Key, a Rhode Island Council for the Humanities project that pairs institutions and media producers to elevate civic outcomes. Lo Bell, Kenny Borge and Will James, our collaborating media producers, are gathering and disseminating the history of our neighbors — the skaters who gather at the Adrian Hall Way Skate Park. The project is, in and of itself, a process of discovery through the method of documentary storytelling. They are making a documentary, sharing the documentary, and documenting those results of the sharing in a beautifully iterative dance of reflection and expression.
As we look to PVDFest Ideas and think about our position as monument-as-process, we seek to fluidly embody the ideal of inquiry and the idea that communities are fostered and formed through inquiry. We look forward to enjoying, supporting and participating in programs and projects that see their own processes as a way to move toward further questioning and growth.
Providence Public Library